Excitement is growing - The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival is happening again this September!

 
Some of the almost 100 varieties on display at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. At the back in pots are plants of the famous 'Indigo Rose' black tomato.

Some of the almost 100 varieties that were on display at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. At the back in pots are plants of the famous 'Indigo Rose' black tomato which gave me the inspiration for the first Tomato Festival. - (photo courtesy of Kathryn Marsh)

 
After the great success of it's move last year to one of the most wonderful locations in Ireland - the very beautiful Killruddery Estate in County Wicklow - aka the"garden of Ireland" -  The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival is happening once again this September 2017! If you love tomatoes - either growing them or eating them - this is THE late summer destination for you! The exact date will be announced this month - but it's definitely happening - so get those fab tomatoes growing now!  I'm so excited - I can't wait to see them all!
 
 
If you live anywhere within reach of Co. Wicklow - or even abroad for that matter - but feel like a nice little 'end of summer break' to come and see us over here in Ireland - do try to make it - and bring some tomatoes too if you grow them. There will be a great welcome for you! Don't miss it - I'm so looking forward to it - and to meeting lots more tomatophiles like me!
 
 
I'm incredibly grateful once again to Sunday Times Gardening Correspondent Jane Powers, who came to the second TTTFest in 2013.  It was her brilliant idea to try resurrect it last year and she was so passionate about not letting it wither and die altogether that she enthused me again too. Jane was utterly determined that what she termed "This joyous celebration of tomatoes" should happen again, and the abundant enthusiasm, hard work and energy of both Jane and everyone at Killruddery made last year's event a huge success, as you can see from the pictures below. This year we're hoping that it will go on to even bigger and better things!  I'm hoping that some of you may take up the unusual toms mantle from me and try a few more unusual ones this year. I won't be able to grow the 35+ varieties I grew last year, as I'm trying to find time to work on another project which is close to my heart in addition to still growing most of my own food and writing. 
 
 
 

Why is genetic diversity in tomatoes so important? Well - whether we grow them or not - we nearly all eat them! 

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

Excitement is growing in the polytunnel too.  Believe it or not - it's now officially spring! 

 
 
Except nobody told the weather gods! It's lashing freezing rain this morning - and it still feels more like winter.  March is always an exciting month in the polytunnel though - it's my horticultural Narnia!  In there it's a very different story, spring is already everywhere. As Fionnuala Fallon once remarked - it's a very different world to the one outside!  Primulas, narcissi, violas, feverfew and wallflowers flowering at both ends, and in the little gardens planted around the foot of the grapevines halfway along the sides.There were even a couple of bumblebees in there over the last few weeks, anytime there was a rare mild day and the sun warmed the tunnel!  I'm so glad that as always, I'd planted some early flowers in there to attract them in - the scent of primulas and wallflowers is wonderful when I open the door. In three or four weeks the peaches will be in full flower. The dwarf potted ones are already flowering as they're always a bit earlier. Encouraging bees to visit the tunnel to do some of the pollination will mean plenty of juicily delicious peaches come July! 
 
 
The stunning & delicious Orychophragma Violaceus
The stunning & delicious Orychophragma Violaceus
The very pretty Orychophragma Violaceus - the Chinese February orchid, which the generous Joy Larkcom gave me seed of a few years ago, is also in full flower now.  It doesn't have any scent but it's very beautiful to look at and really delicious to eat in salads. It's not an orchid at all but a brassica with a lovely cress and cucumber-like taste. It's a brilliant salad vegetable for the winter too as it's very hardy and has edible leaves, with flowers that bees and other insects love too. It's a particular favourite of the Orange Tip butterfly which will be around next month. 
 
 
The soil temperature outside in the open garden is still very low and it's still so wet that there's very little you can usefully do outside at the moment - but to get ahead you can start lots of things off in modules and pots inside for planting out in the garden later. Even if you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel and are only dreaming about one at the moment - there's still a lot of things you could sow on your windowsill that could go out into a cold frame or in a protected propagating area outside, once they've germinated in a week or so. I describe how to organise one made from an old table in this month's Vegetable Garden Diary. That's how I used to do all my seed sowing before I had my first tiny polytunnel - a 6ft x 8ft. Yes, Iive been there - and it encourages you to use your space very efficiently and inventively. Something I've never forgotten! I still don't waste an inch in my polytunnel. You can't afford to - they're not cheap items. I worked out a few years ago though, that any polytunnel, if it's well organised and properly cultivated all year round, should easily pay for itself within 3 years! Even if you only saved yourself £20 or 25 euros a week on fruit and veg. - within a year you'd have enough for quite a decent tunnel. Think about that!
 
 

This is how I'll be sowing my TTTomFest '17 Tomatoes - and other tender crops

 

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

Buying peat-free seed composts

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

Potting on tomato seedlings 



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

Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key

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

 

Shading small seedlings is also important from now on

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

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

 
 
Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year! 
Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year! 
One other thing to look out for in propagation areas are those nasty little grey slugs which can sneak in, clinging to the bottom of seed trays or climb up the sides of the tunnel. I discovered one morning that one had snuck in and mown 1/3rd of my loo roll sown 'Purple Sun' carrot seedlings, which had all germinated beautifully. Good job you couldn't hear the fairly choice language ***** more appropriate for the stable I can tell you!! Probably my own fault for putting a potted plant on the heated mat to get it growing encouraged by the bottom heat. It was a plant of the beautiful silver foliage plant Plectranthus Argentatus. I was in a hurry the day I moved it and don't remember tipping it out of it's pot to check for any pests before putting it on the propagating mat. One learns far more by mistakes sadly!! Aren't I always saying that?
 
 
Purple Potatoes
 
I recently had a query about the purple potato Purple Majesty - someone asked me if the Sarpo Blue Danube potato also had purple flesh- because they couldn't get Purple Majesty. It doesn't - it has bright white flesh with a purple skin - so you definitely won't get electric blue mashed potatoes from that one! I grew it a few years ago when it first became available - it's one of the 'Sarpo' supposedly blight-resistant ones. Not only did it not have much flavour - but I didn't find it very blight resistant either!  In my opinion - there's no point in growing any potato unless it has a fantastic flavour - even if it has some blight resistance.
 
I've always grown for flavour rather than bulk because I like eating tasty spuds and we don't eat them more than a couple of times a week at the most because of their high carohydrate content! I know some who may disagree with me - but then taste can be a very subjective and personal thing - often perhaps linked to the perception that 'newer' is better. Not always the case in my experience! Something to do with plant breeders rights means that unfortunately you couldn't get Purple Majesty seed here until this year - so I've always saved my own seed tubers. It has a fantastic 'old baked potato' flavour - despite being a new introduction only a few years ago. It's much the best flavoured purple fleshed potato too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years, having always been interested in the plant phytocyhemicals they contain. I'm happy to say that now though - you can get it by mail order from some UK seed companies. 
 
 
There are other purple potatoes I like too. A very old variety - Truffe de Chine - is a salad type with a similar same shape to 'Pink Fir Apple'. It's almost black and has a lovely flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket veg shops. I found mine over 30 years ago in Harrods food hall - always worth investigating for interesting things to grow if you're in London! It's amazing what you see in there. Vitelotte is another delicious purple fleshed one which is more blight-resistant than many and good for organic growing - some say this is actually Truffe de Chine - but I've found them to be slightly different. Last year I grew Violetta - another deep purple one - from Tuckers Seeds in Devon. They sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and are good about sending to Ireland. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some non-organically grown Violette I tried last year from a well-known Dublin shop - but growing them without chemicals made a huge difference to the taste - I really loved the ones I grew here last year! Now a lot more people are growing blue varieties. Salad Blue is another tasty, easily available variety. A few years ago the renowned potato expert Dave Langford, who lives in Co Mayo, gave me a few lovely old varieties, including a variety he bred himself - called Dave's All Blue 2011, which makes a very tasty mash. Another potato he gave me was Tibet (white fleshed) it's the most blight-resistant one I've ever grown. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots though - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using my method and I never need to spray, even with copper sulphate.
 
 
Other Crops


Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut 
Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut 
The overwintered calabrese 'Green Magic' (from Unwins) has yet again come up trumps (sorry!) and it's done really well despite a much colder winter than last year. On the very worst nights it was covered with a several layers of fleece. It's such a sweet variety and not just good for lightly steaming but also really good raw for dipping individual florets into hummus or any avocado dip. It's a terrific variety, thoroughly reliable and long- cropping all year round both in the tunnel and outside. It's the only one I b other to grow now in the tunnel. I sowed two dozen last month in the propagator - one dozen will be planted when big enough into the tunnel, and will crop by May. The other dozen will be hardened off and planted outside, which will make them crop about 3 weeks to a month later in a normal year. This is a good way to spread the cropping time of any crop.
 

Endive 'Riccia Pancallieri' - (blanched on right)
Endive 'Riccia Pancallieri' - (blanched on right)
I like to be able to pick an interesting and varied salad every day all year round so I'm really grateful for luxury of a tunnel. There are still plenty of lettuce, endives and other leaves of various sorts - mostly loose leaf varieties that have cropped really well all winter. 'Lattughino' (organic catalogue) is one of my favourites - crispy bronze-tinged leaves rather like an iceberg - that you can pick all winter and then allow to form quite a nice heart from now on. 'Veneziana' and unusual sword shape and delicious, 'Belize' is another good one - an oak leaf that will also form fat hearts now. Fristina is another excellent crispy loose leaf type. Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is great for some reliable red colour - and also the Cos varieties 'Marshall' and 'Nymans' - one's really spoilt for choice these days with so many new lettuce varieties every year - but you don't have to go for expensive F1 hybrids - some of the 'value' mixes - like B&Q's are fantastically cheap - 60 cents for 1200 seeds!  Great if you're watching the pennies - costing almost nothing per lettuce! The value mixes mostly contain older varieties that are easy, colourful and reliable for all year round growing - either sown thickly for baby leaves or as individual whole lettuces. The endive pictured here - an old Italian variety 'Riccia Pancallieri' is very bitter when green - which I don't like - but if you blanch it by covering it for 2-3 weeks under a large pot as the old Victorian gardeners did - it is beautiful and really delicious in a late winter salad - with a nice fruity/sweet dressing like my walnut oil/cider vinegar/honey & orange dressing which goes with everything and is full of healthy omega 3 oils. This photo of the blanched and un-blanched endive side by side really shows what a difference blanching makes!
 
 
Last weekend after all the fuss about the lack of imported lettuces and other salad vegetables in shops due to the bad weather in Southern Europe, I decided to see exactly how many I could pick from my polytunnel.  Pictured below are 27 varieties which surprised even me - and when picking them to arrange this delicious display - I actually even forgot a couple like lamb's lettuce and Chinese chives! Here's the list - in no particular order:
 
Watercress, Chinese cabbage Scarlette, Giant Italian flat leaf parsley, Cos lettuce Nymans, Red leaf radish, Sorrel, red oak leaf lettuce, ruby chard Vulcan, green Mizuna, frilly leaf mustard, rocket, red-veined sorrel, endive White Curled, red cos lettuce Rosedale, chicory Sugar Loaf, bronze stemmed chard, mustard Yellow Frills, spinach, mustard Giant Red, lettuces Lattughino, Little Gem & Jack Ice, red Mizuna, claytonia, kale Ragged Jack, mustard Red Frills, beetroot leaves McGregor's Favourite.
 
27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
 27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
 

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

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

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

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

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

 
After a short break - it will be great fun welcoming Gerry Kelly back here again this year to continue our 'From Tunnel to Table' series on his 'Late Lunch Show' for LMFM Radio.  Once again, we'll be spending some time in the polytunnel again looking at what's going on and what's growing in there - and then we'll be heading back into the nice warm kitchen, to cook something using seasonal crops. (It's usually on on the third Friday of the month at 2.00pm - but this may change so keep an eye out). It's always fun showing other keen gardeners like Gerry around - the only problem I find is that there's always so much to talk about that it's impossible to fit everything into the time! We could literally spend all afternoon talking!  In my experience - when most gardeners get together they could literally talk the hind leg off a donkey! They're always dying to compare notes and top each other's stories - just as fishermen do!  It's horticultural 'one-upmanship' of the nicest possible kind though, where gardeners generously share ideas with each other without feeling that anyone's competing. There's always something new to learn about gardening from others and most gardeners tend to be generous folk. Every garden is different - no one ever knows it all! 
 
 
Don't forget that a polytunnel isn't just full of vegetables and seedlings at this time of year though - it's also full of hope too. That priceless thing we all need plenty of!  
 
There's always something good to look forward to in a well-tended polytunnel. Most importantly of all - there's always something good to eat too - whatever the weather, s you can see from the salads pictured above. I really couldn't garden without such a valuable space now, particularly after injuring my right shoulder badly over 3 yrs ago. It's always possible to have the soil in perfect condition whatever the weather's doing outside - that makes it so much easier to sow or plant into it. I can even garden when it's dark if I want to - with a light on! The thing one must remember at all times though - is that YOU have complete control and also of course, you have total responsibility. If you really take the trouble to look after things properly though - you will get great results. 
 
I always say that a tunnel is like life - you only get out what you put inAnd like life - with just a little bit of thought and effort you will be more than handsomely repaid!
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you!)

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