"Human welfare is fundamentally linked with Mother Earth.....not just because the soil is the primary source of most of our food....but because it occupies a key position in the rhythmic cycle of life itself." - Stanley Whitehead. (from Mother Earth - the Journal of The Soil Association, Winter 1947-48)

I recently had the very great honour of being invited by 'The Environmental Pillar' (an advocacy coalition of 28 Irish environmental groups) to give a presentation at the Irish launch of the European People4Soils initiative at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, on Monday 5th December.  They asked me if I would talk about what practical action gardeners could take to help to restore soils. I was delighted to accept their invitation as this is a subject very close to my heart and which I am absolutely passionate about.  It was with the above quote that I began my presentation. First of all, my apologies for this month's polytunnel blog being just a little later than usual! Preparing my presentation took up quite some time and energy but it was well worth it. Looking back through over 35 years of photographs, to find the best ones which illustrated my points, brought back many memories for me and was a great pleasure. For the benefit of those who weren't able to attend, I'm repeating my opening and closing few words here. The entire talk was filmed and will I understand be posted onto their website very soon. 

The enthusiasm and energy from all of the people who attended was infectious. There was a wide diversity of environmental groups represented - not just organic farming organisations.  I sincerely hope that they will all go on and spread the awareness that soil is not just essential to growing healthy food for us - but also that restoring soil carbon, by regenerative organic farming methods, is absolutely key in helping to mitigate climate change. In the last 30 years we have lost approximately 30% of our soils globally, mostly through destruction by intensive chemical agriculture. Felling forests, drainage and destruction of wetlands is also not just adding to this loss of carbon-fixing humus but also causing emissions of even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As the living soils in forests and peat bogs are major carbon sinks, this is having a massive effect on accelerating climate change. But there is hope that we can do something and this is what I wanted to get across. We can ALL do something!

The esteemed soil scientist Rattan Lal, from Ohio State University estimated a couple of years ago that just by restoring 2% of global soil carbon - we could mop up ALL of our current greenhouse gas emissions from whatever source....  A stunning statistic!  Regenerative organic farming and growing is the ONLY method of agriculture which can do that. Just putting back some plant wastes into soil but still continuing to use fossil fuel-derived, soil-destroying chemicals can't do that. A combination of the two simply doesn't work, as one will cancel out the other!  Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil life which is vital to making carbon-fixing humus in the soil. In addition - using chemicals literally 'mines' carbon from the soil and also many nutrients which are vital to our health and that of all other creatures.

In 1963, the late Rachel Carson - author of Silent Spring and heroine of the environmental movement said "I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with Nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature - but of ourselves." Sadly too few heeded her timely much-needed warning. The lure of chemical farming and cheap fossil fuels proved too seductive. We thought had it all - and like irresponsible teenagers we squandered the riches of our Mother Earth to the point were in many places soil can no longer do the job it evolved to do - which is to support healthy life on this planet.....But like irresponsible teenagers we now have to grow up, prove our maturity and urgently take responsibility for our actions!

In the autumn of 1992 just after the first Rio Earth Summit, I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens which was given by Alan Gear - who was then Chief Executive of HDRA - now called Garden Organic, which the largest organic gardening organisation in Europe. His lecture was entitled "The Road From Rio".  His warning was again stark - that we ignore the value of soil at our peril! Hearing his motivating talk, many of us were re-energised and went home determined to do whatever we could to help raise awareness of how valuable soil is and what a vitally important contribution organic farming could make to a more sustainable future. Not just for growing healthy food but also in mitigating climate change. 

I went home from Alan Gear's lecture and planted 300 more trees - many of them biomass willows. I'm so glad I planted them. They've been so useful for shelter for animals and plants, for fuel and for making soil healing compost from the smaller prunings. They're also a wonderful year-round resource for all kinds of bees, insects and other biodiversity vitally important in the connected web of life. If you only do a couple of things for our children's future and for the planet - please plant a tree or two, use peat-free compost and try to support organic agriculture if you don't have somewhere to grow your own organic food. Don't put it off until tomorrow - do it now! I know organic produce isn't cheap - but the more people who buy it the cheaper it will become. 

Intensive farming is costing us the earth - quite literally!  Fast forward over 50 years since Rachel Carson's dire warning....and the words of Rattan Lal give us hope that we CAN do something to avoid total catastrophe - and that the answer to doing that lies in the soil. But only in a healthy, living soil. It's no good us burying our heads in the sand and saying that it's all too depressing, there's nothing we can personally do, so we'll just go on ignoring it as usual! That's a mistake! It's no good either just "talking the talk" without "walking the walk" too!  As gardeners or even just as consumers we can all do something. Act globally but think locally. It begins at home - we all have to eatl! We can't turn back the clock - but we CAN ensure a future infinitely better than it otherwise will be if we do nothing. 

The soil that gave us life and nurtured us holds the key to our past - and the evidence of may past civilizations who didn't heed the warning signs of impending disaster........that soil also holds the key to the future of life on this beautiful earth as we know it.......and THAT KEY is now in OUR hands! 

 

 My 'soil' 35 years ago  A lump of that soil sitting on my soil now!
 My 'soil' 35 years ago A lump of that soil sitting on my soil now! 

 

The two pictures above show an example of what can be done with very little effort, lots of TLC and compost! The one on the left shows the totally degraded and exhausted soil which I started off with here 35 years ago - so bad that not even weeds wanted to grow! The other shows a lump of that same soil sitting on a bed of the vitally alive, healthy, humus-rich soil which I now have here. I'm not superwoman, I don't have help. It won't take you 35 years - it can be done! And from the moment you start to heal the soil you will become part of the solution - and not part of the problem. 

Despite low light levels at this time of year - there's still plenty of healthy food to eat in the polytunnel

The sun is very close now to reaching it's lowest point in our sky and at this time of year us gardeners are eagerly looking forward to the solstice. That's when the year will turn the corner and life giving light starts to return to our little corner of the planet, heralding a new gardening year to come. Like most of you - I can't wait! At the moment - some days are so gloomy that they barely seem to get properly light at all. Despite this, as you can see - there's still lots of lovely 'squeaky-fresh' vegetables to pick in the tunnel beds - or even just growing in containers - as you can see from the pictures here.

 One of this year's beds of luscious loose-leaf winter lettuce SE main bed. Home bred purple kale hybrids with Sugar Loaf chicory. NW beds in east tunnel. Broccoli in side bed some main heads picked. Lettuce intercropped with spinach in main bed - 4.12.15
One of this year's beds of luscious loose-leaf winter lettuce Home bred purple kale hybrids & Sugar Loaf chicory.

NW beds in east tunnel 2015. Broccoli in side bed cropping. Lettuce interplanted with spinach


 
Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container Salad mix Colour & Spice from Mr Fothergill's planted with red stemmed cutting leaf celery Watercress will give you lots of lush leaves palnted in a large tub
Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container Salad mix Colour & Spice from Mr Fothergill's planted with red stemmed cutting leaf celery Watercress will give you lots of nutritious lush leaves even growing in a large tub

 

 Lovely leaves

 I don't know why more people don't grow at least a container or two of mixed leaves even if all they have is a balcony or windowsill. It's so easy if you choose the right varieties - and it needn't be very expensive. Mixed salads or lettuce mixes are always the cheapest seeds - you get far more for your money - and you can grow in almost anything that will hold compost once it's deep enough for the roots! You don't need to fill it right up with expensive peat free compost - save broken polystyrene or plastic plant trays, or even tougher un-rotted bits from your compost heap, and fill up the bottom with those. They'll give you good drainage as well. Most salad plants are very happy with just 10 - 12  inches of good compost to put their roots into as long as you keep them sufficiently watered. You can mix some soil into the lower layers as well - which gives the compost more water holding capacity and makes it cheaper again! When you compare it with your outlay - even just one or two meals would more than cover the cost of doing it! So make an early New Year's resolution for 2015 - and if you're only a summer gardener - then vow to make next year the year that you will have salads all through the winter too. Brussels sprouts and parsnips may be delicious comfort food from outside I grant you - but somehow they don't feel quite as vibrantly bursting with health as a salad picked five minutes before you eat it!

 Planning ahead and remembering to sow winter veg. in August and September is often difficult to remember while dealing with summer gluts, but it really pays off now. Loose leaf lettuces, chicory, chards, spinach, kales, watercress, lamb's lettuce, Chinese leaves, rocket etc. are all really useful winter salads that I'm cutting now. What isn't quite perfect for the table - the hens get - which keeps them healthy and laying eggs with lovely orange yolks all winter! I would never want to be without my winter tunnel crops - you can really feel the crisp, green lusciousness doing you good! Vegetables that are often taken for granted in summer because they're plentiful, become treasures to be relied on in winter! It's so nice to be able to go out and 'pick & mix' a really varied salad every day - sort of 'dowsing' the salad beds to see what feels just right for you on that particular day! There are only pathetic organic salad or spinach bags in the shops right now and - at the moment it's mostly just baby spinach which is tired, several days old and often already practically composting in the bags! Frankly, I can think of far better ways of spending 3 euros! 

Watercress growing happily in tunnel bed with other salads, beet leaves, lettuces and edible winter flowering violas 
Watercress growing happily in tunnel bed with other salads, beet leaves, lettuces and edible winter flowering violas 
Lately my daily salad of choice has been watercress, pear, walnut and blue cheese - a delicious combination with a fruity walnut oil, cider vinegar and honey dressing, one which also goes well with watercress, avocado and grapefruit salad. When I walk into the tunnel the watercress seems to just be screaming -  "me...me...I'm the best choose me!" -  it always looks so vigorous and lush. Very few people seem to grow watercress over the winter in the tunnel - although it's easy and incredibly productive. It grows very easily from seed or cuttings, grows very quickly once it gets going and just needs a constantly moist spot to thrive - even in shade. If you can find any really fresh bunches in greengrocers shops or in supermarket bags, then it's well worth trying from cuttings - that way you'll get plants a lot faster. Pinch the lower leaves off, then put the stems into a jar of water on the warm kitchen windowsill for a few days, where they should produce some fine white roots very quickly. You can then pot them up in pots or plant into the ground in your greenhouse or tunnel and keep them well watered - just covering with fleece if hard frost is forecast. Remember that watercress is a member of the brassica (cabbage family) - so take that into account in your rotation plan. As you can see here - it will even grow happily in tubs if well watered! An indispensable plant. Not only fast-growing but also one of the most nutritious salads you can eat!
 
 
Watercress is far higher in nutrients than winter lettuce. Like all the brassica family - it's chock full of healthy nutrients - iron, Vit C and phytonutrients like sulforaphane (said to be active against cancer) and incredibly good for your health. It's recorded that the Greek physician Hippocrates even sited his clinic beside a stream in order to take advantage of being able to grow watercress in the water.  He must have known something - as it was he who coined the phrase "Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food" - I'm a great believer in that. There is a common misconception that you need running water to grow it - but you actually don't - just never let it dry out and it will be very happy. It grows so thickly that it blocks out light too - not allowing weeds a chance!  Unlike among the lettuce where the generally mild autumn here has encouraged determined self sown claytonia seedlings to keep on coming up between the more widely spaced plants!  That brings a new meaning to hoe, hoe, hoe! Seriously though - it's really important to keep on top of weed growth at this time of year because even just a few low patches can really restrict air circulation.  Weeds like chickweed in particular can hang onto moisture and encourage disease in vulnerable plants like lettuce. So keep your winter tunnel salads well weeded.
 

Young watercress plants from cuttings, in recycled buckets on a grow bag tray. Easy to ensure they don't go short of moisture they need to grow well. 
Young watercress plants from cuttings, in recycled buckets on a grow bag tray. Easy to ensure they don't go short of moisture they need to grow well. 
Keep ventilating the tunnel every day for at least a couple of hours if you can to avoid moist stagnant air building up - air circulation is really important to avoid diseases. Watercress is the only crop which I make sure is kept really moist at the roots at this time of year. There's barely any other watering to be done now in the tunnel - but if you think the soil looks very dry - then just scratch around just under the surface with the tip of your finger - you'll often find that it's moist enough there so needs no water. But if it feels really 'dust' dry - then just dribble a little water between plants like lettuce etc., being very careful not to go close to or splash plants, as this can cause rotting very quickly. I's also a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast and try to water on a day when it's forecast to be milder for a couple of days. Don't drench anything though - as with low light levels and cold temperature at this time of year things are growing very slowly and won't use it. If they're sitting in cold wet soil their roots may rot, or stems may rot at soil level.
 
 
Gloom at 3pm in the polytunnel - looking a bit like a theatre set with the curtains drawn back!
Gloom at 3pm in the polytunnel - looking a bit like a theatre set with the curtains drawn back!
I suppose it does seem like quite a lot of faffing around uncovering the salad beds in the tunnels in the mornings and hanging up the fleeces on the crop support bars to dry - but you get into a sort of routine - so it only takes about 10 minutes or so and it's well worth doing when temperatures are very low. The fleeces can get very wet tough on some nights and left on all the time would stop air circulation, possibly causing grey mould and rots. I use a very blunt ended bamboo cane, a bit like a long arm, to help lift the opposite side of the fleece up, wind it up and then to push the ends up and hang them over the crop support bars - as it's impossible for one person to be on both sides of the bed at once!  If it's been a very cold night I wait until the tunnel temperature comes up to about 1deg. C before I take fleeces off. I put them back on again in the afternoon about 3pm at the moment - closing the tunnels before temperatures dip and frost sets in. I know it's a bit of trouble but if you're at home anyway and can do it - it really makes a huge difference to what will grow well over the winter, lettuce in particular really appreciates it. Things like lamb's lettuce, claytonia and land cress don't really need it as they're very hardy - but everything grows so much better for that extra bit of TLC!  Such a lovely sight greets me when I uncover the beds - it does my heart good to see so many healthy and colourful things growing so beautifully when it feels like the North Pole outside! It's almost like unwrapping a Christmas present every day - and it definitely is the best present you can give to your health, eating a good mixture of raw green leaves every day! I use old cloche hoops to rest the fleeces on which suspends them slightly over crops. I find doing that gives much better air circulation - and it the weather's really Arctic I can put a double or even triple layer on without weighing plants down. 
Delicious calabrese/broccoli 'Green Magic'
Delicious calabrese/broccoli 'Green Magic'

Another of my 'old reliables' in winter is Calabrese or summer broccoli. I've been growing the very productive variety 'Green Magic' from Unwins seeds since it was first on the market. It's the best I've found for winter tunnel production and after the main heads are cut in mid-late November from a late July sowing - it slowly produces deliciously sweet, smaller side shoots all winter long which are lovely either raw for dips or cooked. It's quite happy given some protection with fleece if severe frost is forecast - but otherwise doesn't need any more protection than just being inside in the tunnel. I grow it throughout the year - in mid-late January I'll sow more which will give me an early tunnel crop - and then another sowing in late March or April will see me through the summer nicely. Again it's another crop I wouldn't be without as it's so full of healthy nutrients  

 
 
Midwinter tunnels
 

Midwinter tunnels

Our weather may soon possibly turn a lot colder - after one of the mildest autumns on record. It was this week in 2010 that we got the last spell of serious snow - and although there's only light snow forecast for the North in odd places and frost down here next week - it's as well to be prepared! If we do happen to get snow - it's really important to keep gently clearing as much snow as possible off tunnels, because if it's allowed to build up too much and it becomes heavy - the weight of it could split the polythene or even make the tunnel collapse! Remember gently is the watchword - polythene is much more brittle when it's very cold, particularly if it's a couple of years old. Late morning to midday seems to be the best time, because it's the warmest (ha!) time of the day inside the tunnel and it will slide off fairly easily then. I shall be happy if we get just a little snow sometime during this winter - because couple of years ago I discovered it's a very effective way of cleaning algae off the tunnels! As it slips down it scours the algae off - leaving the polythene sparklingly clear! You can encourage it by using a very soft, long handle cobweb brush. It's the only time one gets used in this house! I bought it specifically for clearing tunnel snow! 
 

You can start sowing seeds again in late December if you're desperate!  

If you're desperate for a gardening 'fix' and want to try a few giant onions, shallots or leeks for some early crops or whoppers for next autumn's flower shows why not try sowing a few if you have somewhere warm to germinate them? It would be a waste of precious energy to use a propagator now - but they'll only need about 55/60deg.F or 10/15deg.C. After germination they'll be quite happy growing on quietly as long as you can give them above 45deg.F or 7/8deg.C with good light, protected from frost.  A bright windowsill in the house is fine as long as it's not too cold, remember to turn them every day - so they get an equal amount of light on all sides and also remember to bring them inside the room before you close the curtains at night, so they don't get chilled. Another trick you can use is to fix some tin foil around one side of the pot, using a couple of small canes or barbecue skewers to fix it to so that it reflects the light. Most plants don't need very high temperatures - but they do need the very best light you can give them. If they get 'drawn' and spindly they're much more susceptible to disease. Sow them thinly, spacing them out if possible, and don't over water. In about 4- 6 weeks or so you can prick them out individually into small finger pots or modules, planting out at the end of March when they're growing strongly - or even earlier in the tunnel. Even if you don't want to enter competitions - you'll still have some really early! 

Good housekeeping - Keep clearing up any grot!

As I mentioned earlier - this is particularly important at this time of year - keep clearing up any dodgy looking, mouldy, or dead and rotting leaves the minute you see them - to keep diseases at bay. Open the doors and ventilate for a few hours every day if at all possible. Even at this time of year air circulation is really important - it helps to keep the atmosphere inside from being too damp which otherwise would encourage disease. Keep a sharp eye out for those nasty little grey slugs too - there's nothing more disappointing than finding that a perfect looking lettuce is filthy and slug ridden inside! They tend to be braver in winter as the low light fools them into thinking it's dusk!  Putting a few pieces of broken slate at various spots along the beds always traps them as they think they're safe hiding under those! Snip them in half or throw them to your hens if you have them - they really love the extra protein! My hens always inspect everything for slugs first before starting on the 'side' of green veg when I throw them any scraps from the tunnel! Or chuck them outside the tunnel to take their chance instead! - Well it is the season of goodwill after all - but any hungry birds will be quick to spot them too! 

Don't forget next winter too - while you're busy thinking about next summer's crops 

 As I mentioned earlier  - if you planned well back in midsummer -  you should have plenty of salads, chards, kales and celery etc in the tunnel now for the winter. It's very easy to forget that winter veg does grow a lot more slowly, so you need far more of each plant for a continuous crop than you would normally plant in the summer. At least 3 times as much I would say. It's often something one only learns from experience though. When I started my 'organic box scheme' over 30 years ago (the first one in Dublin), one of the first things I learnt from experience was that you must plan well - in order to have something available for customers all year round. If you don't they go somewhere else! So when you're doing your seed orders in the next few weeks, think about next winter's veg too. I know it seems a long time away - but if you leave it until midsummer, you may not be able to get many of the varieties you want even by mail order, and most of the garden centres take out their seed displays in July. 

It's important to look after biodiversity - even in a polytunnel! 

 The tunnel is a lovely sheltered place to sit and relax and get one's recommended daily 20 mins of daylight - even in the very depths of winter. Particularly if all the cheery Christmas crowds and constant 'muzak' get a bit much! Definitely 'in heavenly peace' I can't bear shopping centres at Christmas - or in fact at any other time!  At midday on a frosty but sunny day one can almost believe it's spring - with a few winter pansies, cyclamen, primroses or perennial wallflowers in full bloom, wafting their scent around you - and the birds singing while waiting for their turn on the feeders just outside the doors!  Hellebores in pots are already flowering. I have my chair arranged so that I can watch their antics.  A robin always appears hopefully as soon as I venture inside - he's expecting me to start hoeing! Growing mini-gardens full of wildlife friendly flowers and herbs at the ends and in the corners looks lovely and doesn't cast any shade on crops. It creates a far more natural environment - attracting in all manner of beneficial creatures. A couple of days ago on a still, mild day - there was even a brave bumble bee in there - so I was glad there were some flowers for her.  Adventurous bees are so grateful for any winter flowers. 
 
Putting an old upturned clay pot or a pile of stones in various spots, with a shallow dish of water or even a mini-pond will attract frogs too and they will often hibernate there. They love shady damp places, and seem to just appear from nowhere!  They're great for eating the tiny grey slugs which ruin lettuce hearts.
 
A pile of stones will give cover to ground beetles too - also voracious small slug hunters. I often find Devil's coach horse beetles in my 'mini-cairns' - they are fierce predators too. You'll just be amazed at the amount of beneficial wildlife these mini-gardens attract!  Even in my smallest tunnels I always did that because it really helps to make a huge difference in controlling the pest population.
 
Small birds like Dunnocks, Sparrows, Robins and Wrens often spend hours in winter hunting around the edges of the tunnel - they don't mind me and I love to see them in there being busy too. It's fascinating being able to watch them closely - and it really makes you appreciate them even more.
 
I see the space just inside the doors wasted in so many tunnels. That space should be working for you - just like every other inch!  Many people lose interest in the winter and leave their tunnels full of the sad, dead and disease-ridden remains of last summer's crops! Doing this is just storing up trouble for next year! A tunnel or greenhouse is a very expensive investment - every possible inch should be used positively and productively all year round! 
 
One of the most important items is the comfortable seat in a sunny spot at one end! There, you can sit and make plans for next year - dreaming of all the abundant and delicious riches to come - snug as you like in the winter sun! Who needs a carbon-guzzling expensive winter sun holiday when you can have a sunny and productive polytunnel instead? - Not me!!
 

Latest Diary Entries

Latest Tweets

Listen