September contents: Tomatoes without borders!......Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!.......Future Food Security isn't just about Tomatoes! It depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity......Polytunnels come into their own even more now......Last chance for some serious seed sowing!......Why it's well worth using a good quality peat-free compost......My top crops for winter productivity in the tunnel.....Brassicas undercover..... Sweet potatoes.....Feeding Soil for Winter Crops......Save money by saving Seed......Tunnel fruits......Don't forget bees need winter food too!
View of both sides of the World Record-Breaking Exhibition of Tomatoes for this year's Totally Terrific Tomato Festival held in The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin
Tomatoes without borders!
This year at The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2018 - we didn't just have one great day - but a fantastic 2 weeks thanks to our wonderful National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, their dynamic director Dr. Matthew Jebb and his great staff. On the day, Irish Sunday Times columnist and garden writer Jane Powers - who had coordinated the tomato display at Killruddery so efficiently for the last two years - was once again drafted in and worked incredibly hard logging in the tomatoes as each grower arrived with theirs. It was a stunning sight all beautifully displayed in terracotta pots. A world record of 258 varieties was set, with an incredible diversity of almost every possible combination of shape, size and colour of the rainbow! It was beyond my wildest dreams that we could ever have achieved this when I conceived the idea of holding the first TTTomFest, as it is known, back in 2012!
For me - the most wonderful thing of all was watching the faces of people from all over the world, full of wonder as they gazed at the fantastically diverse array of colours, shapes and sizes of tomatoes! Just like children looking at Christmas trees! I met interested people from places as far apart as Big Island Hawaii and County Donegal - all who loved tomatoes! And the truly great thing about tomatoes, as I've so often said, is that almost everyone eats them and cooks with them - and almost anyone who has a garden also grows them. So we all have instant common ground! The really encouraging thing was that people were all so interested and grateful when I explained that the reason why I started the original Tomato Festival was to highlight the issue of the loss of vital crop genetic diversity - not only in tomatoes. Tomatoes just happen to be a very visually appealing way to demonstrate that rich and valuable diversity. After all - different varieties of wheat, for instance, all look pretty much the same don't they? So they wouldn't be much fun - unlike these gorgeous beauties! The wonderful thing about tomatoes is that it doesn't matter where people are from - most people eat some tomatoes occasionally (or a lot in our case!). As Dr Matthew Jebb said a couple of years ago in his Tomato Talk at Killruderry - the entire human race eats half its own weight in tomatoes every single year. A staggering statistic - and if that doesn't give us something in common with practically every other person on the planet - I don't know what does!
Everyone eats - and what is most relevant is that whatever 'diet' we eat - whether it's healthy or not - completely depends on the original seeds needed to grow a particular crop. This is of course the major reason why the huge multinational agri-chemical/seed giants want to gain control over the supply our seeds. Forget money, forget oil and forget politics. Controlling the supply of seeds which produces all our food globally is the surest way to ultimate power over the human race!
As always - I also very much enjoyed meeting so many avid tomato lovers, growers and old friends before and after my talk - this time from all over the world! If any of you didn't make it to The National Botanic Gardens - I will be posting much of the information contained in my talk, here on the blog, in a week or so when I've caught up just a little! I was sorry that I didn't manage to get down again to the gardens in Glasnevin during the final few days of the Festival - but I was so busy trying to catch up here. Although I did spend a lot of the first week of the exhibition there doing my talk, taking photos, doing interviews etc. and just enjoying the sight of it! It was a fantastic demonstration of just what a lot of keen growers can do when they get together to work towards one goal - and such a delight that it was hard to tear my eyes away from such a gloriously colourful panorama! Coming down to earth again after such huge elation and emotion might be a bit difficult!
I truly feel that 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' is now in the safest possible hands - that my baby has now returned home to the original place where it was first conceived. I am thrilled and confident that it's future is assured..... and I can't tell you what a good feeling that is!
Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!
I'll just explain very briefly here, as I will be doing a much longer article including my talk at TTTomFest18 later this month. I first organised what I then called a 'Tomato Day' back in 1993 at the National Botanic Gardens, at Glasnevin in Dublin. Many of us organic growers and gardeners had already been aware for some time of the loss of 1000s of seed varieties since the mid 70's when Lawrence Hill first established the Heritage Seed Library of the HDRA - and were aware even then of the urgency of preserving as many older varieties of seed as possible, but after the original tomato day I held at The National Botanic Gardens in 1993 - although there was some interest - it wasn't really enough to bring it to the attention of the wider public. So there it rested for a couple of decades.
Fast forward to 2012 - and I began to feel that people here were beginning to become far more interested not just in where their food came from, but also in the different flavours, culinary and health-promoting qualities of the many Heritage varieties that were still in existence. By a stroke of pure luck - that year the amazing high-anthocyanin black tomato Indigo Rose also became available to amateur gardeners for the very first time. I knew as soon as I saw it that it would be an instant attention grabber! I also knew that by then, preserving genetic diversity was becoming ever more urgent. With increasing climate change and the attempted takeover of global food systems by huge and aggressive multinational chemical corporations - it's now more vital than ever to preserve genetic diversity in all food crops - not just tomatoes - despite their undoubtedly huge economic and dietary relevance. Anyway - I knew I could no longer stand idly by and watch this happening without feeling I was doing something. I am only one person and can only do so much - but if each individual does one small something then that can add up to a very positive BIG something! I don't know who actually first said "that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness" - but I believe that to be very true. I felt I had to have another try to help raise awareness of how important genetic diversity was - and so the 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' was re-born under it's current name!
Future Food Security isn't just about Tomatoes! It depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity
Genetic diversity should not be entrusted to a few large multinational chemical/seed corporations who have been gobbling up smaller seed companies systematically since the 1970s. They are only interested in profit and selling the varieties which they have bred or happen to own patents to! We have already lost far too many crop varieties because of this. Profit for the privileged few who control our food system could mean starvation for the many. We have no idea what the future may bring and we each need to do our bit - however small that may be - if we care about future generations.
But food security isn't just about tomatoes - useful and delicious as they are! Last Saturday the first of September I posted this tweet on Twitter:
"If you're buying to sow try to support small & seed companies if you can - helps to ensure foodsecurity - Global multinational / companies are buying up smaller seed companies - closing them & dropping varieties!"
Judging from the amount of re-tweets - it seems that perhaps people may finally be waking up to the fact that we cannot trust the security of the future of our food supply to the avaricious clutches of a few, self-seeking giant multinational seed/chemical companies. We have no idea what challenges the future may hold in terms of pests and diseases - especially with a changing climate - so it is extremely dangerous to narrow the choice of genes (or characteristics) - present in different varieties of any one crop which is vital to the future of human health, or possibly even survival. If we allow that to happen by doing nothing, we are gradually allowing what is essentially our own life-support system of crop varieties to be eroded.
As I have highlighted so often in the past - our choice of varieties in the various crops we grow is now being continually eroded by these companies. Their motivation if profit now - not the future of humanity! They are continually buying up smaller seed companies, taking over their seed lists, then closing them down and gradually dropping older varieties of important crops which are perhaps genetically more valuable in favour of their one patented F1 Hybrid or GMO/GE varieties. They can't patent old varieties - so they plunder them for a few genes or characteristics which are useful for breeding newer varieties to which they can then own the patent. That's where the money is - not in selling much loved and reliable old varieties which have been grown in some cases for centuries!
Polytunnels come into their own even more now
After the excitement of the Festival it's certainly back to earth with a bump - but earth is where I like to be!! Now I've recovered a bit I need to catch up on some of the work here that was more than a bit neglected over the last week or so. It very urgently needs doing now - if we're going to eat any homegrown food this winter!
September is when us tough, 'all weather' polytunnelers really get going! If you put the thought, work and care in now, you'll be enjoying the delights of abundant crops from the polytunnel not just in summer - but all winter long too - harvesting far more than the 'fair weather, summer only' gardeners ever thought possible! Even in winter - not an inch of valuable polytunnel space should be wasted. Every inch should be growing something delicious either for us - or valuable food for non-hibernating bees - and it's quite possible to do both!
Ananas Noir not easy but delicious!
Green Cherokee another favourite beefsteak with great taste.
| Nyagous - unusual rich smoky flavour.
|| Pantano Romanesco my 'desert island' beefsteak if forced to choose only one!
Last chance for some serious seed sowing!
The weather over the last week of August and the first few days of September have been by turns wet, windy, chilly and autumn-like - and it feels as if it's already well and truly arrived! At this time of year so many people are content to just wind down and enjoy the last delights of the summer crops. Here we're also still doing that, as you can see from the deliciousness pictured above. These tantalising beefy beauties always seem to have a last glorious flourish at this time of year - just so their mouthwatering flavour is unforgettable until we plan next year's tomatoes. It's very easy among all this abundance to forget that winter is literally only just around the corner! The light is visibly decreasing rapidly now though - especially in the evenings with the hens now going to roost well before 8.30 pm. Growth is also winding down a lot from the hectic pace of summer. With so much of summer's bounty still to be harvested, it's easy to forget that winter crops need attention right now - or we won't have any!
Any veg you sow now is like money in the bank!
There's still time early this month to sow winter lettuce, oriental salads, and many other fast developing veg for crops for harvesting through late autumn up to Christmas, or even continuous cropping throughout the winter into early spring 2016 - so check out my 'What to Sow Now' list and get sowing now! The longer you delay the less things will crop before the New Year - so don't delay! - You'll be so glad you have them during less productive times outside in the winter vegetable garden, and when organic salads in particular are almost non-existent in shops
Seedlings for autumn & winter tunnel production
It's already too late for some crops to produce well this winter - but there's still time for quite a few - and there's absolutely no time to lose! Don't waste precious tunnel space! I never forget the great piece of advice I was given many years ago - "Whatever else you don't do - SOW THE SEEDS" - everything else you can catch up on - but not sowing seeds. They have their own timetable and must be sown at the right time, no matter what the other distractions - or you won't have any winter crops under cover!
Winter crops in particular can save you a small fortune, which may surprise you, particularly if you're the sort of gardener who usually loses interest after the summer crops - buying your winter veg in the supermarket which has been flown in from Spain or somewhere. It's not rocket science - it just takes a little more trouble, planning and thought - but it's well worth it. So give winter tunnel or greenhouse gardening a try if you haven't done it before - I promise you won't be sorry! Even if you don't have a polytunnel - many crops can also be grown under large cold frames - so there's no excuse. Long before I had polytunnels, I grew all my winter salads under large homemade cold frames - which I made from recycled skip-found timber and some large pieces of polythene I begged from a bed store years ago!
Some fast growing crops like summer spinach, Oriental vegetables, quick salad mixes, kohl rabi and rocket etc. will all crop by November if sown now - and may possibly go on cropping through the winter if it's mild. If you tend to get very hard frosts where you live you can cover them on cold nights with fleece but do uncover during the day to allow any dampness to dry off and hang the damp fleeces up to dry - then you won't get any disease which is encouraged by humid conditions,. Lettuce, land cress, lambs lettuce, loose leaf cabbage greens etc. are a little slower growing but must be sown NOW so that they can establish really good root systems and make enough growth to just keep 'ticking over' through the winter - these will be your mainstays - allowing you to pick leaves every few days, or every day if you have plenty of plants, and they'll give you a slow but continuous crop throughout the winter. This is why sowing into modules and containers is such a good idea. If you wait until after current crops are finished and cleared to think about sowing things, it will be far too late. Having good plants in modules or pots ready and waiting, to go straight in as soon as summer crops are cleared, makes the most efficient use of very valuable tunnel space.
It will still be much too hot on any sunny days to sow or even plant many of the winter salads in the tunnel even if there is room -
a couple of hours of very high temperatures can literally 'cook' them - so sowing outside in pots or modules is the best option. I usually do two sowings of my favourite crops as insurance. The only things I always sow in mid-late July are Swiss chards and chicories as they are slower - everything else I sow from mid-August to mid-Sept., so that they are small enough not to bolt or run up to seed in a warm autumn but will still make a big enough plant to crop well through the winter - even a cold one! It's a fine balance, and will vary slightly from year to year depending on the autumn weather and also your local climate. In the milder south you may be able to sow some things a couple of weeks later, in the north you may be better sowing a week or two earlier, but it's light that mostly governs healthy growth - so I find that's about right.
Why it's well worth using a good quality peat-free compost!
The one thing I can never stress enough is just how important it is to use a good, peat-free organic seed compost in order to have really strong, healthy disease-free seedlings. Again, as I've mentioned before - my favourite is the Klassman organic peat-free seed compost which I get from Fruit Hill Farm, via my local distributor White's Agri. At this time of year it's very easy to lose seedlings to 'damping off' diseases if the compost you're using isn't up to scratch - but I can guarantee I never lose seedlings in that compost, unless it's through my own carelessness. If I have to pot anything on to avoid a check if it's allotted tunnel space isn't yet available - then I use their excellent peat-free potting compost too. Their composts are made from composted organic green waste grown specifically for it's production in Germany. Both the seed and the potting compost produce excellent results, the plants make really good root systems and are always healthy.
I've tried so many other dreadful peat-free organic and non-organic composts which caused much waste of expensive seed. With some it was almost impossible to have any healthy seedlings at all. I love the Klasmann compost though, it outperforms any that I've ever tried. Over the years, I was never comfortable about using any peat at all or even coir fibre due to it's carbon footprint - especially when they contained synthetic chemical fertilisers. But there hadn't been a really good alternative until the last few years. Now there is plenty of choice - and there is absolutely no excuse to use peat!
OK, so a good peat-free compost is a little bit more expensive - but is that really an excuse for destroying bogs and along with them the huge amount of biodiversity they sustain - when you're actually saving so much money by growing your own? I personally believe it's worth every cent because of the great results it produces! Chemically-fed plants in peat based composts are far more susceptible to disease in my 40 plus years of experience. Sadly even some of the peat-free composts made from composted bark are truly dreadful and are not organic. NEVER economise on good seed compost - doing so is a false economy as it can not only waste valuable seed but even more importantly at this time of year - may lose you valuable time!! If you lose seedlings now - for many it's too late to sow again!
This can be a really tricky time of year for managing vulnerable winter salad and other veg seedlings. They're getting blown out of their modules one minute - drenched with torrential the next - and then even perhaps baked! It does sometimes seem like an awful lot of bother looking after them - but come the middle of winter, when there's so few decent organic salads, spinach, chards, broccoli or other veg to buy in the shops that you could easily be growing in your greenhouse or tunnel - you'll be so glad you did! I sometimes may even have to pot some of them on twice before tunnel planting - but again it's well worth doing.
Gardening's like life - you only get out what you put in - as I'm always saying!
Just to remind you, or if you didn't happen read my spring sowing instructions - when sowing into modules - I fill them, firm gently, water them and then make a small hole (1/4 inch or less depending on what I'm sowing) in each module with the end of a pencil or something, sow the seeds either individually or multi-sow for things like kale and salad mixes, then cover the hole with vermiculite. This keeps air circulating around the seedling stem and the surface is just slightly drier as vermiculite promotes better drainage - so it helps to prevent damping off. Cover lightly with polythene for 3 or 4 days until you can see the seedlings starting to push through the surface - then remove the cover immediately. After this - only ever water from underneath, by sitting the seed tray or modules in a tray of water for a minute or so - don't allow them to become saturated!! Follow these instructions, use a good quality compost and you won't have a problem.
Be extra careful with all tunnel watering now. Over-wet compost is the main reason that 'damping off' happens, that and poor air circulation. Only 'just moist' is the rule. If somehow by accident compost gets really saturated there is something you can do - a simple trick I came up with many years ago. Only common sense really - but surprising how many people just wouldn't think of doing it! A few years ago a gardener friend, who opens her lovely garden full of rare plants and sells many of them, was terribly upset because her automatic watering system had gone wrong (I hate them!) and had practically drowned all her plants. Even though she'd taken them out of the water and tried to drain them off to rescue them - they were so wet that they were starting to rot off and she said she would probably lose the lot. As she was a keen recycler, I told her to get every newspaper she could lay her hands on and sit the pots on a piece of kitchen towel placed on top of several layers of newspapers for a few days. It works brilliantly! You do need a piece of kitchen towel under each pot though - it seems to act like a kind of wick - newspaper on it's own doesn't work as well, or as quickly. Granted, you may lose some water soluble nutrients to a certain extent by doing this - but you won't lose all the plants! You can always replace any nutrients lost if necessary - but it's often hard to replace plants lost through rotting.
My top crops for winter productivity in the tunnel
Autumn can be a tricky season for growing, as the weather can be so unpredictable, so I usually do two sowings of my favourite crops as insurance. The rewards for taking a little trouble are great though. There are many crops which really enjoy winter in the polytunnel. Ruby and white Swiss chards, sugar loaf chicory, endives, lettuce, lamb's lettuce, oriental leaves like mustard and mizuna, rocket, land cress, winter spinach, watercress and claytonia - which I never have to sow now as it obligingly appears everywhere all by itself anyway! If you grow it once - you will find that it's one of the most enthusiastic self-seeders and you'll rarely have to sow it again. You just weed it out where you don't want it. It even makes a great green manure which the worms really love.To me there's not point just sowing stuff that will sit there all winter and then crop only in the spring. Many soft herbs like parsley and also perennial herbs like thyme are also more productive inside. I want to be able to pick a good mixed salad every day over winter - and have a brassica of some sort to eat at least 3 times a week.
I like to have plenty of green leaves to feed my hens all winter too. They get extra greens all year round but it's especially important in the winter as it keeps the egg yolks a really deep orange meaning they're much higher in nutrients like Vitamin A and lutein. Unlike conventionally made hen ration - organic hen food is not allowed to contain any artifical colourants to make yolks yellow. If they don't get extra greens or are not on good pasture with fresh grass to eat every day like some poor, non-organic, 'so-called' free range hens - then the yolks are much paler as grass grows less in the winter and that means that the hens are less healthy too. Mine are bursting with good health all year round!
French beans Cobra producing a lighter but useful second crop
French bean Cobra is once again producing a second flush of crop right now - lighter than the first but nonetheless welcome now. As I've often mentioned before - the way to get them to do this is to strip off all the leaves once the first crop is finished, feed and water well and soon they'll produce new flower buds in the leaf axils which will give you a second crop. Cobra is my 'wouldn't be without' bean, delicious, stringless, incredibly productive and reliable. It's also brilliant for freezing and we've frozen tons again this year. It's really important to keep climbing beans well tidied up at this time of year - taking off any mouldy looking or dead leaves immediately in order to stop any disease spreading. If they're still cropping - they won't go on much longer as temperatures dip, but keep picking them anyway to keep any beans already set developing to their full size.
The value of growing brassicas undercover
You might think it strange to be growing kale and other brassicas under cover. They will grow outside I grant you - but kale won't be anything like as productive. In a tunnel it continuously produces huge crops! Outside in most winters you'll only get a few pickings from it even if the weather isn't too bad - neither freezing it solid, nor drowning it. I would need probably four times the space outside to produce the same amount of crop as I get from plants growing inside. With protection from the elements, kale thoroughly enjoys the sheltered life under cover (who wouldn't?) and that allows you to pick continuously throughout the winter. I grow Cavallo Nero, red curly kale and my own strain of Ragged Jack kale, which I've been growing for over 30 years now - originally from HDRA Heritage Seed Library - saving my own seed every couple of years. I've also bred my own hybrid strain of different coloured kales which I'm trialling at the moment.They all have great flavour. Kale and broccoli are two of the top crops you can grow for your health. They are very nutritious - being chock-full of vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytonutrients like isothiocyanates which have been shown to prevent many diseases such as cancer. I like to have plenty of them to eat all year round - both as baby leaves to use in salads and smoothies, or lightly steamed when they're larger. Or even as 'kale crisps' (a yummy treat!). My own particular strain of Ragged Jack kale - which I've been saving now for about 35 years also produces really delicious flower shoots in early spring. These are far more tender and delicious than any sprouting broccoli - almost like asparagus!
In the other brassica bed I will be growing Green Magic calabrese. In a mild winter it will produce a large central head in the late autumn and then lots of smaller side shoots slowly but steadily until the following spring. 'Green Magic' is the one I've found best for this - and it wouldn't normally grow at all outside over the winter. If you sow it a the end of July it will produce a really good tunnel crop in late autumn - but even sown now it will still go on to produce small sweet shoots all winter that are delicious for picking raw or lightly steaming. Some years ago I found that following brassicas with sweet potatoes works very well - because sweet potatoes enjoy a little bit of hardship to start with! If you're too kind to them when they're first planted they produce wild masses of luxuriant leaves - with very little in the way of tubers underneath later on. I experimented by leaving a row kale down the middle of the bed - it used up a lot of the nutrients and stopped the sweet potatoes growing too lushly at first. The kale can be left in the ground when you're planting the sweet potatoes - still producing well into the summer if they're watered regularly. If it gets too tall you can just chop off it's head with a pair of loppers. It doesn't mind a bit and will re-sprout lovely fresh young growth from the truncated stalks - even when it's quite hot in the tunnel.
I love to experiment with different kinds of inter-cropping and overlapping of crops. I often find unexpected things that work well as part of my rotations - which make the best use of the space and completely do away with the so called spring 'Hungry Gap' everyone complains about. There's no such thing here - there's always something good to eat. The permaculture people have invented a new name for doing this - they call it 'polyculture'. Essentially, it's exactly the same inter-cropping, catch cropping and overlapping of crops that I've been doing for over 40 years now - growing all sorts of things all together, growing flowers and permanent top fruit in the tunnel too - making the most of every possible inch. This is even more important undercover, where space comes at a price!
Making the most of your space under cover is all down to good forward planning - you should be thinking several months ahead to the following crops whenever you're planting anything. Valuable tunnel space should be as productive as possible all year round.
More on sweet potatoes
It's time to give your sweet potatoes a bit more TLC now. They need feeding with tomato fertiliser once a week from now on if they are to produce plenty of large tubers. 'Osmo' certified organic feed is perfect - again something I've been using for years now. Everything loves it and you never get any nutrient imbalances as you often can do with other, non-organic feeds. You could use home made comfrey feed if it's made from the high potash variety 'Bocking 14' developed by Garden Organic founder Lawrence Hills. Other varieties wouldn't be much good for this as they're far lower in potash. Sweet potatoes are dead easy to grow - the trick is not to feed them much at first but wait until the days start to shorten in August, because that's when they start developing their tubers. They're a fantastic 'break crop' in the tunnel rotation as they're unrelated to anything else and the worms just love the little thread like bits of root left behind after harvesting. I always see a huge increase in worm activity after growing them in a bed. Worms obviously have a sweet tooth too!
I've tried lots of newer varieties - but I always return to my old reliable 'Beauregarde'. I save a few of the tubers for producing 'slips' to plant next year. I did that very successfully again last year and gave them to several friends. I must hide a few so that we don't eat them all!. If they're kept above 50 deg F, they'll keep very well into next spring and beyond. I've even kept the purple ones for a year and then taken shoots or slips from them! Never keep sweet potatoes in the fridge as they actually die of hypothermia! Many people don't realise that vegetables are still alive after they're harvested. How else do you think we grow potatoes? You don't necessarily have to grow sweet potatoes in the ground either - but they do like a deep root run, so they like a large container filled with well drained compost. I often grow them in recycled log/skip bags and they revel in them - producing huge crops.The foliage hangs over the edge, hiding the bags, and they look really decorative with marigolds and purple basil planted in them too.
Feeding Soil for Winter Crops
It pays to keep some your very best garden or worm compost for the beds where your winter salad crops are to grow. Many of them have fine root systems which appreciate a little bit of comfort and if you're as kind as possible to them they will keep cropping for much longer in the early spring, before running up to flower. I just scratch a light covering in and then water it in lightly to firm the soil before planting. You could possibly add a very light dressing of a general organic fertilise like 'Osmo Universal' granular fertiliser - which is certified organic - if you think the ground is particularly hungry. It's available in several garden centres. Never over-feed winter crops though. Lashing on manure, compost or compound fertilisers is wasteful, is often polluting and can be counter productive - as there isn't enough light for the plants to photosynthesise efficiently in order to turn the available nitrates into sugars to give them the energy to grow. This has the result that crops can often taste bitter due to high nitrate content in leaves. Overfeeding can also promote soft, sappy, disease-prone growth that is much more attractive to pests too. I've thought for many years that overfeeding with nitrogen is why non-organic vegetables can taste bitter and smell really disgusting when cooked, especially in the winter. This is particularly the case with Brussels sprouts - and I think this is why so many people hate them! I've never had organically grown sprouts that taste bitter like chemically grown ones. Organic ones are always really sweet as long as they're not overfed with nitrate-rich manures too late in the season.
Funnily enough many years ago when I used to have my small children's Montessori friends for meals - they would often eat things like spinach and cabbage here which they would never normally touch at home, if they weren't people who normally ate organic food. An instinctive natural discrimination perhaps - an evolutionary warning not to eat things that taste at all bitter in case they're poisonous? And naturally - fruit and other wild things are be far sweeter and have maximum nutrients when they are properly ripe. Perhaps this is why children seem to prefer chemical-free organic food, before their taste buds and instinctive discrimination are 'civilised', dulled and destroyed by junk?? I definitely think so. Anyway - their parents were all simply astonished - but when I explained that my vegetables were actually sweeter because they were organic - many of them asked if they could buy them and then became long standing customers when I started growing commercially. Most, more than 35 years later, are still committed organic consumers even though their offspring, like mine, have long since flown their respective nests!
Ventilation, careful watering & good housekeeping are essential now to keep diseases at bay
In this "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" that it's easy to get so distracted with enjoying all the "fruitfulness" that one forgets that the "mists" can hang around all day - particularly in a polytunnel! Only water if you absolutely have to - and if you do then do it in the morning if possible and do it between - not directly onto plants. This give surface moisture a chance to evaporate before the night time closing of doors. Scrupulous housekeeping is absolutely vital now too. Remove every single scrap of dead or diseased plant material immediately to avoid fungal diseases developing that could infect the winter crops you'll be planting over the next month or so. Good ventilation is absolutely essential too, I only close the doors at night (necessary to keep out foxes and badgers that are particularly partial to the strawberries and late peaches that are still cropping well) and I open them again first thing in the morning. as long as it's not too windy
Save money by saving seed
A truss of 'Pantano Romanesco' - the largest 4 fruits weighed 11-14ozs each!
Now is the time of year for saving tomato seed. You can save a lot of money doing this - and you don't need to go to a lot of fuss and bother soaking, washing or doing anything else - just do what nature does - let it rot! Nature doesn't rinse seed in chlorinated water. The natural ripening process and then fermention as the fruit starts to rot is what the seed needs to overcome any innate germination inhibitors. Pick the ripest possible fruit - put it on your kitchen windowsill in the sun in a yogurt pot or something - and just leave it to fester!! Put it somewhere where mice won't get into it and the inevitable fruit flies won't bother you. Sorry if you're of a delicate disposition - but if you're one of those people who has to have ghastly, asthma-inducing air fresheners everywhere to mask perfectly natural smells, then you probably won't be reading this anyway! When it's really smelly and rotten - then you can just squish the seed out into a small sieve, rinse under a running tap for a moment stirring the messy flesh around a bit to get rid of any fleshy bits and then tip onto a couple of layers of kitchen paper towels. Then put the paper towels onto a cake drying rack or something similar somewhere for a few days to dry. If you're doing several varieties at once - then write the name of the variety onto the paper towel with indelible marker! When everything's completely dry - then just fold up the paper and put into a marked envelope. Simple! It works a treat, and the seed lasts for years stuck to it's piece of kitchen towel from where you can peel off the seed individually. If you don't even want to rinse the smelly flesh off - you can in fact just squish the seeds straight onto the paper without rinsing at all and this is usually successful!
Do bear in mind that you can't save seed from F1 Hybrid varieties, as these are crosses made between two specific known parents. If you do save seed from them, they will just produce hundreds of different mongrels - mostly tasteless, possibly even bitter and usually not worth growing! In a normal tunnel environment though - non F1 tomato seed will normally stay true to type - so you can save seed quite safely from those varieties and save yourself lots of money! Google them to check if they're F1's if you don't have the seed packet and you're not sure. The gorgeous flavoured Italian beefsteak variety Pantano Romanesco (my desert island tomato!) pictured here, is one you can easily save seed from.
Tunnel fruits in abundance still
This is the sensational late peach that I bought quite by accident! I have no idea what variety it is - I got it in Lidl labelled as a nectarine, but it's the best flavoured peach I have! It ripens a bit more slowly that the earlier summer one does which is better and means we can eat more fresh rather than having to deal with a huge glut. The only problem in a wet autumn is that the fruit can tend to split with all the water at their roots though - which they're doing now - so they still need to be dealt with fast to avoid wasting them! I'm currently dehydrating the last of the peach crop as fast as possible - as since the field beside the tunnels was harvested - we also now have a plague of hungry mice and our useless cat was no deterrent whatsoever - so it's now been re-homed to a very sweet old lady who lost hers and was delighted to have our very fussy and affectionate lap-cat!! By the way - the cat's also delighted!
The potted autumn raspberries are still fruiting exceptionally well in the same pots with very little feeding! They have the advantage of being both totally safe from marauding blackbirds and also from autumn gales and torrential rain - which often batter and ruin late crops outside here. I'm loving the Sugana raspberry from breeders Lubera - which is incredibly productive and really delicious. Although expensive to buy initially - it's already more than earned it's keep in huge crops of enormous fruits which also freeze well! I'm also growing my favourite Joan J in pots too - again hugely productive and which I think just has the edge on flavour. It's a way of stretching the season which is very useful. One big plus that 'Joan J' has in it's favour is that it's stems are completely smooth and spine free - important when working at close quarters in a tunnel or if you have small children who like raspberries!
The grapes are ripening fast now too and again we're eating as many fresh as we can. Mice are particularly fond of grapes - especially the best seeded black ones like Muscat Bleu. As they ripen - all the grapes will be frozen loose for smoothies etc. or made into sultanas or raisins by dehydrating in my Sedona dehydrator. The spring-sown cape gooseberries are ripening fast and will keep on going until December now all being well with the occasional high potash feed. They keep well for months in their little paper lantern cases which so far the mice conveniently haven't discovered! I wonder how long that will last?
The Albion perpetual strawberries are still reliably producing their delicious berries - people must be tired of me saying what a wonderful strawberry it is. It won't stop fruiting until it gets really cold in November. Sticking to my rule of never wasting an inch of precious polytunnel space - at this time of year even my propagating benches get re-purposed as yet another fruit growing opportunity! Albion is on there right now producing more strawberries in large pots and tubs!
Don't forget bees need winter food too!
Do think about planting some winter flowers like winter-flowering violas and pansies for non-hibernating overwintering bumblebees and any other vitally important pollinators that may happen to be around if it's a mild autumn. You'll be surprised how many will come into your tunnel once they know you have flowers in there all winter and it's great to see them and know you're helping them to survive! Without them we wouldn't have much food! Keep annual flowers like marigolds, borage, scabious etc. flowering for as long as possible now by deadheading or cutting back a bit so that they don't go to seed - there's lots of hoverflies, butterflies, moths and bees still about which are really appreciating the nectar and clearing up any pests. There's also plenty of young frogs now busily hopping along the 'frog corridors' of weeds which I leave between the boards at the back edges of the side raised beds and the sides of the tunnel. They appreciate the damp conditions there and the abundant small insects, as well as their little 'pond gardens' at the ends of the tunnel. They are great for clearing up those nasty little grey slugs that get into lettuce hearts and ruin them. I just keep the weeds clipped to bed level, between the bed and the side of the tunnel to stop them seeding, rather than pulling them out - and find that far from encouraging pests - they encourage the creatures that eat them! Leave one or two Marigold and Tagetes plants to seed though - so that you'll have some for next year.
A couple of years ago a listener called after our August radio show to say that it sounded more like the Gerry Kelly Food Showthan 'The Late Lunch Show' because we literally ate our way round the tunnels! I think that's why Gerry suggested we should change the title to 'From Tunnel to Table' last year and do a bit of cooking as well - or rather his clever producer did! The polytunnels don't just grow food for us to eat though. The stinging nettle 'butterfly nurseries' that I showed Gerry in the corners of the tunnels earlier in the year have produced their annual crop of butterflies once again. I love them so much - they are magical, and so good for the soul! There's been a succession of Painted Ladies, various Fritillaries, Peacocks and Tortoiseshells - and now in the last week or so a lot of Red Admirals have hatched. They're now fluttering around the tunnels enjoying all the nectar in the flowers. They kept landing on us as we walked around last year - one even landed on Gerry's microphone while we were recording the show - a definite seal of approval - I hope that means some good 'Karma' for us!
Organic gardening isn't just about growing healthy, chemical-free food for us!
It's also about encouraging all the wonderful wildlife that helps us to do that without chemicals and helping it to survive. A healthy chemical-free garden sustains so many lives that matter in the web of life - not just ours. Growing food without using pesticides that harm nature helps to preserve the earth's incredible biodiversity in all it's incredible richness. The tunnels are such a joyful celebration of Nature's abundant generosity at this season. It's biodiversity brought to richly productive and beautiful fruition.
At the moment in the tunnels with all the beautiful colours of the crops and flowers, so many gorgeous butterflies fluttering around everywhere and happy bees buzzing - it truly is like "walking into the magical land of Narnia" - as Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon so kindly remarked a few years ago. It does seem a bit like a fairyland - with delicious food and incredible beauty everywhere you look...........If I ever go to any sort of heaven - I really hope it's like this!
(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.)