July contents: How to Grow Fabulous Figs.....Polytunnels are an all-weather Playground and Larder for Small Birds!.....Give thanks every time you see a bee!.....Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!....Raspberries.....Sum
A lovely summer picture. The young apple trees in the new orchard weighed down with fruit. It will need thinning now the 'June Drop' is over
It looks like being another fantastic fruit year!
Last year's warm autumn ripened the fruiting shoots and wood really well on pretty much everything - so there's been masses of blossom on all kinds of fruit. We're already enjoying an abundance! Strawberries, gooseberries, currants and raspberries both in the tunnels and outside - with figs, apricots, cherries and peaches undercover in the tunnels and cape gooseberries just starting to ripen on last year's over wintered plants in tubs. The early seedless grapes Vanessa in the tunnel are almost ripe too. Although it may seem a bit of a luxury to some people, using a tunnel mainly for growing fruit, it ensures that I get good crops here in my windy often cold spot and we can enjoy all of our harvest. The blackbirds can't reach them since I finally discovered how to keep them out but still let the all the bees in! The only fruit that any pests haven't discovered yet is Chinese gooseberries - and there's only so many of those you can grow as they take up so much room! I like to have the broadest range of fruit possible all year round. Variety stops you getting bored with too much of the same thing. In many fruit growing areas like Herefordshire - fruit like cherries that birds love is all grown in tunnels now - which have sides that can be lifted for ventilation and pollination when necessary. This ensures good crops.
Dry warm conditions are essential for pollination so polytunnels are vital in wetter areas. If I ever win the Lotto - I shall put up a couple of extra dedicated fruit tunnels! One can dream!....The melons which are about to start ripening are now are raised up on pots to get the maximum sunlight and also to keep them away from any hungry slugs! My '4x4 method' - as I call it - has worked well again. Nipping out every shoot after four leaf joints no matter where they come from - promotes more flowers and fruit to form - and the bees have clearly done a great job. I didn't hand pollinate one! I've never found them to be nearly as productive trained as a single stem up trellis as I see some people do. At least figs don't need pollination and as they're something I'm asked about a lot - my 'all you need to know' guide (I hope!) is below.
How to Grow Fabulous Figs!
It's the best fig year I've ever had - all the varieties have been enjoying the sun and heat that we've had and we've already enjoyed many of them. These delicious fruits, which have been valued since ancient times, are super-healthy for us to eat. They're chock-full of vitamins, essential minerals and gut-friendly fibre. The early 'breba' crop, which formed on last year's ripened wood and overwintered as tiny figlets in the leaf axils, are all ripening fast in the fruit tunnel now - and it's very tempting to eat too many of them!! Breba comes from the Spanish word 'breva'. I haven't got quite enough fruit to justify using the dehydrator yet, as they're so nice to eat fresh - but I'm hoping there could be an autumn glut later on, judging by the vast amount of small fruit already forming nicely on this year's shoots. I might even try making a fig liqueur - I had the idea for doing that the other day. That way I could preserve the figs for eating with cheese perhaps and also make a fabulously rich and slightly naughty mouthwatering drink too! Finger's crossed! They'll definitely be getting even more TLC from now on! I get a lot of questions about growing figs - so here's my guide. As I've learnt from experience and lots of trial and error rather than books - this may not be identical to anything you may read in the 'expert' textbooks - but this is what I've found works for me here in often damp and sunless Ireland!
Figs are always expensive fruit to buy - even the non-organic figs in most shops here are around €1 each! They are really easy to grow though, if you have a very warm spot in the garden - or even better a polytunnel or greenhouse. I don't grow them in the ground, as they can become too vigorous and produce little if any fruit. They will fruit well in relatively small tubs. I grow all my figs in tubs of various sizes - gradually moving them on in size every couple of years depending on how old they are and how congested the roots. It's really important at this time of year to keep all figs in containers constantly moist - never saturated but never drying out completely either! It's also important to feed them regularly so that they can develop all of their fruits. If you let them dry out completely they will drop small fruits about when you've already forgotten that you may have let them dry out at some point! If you water erratically, letting them dry out too much and then later drenching them - any fruits that have already developed may split and be ruined before they ripen. Remember - evenly moist is key - and they need both regular watering and feeding now, to develop this year's crop. They depend on you for their food supply if they're in pots. I feed them with Osmo certified organic tomato food at every other watering now - but stop feeding once the fruit is ripening.
Figs in containers must never wilt - so they do need regular attention - but they're worth it! If you're not sure they need watering - then scratch the surface of the compost with your finger - if it feels and looks moist then don't water. If it's dry and the compost is shrinking away from the sides of the pot - then water. Wilting if the compost feels wet means that the roots are in trouble and may possibly even be rotting. That is almost certain death to a fig - so if in doubt - don't water! Figs outside need very little feeding or they may grow too leafy and less productive even with their roots restricted but again keep them watered and mulched, as if they are growing against a wall they can dry out very quickly in hot sunshine. I've never managed to successfully ripen figs outside here - but some friends only a few miles away nearer to the coast have a fig tree that ripens a few every year - although, in my opinion, not enough to justify the space it takes up - even though it does look very ornamental and Mediterranean! (It's OK - they don't read my blog!) You really need a very sunny, sheltered spot with some root restriction for much success outside here. In the warmer climate in central or southern UK - they'll fruit well against a warm wall. We used to have fabulous figs every year against a warm old brick wall where I grew up on the edge of the Cotswolds. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I love them so much - the taste brings back so many childhood memories. The grown-ups often wondered why there were so few in the school holidays! We always blamed the birds!!
I have over 15 varieties now (lost count!) all of them slightly different - and all of which ripen at varying times - which altogether give me some fruits most days during the summer. I grow them all in my standard mix of half organic peat-free compost/half garden soil with a small handful of bonemeal and seaweed meal when planting. I also dust the roots directly with 'Rootgrow' mycorrhizal fungi when potting on or planting - this definitely helps to develop the vital symbiotic fungal threads they need to help their roots to access more nutrients. I always put a few broken up bits of polystyrene (from those horrible un-recyclable plant trays that bedding plants come in and kind friends land on me periodically - saying "You recycle stuff don't you?....Thought you'd like these" - Bless them!). These are useful for important extra drainage in the bottom - and are a lot lighter than heavy gravel! Don't over pot them to start with - just move them up gradually to 15 litre pot size or they will produce too much leafy growth at the expense of fruit. If you keep the roots fairly restricted - they will form sides shoots without pruning and fruit earlier in life. If they are over-potted and produce too much growth in summer, it helps to prune back branch leaders to about 4 leaf joints of new green growth beyond the last fruit. It's on this growth that next year's baby figlets will form in the autumn. Figs don't need pollinating - their flowers are actually inside-out and are the lovely fleshy part that forms inside the fruits.
Several people have asked me to list all the fig varieties I grow - so here they are. As they are easy to propagate from suckers or cuttings, I have several Brogiotto Nero - one a small tree-size in a huge tub and three of it's offspring, in 15 litre pots. All the others are also in 15 litre pots. Rouge de Bordeaux, Sultane, Bourjasotte Grise, Brown Turkey, Califfo Blue, Violetta, White Marseilles, Panachee, Icicle (for decorative leaves not fruit), Bornholm and Dalmatie (thought to be variants of the same Danish Variety. I also have a couple of unnamed varieties - one given to me by a friend which originated in an old Co. Meath walled garden here in Ireland (I think possibly Brunswick), one other and three plants of one variety that I picked up just labelled 'Fig' for €5 in a garden centre sale. That find was the best of the lot - with massive blue-black fruits similar to those huge ones that one sees sold in shops. If I were to recommend only one variety as I've been asked to many times - then Rouge de Bordeaux I would say is possibly the most productive and easiest to obtain of most of these apart from Brown Turkey - which you see recommended everywhere and doesn't have anything like the rich flavour of R de B! All of them in my experience will produce two crops per year in July and then Sept/Oct in a polytunnel if well looked after.
Figs aren't bothered by many pests here. Scale insect may be a problem on bought in plants - but brushing those with melted coconut oil kills them as it blocks up the pores in their shell that they breathe through. That generally gets rid of them permanently. I also keep an eye out for rodents and blackbirds - as they really love them! So do wasps in the autumn unfortunately!
My polytunnels are an all-weather Playground and Larder for Small Birds!
The sparrows and other small birds that are constantly in my polytunnels never bother any fruits. I'm always glad to see them, as they are terrific at clearing up all kinds of pests like bugs and spiders etc. I never see any pests at all in the tunnels thanks to the sparrows and wrens hunting all day in there. They bring all their babies in too - it's fun watching and listening to the adults teaching them how to hunt. I'm rather sad that they also chase butterflies and moths though - despite how amusing their frantic 'keystone cops' chases can be at times! This year in particular there seems to be a bit of a shortage of them. I keep finding detached wings - like discarded and crumpled ball gowns the morning after a dance - all around the tunnels. It can be a difficult balance making sure all the creatures that you want to encourage like bees and sparrows can get in - and yet managing to keep blackbirds out! I leave just enough room for them to squeeze in - but not enough for any enterprising blackbirds! Many other birds are an even worse nuisance this year - magpies and crows are also attacking fruit as soon as they see any colour - especially apples - and it's impossible to net everything, particularly orchard fruits. It's not that they're thirsty as some people suggest - we have a stream, a large wildlife pond and drinking water at various spots all around the gardens.
Give thanks every time you see a bee!
|Bumble bee on orange blossom in the tunnel||Without bees we wouldn't have so many healthy citrus fruits|
As I write this today is Pollinator Day. Most people by now appreciate that bees pollinate about 2/3rds of the food we eat either directly or indirectly - so without them we would be very hungry! But not only would life be so much poorer without this amazing insect that we actually share 40% of our DNA with - now, because the genes they use for cognition (or thinking to you and me), are so similar to ours - they are even being used for research into the causes of Alzheimer's and other human diseases. Bees they have been found to provide so many valuable insights into the causes of many human diseases - that they are now being used in a lot of medical research! If you're an organic advocate like me - it doesn't take Einstein to work out that this means that anything that affects a bee's well being also will affect ours - perhaps not as quickly - but definitely eventually! You know of course that I'm talking about pesticides here! Sadly there is a huge amount of money invested in producing and promoting pesticides by the multinational chemical companies - so this causes bitter divisions between those who believe that we can't possibly produce food without them - patently rubbish since humanity ate and evolved long before they were invented - and those who believe they are destroying not just bees but endangering all of biodiversity. This has become so bitter recently that even genuinely neutral but extremely concerned scientists such as Dave Goulson - professor of biology at the University of Sussex are being attacked by the pro-pesticide lobby who naturally want to continue profiting from their bee-killing poisons! Dave specialises in the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and has written a number of terrifically informative books on bees. Of course their natural reaction to anyone questioning the safety of their pesticides is that 'attack is the best form of defence' - just like the poisons that they peddle! Here's a link to an article which demonstrates this very thing - https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/07/17/syngenta-bayer-ceh-study-neonicotinoids/
There shouldn't be too many greenfly and other pests around in the garden if you've carried on feeding your birds to keep them around - the sparrows and blue tits deal with most of them here - they're always busily hunting around the garden. If you do find a lot of greenfly - it's often a sign that either you are overfeeding your plants, leading to a lot of soft sappy growth, or that the plants are stressed in some other way - perhaps the growing conditions aren't quite right. Healthy, happy, organically grown plants are rarely bothered by any pests in my experience they can produce their own defences. The secret of organic gardening is to achieve a balance of everything - both pest and predator. In the healthy ecosystem that you are trying to achieve in an organic garden, you should always see a little bit of everything - but never enough of any one thing to seriously damage crops. Growing lots of flowers among crops helps by attracting beneficial insects - looks wonderful - and also attracts pollinators. Correct growing conditions and thorough housekeeping - removing diseased or dodgy looking growth as soon as possible should cope with most problems and prevent it spreading if you do have any.