July contents:Eat a seasonal healthy 'rainbow'......Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!.....It's the season of firsts....but also gluts!....Splendid spiralisers!....
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!...Potato blight arrived.....Carry on composting!...Drown perennial weeds...Keep mulching....Soil is more precious than gold
Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is healthy, delicious and easy if you grow it yourself!
One of the greatest joys of growing your own organic vegetables is being able to eat seasonally and rediscover how really fresh organic vegetables untainted by chemicals, should taste. I believe that this satisfies a very deep-seated need in us - and that's not surprising since humans evolved to eat food grown by nature in it's purest form possible in an unpolluted world - each type of food in it's proper season.I think that all year round availability of everything has ruined many people's anticipation and enjoyment of food. It's lost much of it's excitement and become almost boring! These days you can find vegetables and fruits from the furthest corners of the globe on supermarket shelves which are all particular varieties chosen for productivity, uniform appearance, ability to travel without bruising and for long shelf life. They're sadly not chosen to taste fantastic and to be as nutritious as those you can pick fresh from your own garden. They are often picked before they are ready, and are devoid of most of their natural taste and nutrients. They are mere commodities, conveniently packaged into whatever form makes them the most commercially profitable for the 'pile it high and sell it cheap' supermarkets. Low cost seems more important than quality. It's definitely worth growing a few vegetables yourself if you possiblycan - even if you only have the smallest patch or a window box.
Increasing numbers of scientific studies suggest that long-term consumption of a diet high in a wide variety of colourful plant phytonutrients - or 'eating the rainbow' in other words - offers protection against the development of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases. The healthy exercise and fresh air that gardening entails is also good for us - both physically and mentally! Only organic food free of man made synthetic chemicals, grown in it's natural season and then harvested at it's peak, can ever have all the properly developed nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. I would also suggest that chemically-grown produce and processed foods have also ruined people's taste buds - so that they have become less sensitive and discriminating. Taste is very often tied to nutrition in most fruits and vegetables. Many of the aromatic compounds which actually give fruit and vegetables their wonderful array of flavours are in many cases the same ones that give them their health-protecting phytonutrients.
Just how wonderful is it that you can eat so many things that are not just delicious but are actually good for you? We vegetable gardeners are so lucky! Far luckier than unfortunate people who are restricted purely to buying and eating the often days or weeks old produce they can find in shops!
Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!
Potatoes are just one example of a colourful veg that pack a very powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits. In the last few years, scientific studies have found that the antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients in purple potatoes like those picture above, combined with other compounds they contain, can lower blood pressure and actually even kill cancer cells! That's not the only reason I'm such a big fan of them though! They look utterly fabulous and taste fantastic too! What's not to love as they say? Happily a lot more people now seem to be interested in the stunning looks and health benefits of the blue and purple potato varieties. This was very much shown by the huge reaction on Twitter a few days ago when I posted a tweet aboutthe very attractive but rare variety Peru Purple. That's why I decided to write an article about a few of the ones which I have personal experience of. As you will know if you're a regular reader - I never write about anything unless I can write from my own personal experience.
I found my very first purple potato tubers over 30 years ago in Harrods Food Hall in London of all places - they were such an exciting find! Since thenI've discovered that upmarket veg shops are always well worth investigating for interesting things to grow if you're in London or any other ethnically diverse city. It's amazing what you may find! My very rare holidays or short trips anywhere have always included visits to the local food emporiums, to see what treats I can find to save seeds or tubers from! If my children are on holidays they are always instructed to do the same! To me such shops are just like sweet shops are to children or handbag shops are to some 'fashionistas'!! I can never resist that childlike urge to try to grow anything different from pips, seeds or tubers. I grew Cucamelons and Kiwanos that way many years ago - long before anyone had even heard of them. I find it hugely amusing that certain 'celeb veg writers' have apparently only just now 'discovered' them! I've been growing them since before many of them were born - as I've been a 'food tourist' for years!
I've always grown for taste and nutrients rather than bulk - and being an artist, looks are also important for me. As I've already mentioned, both looks and taste are often linked with nutrients. We don't need to eat potatoes 365 days a year - in fact they could become boring if we ate them every day - rather than the treat we feel they are. Food should never be boring - it should be a joy! I like eating tasty potatoes but we don't eat them more than twice a week at most - another reason being their high carbohydrate content. By the way - I never, ever boil potatoes! Doing this means that you are pouring many of their valuable nutrients straight down the sink! That means they're also losing much of their flavour - which you can see very clearly if you boil the purple ones as the water turns blue! In addition to this, I nearly always steam or bake them the night before we eat them - then then cool and chill them. Chilling them overnight in the fridge for a minimum of 8 hours reduces their carbohydrate content, by turning more of the starch they contain into what's known as 'resistant starch'. Doing this makes them much healthier. Oddly enough, although this has only fairly recently become known - I've always done this. I've always preferred potatoes either cold in salads, or re-cooked as re-baked, fried or roasted scalloped potatoes - especially with a couple of fried eggs. They beat traditional deep fried chips with eggs any day - that's been one of my favourite meals since I was a small child. Some potatoes are better for doing this than others. It's a very handy and healthy way to prepare quick meals in advance, if you always keep a few cooked potatoes in the fridge - perhaps cooking them at the beginning of the week. Mashed potatoes freeze extremely well too. We always leave the skins on when eating any potatoes. Not only are many of the nutrients actually in or just beneath the skin - but there's lots of gut-healthy and filling fibre in them too - so it's incredibly wasteful not to eat them!
One of the best potatoes for cooking and cooling this way is Purple Majesty. Interestingly, this is also the particular potato that featured in the blood pressure reduction study. Unfortunately a problem with plant breeders rights means that you can't get Purple Majesty seed tubers here in Ireland. So I'm afraid that being a bit of a rebel - I've always ignored that legal restriction! I've saved my own seed tubers for several years from some which I originally bought in a Northern Ireland supermarket about 8 years ago, and I have grown them ever since. As long as you don't sell them - that is a perfectly legal! And as long as you always only save tubers from the healthiest plants - you can keep your stock healthy so you won't have problems. Purple Majesty is a maincrop variety which really benefits from my method of starting tubers off early in pots. This gives them the longest season possible before the dreaded potato blight hits. As soon as I see evidence of blight I take off the tops, cover the bed with something waterproof and they keep really well for months that way. They also keep well in normal cool storage if you suffer from slug problems. Purple Majesty retains it's colour and phytonutrients well when cooked, has a lovely floury texture and a fantastic, 'nutty', sort of 'baked potato' flavour - despite being a relatively new introduction compared to some. It's proven to be the highest in antioxidants of all purple potatoes and is one of the best tasting varieties too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years. I'm happy to say that now you can getobtain it by mail order from some UK seed companies. It bakes, fries and steams well - and makes a lovely fluffy mash.
Salad Blue is another potato which is great masher and baker too.It is an early maincrop heritage variety, thought to have been bred in Victorian times. It's recently become very popular again and well deservedly, and is fairly widely available online. It also keeps very well in storage, after growing my particular way. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots to give them a long season - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using this method and I never need to use any spray for blight - even copper sulphate.
Violetta is a newly-introduced deep purple, second-early variety. It's the earliest of the purple varieties to be ready, and it crops well both in the polytunnel and outside. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some of the non-organically grown Violetta which I tried three years ago from a well-known Dublin food shop - but I've since found that growing them organically for the last two years, without chemicals that make them absorb more water, really makes a huge difference to the taste! I got my original seed tubers from Tuckers Seeds in Devon, who sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and were good about sending to Ireland - but sadly they no longer sell online and are now only open to customers at their shop in Devon. Violetta is delicious steamed and eaten with lashings of butter - when it has a nice 'waxy' texture. Sadly it doesn't mash well or make good scalloped potatoes either, as it absorbs a lot of oil when cooking and doesn't crisp up well. It's not a bad baker though.
Vitelotte Noire - (otherwise known as Negresse or Truffe de Chine) is a very old variety which was first recorded as being sold in the early 19th century in Paris markets - but is thought to be originally far older than that. Also a maincrop variety which is fairly late to bulk up - it is salad type with a similar long shape to 'Pink Fir Apple' but not as knobbly. It has very dark purple flesh marbled with a lighter colour and has a great flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket vegetable shops. Vitelotteis more resistant to blight and other diseases than many potatoes - so it is well-suited to organic growing. This was that first potato that I found among the tempting exotic-looking displays in Harrods Food Hall all those years ago. I've been growing it ever since and have passed it on to many people.
Peru Purpleis extremely rare and currently only available from seed banks such as The Irish Seed Savers Association or possibly other keen potatophiles - which is where I obtained mine. It's well worth growing if you can find it! It is very pretty with a deep red-purple skin, and is a slightly lighter colour, marbled with white inside. Although I've found virtually nothing about this particular variety online - (only that purple potatoes originally come from Peru!) - it seems from my first season of growing it that it's a maincrop cultivar. I can certainly vouch for the fact that it makes the most deliciously fluffy, pale mauve mash. It also makes absolutely THE most fabulous scalloped potatoes ever! It quickly crisps and browns on the outside while staying light and fluffy on the inside. This is an aspect of their cooking qualities that I'm sure you'll understand I naturally felt I had an obligation to research extensively on your behalf! It will definitely make fabulous oven fries or crisps......but more research will undoubtedly be necessary to investigate this! It definitely deserves to be far more widely known and grown! If you have it - share it - that will ensure that it not only survives but thrives!
On that note - if anyone has any other purple-fleshed varieties I'd love to know about them and possibly swap some tubers? I'd like to collect as many as possible.
It's the season of 'firsts' now for many - but also gluts!
Nothing ever tastes quite like that very first bite of seasonal produce at it's best - whether you're a new gardener or if you've been growing you're own food for many years!The first strawberries, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas...etc. One of the simplest, most satisfying and most joyous pleasures in life is to be able to cultivate a garden, and to produce as much of your own food as possible - while at the same time helping all of the other creatures that are part of Nature, just as we are. Our garden here has not just been a source of sustenance for many years - but also a source of great joy, health and peace. This picture here was taken in 1981, of some of my first summer's produce here at Springmount. It was proudly displayed on the kitchen table. It gave me such a great a sense of achievement back then - and a feeling that no matter what life threw at us - we would survive it all and feed ourselves well! The soil was so bad here in those days - it's a lot better now after 35 years of organic husbandry. There have been many changes here since those days. The children have grown up, various people, some much loved family, assortments of animals, and momentous life events have all come and gone, but one thing never changes. That is that the enthusiasm and desire to learn from mistakes and successes, to constantly look for good new varieties or better selections of old ones - to do things even better and to keep improving the soil with every year that passes. Also to find easier ways of growing that will allow me to continue my gardening even after a couple of accidents have left me less able to do many things. Experiments continue. That's the wonderful thing about gardening - and why it holds such a continuing fascination for me. You never stop learning and you never know it all.
....But it's also the season of the gluts!
There is no more delightful and satisfying sight than a really well organised and productive vegetable garden at this time of year. It's so satisfying to stand back and look at everything after a hard day's work.The whole garden has a summer carnival atmosphere about it - like a glorious celebration of Nature's abundant generosity. We're surrounded by masses of delicious vegetables - so many luscious things to choose from that we could have several different ones in gluttonous portions every day! Mother Nature has pressed the 'fast forward' button and everything is growing so incredibly fast that it's hard to choose what to eat next!
Of course with seasonal growing and eating - gluts of many fruits and vegetables can naturally sometimes become a problem. It's always a feast or a famine! One minute you're dying for that very first taste of something - then all of a sudden there's far too many! It's a good problem to have though. In these times of fast rising prices for so many things - it's a good feeling to be as self-sufficient as possible in most things. (Particularly with the uncertainty brought about by the Brexit decision - but I won't start on politics. When under pressure I tend to try to find positive, practical side ways to cope!) This is when it's so useful to have a freezer - particularly since we're not that into chutneys - or jams being high in sugar! Priority for eating fresh has to be given to those that perhaps don't tend freeze quite as well as some others. Most things freeze well, but some veg need cooking first.
Courgettes, which we've now been eating for 2 months from the tunnel and outside, don't freeze well raw but do freeze very well as a component of my caramelised roast red onion ratatouille, which is totally addictive, incredibly useful, and a brilliant standby to have in the freezer (if it makes it that far - because it's so delicious cold it's hard to resist! You can find it in the recipe section). It's a terrific way to use up too many courgettes - something which always happens! They freeze very well cooked like this and are so useful to have put by to use as a side vegetable or to throw into sauces.
Broccoli is another brilliant freezer candidate which always seems to be all ready at once - particularly the more productive F1 varieties like 'Green Magic' from Unwins - my all year round favourite. I pack the small individual florets into recycled plastic take away boxes. Other people's I hasten to add! We don't eat them - but it's amazing how many so-called healthy eaters do! I'm not complaining though, I'm only too happy to do their recycling for them - one box holds two portions of broccoli very nicely. That way they don't get smashed up in the freezer. There's no need to blanch them before freezing quickly either - it just wastes nutrients! They are perfect if tipped straight into fast boiling water from frozen when you want to use them. I always sow a late crop of 'Green Magic' calabrese now for planting in the tunnel in September - which will give us pickings all through the winter if covered with a bit of fleece when a very hard frost threatens.
Some crops like climbing French beans, broad beans and peas I tend to grow specifically for freezing - firstly because they obviously don't grow over winter in the polytunnels but also because they are mostly unaffected by several months in the freezer, and make a very welcome change during the darkest months of the year. So they are 'squirrelled' away for winter suppers, after enjoying the novelty of the first few platefuls of fresh ones. It can be hard to keep up with filling the freezer as well doing all the garden jobs that all seem to need doing at once, but it will be so welcome during the long winter months when organic vegetables and fruits are scarce, expensive, depleted of nutrients and without much variety unless they've come from God knows where, along with a massive carbon footprint too!. It feels so good in the depths of winter to enjoy a bit of the summer's sunshine captured in the harvest from your own garden!
Things like pumpkins or winter squashes that will store for a long time overwinter are also a major priority crop now. They don't need valuable freezer space either, just a cool dry place. With careful ripening they can often be stored right up until next year's are sown or even later - increasing in vitamin A while in storage. So they are a very valuable winter staple. On the subject of pumpkins and squashes - unless you're entering giant pumpkin competitions you don't want huge ones, so encourage fruiting side shoots to form by pinching out the main shoot after 4-5 leaf joints. Then each of the side shoots produces flowers and that way instead of just one huge pumpkin - I get 3 or four good sized ones which store very well for the winter. Last week I had my first major basil harvest of the year, grown in the tunnel as it's far too windy here to do well. To me - my vegetable garden is far more important than money in the bank. It's so comforting knowing that I have a really good range of foods preserved for the winter. In fact - even if I had oodles of money - I could never buy most of the things that I grow.
A few years ago I discovered another fantastic way to use courgettes - and I promise that I could never have believed that their taste could be so utterly transformed, just by the way they are prepared! I first read about them in Domini Kemp's column in the Irish Times Magazine a couple of years ago.They looked fun so I bought a cheap 'Lurch' model just to try it - half expecting it to be rubbish! I couldn't have been more wrong! Fabulous 'courgetti spaghetti' in an instant - but watch your fingers!! Three years ago year my June 'Tunnel to Table recipe was Spaghetti Courgetti with Pestoand it was really delicious (in the recipe and 'listen' sections if you want to try it). The courgetti are also delicious just very simply stir fried with a clove of garlic and some soy sauce - you would think you were eating a whole Chinese stir fry - just fantastic! The very best way to cook them in my opinion though is in my Creamy Courgette and red onion Gratin - also in the recipe section. It's my most popular recipe ever! Everyone loves it and now we don't have enough - something that's never usually a problem at this time of year!! My most recent recipe is my Lemon Courgette Cake which I think is my best cake ever! It keeps brilliantly, getting better over three or four days (if it lasts!) days and also freezes fantastically well. I don't know why some people make fun of them - they're brilliant - I wouldn't be without mine now! They clearly haven't tried them!
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!
Talking of the winter months- it's now that we need to think about next year's 'hungry gap'! Difficult I know - with everything growing so quickly and so much staking, watering, weeding and mulching etc. to be done! It can be difficult to remember that a great many winter and late spring crops take almost a whole year to grow. Some, like Brussels sprouts and leeks, should have been sown a couple of months ago. So at the same time as storing some of the tender vegetables for a bit of winter variety - we have to think aboutplanting the hardy onesthat will be the mainstay of our diet then. This may seem an odd time of year to be thinking about winter veg. when we hope we still have a lot more summer to enjoy - but it's just a reminder that if you don't think about them now, then come winter or next year's spring 'hungry gap' you won't have any! You need to plan now for what's going to follow on after your summer crops - both outside and undercover - and then make sure you have the seeds or the plants that you will need.
From mid-June to the end of August is when most of the seeds need to be sown for many things like chicory, oriental veg., winter lettuces etc. If you sow them from now on in modules using organic seed compost - you will have them ready to plant as soon as early summer crops are over - thereby making the best use of your growing space. If you haven't already sown things like leeks, kale and purple sprouting broccoli for growing outside - then garden centres should still have good plants at the moment - but get them as soon as you can because plants that are still hanging around in a month or so may have become starved or root bound in their modules and won't produce good crops. There's lots more info. on what to sow now and next month for winter and also quick growing crops to mature this autumn in the sowing list for this month. There's also still some sowingsto be done of vegetables that will mature in the autumn. Some, like Chinese cabbages and radicchio actually prefer the shortening, post-solstice days. If sown before then they'll often run straight up to seed in the late summer heat (we hope!). Again there's a lot more suggestions in my 'What to Sow' section of the blog.
It's time to transplant winter brassicas like Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflowers, kales and cabbages to their final winter cropping quarters if you already have the plants - the bigger and more well established they are before the autumn - the better your crops will be.
Don't forget to put brassica collars around the stems to keep off the cabbage root fly and also to suspend netting above them to stop the cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs on them. If you just rest the netting on them, the butterfly will still manage to lay her eggs onto the topmost leaves. I find that carpet squares are best for making brassica collars, as they are flexible and don't shrink. I tried to make some from old, paper backed carpet underlay but when they dried out a bit one had shrunk so the root fly got in - you can see the result here! You could still sow some kale, if you can cover them with cloches later on - these won't make huge plants but can still be well worth picking as 'baby' leaves, even if we get a cold autumn. Kales will also do very well over the winter in a tunnel and will be far more productive than they ever would be outside. If you didn't sow any brassicas, a friend of mine bought some very good organic plants online last year, so you could try that - or visit one of the good local garden centres who are worth supporting in these days of big DIY mulitples. You can also sow spring cabbages and swedes - I find sowing in modules under fine netting best, to avoid any pests and also seedlings possibly getting smothered by weeds, as can easily happen with everything growing so quickly now.
Keep sowing lettuces and other salads little and often - I sow a few lettuces in modules each time I'm planting some out- this keeps up a regular supply, as I never like to be without the makings of a good salad. There's lots of great lettuces to sow in July. I grow 'Little Gem' baby cos because I love their crunch and I also grow a lot of the loose leaf types too - as they can crop for months, particularly in the spring and autumn if you keep them well watered, as you just pick a few leaves from each plant every time you need some. They're really useful in an ornamental potager, as they're very attractive and picking a whole head of lettuce does tend to leave rather a hole in one's planting pattern! Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is always a reliable one for this, very colourful, disease resistant and full of antioxidants, the seed is cheaply available everywhere now - and is often given away free with gardening magazines. 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino are my favourite loose leaf winter lettuces now, but 'Fristina' and 'Belize' are also very tasty, bolt-resistant green ones, which both have nice firm leaves and are nicely 'crunchy' in the middle, not 'floppy' as some of the loose leaf types often can be. I've found that 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino also overwinter really well in the tunnel, are very disease resistant and also slow to bolt. 'Cherokee' is a really good crunchy leaved Batavian which everyone remarked on last winter/spring - wanting to know what it was. Nymans is a great red Cos variety. Like a lot of the red lettuces - it seems quite hardy, has a lovely flavour and eventually makes nice crispy hearts in spring, after picking a few leaves from the outside over winter. All of these benefit from cloche protection later on in autumn if outside rather than in a tunnel - more to prevent excess wet than cold.
'Sugar loaf' chicory is another old favourite standby for sowing now or up until mid August that will grow well all winter both outside and in the tunnel - making nice big, tightly wrapped, blanched hearts like cos lettuces in late winter and early spring - and with slightly more bitter outside leaves that make a great late winter tonic for hens. Early July sowings seem to make the biggest hearts - so don't delay sowing it!.
One winter veg I would also never want be without, no matter what, is Ruby Chard - and the perfect time to sow it for good winter crops is before the end of July. I particularly like the variety Vulcan - I've found that it's far better in terms of productivity than any of the other coloured chards which tend to run up to flower very easily at the slightest excuse. It's very easy to grow and much more bolt-resistant, than those as long as you give it plenty of root room and keep it well watered in hot weather, especially in polytunnels in spring. It has equal standing ability to the plain white stemmed one - and of course it's far more nutritious than the white one, having a lot of those anthocyanin phytonutrients I mentioned earlier, due to the red colours. We think it tastes better too.
Potato blight has arrived
I cut all the tops off my potatoes last week as they were showing the first signs of blight. I then covered the bed afterwards with black polythene to stop any blight spores washing down through the soil and infecting the tubers. There's already a very good crop under them though as they were started so early. I developed my own particular method of growing them over 30 years ago - starting off in pots early and then planting out under fleece, because I like to grow a lot of unusual and old varieties, some of which are a bit more fussy and more blight susceptible but they all have really fantastic flavour. It's a bit more trouble I grant you - but no more than planting out any other vegetable or indeed bedding plant from pots - and well worth it! I cut off the haulms (stems) of the plants straight away, take them off the bed and dispose of them (not on the compost heap) and then cover the bed with polythene to stop rain washing the blight spores down through the soil onto the tubers - as that is what rots them. Don't leave them until the stems are all blackened and collapse - as it's far too late by then - the blight will have travelled down the stems and the tubers will have been infected too.
Getting my potatoes in early by starting them off in pots means that my potatoes have a really good crop under them by the time blight strikes. Potatoes all need at least 12-15 weeks of good growth to have even a small crop so growing them this way means I don't have to grow the tasteless 'so-called' blight-resistant ones. Taking off the stems and covering at the first sign of blight means that they always keep well and as long as there's no slug problem then I don't lift them until the autumn when I have more time. I never spray even with an organic copper spray as I have a heavy clay soil where copper could build up and become a problem. I naturally wouldn't dream of using the fungicide 'Dithane' - I don't want to eat any poisonous sprays when there's absolutely no need to! Not spraying is far cheaper too and easily avoided by taking a little trouble and forethought. Some potato crops may be sprayed with fungicide every week! Then the tops are sprayed off with a weedkiller such as glyphosate/Roundup to 'dessicate' kill them off - making them easier to harvest - and then after that the tubers are treated with an anti-sprouting chemical so that they keep better in bulk storage. Yuck! - The potatoes are then afterwards sold to unsuspecting public as fit to eat! Usually with a very misleading and suitably pretty picture of bucolic bliss on the packaging! OMG! I don't want to horrify people - but you do have a clear choice - which you can only make if you have the information! If you don't grow your own spuds - even Lidl sell extremely good value organic potatoes all year round now - and they're usually far better varieties than Tesco's!
I believe that ALL chemical use - fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers - should have to be declared on all food crops and even on container grown plants in exactly the same way that all ingredients/additives now legally have to be in processed foods - at least that way people could be informed and then choose whether or not they wanted to eat those chemicals - which are in effect less tested, more unknown and even more toxic additives than those in some processed foods! Up until very recently no tests had been done to determine the combined 'cocktail effect' of all these chemicals in the body - particularly when they are combined with all the other chemicals we are exposed to daily in the environment. The EU finally instigated a study on this in 2012 as they're now getting seriously worried about the public health implications of it - but that only issued a 'preliminary report' in July 2014 and it won't be completed for another few years.That of course is assuming that lobbying by the huge multinational chemical companies doesn't make sure that the report never surfaces, or is watered down!
Carry on composting!
Keep collecting compost material, mixing it up well, particularly if you're incorporating grass clippings which can be very wet and slimy put on in an unmixed layer. Their very high nitrogen green sappiness needs to be balanced with plenty of high carbon, brown and more stemmy stuff, or ripped up newspapers, cardboard etc.Keep your compost covered, so that it heats up really well, destroying any weed seeds and breaking down the plant material quickly. You could fry an egg on my compost heaps at this time of year! - The hotter it is - the better!It's easier to get the heap to heat up if it's fairly big. Compost bins are OK but don't heat up so much. They're very useful for keeping rats out though if you have a lot of fruit waste which tends to attract them. A very hot heap also puts them off, and by the time it cools down - everything in it should be well broken down and not so attractive to them. I use old pallets to make my compost bins, they allow air in at the sides, and then I cover the tops and front with heavy gauge black polythene silage cover. This also keeps the rain out and so keeps all the nutrients in the compost where I want them. I'm always was astonished to see 'experts' on TV not covering compost heaps - haven't they heard of nutrient loss, 'run off' and pollution?? Uncovered compost may still make a good soil conditioner - but all the goodness will have been completely washed away, wasting all the valuable nutrients and polluting groundwater!
Drown your perennial weeds!
I don't put perennial weeds like docks, scutch (couch) grass and mares tail onto the compost heap, as it wouldn't kill them - I reserve extra special treatment for them in order to recycle the nutrients they've robbed from my soil! First I put them in a black bin bag to wilt & cook for a week or so, then I put them into a large barrel of water beside the compost heaps, with about half a bucket of chicken manure to get them festering nicely! (or you could alternatively use HLA - 'household liquid activator' as the wonderful late Lawrence Hills euphemistically called it (use your imagination - the final insult to a weed!!) This is added to throughout the summer and by the following year everything has rotted nicely, any fibrous plant material remaining can at that stage go onto the compost heap with the rest of the now benign liquid being used as a liquid feed, diluted about 10-1. Warning here - cover this when it's festering - the smell is appalling and attracts horseflies like a magnet!It's actually very good for seeing off unwanted visitors though - just invite them to admire your compost heaps and give it a really vigorous stir while they're standing beside it - it works like magic!! Don't get it on your hands though - or you won't get rid of the smell for a fortnight! The same goes for comfrey, borage and nettle feed - much the best when done together in a large barrel - as the high nitrogen nettles help the high potash comfrey to break down quickly, the borage supplies valuable magnesium, and they make a nice balanced feed for most things when diluted to the colour of weak tea after a few weeks.
The first runner beans will be flowering soon - but you won't have any problem with pollination if you've been encouraging bees and other pollinators into the garden by growing lots of flowers among your vegetables as I do. It makes the potager or kitchen garden look beautiful too, and flowers such as Nasturtiums and violas are also edible and can be used in salads.
The value of mulching
Talking of runner beans - it's important to keep them evenly moist at the roots as any dryness at the roots encourages the flowers to drop. A good mulch will help retain moisture and grass clippings are brilliant for this - also keeping weeds down. As I've said so many times before - always mulch already damp soil, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the direct stem area to avoid possible rotting and watering in well as soon as you put fresh grass clippings on to avoid any burning of the roots by the high nitrogen in the clippings.
Keep mulching everything you can, to stop evaporation, save on water, protect the soil surface from heavy summer rain, encourage worms and keep the weeds down by excluding light. Plants and worms love mulches rather than bare soil. A nice cooling mulch keeps the worm working in the upper layers of soil - rather than disappearing lower down away from the dry summer heat. That means they're making more plant nutrients available to the roots of crops. Worms like green food - it's much better for them than newspaper or cardboard, although they do need carbon too. I know a lot of people use newspaper under grass mulches, but all I can say is they can't have very many birds in their gardens! I tried that years ago around shrubs and fruit bushes, but the birds here had one helluva time scratching them up everywhere looking for worms! The garden quickly resembled the local rubbish dump - so I just use grass clippings on their own now! They still get scratched about but don't look so bad and after a few days they fade to a nice light brown colour!
Don't use massive mulches of manure - doing that promotes soft growth that's far more vulnerable to both diseases and slugs! It also buries too deeply and suffocates many of the vital organisms that live in the top few centimetres of the soil which plants need to be healthy. The majority of soil-dwelling bacteria need oxygen to survive and do their job of interacting with plant roots - if you make life hard for them you make it much harder for them to do their job - if they do it all. Lashing on tons of manure can also unbalance the population of soil bacteria. This is something many people don't know. In every layer of soil there is something that specifically evolved to live in that particular place. Leave it where it evolved to be!
Take care of your soil - it is more precious than gold!
Gold can't grow food either! We didn't evolve to eat commodities grown with chemicals in the poisoned, impoverished and lifeless medium that conventionally farmed soils have become. Neither did we evolve to eat foods grown in hydroponic situations with artificial light where the plants are fed with fertiliser (and often fungicide) solutions and deprived of all the vital symbiotic bacteria & funghi that are present in a living soil that they need to produce their proper nutrients! To be healthy and productive - soil and all it's microbial life needs to be replenished and protected constantly. That's what Nature does. We cannot keep taking crops from soil without helping it to regenerate all those natural things it needs. Soil is a living entity - or it should be. In some parts of the planet soil has just become a lifeless, depleted dust which simply holds up plants while they're fed with chemicals. It has so little organic matter left in it that it erodes, washes away or blows away easily. We can't keep taking crops from the soil and not replacing all those elements that made them - any more than we could give up real food and just live on vitamin and protein supplements! Soil loss is also becoming more and more important from an environmental, as well as from a food growing perspective, as it traps carbon dioxide and is a massive carbon sink - so it is absolutely vital to mitigating climate change. Only a healthy, living organic soil can do this!
The soil gave us our past and nurtured us - we now hold it's future in our hands.We must use it more wisely. If we keep taking more and more from it without giving anything back, what we are actually doing is robbing our own future - and so are the multinational manufacturers of these planet-polluting chemicals which are destroying it! They don't care about the future of our children - or even apparently theirs! They only care about big profits now!
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)