What to Sow in May - 2017

"Remember - always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else, but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing you can do about it."  ..........    (A great piece of advice I was given many years ago)

 

Sow in a heated propagator, in a warm place, or directly in tunnel soil when warm enough:

For polytunnel or greenhouse cropping, or for planting outside under cloches or fleece at the end of May

French beans, runner beans, sweet corn, courgettes, edamame (soy) beans, cucamelons, gherkins, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can still sow cucumbers and tomatoes for late tunnel/greenhouse crops. Also herbs such as basil, coriander, dill, Greek oregano (best for flavour), lovage, mints, parsley (giant flat leaf Italian best flavour) Perilla (Japanese beefsteak plant) and fennel, Alpine strawberries (Reugen best variety) Florence fennel and half-hardy single flowers such as tagetes, French marigolds, nasturtiums etc. for bees and butterflies and to attract other beneficial insects like hoverflies etc. to help with pest control and pollination, both under cover and out in the garden. 

It's really important to shade propagators and young seedlings from strong sun at all times now to stop seedlings from cooking! - You can also switch off propagators during the day to save energy - even if shaded on sunny days they will be plenty warm enough - but do make sure you remember to turn them on again well before it gets chilly in the evening. 

 

Outdoors: 

Sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in the ground where they are to crop, if the weather and your ground conditions are suitable: 

Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, all varieties of peas, savoy and other autumn/winter cabbages, all varieties of sprouting broccoli including calabrese and purple sprouting, cauliflowers, salad onions, Hamburg parsley, landcress, lettuces, perilla, orache, chicory, kohl rabi, kales (those for cropping overwinter outside from the middle of May onwards), parsnips (early May) radishes, rocket, salsify, Swiss chards, spinach, turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. Asparagus peas, cardoons, Good King Henry and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside under cloches now, and also from the middle of May, if the soil is warm enough, sweet corn, French and runner beans. Marrows, courgettes, pumpkins, ridge cucumbers and squashes can all be sown outside under cloches at the end of May, in warm areas. Also sow some single annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), cosmos, calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc. to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies and ladybirds which will help with pest control, and also to attract bees which help with crop pollination. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations), lupins & red clover (legumes) and phacelia, to improve the soil by adding humus, to encourage beneficial microbes, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that won't be used for 6 weeks or more.

 
Although in theory you could sow almost everything except very tender veg. like cucumbers etc. outside in the open ground now - you must keep an eye on weather conditions!
 
 
Unless you've had ground covered with cloches or polythene so that it's dry and really warm - then it's much safer to sow in modules undercover to be sure of guaranteed results. The soil in some areas is still cold after recent frost & heavy rain. A late frost could destroy newly emerged seedlings of tender crops even under cloches. Seed is expensive and you can't afford to waste it. You can't afford to waste time now either, by possibly losing any sowings made at this time of year. Too many important staple winter and storage crops need to be sown this month - and if they fail it may well be too late to sow them again. Even though the sun is strong now and sunny days are warm, there can still be serious frosts at beginning of the month.
 
 
In the tunnel you can plant tender veg like sweet potato 'slips' in pots this month - or in the ground if it's reliably warm enough. They are very frost tender and hate cold wet ground. You can also plant oca and mashua tubers in pots - again to plant out later, at the end of May or early June - or to plant directly into tunnel soil. The small growing tubers of Yacon can also be planted now in the tunnel or in pots to plant outside later.They are just starting into growth now.

The Wildlife and Flower Garden in April - 2017

Nature's hard working pollinators and pest controllers! 

Female dronefly (Eristalis) seems to be laying her eggs on an endive leaf.

Female dronefly (Eristalis) appears to be laying her eggs on an Endive leaf - or maybe just enjoying the sun!

 

It's great to see all the hoverflies and droneflies back in the polytunnels. There's been clouds of them in there on sunny days recently. They love the warm humid atmosphere - and I must say in this freezing weather outside I'm not averse to it myself! They're not just terrific pest-controllers, feeding on aphids, but also wonderful pollinators too. There's been masses of bees in there as well over the last few sunny days, some quite early in the mornings despite the overnight frosts. They must be so grateful for all the lovely flowers in there - and so am I - the scent when I open the doors in the morning is just amazing! They'e doing a great job of pollinating all the early flowering fruit too. So many fruits have set on the two peach trees that I'm going to have quite a job thinning them - but I won't complain - because I dread to think what would happen if all of our pollinators disappeared. So much of the wonderful fruit we are lucky enough to enjoy thanks to them would be non-existent! Where would we be without bees and all the other equally precious insects in Natures rich tapestry of life? I shudder to think. All of the wonderful foods that they pollinate would be gone forever - and our food chain would be well and truly broken! We must all do our best to take care of them by creating insect-friendly habitat, not using pesticides and by supporting organic, biodiversity-friendly farming. We can all do that - even if we don't have a garden!

 

What price fresh air?

 

I was at first rather amused a couple of years ago by a report from the Beijing correspondent of the Irish Times, saying that a jar of fresh air from Provence had made more than 600 euros in an art sale. On reflection afterwards though, I actually thought how incredibly sad it was. Pure fresh air is something we should all be able to take for granted - but sadly it's becoming increasingly rare. This time 3 years ago, one of my favourite cousins died suddenly of a heart attack. When they did the post-mortem they said he had the arteries of someone who'd been a heavy smoker all their life. He had never smoked, he was slim and very fit  - but he'd lived in Beijing for the last 15 years of his life, where many are now afraid to breathe the air and wear masks all the time if outside. Most of the time we're luckier here, although on some days I can see the city smog hanging like a depressing beige veil over Dublin down in a valley in the distance. We're high up on a hill on the Meath/Dublin border here - so most of the time fresh air isn't a problem - although occasionally I can smell pesticide sprays on the air - especially in summer. That makes me so angry! The modern spraying machines may be more efficient at spreading their poisons in micro-droplets instead of drenching things - but that also means they carry on the air far more easily - and those of us anywhere near have no choice but to breathe in that poison. Meanwhile - the sprayer operator sits high up on a huge tractor in an air-conditioned cab totally oblivious and disassociated from any other form of life that may be near. In addition - once every week, my neighbours don't seem to care that they're poisoning everyone elses air by burning plastic on the day just before recycling bin days - so there's less stuff to try to cram into the bin I suppose! Although we have bin charges here in Ireland, some plastics can be recycled free - but it seems that many people can't even be bothered to sort their milk cartons, take away and ready meal rubbish and prefer to burn it instead - polluting the air with one of the most deadly, cancer-causing and long-lasting poisons known to man - Dioxin!  

Coltsfoot already seeding in the drive - loved by seed eating birds including Goldfinches!
Coltsfoot already seeding in the drive - loved by seed eating birds including Goldfinches!

 

 

We need fresh air and so do the creatures we share this planet with. Air full of life-giving oxygen provided by all the diversity of plants - many of whose seeds are carried along by that bouyant air. Fresh air is free, good for us and should be available for all of Nature - including us. It's the equal birthright of every single creature that  lives on this planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why does nature matter?

 

Quietness and peace is something else which is increasingly rare now - at least the type of quietness that is just filled with the sounds of nature - not of man made noise. It's often hard to hear the sounds of Nature now with the amount of background noise from the motorway in the distance, increasing air traffic from Dublin airport 13 miles away, lorries on our country roads, boom-di-boom music being played that you can hear half a mile away and peoples burglar alarms that no-one seems to take any notice of - going all day long! Peace and quiet is something that is vital for our mental health - and constant noise must be just as unpleasant and subliminally damaging to nature as it is to us. The sounds I most like to hear are birdsong accompanied by the low, gentle sound of buzzing from bees happily going about their work of collecting pollen for their broods and feeding on nectar, while at the same time pollinating flowers and fruit which feed us. 

 

35 years ago at this time of year, I could hear the song of skylarks and thrushes all day here, with even the odd cuckoo too. Now the skylarks and cuckoos are gone from anywhere near here and thrushes few and far between, although there are a couple of beauties having song contests here currently - I'm glad to say!  All around the country elsewhere, the insects, hedges and the habitats that songbirds rely on are decreasing every year. Since the 1970's songbird numbers have gone into free-fall, speeding up in the last decade or so, and if nothing is done, it is predicted that many will be completely extinct by 2025! That's only 8 years away now! Does it matter? Yes - because every time we lose any part of nature - we lose a part of ourselves. It diminishes us. Not just that - many of the insects that birds rely on to be abundant at this time of year in order to raise successful broods are also vitally important pollinators of much of our food, it isn't only bees that pollinate crops. Bees and other insects desperately need our help now and we owe it not just to them but to ourselves and also future generations to do something about it before it is too late. They were here on this earth long before we were - and we owe the fact that we are here at all to them. They are our ancestors - we their inheritors.

 

Bee revival

 

I revived a bumblebee, a couple of years ago in spring. It had spent the bitterly cold night clinging to some cherry blossom in the tunnel, where it couldn't find it's way out in the late evening. I had spotted it too late to help - but looked for it early the next morning. Although it looked half dead, I ran back to the house immediately and got a tiny blob of Ben Colchester's wonderful organic honey on the tip of a teaspoon. When I put it in front of the bee it stuck out it's proboscis immediately and started sucking up the welcome honey instantly - like a desperately parched man thirstily drinking water in the desert! You could see the effort as it sucked it up. After just a few seconds, it sort of shook itself, stretched and then suddenly flew up and off around the tunnel - almost as if it was on a high! Then I knew it would live to see another day - that important little life. Important to me anyway. It was one of the most rewarding things I've done for a long time. Afterwards I learnt that apparently giving bees honey is now considered the wrong thing to do. I thought that organic honey would be fine and the natural thing - but bee expert Dave Goulson says that giving them a syrup made from sugar and water is better as honey may possibly be contaminated. I bow to his greater knowledge - but I hope people don't use GM sugar to make the syrup which a lot of the sugar is now!  I'm sure that would be far worse! I made it very happy anyway!

 

1. Bee clinging to cherry blossom in tunnel1. Bee clinging to cherry blossom in tunnel 2. Here she is greedily sipping up the honey from the teaspoon2. Here she is greedily sipping up the honey from the teaspoon

 

 

Is there something you can do to help Nature survive - even if you're not a keen gardener? 

 

 Yes - and I've come up with a great new name for it - 'Benign Neglect'! When I smashed the top of my right arm and shoulder badly 3 years ago - after 2 days sitting on a hospital trolley, the doctors decided they couldn't put a cast on it, pin it or do anything else with it that would work - so as they were completely at a loss (great!) they sent me home in a sling to immobilise it - and just get on with it on my own!  Wonderful!  A radiographer friend informed me that this particular kind of 'non-treatment' had a delightful name I'd never heard of before - 'Benign neglect'!! - The 'if in doubt do nothing' approach! Sadly that didn't do a great deal for my arm, which now only 40% works and won't go above elbow height - A damn nuisance!  But do you know what? I think it's a wonderful description of what it's often best to do in the garden if you want to help wildlife! Often some of the best sites for wildlife - particularly in towns or cities - are where sites that lie empty or old neglected gardens become overgrown. Nature takes over and re-colonises them quickly and beautifully. You'll find wildflowers, wild shrubs such as elders and dog roses, and also garden 'escapees' like buddleias, mixed with any cultivated shrubs and trees that may already be there, all in a glorious jumble. I often find Buddleia seedlings around the garden when I'm weeding - I already have quite a lot of different cultivars that I've bought over the years and bees have cross- pollinated them, so I'm building up quite a collection of new, nicely-coloured ones!

 

Not using chemicals of any sort in the garden is one of the best things you can do. Gardens where chemicals are not used are becoming increasingly important habitats for all wildlife. We can each do something in our own gardens - however small - even if it's just a small tub or a few pots. Flowering plants and wild corners in the garden attract all kinds of insects which small birds feed on. Many of those flowers later on bear seed which is equally important for them. Even leaving a few humble dandelions to grow in your lawn or around it's edges is wonderful for goldfinches and other seed eaters. They're already feeding on dandelion and coltsfoot seed here. And let's face it - you don't even need to sow those wildflowers - they happen by default or 'benign neglect' - to use my newly acquired phrase. And often that's the best way, because then those wild plants that are best suited to your particular soil conditions and climate will thrive and seed themselves! So you won't have to do anything at all except maybe give it a helping hand by collecting seed and sowing a few more! A so-called 'weedy' lawn, full of dandelions, daisies and clover is perhaps one of the best habitats for all kinds of insects. Long grasses are the preferred nurseries for many important moth caterpillars. If it bothers you, then you can always mow a meandering path through it - 'Country Living' style!  When you do that, magically, it suddenly it appears as if it was a completely intended and well-planned wildflower meadow - rather than something you just didn't get round to weeding or mowing! Plant a few single flowered perennials or biennials like meadow geranium (geranium pratense), ox-eye daisies, some scabious and sweet rocket, some garlic mustard (Jack-by-the-hedge) or other wildflowers through it that butterflies love, and sow a few annual wildflower seeds like Flanders poppies in modules to plant here and there in it later on. You get the picture? Then just sit back, relax in a hammock, congratulate yourself with a nice cool drink and enjoy the view - as nature's fantastic free spectacle unfolds! Far better than stressing out over a few weeds, or worse - using deadly poisonous, cancer-causing, 'selective' weed 'n' feed lawn weedkillers that kill bees and are damaging to all wildlife and also any pets!.  

 
Melianthus major, Ceonothus Trewithan Blue, Eucalyptus and wild dog rose, on my 'B&B' bank.
Melianthus major, Ceonothus Trewithan Blue, Eucalyptus and wild dog rose, on my 'B&B' bank. 
 
Contrary to what a lot of people think - you don't have to restrict yourself to just growing native wildflowers in order to help wildlife. They appreciate the nectar, pollen and seeds of non-native flowers and shrubs just as much. Even that of some really exotic looking plants. Remember everything is a wildflower somewhere. It's usually just native plants as food for their larvae that our native butterflies, moths and other insects need to be really specific about. I took a walk up the garden this morning to see what was flowering on my B&B bank (bee and butterfly). This is one of the most satisfying areas of the garden - where everything that likes a dry and well-drained position really thrives. Even really tender plants. When we originally made it I dug in tons of gravel and bark chips after the soil was all moved into place. It was very poor soil too - mostly subsoil from another job were were doing. It's in the shape of a question mark - the top curve being the widest point. In the curve nestles a banana shaped bench where we sit on warm summer evenings to watch bats swooping low overhead catching the moths attracted by the Verbena Bonariensis and the white flowered Nicotiana Affinis which has overwintered there now for 6 years without turning a hair. 
 
 
Euphorbia and Geranium Maderense on the bee & butterfly bank - alongside nettles full of butterfly nests!
Euphorbia and Geranium Maderense on the bee & butterfly bank - alongside nettles full of butterfly nests! 
 
 
 
N.Affinis is the most heavily scented Nicotiana, with a stunning fragrance at night or in the shade. It closes it's flowers in bright sunlight. Few people know that it's actually a perennial with roots a bit like a dahlia. It's grown mostly as a half-hardy annual. But if you overwinter it in pots in dry soil just like dahlia tubers, or in very well drained soil, it can survive really freezing temperatures - getting bigger each year. You can split up and re-pot the tuber-like roots from pots as they fall apart easily to make new plants. I've kept some going for well over 20 years this way, occasionally discarding any that look virused (with deformed leaves)and they're starting to put on a lot of strong young growth again now. To me their evocative exotic scent is the scent of so many summers.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Full moon setting - looking south west over the meadow at dawn
Full moon setting - looking south west over the meadow at dawn
 
I love to get up really early at this time of year, after the clocks go forward. I almost feel as if that first hour in the morning is 'stolen' and mine alone!  Just as the moon is setting in the south west. Despite the slight chill to the air - I always open the top of the half-door that leads outside from the kitchen - so that I can hear the dawn chorus at around 5.30 am.  The sounds are so soothing. At that moment everything is peaceful and the birdsong that echoes around my tree filled garden is hauntingly beautiful.  As my first cup of tea is brewing - I lean on the half door for a few minutes - drinking in all the early morning sounds of invisible flutterings and trying to pick out individual songs. Heavenly! - A  thrush or two, chaffinches, a robin, various tits, blackbirds, pigeons cooing, a wren scolding and a cock pheasant calling his harem. Sometimes so many at once it's difficult to distinguish them all. A cacophony of the most wonderful sounds the earth has to offer. The sparrows are very late risers - they're always the last. When they finally get up they greet the morning with a sound like the chattering of noisy schoolchildren bursting out of school at break time! Some of my swallows arrived back from their long voyage recently. That event always brings tears of joy to my eyes. Each one is a precious miracle that has flown 6,000 miles to return to the very nest where they were born. No matter what problems I may have, as I lean on the door drinking in that peace which is balm to the soul, I always think how very lucky I am in this moment to be able to hear and see such beauty. 
 
 
Why would you want to be anywhere else but in a garden on an April morning? Or for that matter, on a dusky evening - "When peace comes dropping slow" as Yeats so eloquently put it. 

 


Organic farming is the only sustainable way to help wildlife
 

The dawn chorus is already a lot quieter and less diverse now than it was even 20 years ago! So many people are so caught up in their busy urban lives that they don't even notice. They may not even give a moment's thought to the precious diversity of Nature that we must not lose.  All the latest research being published now is pointing to organic farming as being the only sustainable way for a secure food supply in the future. Preserving soil, and the diversity of life in it, is one of the best ways to capture carbon and combat climate change too. Industrial farming interests say they can't manage without pesticides synthesised from rapidly decreasing fossil fuels - but that is absolute rubbish and is fast becoming an outdated way of thinking. They could if they made the effort. Their chemicals are destroying the precious soil we need to grow crops in - they can't go on cutting down more native forests to grow their GMO crops! They will soon have to learn how to do things differently as there'll be no choice!  If they don't - it won't just be the bees that will disappear. It will possibly be humans too! 
 
 
It's no good us just burying our heads in the sand and hoping it will all go away! It won't!  It's hypocritical to get all fuzzy and warm about the lovely wildlife programmes we're watching on TV - while we're allowing Nature to be poisoned out of existence all around us daily, by doing nothing.  Or worse - by using chemicals in our own gardens through laziness or ignorance, thinking that just our little bit won't hurt! All those little bits add up! Soon the only place that some wildlife will be seen is on repeats of old TV programmes. 
 
 
We can't pretend to be 'green' and care about the environment and then support destructive industrial farming by buying chemically grown and genetically modified products in our local supermarkets - or even in the local farmer's market. I know organic is often more expensive - but so much of what we buy gets thrown away. If we all reduced food waste a bit, ate a bit less meat and grew even just a few simple organic veg ourselves, it would really make a huge difference. It's estimated that at least 50% of the bagged salad leaves we buy in supermarkets are thrown away each week. That's a shocking statistic - but so easy to do something about. For 50 cents you can buy a packet of 'value' lettuce seed with the potential to produce over a thousand lettuces. I think that would be more than enough for several families for a year!!
 
 

Going peat-free helps the climate and biodiversity too

 
 
The increasing destruction of bogs in Ireland is another major contributing factor to the flooding we are seeing more frequently now. Bogs act like giant 'sponges' holding large quantities of water and releasing them gradually into river systems. If they're destroyed they can't do that, so then water runs off quickly causing flooding. Bogs also release far more carbon into the atmosphere than the same equivalent area of rain forest when destroyed - quite apart from the massive loss of all the biodiversity they support.  Funny how most people get far more upset about losing rain forest than they do about losing bogs. Buying an organic peat-free compost, like the Klassman Deilmann one I recommend is something else positive one can do. Not only that - it's far better than any peat compost I've ever used. It has to be - because all the many organic growers who use it rely on it to produce plants for their businesses.
 

 

Don't use chemicals


Many influential scientists are now calling for swift action by the UN, saying that a wide variety of synthetic endocrine-disrupting chemicals in consumer products and pesticides are playing a role in the ever increasing incidence of reproductive diseases. cancer. obesity and Type-2 diabetes world wide. The scientists also include the authors of a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Environment programme (UNEP), which underlines the urgent need for global action the address the dangers of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC's).  It has been found that among the harmful effects of these chemicals is damage the hormonal (endocrine) systems in humans and wildlife. At the moment serious pressure is being put on governments currently considering whether to ban certain pesticides by lobbyists for the interests of multinational chemical companies! These global companies say that only they can help us to feed the world and that we need GM crops to do this - while conveniently never mentioning the fact that 50% of all the food grown in the EU is currently wasted! These faceless companies don't care if our children don't have bread tomorrow - as long as they and their shareholders have jam on their bread today!  Morally bankrupt politicians who are making the decisions are also offered attractive financial inducements by chemical and pharmaceutical companies to influence their decisions! A BBC Panorama programme a couple of years ago year showed that our doctors are constantly targeted by pharmaceutical companies, being offered bribes to prescribe this or that drug. It's what's best for us we want if we need vital medicines - not what's best for the health of the big pharmaceutical companies balance sheets!
 
 
As I thought about this, some words from the late Rachel Carson sprang to mind. She was the author of the book 'Silent Spring' - which was published in September 1962 and is credited with starting the environmental movement. Although that was over 50 years ago - her words ring just as true now.  Have we learned nothing? She had no idea of the looming spectre of Genetic Modification. (She sadly died of cancer in April 1964.) Have we really learnt so little in the last 50 years?
 
Here is an extract from a CBS TV programme she presented, which was broadcast in April 1963 - it was entitled  "The Silent Spring of Miss Rachel Carson" :

 
"We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude towards nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.........Now, 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 challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery - not of nature, but of ourselves."
 
 
Rachel Carson 'lit a candle instead of cursing the darkness'. Each one of us has a responsibility to keep that flame alive for the sake of our children.  Even if you don't have a garden - even something small like growing a pot of single flowers by your door or on your balcony will feed a few bees and other insects and make a difference to their small lives and chances of survival. Do something now for wildlife - don't leave it until tomorrow or it may be too late. Don't leave it to somebody else - do something yourself now!  You may not think that your tiny bit can make a difference - but all of those tiny bits - added up in gardens throughout the land and throughout the world will make a huge difference. It isn't necessary to use chemicals - I haven't used any in over 40 years - but I still manage to grow all my own food and have a beautiful garden, full of rare and beautiful plants and wonderful wildlife. It's also full of weeds too - or plants that people call weeds!  So many so-called 'weeds' are host plants to many native insects which keep pests away from my vegetables and fruit, and they also make food for birds. All part of nature's intricate and beautiful tapestry. I went out to pick some nettles for soup yesterday, as there are so many lush clumps flourishing in various corners - but when I looked at each one they were covered in butterfly nests. I was thrilled and gladly went without my soup - butterflies are far more valuable than soup! I made it with spinach instead.

 

Here's a few more suggestions for things YOU can do to encourage insects and help wildlife 

 
You'll definitely find something here you can do - whatever size your garden. It's particularly important to grow pollen and nectar producing plants to feed vital insects - which all wildlife higher up the food chain are dependent on. You can put up bat nesting boxes too at this time of year, and also grow lots of night flowering, scented plants, to attract moths and other insects which will, in turn, attract bats in to feed on them. Bats can eat up to 3,000 midges in one night. They don't have to be native plants either, as long as they are single flowered and produce nectar for insects to feed on. The tall, white flowered Nicotiana Affinis is brilliant for attracting moths - they adore it, and the scent in the evenings is gorgeous! Moths are particularly attracted to white and mauve flowers. The dwarf coloured type of bedding Nicotiana isn't much good in my experience, and has no scent either - which I like!
 
 
The same applies to butterflies. Many of which are increasingly endangered. Scabious and Verbena Bonariensis were top of the list of favourites in my garden last summer. I counted over twenty feeding on a single verbena flowerhead on one occasion. I think Orychophragma is going to be a favourite from now on too. When it's flowering early in the tunnel it's usually covered with bees, Orange Tip butterflies and Early Cabbage Whites all day. Hesperis Matronalis (sweet rocket) and Lunaria (honesty) are two other biennial favourites you can grow easily from seed now, which will flower early next year. Bees love all those flowers, they also love dandelions too despite the fact that they are seemingly very double flowers, they are actually compound flower heads of lots of individual flowers, and bees can access the nectar and pollen easily. They're a very valuable early food plant for them. There are millions flowering everywhere at the moment. I know a lot of people look on them as lawn weeds and an awful pest, but if you've ever watched a goldfinch, literally at your feet, pecking the seeds out of a dandelion head while you hardly dared breathe, then you wouldn't want to banish dandelions forever!  Pure magic! It's something you always remember - the tiny bejewelled birds are just so exquisite!
 
 
Ladybirds sunning themselves on Acanthus spinosus leaves
Ladybirds sunning themselves on Acanthus spinosus leaves 
You can put up bee and insect hotels, which you can buy in many garden centres - or you can make one yourself, using all sorts of things like lengths of bamboo cane, air bricks, flowerpots stuffed with straw etc., stacking them into breeze blocks, pallets or wooden boxes. This will provide a home for all sorts of beneficial insects which will work for you in the garden. I only start to tidy up the borders a this time of year because until now all sorts of insects are using the remains of last year's plants to shelter from the weather. I started tidying up the acanthus clumps the other day and found dozens of ladybirds sheltering in there - just coming out to enjoy the morning sunshine! I look around the rest of the B&B border and saw literally hundreds racing up other plant and grass stems to soak up the sunshine! Nature's perfectly uniformed army of pest controllers just rarin' to go!

 

 

 

Make a small wildflower meadow

 
 
If you want to make a wildflower meadow or patch in your lawn, don't waste your money scattering seed into the grass, as most will be wasted. Fill plug trays or seed trays with a low-nutrient peat free compost mixed with some garden soil, and sow into that. Don't feed the grass in your lawn. Mow it a few times with the box on and compost the grass clippings with other plant wastes to use on your vegetables. This will reduce the nutrient content of your lawn and allow wildflowers more chance to grow without competition from more vigorous grasses. Then plant out your plant plugs when they're big enough. Wildflowers hate any sort of fertiliser. The huge amount of artificial nitrates spread by intensive agriculture is responsible for the loss of many wildflowers, which then of course has a knock-on effect on biodiversity, as there are then fewer insects and then fewer seeds for birds. Weedkillers naturally have the same effect. Worryingly - a recent survey in the USA showed that one of the biggest chemical pollutants found in household dust was glyphosate weedkiller. It doesn't stay where it's put as the manufacturers state. People bring it inside on their shoes.
 
 
Last year I even saw a landscape contractor in a white protection suit spraying in a supermarket car park in south Dublin at midday - with what was obviously a weedkiller - with absolutely no warning whatsoever! Unbelievable! People, children and dogs were walking around on the still wet chemicals totally unawares, picking it up on the bottom of their shoes and carrying it into their homes! 

 

What can you do for Birds right now?

 
Don't stop feeding your birds just because it's spring! Life is tough enough for them, particularly over the last couple of weeks of sharp night frosts. Every bit of energy saved by not having to hunt for food will help them to breed more successfully, and help to keep them in your garden where you want them to do your pest control. Don't feed peanuts unless they are in a feeder, but small seeds, meal worms and fat balls are all good - make sure that you remove the netting from fat balls and put them in a feeder - you don't want a nest full of blue tit chicks starving to death because mum and dad got their feet caught in a fat ball net, as can easily happen!  Make sure they've got a clean source of water at all times, and clean bird baths as often as you can - every day if possible. Make a small mud patch somewhere, to help returning swallows and house martins to build their nests. Three years ago the Swifts in the Naul left early without breeding because there were no insects early enough, the better weather arrived too late for them - it was so sad. Today, six or seven swallows are swooping and twittering excitedly to each other in the yard - they must be so glad to be home again after their long flight!  Do they stay together most of the time I wonder? They always remind me of Yeats's lovely poem 'The Wild Swans at Coole'. If you don't know it - it's worth a read sometime. Leave piles of moss, animal hair (if you have it) and dried grass for nest material somewhere where the birds can help themselves. At this time of year, my hens seem to scratch up a lot of the thatch and moss that collects where I've left the grass box off the mower in previous  years - this makes great comfortable nest material, and avoids having to scarify the lawn - if you do that sort of  'O.C.D.' sort of thing!
 
 
A butterfly nest with tiny caterpillars emerging and starting to feed on nettles
A butterfly nest with tiny caterpillars emerging and starting to feed on nettles
 
 
Don't 'spring clean' the garden too much - leave that untidy corner you've been meaning to get to for years - I've got lots of those and they're really valuable places for wildlife!  I had a mad 'tidy up' in one spot many years ago - I think it was in May or June - and disturbed a hedgehog nest - (more next month).  If unlike me you're already a tidy gardener then make one or two wild corners with log and leafy twig piles if you can bear it!. Or if you have a very stony soil - make a mini 'cairn' or dry stone wall somewhere - great for sheltering all sorts of insects. If you have room, think about putting in a small water feature or pond to attract frogs which will eat your slugs (and with a sloping ramp for non-amphibians who fancy a drink or a bath and can't get out again up steep sides! I even have mini ponds in my polytunnel - they're great for frogs and the hoverflies that normally need water to breed in like the one pictured above that I photographed just this morning! You could even go so far as to leave a patch of nettles somewhere - great food for butterfly caterpillars, great liquid feed, and even great soup - a positive paragon of a plant!

 
 
 
Even the smallest garden or balcony could grow a few herbs like lavender, sages, thymes and rosemary in a tub or a hanging basket - leave them to flower - bees and other insects love them and they're useful in cooking too. Grow a few climbers like ivy, to provide more food and shelter - the list is endless, and don't forget the more green plants you grow, the more you offset some of your carbon emissions too! So there's lots you can do!
 
 

And don't forget that everything we do for Nature - ultimately we're doing for ourselves. 

 
 
If you garden organically, without any sort of pesticides, you'll encourage Nature to help you and then your thoughtfulness will be more than amply rewarded. There's so much that us gardeners can do to help preserve the wonderful diversity of wildlife that we have. The more you can do the better. Nature repays even the smallest effort a hundredfold with it's abundance and beauty. 
 
 
That's why I write this blog - to share my thoughts, ideas and practical experience with all of you who read it - in the hope that it will also help you to find the fascination, joy and satisfaction I have done over many years of organic growing. The great thing about gardening is that no matter how difficult life is or how small your garden - you can always grow something, which is so positive. The best thing about gardening is that it grows the spirit too - planting a garden is planting hope. 
 
 
I HOPE YOU ALL HAVE A REALLY HAPPY MAY DAY - AND THAT YOU ALL HAVE TIME TO GET OUT INTO NATURE AND ENJOY YOUR GARDENS!

THE TOTALLY TERRIFIC TOMATO FESTIVAL Killruddery House and Gardens, Sept 3rd

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival returns to Killruddery this September for another celebration of the diversity and flavour of the not-so-humble tomato. With contests, exhibitions, recipes and a host of guest speakers, the festival is not just a tomato enthusiast’s dream - it’s the best possible opportunity for those new to growing to gain some valuable experience and hear advice from renowned experts.

The festival is comprised of four aspects:

1. Genetic Diversity Display

2. Contests

3. Talks

4. The Walled Garden Project

 

GENETIC DIVERSITY DISPLAY

The highlight of the festival will be the impressive Genetic Diversity Display Table, co-ordinated by Jane Powers. There are over 4,000 known varieties of tomato and last year we managed to round up 138 of them, heirlooms, old favourites and F1 hybrids alike! If you’d like to contribute your own tomatoes to this year’s display, contact Jane to tell her what varieties you are growing to have a place of honour reserved for your tomatoes. A tasting table will also be available if you’re curious to sample some of the many specimens.

Contact Jane at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

CONTESTS

We’ll have contests for tomatoes of all categories and classes, as well as for tomato-based recipes, judged by our special guest, award-winning vegetable grower Medwyn Williams. There are prizes to be won for every contest - and we have a few unusual categories thrown in there too!

 

TALKS

Festival founder Nicky Kyle will give a talk titled 'Tomatoes - From Tunnel to Table'. Easy Ways to work with Nature to Grow, Cook and Eat Tomatoes for you to Maximise their Terrific Taste and Health Potential', and special guest Medwyn Williams will tell us about his journey from growing vegetables with his father to his astounding success at the Chelsea Flower Show. Both talks will be presented by Dr Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens.  Several informal talks will also be taking place in the Farm Market during the day.

 

THE WALLED GARDEN PROJECT

The staff at Killruddery will also be getting involved, with our own Frank Jesper giving tours of the Walled Garden throughout the day and discussing his tomato-growing year so far on Killruddery. We will also have a children’s Seed Saving table to encourage the little ones to get digging!

 

FARM MARKET

Several of our Farm Market friends will be in attendance with lots of delicious accompaniments to your tomato dishes. Stallholders will include Le Skinny Chef, Corleggy Cheese and Grass Roots Nutrition. Visting stallholders include Dearbhla Reynolds from The Cultured Club, Freda Wolf of Intelligent Tea and The Herb Garden’s Denise Dunne.

 

QUICKCROP

If you want to enter the festival but fear you’ve left it too late for seed sowing, our friends at Quickcrop have just the solution! Their six-to-eight-week tomato seedlings are ready to place in your greenhouse right away, ready in plenty of time for the festival. As well as all the usual favourites, Quickcrop also stock a few uncommon tomato varieties such as Ananas Noir, Green Sausage and White Wonder which are bound to catch the eye.

Pick up a seedling tray here:
https://www.quickcrop.ie/product/6-cell-choose-your-own-tray

 

SPECIAL THANKS

We would like to extend our thanks to friends of the festival Nicky Kyle, Jane Powers, Dr Matthew Jebb, Colm Warren Polyhouses, Kathryn Marsh, Madeleine McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds, Quickcrop, and all our competition prize givers. Thank you for your support!

 

BIO - NICKY KYLE

Nicky Kyle has been growing all of her own food organically for over 40 years and was one of Ireland's first certified organic commercial growers. She was a director of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) and was also co-founder and director of The Organic Trust. She regularly speaks and writes a blog about organic gardening, poultry, wildlife, healthy eating and cooking - www.nickykylegardening.com . She also writes a monthly column in The Irish Garden magazine and is co presenter of the popular 'From Tunnel to Table' feature on LMFM Radio's award-winning Late Lunch Show with Gerry Kelly. She was the original founder of the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival - with the aim of promoting awareness of the importance of preserving genetic diversity. 

 

BIO - MEDWYN WILLIAMS

Medwyn Williams is the president of the National Vegetable Society, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit and Vegetable Committee, and eleven-time gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show. He is the founder of Medwyn’s of Anglesey Exhibition Vegetable Seeds, which he now runs with his son and grandson. Medwyn has been growing vegetables from the age of eight and is also the holder of the prestigious Tudor Rose prize, awarded to him for the best display for the Royal Horticultural Society at Hampton Court, nine Gordon-Lennox trophies for best vegetable display, and two Lawrence Medals for the best horticultural display of the year.

  1. medwynsofangelsey.co.uk This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

BIO - MATTHEW JEBB

Dr Matthew Jebb is the Director of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. After studying at Oxford University, he was Director of the Christiansen Research Institute in Papua New Guinea for five years before taking a two-year post-doctorate position at Trinity College. He has described several species of carnivorous plants with Dr Martin Cheek.

Totally Terrific Tomatoes - My Suggestions for Easy, Delicious Varieties and The Basics of Growing Them.

Pantano Romanesco - the best beefsteak tomato for a delicious Caprese salad.

Pantano Romanesco - the best beefsteak tomato for a delicious Caprese salad.

 
For our Tomato Special to be broadcast on his Late Lunch Show on 13th April on LMFM Radio - presenter Gerry Kelly asked me if I would pick out my top 5 varieties to recommend to listeners.  As he knows very well that I'm addicted to them and not given to doing things by halves (to put it mildly!) - he also knew this would be no easy task for me! There are so many wonderful varieties out there - both older heritage ones and more modern - and they all have their different qualities and personalities. It was a very tough call - but I eventually managed to discipline myself to actually recommending six!  
 
 
There are many things to consider when choosing a variety that is just right for you and - everyone's taste is different. The main considerations though should include ease of growing, disease resistance, suitability for the climate in your garden and your particular part of the world, time of cropping, cropping potential, ability to resist splitting when ripening, suitability for the amount of space you have and whether you want to grow in a cold frame outside, in a greenhouse or a polytunnel. There are also the important culinary considerations - such as their taste and texture when eaten fresh, suitability for cooking, freezing or dehydrating. With literally thousands of varieties to choose from, the choice can be bewildering for beginners and experienced growers alike - and often also very disappointing if one chooses on the basis of the seed companies catalogues! They naturally want to promote the varieties which they own the breeders patents on - but I find that those are often be disappointing and may be unsuitable for our climate. If that happens to you - then you've wasted a lot of time, effort, space and often money - on growing something that doesn't make your taste buds tingle, your mouth water and make you feel glad to be alive - as any good tomato should!
 
 
With anything upwards of 10,000 varieties - some estimate 25,000 - of both heirloom and hybrids to choose from where on earth do you start?  Tasting some of those grown by a tomato growing friend can sometimes help, or going to tomato tasting days. (Regarding those - I mention the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival later)  I've probably grown around couple of hundred different varieties over the 40 years I've been growing them both commercially and for our own use now. Each year I try one or two new ones and compare them with my old favourites. I grow around 20 or so really top ones, that have it all, every year - and some of these I've grown for many years. First and foremost my number one consideration has to be flavour and texture. After that comes diseases-resistance. There's no point growing the very best flavoured tomato in the world if it doesn't like your climate and goes down with disease after producing only one or two tomatoes! We don't have the best climate in Ireland for growing tomatoes - on average during the summer we get far less sunshine and are about 10deg C cooler than most of the UK, especially the south-east. Tomatoes prefer bright light, warmth and lots of sunshine to crop really well - not the endless low cloud and grey drizzly days that often pass for much of our summer. So they can be a bit of a challenge here! I only recommend varieties that I will have grown for several years, so if I recommend a variety - then you can be pretty sure that it should be reliable and grow well for you no matter where you live - as long as you give it the best conditions you can. 
 
 
I tend to sow my tomatoes any time from the end of February to mid April - so I'm also confident that you should get a pretty good crop from all of these varieties if you sow them now - but don't delay. I always grow mine from seed unless I'm specifically asked to trial a particular variety. Some varieties take much longer to produce any crop - as many are varieties that need a longer growing season and are more suited to hotter continental conditions which we don't have here. I haven't recommended any of those. To get the very best tasting or unusual varieties you will normally have to grow your own plants from seed as they're rarely available as plants. If you don't want to grow them from seed though - there are now many companies selling the more common varieties online. 
 
 
Please believe me that you don't have to be an experienced gardener or do everything perfectly to be able to grow a few tomatoes - so do give them a try if you haven't grown them before. If you do - I can promise you that you'll be richly rewarded. It's not rocket science! Tomatoes are such good-natured and obliging plants they do their best to grow and produce a crop whatever you do to them!  There is just nothing to compare with the satisfaction of picking your first, sun-warmed tomatoes grown by your very own hands and biting into their deliciousness! No shop-bought tomato will ever give you that!
 
 
Varieties
 
 
Bush/cherry - 
 
Maskotka - This little treasure is always without fail my earliest to ripen fruit, has a terrific flavour and is available from several seed companies, including Mr Fothergill's. I haven't tasted any other bush variety as good. Well worth growing if you've never tried growing tomatoes before! It's such an early variety that you'll get huge good crops this year from seed. A bush about 45cm/18ins high & wide - it fits into a very small space and grows happily in a bucket-sized pot.
 
Upright (standard/cordon) cherry
 
Blush - You'll have to grow this from seed but it's well worth it! Fantastic taste. Teardrop shaped cherry/plum.
 
Sungold - I've seen this variety available as plants in several places. Delicious but can split so don't leave too long on plant.
 
 
Upright classic medium sized (standard/cordon)
 
 
John Baer - again a very early medium-sized red variety, good cropper and one of the best flavoured classic medium round types - you'll get a good crop this year from seed sown now. 
 
Moonglow is a lush, dense-fleshed, fab-flavoured, apricot-coloured variety which is a huge cropper - the fruit varies in size between medium classic and beefsteak. It's available from several seed companies.
 
 
Beefsteak
 
 
Pantano Romanesco - The very best flavoured beefsteak that is easy for the home gardener to grow. I've written about it in this month's issue of the Irish Garden. One taste of this with mozzarella, basil & olive oil & you're in the Med. wherever you are! It's tomato heaven!
 
There are pictures of all these varieties - and some more great varieties in my 'Tomato Report 2016' link here:  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/466-tomato-report-2016
 
 
My basics of Tomato Growing - a shortish guide!
 
 
Composts and sowing temperature
 
 
I always sow my seeds in an organic, peat-free seed compost at minimum temperature of 60 deg F/16 deg C - but a bit warmer is better. Not on a sunny windowsill or they may cook! I fill small 3 in pots firmly with compost - but I don't compact it too much. I sow 4 or 5 seeds into those, making a small hole about twice the depth of the seed for each one with the end of a pencil or biro, then afterwards I cover them with Vermiculite. This is a natural mineral which promotes good air circulation around seedling stems - I use it for covering all seeds - but with tomatoes you could get away without using it and using just a light covering of the seed compost instead. Vermiculite is available from most garden centres and DIY stores and lasts forever. Sometimes I sow into individual small modules, using a similar method. Then I water them gently and cover with a polythene bag until they germinate. After germination I uncover the seedlings immediately and move them into good light, to avoid them becoming 'etiolated' or too long through lack of light, as this can make them more prone to diseases.
 
 
I use a peat-free seed compost which is available from Whites Agri at Lusk, north Co Dublin or from Fruit Hill Farm by mail order  - if the bag's too big for you - you could share it with a couple of friends - but it keeps fine for 2-3 years if kept dry & cool. Using a compost specifically for seed is important, as a multi-purpose one may be too high in nutrients which can damage seedling roots - this is especially the case with chemical-based composts. In the UK SylvaGrow is a good organic peat-free compost used by commercial organic growers there and also by the RHS. It recently came top of Which Magazine Best Buy awards list. 
 
 
While germinating in the propagator and for a few days after they emerge - usually after about 4-5 days - keep the young seedlings shaded a little from the strongest of the midday sun. This is easier in a greenhouse as you can use a shading product like 'CoolGlass', in a polytunnel you could cut a small piece of fleece to cover the propagator - this will still allow good light to reach the seedlings. They also need to be protected from draughts. Although they like bright light and don't like to be too cold - they don't want to be cooked either - which can happen in a small greenhouse or tunnel very quickly on any clear sunny day, no matter how cold it is outside. I find an additional cheap cold frame on the greenhouse or poytunnel bench very useful when they come out of the propagator after the first week or so, as this gives extra protection to the young plants for a few weeks depending on when you sow them. For my earliest sowings - I also have a warm heated mat like an electric underblanket - which goes on top of the bench under some polythene and this gives an even gentle warmth to the plant roots. It's very energy efficient as it has a thermostat and only usually switches on when it's very cold at night.
 
 
Potting on
 
 
As soon as they're big enough to handle, usually when they have their first small pair of true - or adult leaves, I separate and pot on seedlings into a good organic peat-free potting compost. I use an organic peat-free potting compost because it gives the bigger plants more nutrients and everything they need to be healthy, including micro-nutrients beneficial microbes and micorrhizae - they are normally made by a composting process which encourages these to develop naturally and are a more healthy medium for all plants. A peat-based, just containing chemical nutrients, won't give you those. The good organic peat-free composts also tend to be better drained in my experience. A non-organic compost just gives you chemicals and peat! We shouldn't be using peat because digging up bogs destroys habitat for a huge amount of biodiversity and it also emits carbon - accelerating climate change. It's not a natural growing medium for anything except bog plants! When you're potting on the size of pot is not critical but don't over-pot by putting in too large a pot at first, as tomatoes hate sitting in wet compost!  A pot the same size as a paper cup or just slightly larger - with drainage holes in the bottom - is fine for plants until they're about 6 inches high. If you're not ready to plant them out then - you can pot them on into something bigger and feed if necessary - with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo - if for any reason planting is delayed.
 
 
Watering seedlings/young plants in small pots before planting out
 
Water seedlings when the compost starts to look or feel a little bit lighter & dry out a bit. Water with ambient temperature water - not freezing - if possible, by sitting in a container of water for just a couple of minutes - but don't saturate them! This ensure that water reaches the roots where it's needed. Often people just pour a little into the top and it may not reach the roots.
 
 
Soil  
 
Tomatoes are happy in any reasonably well-drained soil with a pH - or soil alkalinity - in a range of about 6 - 7. You can use a cheap kit to check this if you feel your soil pH may be too high or if it is too acid.  This normally shows as a yellowing of plant leaves called 'chlorosis' which indicates an imbalance of nutrients when soil is either too extremely acid or alkaline for most plants. Testing for pH isn't usually necessary though, unless you have seriously over-limed your soil, or used a lot of peat in it. If other plants are growing well and look healthy - then tomatoes will be happy in that soil too. Manure pellet fertilisers can also lower the pH of soils. I wouldn't use these as they aren't organic, may contain traces of GMO feeds and Glyphosate weedkiller. They will also have come from factory-farmed poultry! 
 
 
 
Planting and Supporting plants
 
 
The first thing to say is that I hate grow-bags!  I get more queries and complaints about these than anything else with regard to tomato growing problems! They don't have enough room for a good root system, so they don't give you healthy plants and automatically limit the amount of crop you will get. They also tend to dry out very quickly or get waterlogged. If you don't want to use a peat-free organic potting compost and you have some grow bags that you want to use, then take the compost out of the grow bag, empty it into a large pot or tub and add about 1/3 it's volume of good garden soil into it. This saves on compost & also helps to retain more water - which gives the plant more resilience.
 
 
I grow taller cordon varieties in the polytunnel border - either by tying them up gently to tall bamboo canes or by twining them around strings where I have crop support bars in my larger tunnel. Your tunnel needs to be pretty strong for this as when you have lots of trusses of fruit developing on plants - they are very heavy!
 
 
I grow all the bush varieties in large pots - usually 15 litre pots - or large bucket-size, as the fruit hangs down conveniently over the sides. Growing in bucket-sized pots or tubs avoids the fruit getting dirty by resting on the surrounding soil or being eaten by slugs! A 1/3 soil - 2/3rds potting compost mix works well, with an extra small handful of organic granular fertiliser and another of seaweed meal. Or alternatively - you could re-purpose a stepladder for the summer and grow them in large square containers on the steps! Growing in pots is also a good method if you've grown tomatoes too often in the same soil and it's become what's known as 'tomato-sick'. This is when there is a build up of disease-causing pathogens and nutrient deficiencies. This is another reason I get a lot of queries. The only normal remedy for this is to completely change all the soil to a depth of 18ins or 45cm! Growing a green manure mustard called 'Caliente' can help to remedy this problem if it's not too bad, as it produces bio-fumigant isothiocyanate gases when chopped and dug in after growing for around 6 weeks - but obviously you don't have time for doing that after the end of March. 
 
 
Don't plant too early - tomatoes need a temperature of about 20-12degC to crop well and they also need a warm soil. I normally plant out into the polytunnel border when the flowers are just opening on their first truss - depending on the weather. This is usually around early to mid-May here and that works fine for me. If plants get frosted, they literally turn blue with cold and may get a severe setback. Cover individual plants with horticultural fleece to protect them at night if necessary. I plant the bush ones in the bucket-sized tubs a bit earlier, usually mid-late April, as these large pots tend to be warmer for the roots than soil - especially if they're black and attract solar heat. 
 
 
You can grow tomatoes in a greenhouse, polytunnel, or even in a sunny porch for the best crops - but NEVER outdoors here in Ireland if you want more than just one or two tomatoes! You'll always get people who say they've grown them fine outdoors - but their idea of a good crop and mine would be vastly different! I don't like wasting time or money! You won't get a good crop of tomatoes outdoors here - our climate is far too damp and we get blight very quickly, as soon as conditions are right. This can now be anytime from early June onwards depending on the weather. It seems to strike earlier every year.  Blight loves warm, damp, humid conditions and the spores are always present in the air waiting to strike as soon as the weather warms up. You may well get away with growing a crop outdoors in the drier parts of the UK, Europe or other parts of the world where blight is less prevalent. 
 
 
Make a hole, adding some good garden compost or worm compost if you have some - ojust a small amount of very well-rotted manure if you have it and lightly fork it in. If you don't have either - add a small handful of a good organic fertiliser like Osmo general granular fertiliser and a very small handful of seaweed meal - again forking in lightly. Be very careful with manure. If you get it from a non-organic farm it may contain pesticides, weedkillers that can seriously affect plant growth or possibly residues of worm treatments that can adversely affect soil life. You don't want to eat these in your tomatoes either! You're much better off using your own compost if you have any, or worm compost made from kitchen waste, which is far higher in nutrients and also contains lots of beneficial microbes. It's like rocket fuel for plants! After that you can mulch plants - more on that later.
 
 
I plant all my plants at a distance of about 60cm or 2 feet apart - not the usually recommended 18 inches - as this gives far better air circulation and is another organic method of preventing fungal diseases like blight developing, which is more likely to happen in close, muggy conditions.
 
 
When planting into the ground or into a container - bury the plants more deeply than they are in their pots, even up to the first set of true leaves. This promotes more roots to form higher up, growing out from the stem. It means that the plant can access more food. Also dusting the bare roots and the planting hole with a small amount of a beneficial micorrhizae preparation such as Rootgrow helps the plant to access more food - as the beneficial funghi in it forms a mat of fungal threads called hyphae which interact with the plant's roots helping it to access more food. That's what is known as a symbiotic relationship. As science is learning more about soil life now thanks to modern microscopy - we're learning that for the healthiest plants possible - you need a healthy living organic soil, with all the soil life that nature intended and originally put there. To a plant - the soil acts in the same way that our stomach does for us. Agrochemicals kill much of that soil life in exactly the same way that antibiotics kill many of the beneficial microbes in our own gut. That then affects their immune system just as it does ours!
 
 
Planting a few single-flowered annuals like french marigolds, tagetes, annual convulvulus, alyssum or any single flower between plants and on the ends of rows will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies which help with pest control. It's very important that these are single flowers - not the double French marigolds one often sees recommended.  Insects and bees can't access the nectaries of double flowers! If your plants and soil are healthy and you grow lots of flowers in your greehouse or tunnel - then you shouldn't see any pests! Pests are usually a sign of soft, sappy growth on an unhealthy plant - often caused by using too much manure or chemicals used planting - which promotes soft, sappy growth that insects like greenfly love. Occasionally you may get whitefly on bought-in plants - if so there are biological controls available online. In just the same way - diseases can be a sign of bad growing conditions. Plants need healthy food and lots of fresh air - just like us!
 
 
Mulching
 
Mulching between plants helps to retain water, keeps moisture in the soil and stops roots getting too hot as the temperature rises from mid-summer onwards. Keep any mulch about 4-6 inches away from plant stems or it can rot the stems.
 
Bare soil loses both water and nutrients very quicklyIf soil is left uncovered and bare in summer - worms also go much deeper to avoid dryness and high temperatures, which they don't like. You want them to stay in the upper layers of the soil, processing organic matter to make plant foods available for your crops and adding beneficial microbes. Worms actually dramatically increase the potash, phosphates and other nutrients available to plants.  Mulching between plants to keep soil cool and moist is really therefore a must for the best crops. Worms are vital to the whole ecology of soil and are some of your best co-workers! Any sort of organic matter can be used as a mulch - grass clippings (untreated I should add) compost, comfrey leaves, in fact anything that will help to retain moisture, keep roots cool and increase worm activity. You could even sow a green manure like red clover between plants after planting, which helps to increase beneficial bacteria and makes soil nitrogen more available to plants. These can sometimes get a bit rampant though and can start to reduce air circulation, if you're not careful to keep them trimmed fairly low. So if you're growing tomatoes for the firs time I wouldn't use them. Mulching is easier instead.
 
 
 
Care - side-shooting and stopping
 
 
This is something many people get very confused about and I must say it took me years to work it out when I was just starting to grow them! Bush varieties are called 'determinate'- or in other words - they're determined to be bushes! (Check the packet details again before you start to remove side shoots!). Don't take off side-shoots off bush varieties - they're meant to be bushes!  Actually - all tomatoes are naturally bushes - but some are more amenable to training. The varieties that can be trained more easily are called 'indeterminate' varieties - or in other words in plain English - you make up their minds for them! With these upright, cordon or indeterminate varieties - start to take out the small side shoots as soon as they're big enough to pinch out cleanly, or the plants will put energy into those and they'll fruit later. They will also become a tangled, disease-prone mess! (Pantano Romanesco is a bit enthusiastic at doing this bless it - even occasionally making new shoots on the end of flower trusses which should also be cut off - but all is forgiven when you taste it!)
 
I usually 'stop' plants, by taking out the tip of the plant two leaves beyond the last truss which has set, when it has set about 8 trusses - or basically whatever I can reach!
 
If you want a few extra new plants - you can even root some side-shoots! A great way of getting free plants to save money!  Let one or two of the lower side shoots develop to about 10cm/4inches long. Snap them off carefully - pushing first one way and then the other sideways - they should come out neatly and easily at the junction of stem and plant without tearing the plant. This is easier in the morning when the plants are more naturally turgid - not in the even or the plants are more likely to tear. At this leaf axil/junction most plants have an extra amount of natural plant hormones that promote rooting. Tomato shoots can then easily be rooted just in just a jar of water on a sunny windowsill - no need for faffing around with cutting compost etc.! This is how I kept a Rosada cutting going over last winter 2016/2017. I took it from my best plant in late September - after the Tomato Festival - stuck it in a bottle of water on an east-facing windowsill and it's now already grown into a sizeable bush, flowering for a couple of weeks and producing it's own side shoots! I would normally grow it as a cordon - but leaving it to be a bush, which tomatoes are naturally - means I can take lots of side-shoots to make new plants! Happy days!
 
 
Feeding & watering 
 
 
I water the plant in well when planting and then after that, I only ever water between plants.  When they're growing - cold water from a hose at the roots gives plants a set back, they prefer a warm even temperature - not a freezing cold shower! Do NOT water every day - but only when soil starts to look a little dry on top beside the plant and this depends on the weather and whether you have mulched them or not. Don't let the plants dry out completely as this can cause something called blossom-end rot - a nasty black spot at the end of fruits, where the fruit may start to rot. This is caused by poor calcium transport to the plant by erratic water availability.
 
 
I've seen some people recommending that you water every day - apparently whether the plants need it or not!  This can be an absolute disaster for plants!  Always keep an eye on plants and if you're in doubt - just scratch around a little with your finger about an inch or so down in the soil beside the plant. If it feels very dry, then water. When you do water - then only water when really necessary and soak the soil thoroughly between the plants - not at the roots. Over-watering affects their flavour as dilutes it - and serious over-watering may even cause roots to rot!. If not over-watering but still just giving a little every day - this encourages shallow rooting with roots too near the surface. You want the plant's roots to go as deep as possible. This makes them more resilient and helps them to access more food, helping them to support bigger crops. If plants are in containers - water from underneath if they're on a grow bag tray or large saucer - or water very well around the outside of the container. Any that then drains into the drip tray or grow-bag tray will usually be taken up again fairly quickly. 
 
 
Remember - over-watering reduces the flavour of tomatoes, can split the fruits just as they're ripening, causing disease and crop losses - and if excessive too often - can even rot the roots. 
 
I start to feed weekly with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo as soon as the first truss of flowers has set and is developing tiny fruits.  You won't get magnesium deficiency using Osmo organic tomato food. This can be a problem with chemical-based tomato foods. As plants get bigger and are developing heavy crops of several trusses - then I may feed at half strength at every other watering - especially if they're in containers and more dependent on me for extra nutrients. 
 
 
Harvesting
 
Not usually a problem - but allowing them to ripen fully is best if you want the very best flavour. Some varieties can tend to split very quickly when ripe or if watered when too many ripe fruits which have 'set' their skins are still on the plants. This tends to vary in different varieties.  Sungold can tend to do this more than some others - so pick it as soon as it's ripe. Pick when warm or at midday for the best flavour in tomatoes. Picking with the calyx or flower stalk still on the top of the tomato - just snapping it off from the truss - means that the tomatoes will keep far longer. You never see the calyx left on in shops, as this is a dead give away as to how fresh the fruits are! They tend to dry out and shrivel after a couple of days so they're always picked without them!
 
Storing
 
Never ever keep tomatoes in the fridge - it absolutely ruins their flavour.  Even shop-bought tomatoes may develop a bit more flavour if left out at kitchen temperature for a few days. Although they're usually pretty tasteless varieties to start with - having been bred for travel-ability and long shelf-life - not for the best taste!
 
 
Any tomatoes we don't eat fresh in many and various ways - I preserve by making into sauce and freezing in handy portions, semi-dehydrating and freezing, or just throw into the freezer whole if I'm in a hurry! Again varieties all differ in how good they are for dehydrating and for other methods of preservation. More about that later in the year in our mid-summer edition of 'From Tunnel to Table'. My very popular 'Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce' recipe, which you can even make with tinned tomatoes, can be found here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes/372-totally-terrific-tomato-sauce-from-tunnel-to-table-recipe-for-august  - That's all for now!
 
 
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in April - 2017

"In this Month your Garden appears in it's greatest Beauty, the Blossoms of the Fruit-trees prognosticate the plenty of Fruits for all the succeeding Summer Months, unless prevented by untimely Frosts or Blights. The bees now buzz in every corner.... to seek for food: the Birds sing in every Bush and the sweet Nightingale tunes her warbling Notes in your solitary Walks, whilst the other Birds are at their rest..... The air is Wholesome, and the Earth pleasant, beginning now to be clothed with Nature's best Array, exceeding all Art's Glory." - (Worlidge, 1688) 
 
Blackthorn blossom against an intensely blue sky
 
Blackthorn blossom against a cloudless, intensely blue sky
 
I love that quote!  How pristine and beautiful that relatively unspoiled countryside must have been. How much I would love to have seen it. I long for a time machine - so that I could go back and see the abundant beauty of that world before we humans destroyed so much of it in our ignorance. There's no nightingales here sadly but the blackthorn is just coming into full bloom and it looks stunning against the cloudless cerulean blue skies of the last few days. The charms of Goldfinches sit in the blackthorn thickets singing - so that's some consolation. The plums shouldn't be too far behind - they are of course the same family. The pears have been flowering for a couple of weeks already and the apple blossom buds are swelling too. So much promise!  We'll be so grateful for the hardworking bees - what would we do without them?  We'd have very little fruit! 
 
 
 
The vital importance of pollinators in the fruit garden and orchard
 
Bee on peach blossom in the polytunnel
Bee on peach blossom in the polytunnel
 
Back in the 17th century, one could take the predictability of the seasons for granted. Gardeners back then could also take for granted that there would always be plenty of bees and other pollinators every year to pollinate our fruit trees and other important crops. Our seasons are becoming quite unpredictable now and bee numbers are declining rapidly everywhere, due to insect damaging pesticides and habitat loss.  It's in our interests to do everything we can to help them right now, to try to halt this decline, by providing different habitats for overwintering and breeding, with flowers for nectar and pollen - and by not using any pesticides. If bees and other pollinating insects disappear - so will all the food crops which are pollinated by them. That's an awful lot of our everyday foods - and we wouldn't last too long without them! 
 
 
Apricot fruitlets developing on the dwarf potted trees. Now for thinning!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
Apricot fruitlets developing on the
dwarf potted trees. Now for thinning!
 
Thankfully, despite the frosty nights, over the last few sunny days there seem to be quite a few different species of both bumblebees and solitary bees around in the garden and the tunnels. Yesterday, the tunnels were bee central! There were masses of them in there, pollinating the last of the dwarf peaches, apricots and nectarines in the west (fruit) tunnel, and enjoying all the flowers in both tunnels, some of which I grow specifically just for them. Last summer's warm dry weather was a good one for them again and despite the fact that we're surrounded by intensive agriculture and so much habitat destruction, I like to think that all the work I've done here over the last 30 or so years to provide lots of different habitat for bees and insects is now paying off. Particularly the well-drained B&B bank as I call it - that seems to have been a great success, with so many bee nests in it that I had to stop tidying it the other day. Agitated bumblebees were flying around me everywhere as I tried to tidy the roughest of the grasses up a bit. So I left them to it and resigned myself to it looking what some very tidy gardeners would consider to be a mess.  Essentially my garden was planted over 30 years ago with wildlife in mind - because insects, wasps and bees are the organic gardener's best friends. They don't just carry out valuable pollination but also vital pest control - just as nature intended. 
 
 
Apple blossom 'James Grieve'
Apple blossom 'James Grieve'
 
 
Many people don't know that bees, moths and other pollinating insects don't just need flowers for food, but also grasses, dry banks, leaves and woodpiles to nest in and to shelter overwinter. A friend told me the other day that the new 'Glas' scheme for farmers here includes a module on attracting pollinating insects and solitary bees - so that's very good news. Although we left it as late as we could, to allow for hibernating bees, I felt rather guilty when we were mowing the strips across the wildlife meadow a couple of weeks ago, prior to planting the new orchard. Quite a few bees crawled out from the tall clumps of grasses - but the strips are only about a metre and a half wide - I'm leaving the rest of the rough grass so there was plenty of habitat for them to crawl back into. I'll also be planting lots meadow wildflowers between the trees to provide even more food for them and to attract plenty of pollinators so that our trees are pollinated.
 
 
 
 
There are still very few native black honeybees around at the moment though - usually the pussy willow catkins are smothered with them at this time of year. I see fewer every year which is really worrying. I did see one yesterday in the tunnel on the wallflowers, so I was thrilled. If anything will attract them those will - the scent when I open the polytunnel doors in the morning now is just amazing - it smells like a perfume shop!. There's already plenty of hoverflies around. Hoverflies aren't just brilliant pest controllers - really gobbling up the aphids - but they're also great pollinators. Once again this shows the enormous value of growing flowers in your tunnel - in case anyone thought it was a waste of space, or a bit 'girly'! Growing flowers outside around your fruit areas or in orchards is important too. That way pollinating bees and other insects get to know where there's food for them and they remember it's location - so then they'll keep returning to do their job and then there'll more fruit for you too! Hopefully we can look forward to another summer full of a wide range of delicious fruit. The bees and hoverflies have done a good job of pollinating the early peaches and apricots, occasionally with a little help from me, and they're are now swelling fast! 
 
 
 
Developing peach fruitlets in tunnel
Developing peach fruitlets in tunnel
 
The peach and apricot fruitlets, which are about the size of large peas, will have to be thinned now, and again in a few weeks, leaving them at least 4-6ins apart eventually - a fiddly job I really hate!  I can't bear picking off all that potential fruit - but I have to steel myself, because otherwise they will all develop and won't be much bigger than walnuts! Most will then drop off as the tree can't cope with that many. By thinning you stop that fruit drop and those left will develop properly. It's hard fiddly work doing all that thinning but I will finally congratulate myself though, when I bite into that first really ripe one and the juice runs down my chin. It will be peaches for breakfast for several weeks in the summer! The outside ones are two or three weeks behind, so if you have any flowering now, protect them at night with fleece if frost is forecast.
 
  
Dwarf cherries? I don't think so!
 
 
Most years the cherries come into flower later this month. The dwarf (ha!) 'Stella' cherries were the first fruit trees to be planted in the garden 34 years ago,  as small sticks less than 2 feet high, in the bare field. Now when they're in full flower they resemble a beautiful arching cathedral of blossom and are as tall as the house! Not dwarf sadly - but still worth growing for the blossom - and the birds naturally appreciate the fruit! They can reach it - I can't! Sitting at my computer, I can see over the half door out of the kitchen, through the courtyard gate and straight down what I rather grandly called the 'cherry walk'. The trees should be literally dripping with blossom in another couple of weeks. They're under-planted with bulbs, hellebores, primroses and a multitude of other shade loving spring flowers, so they're a wonderful sight every year! They fruit prolifically, but I hardly ever get more than one or two delicious cherries, the birds get the lot, as they're far too high to cover. Even if I could - the blackbirds in this garden seem to be a particularly ingenious and determined lot, no matter what I try to do to deter them. I've even tried covering some lower branches with old tights before the cherries start to colour (not the most attractive garden ornament!), but my blackbirds aren't fooled by a bit of old hosiery, they just peck at them through the tights and still ruin them anyway! Some people say it's because they could be thirsty - but there's always plenty of water around here for them to drink and that doesn't stop them. So I have to be content with just one or two of my favourite fruit - if I'm very lucky. However, I suppose there is a little compensation in the form of melodious bird song for much of the year. Right now I can hear them competing with the thrushes, goldfinches and chaffinches for 'best spring song of 2015'!  A joyous concert -  although a pretty expensive one thanks to some of them - if you count the cost of the cherries!!
 
 
Blue Sky Cherry Blossom
Blue Sky Cherry Blossom
 
Six years ago I had another try, buying more sweet cherry trees on a new, much-vaunted 'extra-dwarfing rootstock' - Gisela.  Sadly it doesn't seem any more dwarf than the others but perhaps with constant attention and pruning, which I don't have time for - it might possibly work? They're showing every sign of being just as vigorous as the others!  Last year I invested in some more really dwarf fruit trees - this time to grow permanently in pots. I'm growing those in my fruit tunnel, so they'll get more attention while watering etc. and they'll also be protected from hungry birds - so I'm hoping that I may finally enjoy more than one or two cherries!  A couple of years ago I had the idea of putting empty netting log bags around many of the fruiting branches of the trees outside with some success but they're too difficult to reach now! The only cherries I will really be sure of getting outside are the Morellos which I planted 6 years ago on the back wall of the stables, which faces north. I can net them there. Their blossom won't be out for another week or so, but the buds promise a big crop on what are still quite small trees. 
 
 
 
What kinds of fruit can you grow in a north facing site?
 
 
On the subject of cherries - Morellos are a very good, reliable crop trained as fans on a north-facing wall. They are much more easily kept within bounds than sweet cherries, as like peaches, they fruit on the previous year's growth, so a certain amount of the old wood must be pruned out each year to keep them productive.  Against a wall it's much easier to keep the birds off by putting netting over them at the right time. I'm anticipating all sorts of future cherry deliciousness, not the least of which is what I call my 'Vodkatopf' - my corruption of the traditional Austrian 'Rumtopf' - which an Austrian friend of mine makes.  Being tasteless - vodka doesn't detract from the flavour of the fruit and I think it's much nicer. I just pile cherries (after pricking each a few times with a cocktail stick) into a large old glass sweet jar with a lid, fill about half way up with sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit, and then just top up with Vodka. Sainsbury's do a very good, cheap, organic Vodka - so I can still feel almost virtuous when I'm enjoying a shot or two!  Not forgetting of course all those wonderfully healthy phytochemicals too - perhaps they cancel the alcohol out hopefully? Cherry juice is an acknowledged natural preventative and cure for gout and arthritis. My method works well for all fruit, especially peaches, damsons, strawberries - particularly alpine strawberries if you have enough - blackberries and blackcurrants, everything really. Then the fruit makes great sorbets too! - Yum!
 
 
There are plenty of different fruits that will grow very well trained against a north wall or in a north facing garden - so don't despair if you have a small sunless back garden. Good light is essential, so you don't want a site overhung by trees, but direct sunlight is not essential. Even if you have a sunny garden, using a north facing site for some of your fruit is a good way of spreading or lengthening the season of many fruits, as it delays their cropping by a couple of weeks - so that they're not all ready at once. That's what they used to do in the big old walled gardens, often covering ripe fruit like currants and gooseberries with straw matting to keep them on the bushes until late autumn!  A north wall is potentially a great food producing space which is often wasted, because people think it's useless for fruit growing, so it's usually only occupied by ivy or something similar. I remember vividly the wonderfully productive morello cherries trained against the high, north facing wall of the mews at the end of the late dress designer Sybil Connolly's beautiful small garden, off Merrion Square in Dublin - one of Dublin's best kept horticultural secrets many years ago. It was a real gem of a garden - where I used to enjoy helping Sybil out occasionally with pruning etc.
 
 
As well as Morello cherries - loganberries and Tayberries, currants, gooseberries, and blackberries will all fruit very well facing north, but just a couple of weeks later than in a sunnier part of the garden. They all actually make great 'Vodkatopf' too - I've tried them all! Blackberry is particularly good. If you're planting blackberries though, do be very careful that you don't plant a very vigorous variety if you only have a small space. Although 'Himalayan Giant' is probably the best-tasting variety, it really does live up to its name - and more!! It should come with a health warning, as it's territorial ambitions know no bounds! It will grow at least 30ft/10m annually in every direction if allowed to, and if the birds can get to the ripe berries, after digesting them they will drop the resulting undigested seeds in every corner of the garden, which you may not notice until a vigorous shoot, taller than you and as thick as your wrist, is suddenly waving at you happily, having planted itself in a lovely fertile spot, under something particularly precious which hates being moved!  It's enormous thorns can easily pierce even the toughest of leather gardening gloves or wellington boots and if it gets out of hand it is an extreme pruning nightmare. It can be a menace - you have been warned!  I will admit it that it really tastes fabulous though, and carries huge crops!  For all it's faults and vicious habits - I wouldn't be without it!  Every year I fill my freezers with huge carrier bags full to enjoy in smoothies and everything else you can think of all winter long! The great thing about freezing berries too - is that the phytonutrients in them become more available to our bodies when they've been frozen as this breaks down the skins.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The Vegetable garden in April - 2017

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

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

 
 
If your garden is still too wet and cold at the moment for sowing seeds direct into the soil and you're craving something fresh and green - then sowing some fast-growing veg like spinach, baby leaf lettuce, pea shoots, rocket and Oriental veg in modules will gain you at least 2 weeks on anything you could sow outside now! You could be eating all of these within 4-6 weeks! If you plant them out on the ends of your veg beds where they won't be in the way of subsequent crops - then after you've picked their leaves for a few weeks - later on you can leave one or two plants to flower. Doing this provides very welcome food for bees and other beneficial insects that help with pest control. Many of their flowers are also delicious in summer salads - especially rocket flowers - which actually taste of vanilla believe it or not! The look really pretty on salads or even on chocolate desserts due to the beautiful dark brown veining on their flowers! A double or triple whammy! The most likely time you'll see any pests greenfly in an organic garden is on the very young and succulent emerging shoots of some plants at this time of year - roses in particular seem prone to them. If you've been attracting beneficial insects into the garden though - and also feeding your garden birds all winter - then you'll have a willing army of pest controllers ready and waiting to help you dispose of them! 
 
 
Seeds of some food plants like spinach and lettuce which grow best in cooler temperatures have a built in germination inhibitor that is triggered by high temperatures - so it's best to keep them fairly cool for the first 24 hours or so after sowing. Don't try to hurry them more by putting them in a heated propagator as they may not germinate at all. At 30 deg C the seed actually becomes dormant - this is nature's clever way of ensuring that they don't germinate in unsuitable conditions and have the best possible chance of growing on to adulthood and producing seeds themselves. 
 
 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

As the soil is still sticky in the raised beds, I'll do what the show vegetable people do and take out a trowel full or so of soil
, mix it with organic peat-free potting compost to dry it out a bit, replace it and then plant into that. They'll take off like rockets then. Nothing likes being planted into cold, sticky clay as firming them in it compacts it and squashes the air out. Roots need a certain amount of air. The very first 'module' will need easing out very carefully from the corner of the mushroom box that's been their home for the last two months. I use two narrow trowels for doing this, either side of the first one in a sort of 'pincer' movement which lifts the loo roll with it's precious package out very gently, then lowering it into it's hole and pushing the soil towards the sides rather than from the top, which would squash the loo roll down and disturb the contents. Lots of TLC is the secret - but it's worth it to get those lovely straight parsnips later!
 

When sowing anything in loo roll 'modules' It's really important that the hole is deeper than the loo roll module. It must be buried well under the surface and not exposed to the air - otherwise it will dry out at the top and act like a wick
, drawing moisture out of the module, which then dries out and shrinks - and then is a complete disaster. When well buried, they just rot away with no problems at all. After the first one they're then much easier to extract from the box. I just take them out of the mushroom box with one long narrow trowel at a slight angle so the already rotting loo roll is supported and doesn't fall apart. Then I plant in the same way, about a foot apart, as there's three plants to a module. After that they'll only need a minor weeding once, mulching afterwards (I use grass clippings) then the light excluding leaves will close over the soil and I won't need to touch them again at all, until they're ready to eat after the first frost in the autumn! 

 

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

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

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


Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting on tray of compost
Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting on tray of compost
I also have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when something sensitive needs planting out from modules. I first thought of this when I was behind for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time - which meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and can cause bolting. The trick I use now is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily unawares, and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - taking each plug of plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success four years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long. 
 
  
OK. Like so many of things I do - it's not the most conventional way of doing things - but being 'conventional' has never bothered me much, I've always felt that 'conventional' was always there to be challenged - having been an organic gardener for more than 35 years (not a trait my school teachers appreciated though)! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience - and experience is always the best teacher. Otherwise I would have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often as important as saving money for me! If you don't do this, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface and getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. They will then be far less efficient and the plants won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they start to root into the matting - then roots get broken when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a shock that some of them will 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing a nice firm ripe bulb. 
 
 
Leeks aren't quite as sensitive as onions - so if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way - you could row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed instead of doing this - and plant them out as usual later - but this trick works fantastically well for them as well. I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions (Organic Catalogue) - and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind nowadays, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always has done - and we are all so busy! 
 
Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals just because that's how it was always done is rather outdated now - our climate is definitely changing and we'd better learn to be adaptable and think laterally. I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
 
 

'Hardening off' early vegetables sown under cover

 
 
'Hardening off' is a term which first time gardeners often find difficult to understand. It's just a gradual acclimatising of plants to the outside world - after being raised in nice warm conditions inside. At this time of year I tend to operate a kind of airport style 'holding pattern' with plants in various stages of hardening off - gradually moving closer and closer to being completely outside. Gradually is the key though!Always be prepared to put them back under cover quickly if severe weather is forecast. I use this method for everything that's sown early under cover - including my onions. The weather's so bad here today that the gales would have battered and destroyed anything like tender lettuces in trays. Typical April weather! It really is worth taking that little bit of extra trouble to properly harden off module grown plants. If it's well done, in a few weeks time you will have perfect beds full of beautiful, healthy salads and other veg to start harvesting.
 

Lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
Lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
At the moment I'm running in and out of the tunnels morning and evening - putting stuff out during the day that needs to begin the 'hardening off' process - bringing everything in again at night in case of a sudden unexpected frost. I have trays raised off the ground on upturned plant crates, so any slugs can't get them - or sneak underneath and be brought unintentionally into the tunnel at night. When weather improves - I shall leave them out day and night at the side of the tunnels just covered with some fleece at night for a few days. After that they can be planted into the raised beds - which are looking like a very inviting (but very cold and wet) blank canvas right now - most of the winter crops having been cleared. The surplus late leek seedlings 'Bandit' which I couldn't bear to waste last year I planted out pencil thin - 3 in a clump  in August or early Sept. - mulching them with grass clippings to keep the weeds down and the moisture in. 
 

 

Stop weeds and slugs before they start!

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


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

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

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

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

 
 

Get your seeds sown on time!

 
 
You can get on with lots of seed sowing now - the list is elsewhere in the blog. If you're short of time - (and who isn't these days?) then sow your seeds before you do anything else. As I've mentioned before - you can catch up with everything else when you have time - but seeds must always be sown at the right time otherwise you'll miss the boat!  It can be a fine balance - I often make two sowings of a really important staple crop as an insurance policy. If sown too early some things may get a check if we get a sudden cold spell - then run up to flower and seed almost straight away instead of cropping properly. Alternatively if sown too late - they may often never have time to develop a crop at all - especially if we have a really poor summer. In Ireland, we're lucky enough to live in a climate where it's possible to grow most things in most years given a little care. But all gardening in our changing climate is now really 'play it by ear' - 'seat of the pants stuff' - being flexible, prepared and waiting to see what each year brings!  As I've said so many times before - you can throw the rest of the rule book out of the window now! Every year is different and every garden is different too - with it's own particular micro-climate - so you have to learn what suits your own soil and situation. But get your seeds sown anyway - even if you have to do it twice!


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

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

 
As my stepladder garden and containers prove in the polytunnel diary this month, growing some of your own food is easy, really satisfying and can save you a lot of money. There's a lot of information here I know - but you don't have to do everything here! I just try to give the advice and encouragement that I know I would have found really useful when I was starting my gardening life. I hope that you can benefit from my 40 years experience of growing food for my family and for my veg box and co-op customers years ago (can't believe it!). Many customers became friends for life - because an interest in healthy food is something we have in common - as indeed so have you! 
 
Here's wishing you all a Very Happy Easter - I do hope some of you will have some 'extra-early' new potatoes to enjoy with your Easter celebratory meals! We certainly will!
 
No matter how busy you are in the garden - I hope you'll take time to enjoy every moment of this wonderful spring time - it's such a joyous and hopeful time of year! The garden is bursting with hope. Planting a garden is really planting hope! That's something we all need plenty of - and it's something that we can renew afresh each year. Aren't we gardeners lucky?! 
 
 
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in April- 2017

April Polytunnel Topics:  

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

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

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

Growing your own is healthier for your budget too!

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

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

 
 
The answer - perhaps surprisingly - is quite a lot! If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again! You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two?  So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything".  Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be fresher, healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill! If you've got a path with room to walk on it, then you've got room for at least some veg in containers. For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year!  I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg dept. of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit on each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them. 
 
 
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago.  I also put a couple of large 10l buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew!  Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
 

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Polytunnels are an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.

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


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

For the highest nutrients in fruits and veg - timing is everything!

A basket of colourful phytonutrient-rich produce picked early in the morning from my polytunnel (1)

 

A basket of colourful phytonutrient-rich produce picked early in the morning from my polytunnel

Since I first began growing organic vegetables for my family over forty years ago - the question of exactly when is the best time of day to harvest those vegetables is also something which has always interested me. If we go to the trouble of growing our own vegetables and fruits - then we naturally want them not just to stay fresh for the longest possible time but also want to maximise their healthy nutrient content. Whether we grow a lot of veg outdoors, are lucky enough to have a polytunnel, or even if we just have a couple of containers by the back door or window-box with some fresh salad leaves - it's important to know how to get the maximum health benefits from your precious hard-won produce by harvesting it at exactly the right time. Science is still a very long way from understanding precisely how everything in soil works and what contributes to manufacturing plant nutrients - but we do know that it all evolved to work together in a natural synergy. That being so - there is no doubt that organic produce is going to be highest in healthy nutrients - whatever some of the arrogant pro-pesticide pro-GMO lobby may say! I'm not just talking here about the outdated concept of so-called "essential nutrients" as we currently classify them (which I'll talk about later) and which the non-organic lobby use for comparison. I'm also talking about the phytonutrients that Nature evolved over millions of years, as it clearly decided that they were necessary for our health too! 

 

I've always felt that the key to growing any plant really well is to take the trouble to understand exactly the right conditions it needs, in order for it to grow as healthily as possible. Healthy plants don't get pests and diseases as their immune systems are working properly. This means we need to understand the ecology of each particular plant and study how it grows in it's natural environment. That applies to all plants - not just food plants. If you've been a reader of my blog for a while, you'll know that as well as being an organic gardener and former commercial grower, I'm also a keen amateur botanist and lover of unusual plants, especially food plants! I've also always had a special interest in eating a healthy, pesticide-free organic diet, as rich as possible in all the healing antioxidant powers of plant phytochemicals. This interest was sparked by one of my childrens' very severe health problems when young. As a result I've been a keen reader of science articles for the last 40 years and I've often come across some quite quirky pieces of information about plants that fascinate or amaze me. I'm constantly in awe of the many things that plants are able to do in order to survive. Recently - many new and astonishing aspects of how they react to their environment have been revealed, thanks to the wonders of modern electron microscopy. Not necessarily what might be of interest to your average supermarket shopper perhaps - but it's definitely of interest to those who want to get the most nutrients possible from their diet! 

 

The question of exactly what time of day crops are the highest in all their nutrients is a very interesting one. Most of us probably know that early morning when it's cool is the best time to harvest most things, before they get warmed by the sun and start to wilt - possibly losing nutrients.  A couple of years ago I came across a particularly fascinating little nugget of information. Contrary to what many people think - plants were designed by nature as modular systems - rather like Lego! This means that each part of a plant can potentially survive to become a new plant given the right conditions. This is why we can take cuttings of shoots, or use tissue culture to make new plants identical to the parent. It also means that each part of the plant goes on functioning as normal for quite some time after being severed from the parent plant, in exactly the same way as the rest of that original plant!  In other words - it can perform all the biological functions of the original plant. And this is where the really interesting bit is - from a healthy eating perspective.

 

To set the scene - plants have all the senses that we have - they just happen use them differently.  Like so many things that some of our sometimes arrogant species thought we already knew everything about - when trying to understand plants our perception of them is a big drawback for us. As humans, we tend to only class things as intelligent if they behave and react to outside stimuli in exactly the same ways that we do and that we can understand. We assumed until very recently that plants are only green things - sometimes edible - that sit there and well - vegetate!  We couldn't be more wrong!  Exactly like us - every cell in their bodies is constantly busy doing all the things it needs to do in order to survive. They can feel, hear, react to sounds and scents, move (roots permitting) and also sense light - and this is the attribute I'll explain the importance of later! Amazingly - they can even perform complicated arithmetic! In the evening - they accurately calculate the amount of energy-giving carbohydrate stores they have and divide it up into hourly portions, so that they have enough energy to function normally during the night - when they can't make energy from photosynthesis using daylight. 

 

One vitally important aspect of plant nutrients from our point of view is that because they obviously can't run away like us - over billions of years plants have also developed an amazing array of natural weapons which they can use when something attacks them. These are the plant compounds that we call phytochemicals. They are Nature's pesticides if you like! The important thing to understand though, is that unlike synthetic man-made pesticides, we evolved to eat them as phytonutrients - so they're clearly beneficial for us too! They are powerful natural chemicals that can have enormous health benefits for us when we eat them. Although not currently classified as "essential nutrients" which are necessary purely just to keep us alive - meaning water, vitamins, some minerals and amino acids(proteins) - nevertheless science is increasingly beginning to recognise that phytonutrients are essential to keeping us alive healthily!  Just as in plants - they are a vital tool in our bodies disease-prevention armoury too. Our ancestors have been eating them for millions of years and the cells in our bodies have evolved to recognise them and use their powerful antioxidant properties at a genetic level, to reverse DNA damage caused by toxins in our environment and to prevent disease. What I find fascinating is that many other organisms seemingly quite distant from us in evolutionary terms also use these same compounds in exactly the same basic metabolic way - this why scientists can use a type of worm or fruit flies to research how phytochemicals affect us. So that makes me think that Nature clearly decided they were essential nutrients - because Nature never wastes a thing! It works on the old adage - if it ain't broke - don't fix it! If a function is necessary for successful life - then it retains it and builds on it to make another, even more complicated organism and so on, ad infinitum. Just like my Lego analogy earlier! That's how we evolved from simple bacteria to us! 

 

Science is now beginning to prove daily just how significant they are and we are only just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg! There are thousands more phytochemicals as yet still undiscovered, which all work together in different synergistic combinations complementing each other. That's why every nutrient is precious and is why it's so important to eat as varied a diet of whole fruits and vegetables as possible and to eat them in the  original combinations which nature designed - not try to target individual compounds and take them as probably unbalanced or possibly even dangerous supplements. They are very powerful chemicals even if they are natural - and when it comes to most supplements - once again man is blundering blindly about just guessing!  I am personally of the opinion that the old fashioned concept of 'essential nutrients' will soon start to become just as obsolete as the ludicrous idea that processed synthetic fats are better than natural fats!  If phytochemicals weren't essential to our health - then would our gut bacteria have evolved to deal with them, or our genes to recognise and utilise them? I'd dearly love to live another lifetime to see what happens when scientists and doctors finally accept how beautifully and completely everything is connected, to understand exactly how to use naturally-grown, organic 'real food' as medicine - and to understand that the answer really does "lie in the soil" to use that well-worn expression! That will truly be going 'back to the future' when doctors finally accept that Hippocrates was right all along when he said "Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food".

 

Am I straying away from my original subject? No - I was just setting the scene for the real nugget that I want to share with you!  Whether you grow your own vegetables or if you buy them - the most important thing you need to know about maximising nutrients, first and foremost, is that they also have a circadian clock exactly like we do. This means they have light-sensitive cells in every part of the plant which tell them whether it's day or night! That light-sensitivity governs their internal circadian clock and all the biological functions which they perform at particular times of day or night. This works in exactly the same way that our circadian clock governs our bodies. As a result - plants have a constant awareness of what time of day it is, just from sensing light.  In other words - plants can tell the time - probably a lot more accurately than we can!  Because of this ability -  plants don't waste precious energy on producing their protective phytochemicals during the night. They start to step up production of them a couple of hours before dawn - in anticipation of attacks by the hungry hordes of insects which will descend on them at daybreak for breakfast!  That way the plants hope to repel them either by a nasty taste or unpleasant smell! How clever plants are and how beautifully Nature designed everything!  

This leads me back to my original question "When is the best time to harvest vegetables"? The answer - which you've probably already worked out by now - is that if you want to eat your vegetables as full of healthy phytonutrients as possible and at their absolute peak of nutrition - then I hope you like getting up early! Don't wait until after work to go down to the allotment to pick your vegetables, or run down the garden just before supper. Get up a bit earlier in the morning instead. Then you can harvest them at the absolute peak of their super-nutritional best!

 

 

But what if you're buying vegetables? Are they really more nutritious if local, seasonal and organic?

 

 

 

Have you ever suffered from jet lag? Did it ever occur to you that perhaps vegetables and fruits might do too? Daft? No! Sorry to the nay-sayers who again make fun of those us who say that we think local seasonal and organic is best! But once again - timing is everything! There is now finally proof that they are indeed more nutritious - and I'll tell you why!  This is aother really interesting point that follows on from the discovery that plants have circadian clocks. Naturally, the circadian clocks of all vegetables and fruits are synchronised to whatever part of the world they happen to be growing in - since their survival totally depends on it. They are living things after all - and all life on earth is governed by the basic circadian rhythms of day and night - even the simplest bacteria and algae. Only common sense really isn't it? Why did no-one ever think of that before, since they have all the basic senses that we have - but just use them in a very different way!

 

So why is this relevant to nutrient content of imported produce? Well - researchers have recently discovered that if the synchronicity of their circadian clock - or day/night pattern is disrupted - then just like us, the daily rhythms and biological functions of plants are also disrupted. Add to this perhaps travelling half-way across the world in dark containers, being held for some time in a distribution centre before delivery and after that being stored on a supermarket shelf in constant light - is it any wonder they become disoriented, confused and quite literally 'jet-lagged'! They then start to gradually lose their ability to protect themselves by producing the phytochemicals which are their immune system. 

 

Interestingly, the scientists doing the research also found that just as our internal clocks can gradually be 'entrained' or re-adjusted so that we can function normally again, it is possible to do this in plants too. The problem is that it can take 3 days or more for their internal clocks to re-adjust, by which time many other nutrients such as vitamins will already have started to deteriorate. The losses of vitamins may be less it they're kept at around 4 degrees C in a fridge - but again any fridge will be dark once the door's closed - so they still won't know whether it's day or night. That means their phytochemical production slows down even more because they need light to know when they're supposed to produce them. They also start to gradually lose their source of the stored energy they need to produce them! Alternatively, if they're kept in constant light they will quickly become exhausted from overproduction of phytochemicals and lack of energy, just as you or I would if not allowed to sleep after travelling a long distance! That's a form of torture for humans and probably any other living organism.  Anthropomorphising vegetables? No!  This is all actually of great interest to scientists who are now looking to improve the storage of vegetables and possibly enhance their phytochemical production, by manipulating the amount and timing of the light which they are exposed to. 

 

So in the meantime - I think it's pretty clear to anyone unbiased that local, seasonal and naturally of course, organic, really is better for our health after all!  

 

You may have read some of this article before, as I first published it in early 2015. 

I thought that it was time to update it now for two reasons. The first reason is that since then, a lot more fascinating information has been discovered about the plants which we depend on for our survival and how their microbiome - or phytobiome as it's known - interacts with their environment. More is being discovered daily, through the wonders of modern microscopy. If you have any interest in food or plants - this is such an exciting time to be alive with new things being discovered literally every day! 

 

The second reason is that I'm heartily sick of some so-called 'experts' and a headline-hungry media, who often seem to love nothing better than to use their high profile or wide circulation to ridicule advocates of organic, local and seasonal, in a cheap and cynical effort to boost their popularity or readership. Their misinformation is literally affecting people's health!  Some of this is naturally led by the PR propaganda of the agricultural pesticide industry, who are getting increasingly worried that their profits and share prices may soon drop! 

 

The older-style 'experts' I actually had a little more respect for - despite their mistaken belief that chemicals were the great new world. At least they were genuinely-held beliefs and many had experienced the difficult conditions of WW2 rationing, with all of it's shortages. They had also been thoroughly indoctrinated in 1950's agricultural colleges.  The newer breed of 'experts' however are a different proposition and far more clever. Frankly - they are despicable! They don't operate on the basis of genuinely held beliefs - but are driven purely by popularity ratings and money - and they don't give a damn who or what gets damaged in the process!  Yes I am angry - but with good cause! I care about my children's future and hopefully their children's future too. I care about the future of what's left of Nature on this beautiful planet that we all live on. I've seen so much of it tragically destroyed unnecessarily with my own eyes during my lifetime!

 

As I mentioned earlier - there are now a growing number of studies showing that organic is better from every possible point of view. Not surprising since that's the way Nature's always done it! But the 'experts' tend to cherry pick and repeat parrot-fashion the old "essential nutrient" / vitamin and mineral data which are pretty much on a par between organic and non-organic. They also repeat that old mantra - "organics won't feed the world" - now thoroughly discounted! You don't need a degree or to be a scientist to know that. As my scientist son says - you just need to be able to read! It suits the purposes of those cynical 'experts' to ignore the other reasons why organic is better from every point of view. More phytonutrients, fewer pesticide, antibiotic and heavy metal residues, antibiotic resistance, animal welfare, soil health, environmental issues, climate change.....etc. etc...I could go on - but there's another article in that lot! Watch this space!

Study on how plant circadian clock affects their metabolism:  http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(13)00629-5

 

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

What to sow in April 2017

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in March - 2017

Buds of early crop on potted blackberry 'Reuben' Buds of pear Beurre d'Alexandre Lucas Fat buds on red-leaved peach  bursting with promise
Figlets - baby figs developing on Nero d'Italia Furry vine leaves  cradling a bunch of delicious seedless black grapes! Masses of flower buds on the potted dwarf Morello cherry
'

One of the things I most love most about this time of year is that all the fruit buds are so burstingly full with the promise of deliciousness to come later in the year - nature's wonderful example of hope and energy. It's amazing how in the last week or so, it's just like something pressed the 'GO' button and all of a sudden buds everywhere are growing visibly every day.  It really feels like spring has finally arrived in a rush!  It makes good sense to grow as much fruit as we possibly can ourselves and not be too dependent on buying imported produce, whether it's just a few berries, or if it's tree fruits like pears or peaches. Imported organic fruit like peaches and apricots especially are always scarce and expensive in the shops or markets - and locally grown peaches - especially organic,  are simply non-existent!  One or occasionally two varieties of apples are available but you never see the very best tasting varieties - only those that have been bred to travel well and produce huge crops for supermarkets! Your own fruit from your back garden or allotment is tastier, fresher, more full of nutrients and has a much lower carbon footprint than any you could ever buy! If you're also an organic gardener like me - then it additionally has no nasty toxic chemicals, either in it or sprayed on it post-harvest! 

 

Spring is always early in the fruit tunnel.

March  peach blossom on a young tree  in the polytunnel 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March  peach blossom on a young tree  in the polytunnel 

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

 

 

 

Pollinating peach and apricot trees is important if you want fruit!

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

I always save the very last of my frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now - just to remind me of how utterly delicious they are, Then all the pollinating doesn't seem quite so much of a time consuming chore! Accompanied by a tiny glass of home made peach Schnapps, I just fly along pollinating! The early peach growing in the bed at the top of the east tunnel is just starting to flower, and the dwarf peaches in pots in the west tunnel are already in full bloom as they're always earlier. These will have to be protected on the coldest nights - but the dwarf ones are easy to cover with fleece, being only shoulder height. The early peach in the ground is a bit more difficult. The blossom still needs protection on the coldest nights if a severe frost is forecast, so I use a big sheet of fleece to cover as much as I can of the tree, using a 5 ft long blunt ended bamboo cane to help reach the topmost part of the tree. I use the same cane for 'fleecing' most things this year - it makes a useful extra arm now - since my accident 3 years ago when I smashed my right arm and shoulder, I can't extend my right arm above shoulder height to reach things which is a bit of a nuisance to put it mildly!  But one gets used to it and there's ways around most things with a little initiative. One just has to think laterally, be inventive and learn to do things differently! Determination is really all you need - and I refuse to be beaten by anything!

 

 
For the last few days, whenever it's sunny and the wind has dropped enough to have the tunnel doors open, there's been several bumblebees busily helping with the pollination, I even saw my first honey bee two days ago.  I saw my first hoverfly and ladybird last week - so insects are starting to wake up. That's just one of the reasons I grow so many flowers in there - the insects are attracted to the nectar in them and then I get the benefit of them pollinating the peaches as well!  I re-homed a couple of ladybirds the other day that I'd found crawling up a sunny wall. I put them on the nettles I always leave in the corner of the tunnel, where they should find some early nettle aphids for breakfast and they're safer from the keen-eyed birds. Small birds like Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and Dunnocks always come into the tunnel at every opportunity, as they know there's always insect food in there that they won't find outside just yet. There still aren't that many bees around though, and if you have early peach or apricot trees in the tunnel they'll need pollinating during the day, while it's warm and the pollen is 'running'. The best time to do this is around midday if you can. The trees will then need protection at night with a light covering of fleece if a very severe frost is forecast, to protect the developing embryo fruit. I know it seems like a lot of fuss and bother - but when you sink your teeth into that first late June peach - you'll be so glad you did! 
 
Pale pink unpollinated peach flower
A. It's easy to tell which flowers to pollinate. This pale pink flower has only just opened and is not yet pollinated.
Peach flower with deeper pink staining in centre - clearly indicating pollination has taken place
B. This older flower has deep pink staining in centre - which indicates that pollination has taken place - so no need to brush that flower
Pollinating peach blossom gently with soft paintbrush
C. Pollinating peach blossom gently at midday with a soft paintbrush fixed to a cane so I can reach the top ones!
 
 
I'll be pollinating my two fan trained peach trees and the dwarf potted peaches and apricots every day for the next couple of weeks. I don't just rely hopefully on any early bees, because the fruit is far too precious and only available once a year! I work over the trees with a soft paintbrush fixed on the end of a bamboo cane so I can reach right to the top, very gently transferring pollen from one blossom to the next. Midday is generally the driest time in a tunnel when it's been open for a few hours and the humidity lessens, so that's the most effective time because if the pollen is wet it won't work. A day or so after pollination - you'll see some flowers develop a deeper pink staining in the centre of the flower which you can see pictured above. This means they've been pollinated and the fruitlets have set successfully. It's quite easy to see then which ones you've done already - so you don't have to do every single flower again, just the very pale flowers which have only recently fully opened. It's a very fiddly job and being an impatient person it's not one I look forward to - but actually it only takes about 15-20mins to do quite a large fan trained tree - so I just steel myself and think about warm summer peaches. To encourage myself over the last few years, I've got into the habit of leaving the very last of the frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now  - just to remind myself exactly why I'm doing such a fiddly job! They really taste fabulous - even half frozen! Last year I tried to count the fruit on both of my 8ft wide 15ft high fans planted either side of the north door of the large east tunnel - but I gave it up as a bad job at well over 150 fruit on each! The dwarf trees in pots won't produce as many but they'll be a bit earlier, so the peach crop is spread over about 2 months.
 


Last chance now for pruning most things

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


Autumn raspberry pruning

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

There's still time to plant soft fruit like strawberries and raspberries. 

 
 
I did a bit of my favourite sort of retail therapy a few days ago! Not for me handbags and shoes!! Strawberries are the sort of retail therapy that makes me happy!  Ken Muir's Nursery in the UK have a new variety of perpetual strawberry called Finesse! Squeals!! I'm so excited - their wonderful variety Albion has been a great favourite of mine for many years, it's so reliable and delicious that I've given up most other varieties! Being a 'perpetual fruiting' variety - it fruits from early May until November in the tunnel and I think it has the best taste of any strawberry apart from the old variety Gento, which I brought here from the garden I where I grew up. Gento was bred in France in the 1960's and is without doubt the nearest in taste to wild strawberries. It has that meltingly delicious and incomparable flavour. It doesn't travel well though because it bruises easily and starts to deteriorate the minute it's picked, which is probably why it fell out of favour.  It hasn't been available as plants for about 30 years at least, so I really treasure mine - quite apart from the sentimental value. I grew up eating it and so did my children - and I've been propagating from those same original plants for almost 40 years now! Don't believe those who say you shouldn't do that! As long as you only ever propagate from the healthiest and most productive plants and then rotate them around the garden - changing their location every few years to avoid any build up of pests and diseases - then it's perfectly possible!  Gento is actually one of the parents of Mara des Bois - which has inherited much of it's flavour but is smaller and not quite as productive.  Albion is a good alternative - it's very productive, delicious and a great choice if you want a really good strawberry that fruits all summer long. It freezes well too as it's juicy berries are nice and firm. 
 
 
Ken Muir's Nursery are the best fruit nursery I've ever dealt with and their people on the other end of the phone are also by far the nicest.  I've been buying fruit of all kinds from them for about 35 years and they are thoroughly reliable. I can't recommend them highly enough. Many people have asked me where I got Albion and they've always been happy with both their plants and their customer service. (and no - I don't get anything free or even a special price! I just like to give credit where it's due and always try to recommend good retailers to you!)  I'm really looking forward to trying this new strawberry Finesse. In their words it is: 
 
"An outstanding perpetual variety which combines heavy yields with great fruit quality, excellent flavour and good disease resistance. ‘Finesse’ produces bright red, medium to large heart-shaped berries which are both sweet and juicy. Plants are vigorous, producing very few energy-sapping runners, resulting in heavy crops of up to 1.2kg (2.6lb) per plant."
 
So there you have it - straight from the horse's mouth! I can't wait for my new plants to arrive in a few days time - it will be just like Christmas again!!  
 
Many of the mail order nurseries have good offers right now. Prepare the ground well and then water and mulch after planting.  Never mulch dry soil - always water first. A few years ago I was asked to visit a garden to give some advice on pruning raspberries, and discovered that sadly, the person asking had planted autumn and summer ones right next door to each other - with the result that they had all become so mixed up that it was absolutely impossible to tell which was which! Never plant summer and autumn fruiting raspberries close together always keep autumn varieties in under strict 'house arrest'. The summer ones are slightly more genteel, and don't have quite such territorial ambitions! Autumn varieties in particular can spread sideways at a very alarming rate once they've settled in, and the two varieties can easily become muddled up and indistinguishable very quickly!  
 
 
 

Birds help to keep fruit pests down - until they become pests when it's fruiting!

 
 
Talking of greedy feeders - don't put fruit cage netting back up yet, wait until the fruit is forming. The birds need to be able to get in to the fruit bushes and canes to help clear up any pests like blackcurrant blister aphid or gooseberry sawfly caterpillars (which can completely defoliate a large black or red currant bush literally within hours!) Hang a peanut feeder in there to attract the the birds, and they'll also do a good job 'working over' the bushes while they await their turn!  DON'T use nasty detergent-based washing up liquid sprays on them as I saw one gardener on a TV programme doing a few years ago (they unbelievably claimed they were bio-dynamic!!!?) Washing-up liquids contain formaldehyde and other nasty chemicals in many cases but even if they're organic - they're unnecessary and can harm beneficial insects. If you have bantams or chickens, You can use an old fashioned organic method that I remember my father using every winter when I was growing up. He used to run some of our poultry into our fruit cages throughout most of the winter. Chickens are amazingly efficient pest clearers and scratching around under bushes for grubs is their natural behaviour coming from the jungle!  I had a bad case of sawfly many years ago when I first planted some new bushes which were obviously carrying it. They cleared up the pupae that overwinter on the ground very efficiently the following winter - eating all the grubs before they could crawl up and do any damage to the bushes. I've never had a problem with it since! Poultry also gradually supply a good hit of nitrogen for the following spring and keep weeds down, doing three jobs at once! Don't leave them on ground too long though - always take them out before early spring - or they will 'sour' it with too much nitrogen.


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

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

 

Growing grapes in polytunnels or outside

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


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

Figs in tunnels or greenhouses need feeding and tidying up now

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Cape Gooseberries

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

Citrus tree care in early spring

 

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

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