October Contents: Pot on plants if planting is delayed ........Peat-free compost and protecting winter salads.......Planting winter lettuce to avoid the common problem of stem rot.......Growing winter salads in containers......A few seeds saved now means a lot of money saved on seed later.....Saving seeds may even give you your own new variety!
A young plant of Chinese Cabbage 'Scarlette' contrasts beautifully with lemon Pak Choi from Real Seeds 'Vibrant Joy' mix
There are some very exciting new Oriental vegetables!
Oriental vegetables are becoming much more popular and well known now - mainly thanks to the wonderful books written by Joy Larkcom - who I mention later. I've always found them very useful for fast-growing autumn and early spring cropping. One very new Oriental vegetable that I trialled in the polytunnel last autumn is this stunning Chinese cabbage Scarlette pictured above growing alongside a beautiful lemon Pak Choi from the new Pak Choi mix called 'Vibrant Joy' from Real Seeds. 'Scarlette' was only released in 2015 and is the first red Chinese cabbage. Actually 'red' really doesn't do it justice as I said to Gerry Kelly on our tunnel walk last week - and neither does a photo. The outside leaves are actually an incredibly deep cherry-pink which is almost neon-like in sunlight - and the hearts with the tightly-wrapped inside leaves are also a gorgeous shade of pink as you can see below. It has the most fantastically sweet, 'more-ish' taste too - delicious in salads or lightly stir-fried and of course a very unusual colour - a first for Chinese cabbage. It's definitely one of the most exciting vegetables I've found in years and I've been experimenting with growing it in various ways over the last two years.
The purple-crimson colour means that it's much higher in healthy anthocyanin phytonutrients than the more normal green ones. I grew three crops of it last year - a spring one, a late summer crop outside and a late autumn one in the tunnel - although it's only recommended for sowing outside in May. The late autumn on got attacked by late cabbage root fly sadly and I lost about half of them - although I was still able to use the younger un-hearted plants that had been attacked in salads. Wilting in sunshine is always a dead give-away for root fly and as Chinese cabbage can't be lifted and replanted which can work with some winter brassicas - because they would bolt anyway - rather than waste them I used them before they died.This year I kept them covered with enviromesh to keep the root fly out - which seems to have worked - although somehow a fat green cabbage white caterpillar appeared on a leaf this morning! Easily spotted against the dark red background as it did rather stand out though and was quickly dispatched! I love to experiment with different crops and to push the boundaries with all kinds of crops in the polytunnel. Every year the weather can be different and as long as we have fairly even temperatures, with not too many wild swings or hard frosts - I'm hoping it will give me a decent crop again before Christmas and avoid the worst of the weather. It stores quite well for 2-3 weeks in a cool place once it's picked which is useful - although this year I may try covering it with fleece if the weather is cold in December.
Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart
New Chinese cabbage Scarlette outside in late spring 2016
I'm also hoping that this year I'll have far fewer slug problems inside the hearts! Unfortunately the slugs seem to love Scarlette just as much as we do! If even only one of those little grey ones gets inside a head of Chinese cabbage - it can sit there undiscovered for weeks and do a lot of damage! This means that I end up have to do a lot of leaf washing - but I'd far rather do that than ever use slug pellets. Although I try to control slugs as much as possible by trapping them using various methods - I do occasionally get the odd messed up cabbage that needs more leaf washing! Those small grey slugs can be a problem in damp autumns both outside and in the tunnel - but my method of putting pieces of slate around the base of things is a good way to trap them before things like cabbage and lettuce start to heart up. After that they tend to hide in the hearts and it's much more difficult to get the little blighters before they do damage! Remember though - a few slug holes won't kill you and won't affect the taste of the cabbage - but metaldehyde slug pellets kill many creatures indiscriminately! They also pollute our groundwater, so that we may eventually end up drinking it! Interestingly though - veg that have been attacked by pests often produce more phytochemicals in order to protect themselves. So who knows - perhaps those with a few slug holes may be even more nutritious! Now there's a thought - maybe we should encourage them??... No - I'm only joking! Anyway - unless you're showing your veg - do a few holes in them really matter that much? Wildlife matters far more - and I'd rather have those and keep my lovely blackbirds and hedgehogs than be without them forever - which may happen if we son't stop poisoning the things they eat! How was it that Joni Mitchel song "Big Yellow Taxi " went? "Give me a hole in my apple - but leave me the birds and the bees!"............
Pot on plants if planting is delayed
I would normally have planted all my winter salads by now but have had to pot on some of them, as they're waiting for the courgettes to come out which are currently still cropping - albeit a bit more slowly. Although some might think this is a lot of trouble - it's well worth it because it means that plants keep growing well and don't get a set back. If they're checked at this time of year they don't recover as well due to the lack of light but on the other hand - if we get an unseasonable warm sunny spell - many things like spinach and Oriental veg could even bolt and run up to flower! If they get checked they'll certainly never crop as well. I always try to plan any autumn planting for early mornings, so that I have a whole day with the tunnel doors open after watering them in. Doing that gives the air a chance to circulate and gives any sun a chance warm up the soil and dry off the soil surface a bit before night time. This avoids damp air hanging around the plants and helps to prevent diseases. After the end of October growth slows up so much that they're mostly just 'ticking over' then. I'm still sowing some fast-growing Oriental veg at the moment - they germinate gratifyingly fast considering the time of year. The Oriental salad mixes are all great for adding a bit of colour and variety to winter salads - adding a bit of zing to the more usual winter lettuce. They're fast-growing and more hardy than most people think. All those brassicas are great food for bees in late winter/early spring - and if you like one plant in particular you can save seed from it if it's not an F1 hybrid (see below). I always sow a few modules or small pots of these useful vegetables for tucking into odd corners in the winter brassica rotation.
Talking of Oriental veg always reminds me of the wonderful Joy Larkcom - the Oriental veg queen! Given the season that's in it - I thought you might enjoy her picture of my pumpkin display from the early 1990's. I make a display with them every year as they are so beautiful to look at and very photogenic! This photo of pumpkins in my hall was taken by her when she stayed here to give a talk on oriental vegetables, which I organised at The National Botanic Gardens in 1991. (She's been the acknowledged expert on Oriental vegetables and salad plants for many years - her brilliantly comprehensive book 'Oriental Vegetables' is still very relevant now and well worth seeking out). Many of you will have met Joy and enjoyed her inspiring talks more recently, as she now lives in Ireland very happily for us. Anyway the pumpkins pictured here are so unlike the usual 'Halloween'-type carving pumpkins - the flesh of those is pretty watery and tasteless.These pumpkins are dry and rock hard, keeping for months, often for a year! But beware - you'll need a machete or an axe to break into them! When you do though, they make all sorts of delicious and nutritious meals. I haven't grown nearly as many in the tunnel this year as I was growing so many tomatoes again for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival - and I must say I miss the wonderful variety of them. I normally grow at least a dozen varieties but this year only grew five. There just isn't room for everything though - and sadly they are one of the few plants that really hate container growing and also takes up a lot of room! They like plenty of root room, or they tend to get powdery mildew very quickly. I usually grow a few in one of the tunnel beds because our 'summers' can be so unreliable here in Ireland and they don't do well in wet weather. They're one veg I would hate to be without for the winter months. They look so cheerful and full of summer sunshine sitting on the recycled butcher's block in the hall that I hate using them! They're always a terrific standby though. Even a slice just baked on its own with garlic and butter or olive oil makes an easy filling meal.
One fast-growing oriental veg that I'm sure Joy would love is the multi-coloured Pak Choi pictured here. The young leaves are really tender and delicious in salads, and the older leaves in stir fries. I love the acid lemon coloured leaves of one of the mixed varieties - but sadly, that one seems to want to be the first one to flower first out of all of the plants in the mix, so probably won't crop as long as the other varieties. As they're very fast growing - I'm going to make another sowing now and hope for a relatively mild late autumn, when they should still develop well under cover, in the shelter of the tunnel. They did exceptionally well last year in the tunnel, cropping for months, by picking individual leaves, not cutting the whole plant. They were really delicious in salads and stir fries. They need to go in the brassica bed though - not with the lettuces. Another thing I've just planted in the brassica beds is calabrese Green Magic - which produces lovely tender shoots steadily all winter which are lovely lightly steamed or raw in winter salads. Oriental radishes are other brassicas that are very good for your health and a recent new favourite is the lovely Pink Dragon (from Marshalls seeds, pictured below). It will grow in deep containers as well as in the ground, and if kept well-watered it's really tender and crisp, not at all woody and not too fiery. Delicious fermented in Kimchi too! The leaves are also very mild and tender enough to use in salads.
You can still sow Oriental winter radishes like Pink Dragon in the tunnel too (see what to sow in Oct list). They won't be as large but are still useful and the leaves are delicious and nutritiou too.While you're at it - do sow or plant a few winter flowering plants for bees and other pollinators too. The non-hibernating bumblebee are so grateful for the pollen and nectar these plants provide. On mild days in winter the tunnels are absolutely buzzing with them. If you leave radishes or some of the Oriental veg to bolt in late winter/ early spring and let them flower, you can eat those flowers in salads and they also provide early pollen and nectar for other important pollinating insects like early hoverflies. Then you may even get the present of a naturally occurring hybrid of some sort - as I did a few years ago. You can see the beautiful results of that event at the end of the article. Winter flowering violas, pansies, calendulas are all favourites with bees and will go on flowering for months, providing flowers for bees which are also edible and brighten up winter salads. Even nasturtiums are worth a try if you germinate them in the warm first now - mine provide flowers and leaves for salads all winter as long as we don't get a very hard frost.
Using peat-free compost and protecting winter salads
All the different winter salad seedlings have done really well in the peat free organic compost as usual - even the multi-sown ones with groups of seedlings in each module. Since I started using the peat-free - I've never lost so few autumn-sown plants. In fact, I haven't actually lost even one tiny seedling this autumn. In a peat compost I would have expected to lose anything up to 30% through damping off in cool, damp autumn weather. Seedlings don't have as much disease-resistance in peat composts as it's not a natural growing medium and the chemical fertilisers in them seem to make plants far more disease prone. I know that the organic peat-free one costs a bit more than the peat based ones - but if you get healthier plants with far fewer losses any - then it makes the compost look a lot cheaper! When you think how expensive seed is these days, or buying-in plants because yours have failed - it's more than worth it - quite apart from any environmental considerations! Peat bogs are precious habitats which trap carbon. Digging them up for fuel or gardeners' use can release more carbon than cutting down rain forests! That never seems to get much publicity though! They also support a massive range of biodiversity. Many bogs have specialised plant, insect and bird life that you won't find anywhere else. When the bogs go - they go too! There is absolutely no excuse for using peat composts because you just can't be bothered to think about the damage to wildlife and our climate! There are plenty of good alternatives now!
Always have some fleece at the ready from now on - cut to the size of your beds - in case we get hard frosts. It can make the difference between having or losing crops and is well worth what some might say is a lot of bother - only 5 mins in fact! Although just now I was out just now in the tunnels trying to plant stuff and the heat was so unbearable in there at 11.30 am in the brilliant sunshine - the nights can be really cold now. All plants will benefit then from the extra protection of some fleece if the weather gets much colder. It can often actually be colder inside a polytunnel than outside on late autumn and winter nights. Greenhouses aren't as cold - something to do with thermal radiation.
Planting winter lettuce to avoid the common problem of stem rot
Keeping wet soil away from the base of the stems of lettuces, endives, chicory and other soft salad plants is absolutelykey now to avoid stem rots, which can often happen at this time of year. When planting lettuce in particular, I'm very careful not to plan too deeply and completely bury the modules. I make sure that the top of the module is just level with the soil surface and after watering in. After that I only water between plants if necessary - not directly onto or very close to the plant. It's not so much of a problem with spring plantings - as plants are growing more quickly with the increasing light at that time of year. The opposite happens in autumn. Pictured above are several different types of hardy winter lettuce, claytonia and lamb's lettuce, inter-planted with quick growing summer spinach for late baby leaves and winter-flowering violas which provide nectar for any late beneficial insects, look really attractive and are edible. I can never understand those people who think that tunnels should be utilitarian and boring in the winter - or even summer come to that! I always make an effort to make them look ornamental as well as being full of useful vegetables. I try to achieve a sort of 'Polytunnel Potager' effect as I've mentioned many times before, by growing lots of flowers all around the tunnels among the crops to attract pollinating and pest-controlling insects! The varied colours really lift one's spirits in late winter, when you wonder if spring will ever arrive. A few years ago, in the depths of winter, Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon kindly wrote that my tunnels were "Not quite Narnia - but definitely a very different universe to that outside"!
After planting I put wire cloche hoops at intervals along the newly planted beds, so that they're in place and ready for suspending fleecejust above the plants on cold nights. This traps warmer air - giving much more effective frost-protection than having fleece resting on the plants which can also stop air circulation and cause rots in very cold weather. I uncover the plants in the mornings - and dry off the fleece which can become quite wet and heavy in the damp atmosphere of a polytunnel. I hang it up on the crop support bars to dry ut. Fleece is invaluable for protecting winter salads and other tender things in the tunnel. Buying a big roll and splitting it with friends is a good way to reduce the cost. You can buy a huge role of light fleece in your local farm supply shop for less than the price of two miserable lengths in any of the DIY multiples or garden centres! I cut some new pieces each year for the salad beds so that they're absolutely clean. Then I use the older bits for other crops like potatoes etc. that don't need clean fleece. It really is worth taking the trouble to use it - there's nothing like walking into your polytunnel on a cold winter day and seeing lush, almost summer-like growth!
Growing winter salads in containers
You don't just have to grow in the ground in polytunnels - you can grow all sorts of vegetables in containers very successfully too. In fact it can often be a lot easier to grow some organic crops this way rather than growing them in the ground, a growing leafy salads in containers almost completely avoids problems with pests like slugs and snails, as the pots are well above the ground. All you need is a container which is big enough to support the roots and has drainage holes in the bottom. There is almost nothing that you can't grow this way given a big enough pot or container.The sky is quite literally the limit - and so-called 'vertical gardening' works well in a polytunnel too. It's something I've done since I had my first small garden over 40 years ago long before we moved here - and I still do it! It's so useful for cramming plants into small spaces and even in big ones - can extend the range of what you grow.
It's important not to forget that container-grown plants are completely dependent on youthough - so even in the winter you will need to make sure that they never dry out or they won't crop for long. You could even grow a few winter flowers for salads too. Winter flowering pansies or calendula look really pretty mixed in with your veg and things like trailing nasturtiums which will go on flowering for much of the winter too as long as it's not too cold. And again they will attract beneficial insects to help with pest control and pollination of other crops. Anyone, even those without a garden, can have their very own beautiful and productive potted mini 'potager' as long as they even just have path to their front door! If you have a well lit glass porch, or one of those tiny lean-to greenhouses on a balcony - you can have some crops inside even if you don't have a polytunnel! The winter radish Pink Dragon that I mentioned earlier is very happy in a large tub and can be ready to eat quickly at this time of year. In the picture here it's growing with Kohl Rabi which will go on growing up to tennis ball size when the radish have been harvested. They're both useful crops for containers that can still be sown now.
I needed some extra growing space when I grew so many tomatoes (46 varieties!) for my Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012 and 2013 - that I grew a lot of the tomato plants in 10 litre buckets - 3 to a 'grow bag' tray. It was the first time I'd tried so many different varieties. It worked really well - far better than grow bags due to the greater depth of compost. Even beefsteaks ripened at least 6 trusses on all of the plants - and eight huge trusses ripened on the cherry plum variety Rosada (but then - that tomato always outdoes anything else!). They actually did far better and were earlier than those planted in the ground - possibly because the roots were warmer. There's no need to immediately ditch all the compost from the buckets afterwards - you can re-use it for different crops with a little bit of re-charging. When the tomatoes were finished I cut them off at the base, cutting out the toughest bit of the stem and roots with an old bread knife. I then forked over and recharged the soil/compost mixture with a little worm compost and Osmo general organic fertiliser - adding a bit more soil/compost mix where necessary and then planted them up again with things like salad mixes, lettuces, spinach, broccoli and kale plants. For potatoes I would use home made garden compost in the bottom of the pot - or if you don't have any then a little well-rotted manure would do. I then make up a half and half mix of soil/organic potting compost plus a very small handful of a general organic fertiliser like Osmo to fill up the container. For plants that need well-drained conditions, I use broken up polystyrene for drainage in the bottom of the larger heavy pots - this is a really great way of using this otherwise non-recyclable material that bedding plants are often sold in. It's free - and also makes the pots a lot lighter than the stones or gravel usually recommended - so you don't hurt your back moving them! Very important for me, as I've had degenerative disc disease for over 30 years but absolutely refuse to give up gardening - it keeps me fit!
The stepladder garden I invented a few years ago is a terrific way to grow salads in a very small space and even a convenient way to have healthy salads right by your back door all year round, even if you don't have a garden. The same salads growing on the ground would take up about four times the amount of space! Many years ago while expecting to move house at any moment - over the course of a year I grew an entire veg. garden in various containers! I even grew over 40 lbs of runner beans in M&S carrier bags! (They were a lot stronger in those days!) Even though I have a big garden now - I still grow lots of things in containers of one sort or another. It's a very flexible way to maximize space in the greenhouse - for instance planting a few very early potatoes in pots rather than in the ground - which can then be moved outside later to make room for other crops when any danger of frost has passed. On the other hand - in the autumn you can do the reverse - lengthening the season by bringing container crops in again to protect them from cold weather. I've got a terrific late crop of basil in containers at the moment - it loves the drainage and warmer root run of the buckets. Even onion sets and garlic can be grown in pots - that way you can get really early onions and also avoid any possibility of bringing diseases like white rot into the garden. If you have onion white rot disease in your garden soil - containers are a great way to still be able to grow them, as long as you don't use infected garden soil. It also avoids growing crops in the same place too often and causing a build up of diseases.
Apart from pumpkins which I've already mentioned - most crops are quite happy with a depth of only 30cm to grow in - perhaps a bit more for very tall crops. The only exception to this are sweet potatoes - which need a minimum of 18in/45cm depth of compost under them. Although I have a big bed of them in the east tunnel, this year I've also grown them again in the recycled log/skip bags that I get the logs in for our wood burning stove. They loved them! The skip bags make fantastic home made grow bags and two fit onto a large grow bag tray very conveniently. As they're so deep I filled up the bottom with all sorts of garden rubbish to save using good compost - old pot plants and used potting compost, newspapers, prunings, grass clippings etc. and topped them with a layer of garden soil mixed with good organic potting compost, about 30 - 45 cm deep. I planted 'extra early' Sharpe's Express potatoes, kale, beans and peas in these very early on in spring - and then followed them with the sweet potatoes. They took off like rockets - obviously thoroughly happy, and grew luxuriantly in all directions, so much so that I had to keep cutting back the trailing foliage, something I would never normally do for fear of weakening the plants. Many crops grow well in 10 litre recycled mayo/coleslaw buckets begged from the local deli. They only last about 3 years before they start getting brittle from exposure to light - but since they're free who's complaining?! Start collecting your buckets and containers now, ready for next year! Below are examples of just some of the crops you can grow in them.
A few seeds saved now means a lot of money saved on seed later!
One of the other things I've been doing in the last few weeks is saving tomato seed. I always keep one or two of the best, really ripe fruits from any non hybrid (non F1) varieties I will want to grow again as this saves a lot of money. Also the best examples of those that have done here well may become gradually more acclimatised to my garden climate. I came up with a new way to rot them a few years ago! Instead of putting the fruits in small trays or plastic cups to rot as I used to - I now put them into freezer bags with the name written on them straight away so they can't lose their labels! You'll be amazed how similar all tomatoes look when they're rotting and starting to nicely decompose - they really stink too! Nature doesn't put them into jars of water - it just rots them where they drop! When they're nicely rotted, I squish them up (technical term!) to a smelly fleshy pulp which I then push through a small fine sieve and just rinse briefly then. When I've pushed out as much flesh as I can I smear the seed that's left in the sieve onto a couple of layers of kitchen paper to dry - immediately writing the name in one corner with an indelible marker, as in the example here! I've lost count of the number of times I forgot to do that one particular vital thing and ended up with lots of unnamed seeds! I'm afraid I'm not always the most organised person in the world, always have at least two jobs on the go at once, and often get called away when I'm in the middle of doing something! (Cake burning in the oven etc. - you know - usual thing!!) Even this year I sowed what I thought were the black tomato Indigo Rose, and ended up with John Baer - a very good, early middle sized tomato with a great flavour - luckily for me!
Saving seeds may even give you your own new variety!
I've been saving seed of all sorts of plants for many years. It's such a satisfying and fun thing to do - and I'm always so surprised and delighted when they germinate the following year - even after all these years of gardening! Nature is wonderful! Over the years I've saved some varieties that would otherwise have been lost altogether, and that's even more satisfying. Why not try doing it yourself - if you don't already. It's great fun! You can save seed from anything that's not an F1 hybrid - whether vegetables or flowers. Who knows - Nature may even give you the gift of a new variety - as in the case of the several new kales I have grown which are descended from an interesting looking seedling that I was too curious to weed out a few of years ago while hand weeding. I dislike hoeing for this very reason. You're not close enough to recognise what you may be losing! Anyway - that original seedling was almost certainly a cross between my Ragged Jack Kale - which I've been saving my own seed of for around 30 years now - and a frilly leaved purple mustard, which the bees must have cross pollinated.
I always leave my overwintered brassicas and Chinese leaves to flower in late winter early spring for all the nectar loving early insects and vital pollinators. In return - Nature gave me a most welcome and beautiful present. Although I isolated it, pollinated it and saved seed from the original seedling when it grew up, it set very few seeds being a 'mule' - a millions-to-one chance as a very rare cross. I also tried to take cuttings but it wouldn't come from those as it's DNA was obviously leaning too much towards mustard end of the spectrum, and mustard is determinedly biennial, whereas kale should come from cuttings. It tasted horrible too - really hotly 'mustardy' which I don't like. I sowed some of the resulting seeds and you can see some the incredibly diverse and beautiful results below. 12 sown, 10 germinated, and every single one was different! Last year I sowed the last few seeds and got 12 more beauties. I'm hoping that these will come from cuttings, as they taste much more 'kaley' and are perhaps leaning more towards the kale end of the DNA spectrum.
The pics below of three of them just don't do them justice!
Kale hybrid 1. contrasts stunningly with Anthemis worthy of a place in any herbaceous border!
Kale hybrid 2. the colour of one of it's grandparents, Ragged Jack but the finely cut leaves of the other frilly mustard!
Kale hybrid 3. Verdigris colour under leaves just visible where twisting upwards like one of their grandparents, Ragged Jack