Propagation is starting earlier than usual in my Polytunnel Potager.....
|I'm growing something new and exciting in the polytunnel this year!||Looking south - bed covered with polythene and sown with an assortment of greens|
|New arrivals - the chicks at only one day old||Chicks only 4 days old but growing so fast - I'll soon have to make their nursery enclosure bigger! The males have a white spot on their head|
And right now it's a very different kind of propagation! - I'm currently growing baby chickens instead of baby plants! Over the last few months, since a fox decimated my 6 hens, we've really missed them and the beautiful organic eggs they used to lay. I found it hard to stomach the organic eggs I was buying after that, as even though I knew they had to be fed only organic food, they were still nothing like as good as our own. It was clear just from the colour of the yolks that they weren't on a wide enough range, or being fed the amount of green food which I always fed to mine. It's not the fault of the producers however - they have no choice but to keep the maximum amount of stock on the land which they are allowed to under the organic standards, purely in order to make a living. They're certainly not making vast profits! The problem is that most people think all eggs should be a cheap food. They won't pay a realistic price for organic eggs that properly reflects the high standards of production which I recommended should be adopted over 35 years ago, when I was asked for my input into the organic poultry standards here in Ireland. I was told that my recommendations were far too demanding, and that they couldn't be economically viable. But those high standards which I recommended were the way in which I had always kept my poultry. It was also the standard of livestock husbandry which I had grown up experiencing at home - where all of our animals, including our flock of pure-bred Rhode Island Red hens, were kept to the highest standards and greatly valued by my parents, who had gone through the privations of Second World War rationing. They knew, as I do now, that an egg is a perfect meal, chock-full of healthy nutrients, and it should be valued as such!
That's why I used to organise 'farm walks' here for my customers, back in the mid-1980's, which were a very popular way to show how organic production worked, and how happy all the poultry were. I knew then, from personal experience, that if customers were educated, and understood the reasons why organic eggs had to be more expensive than conventional eggs, if they knew what went into their production and also the benefits for both our health and for the environment - then they were more than happy to pay a price which more clearly reflected the actual costs and benefits of that kind of production. I simply can't believe that organic egg producers are still only getting the same price for their eggs that I was achieving 30 years ago! How on earth they are making a living at all at that price frankly astonishes me! One of the main reasons I enjoyed selling directly through my box scheme (the first in Dublin) and also at The Dublin Food Coop, was the opportunity to explain to customers exactly why organic food has to cost more - and also how in the long run it works out much less expensive - both for our health and for the planet. Many of those customers are now still good friends, more than 20 years after I retired from organic production, and are all still committed organic consumers, which gives me a lot of satisfaction. Occasionally I even get previous customers phoning to ask me if I have eggs or some other organic product - or where is the best place to buy them if I don't.
Anyway to make a long story a bit shorter - this autumn I decided to rear some day-old chicks again. This is something which I hadn't done for years, since I gave up commercial organic egg and chicken production. For the last 15 years or so I'd bought half-grown pullets from time to time - but I wasn't at all comfortable about them having been fed the genetically-modified soya protein, and Glyphosate, or other pesticide-sprayed, ingredients which are in conventional poultry feed while growing, before I got them. Even though after they arrived here, they were fed nothing but organic food, with plenty of greens, and their health visibly transformed surprisingly fast, within a couple of weeks of arriving, I still wasn't truly happy. I knew from past experience though, that rearing them organically from day-old produced far better, stronger hens, which laid eggs for much longer with no problems - even though they were exactly the same breed of hybrid hens used for non-organic commercial egg production. I also knew that the broilers which I used to rear for meat were far healthier, and could be reared to heavy weights of 4kg plus, with none of the joint problems or ill-health which are common in non-organic broiler production. This is because when chickens are organically-reared, they are far healthier due to the nutritious, natural organic feed and a diet which also includes the green food, bugs and worms etc, which they would naturally find when on extensive free-range. They are also much fitter because they have more space to exercise and the freedom to behave as chickens like do, scratching, dust bathing, chasing butterflies etc. - and so are naturally are far less stressed, just like we would be.
However, the more I thought about it - the less happy I was with buying day-old female chicks from the only source of them here in Ireland - a hatchery which although good, was routinely discarding the male chicks, which is normal practice for any hatchery providing female laying hens for the commercial egg-laying sector. As male chicks are usually approximately 50% of all those hatched, this means that on average, 50% of the chicks are just wasted! That being so, when I called to order them, I asked if it would be possible to have some of the male chicks, which would otherwise have just literally been thrown away! This is something which I've never done before, and I know that there is a distinct possibility that they won't make much of a chicken - but I feel I must try it purely as an experiment! We've been programmed in recent times to expect a buxom, large-breasted chicken, but whatever they look like, and however skinny they are - they'll still be chicken! As I remarked to my son - whatever kind of chicken they end up looking like - they'll still have skin, liver and bones - upon which he said "Aw..ww.... Mu..m" - having just returned from admiring the seriously cute, day old chicks!... Having reared organic broilers for many years and compared them to the much racier-looking Rhode Island Red cockerels that my father used to rear - I'm realistic and know that these laying hybrids aren't going to look like your average supermarket chicken. But neither will they taste like them either! However little meat they produce - it will taste damn good and will be totally organic - even if it only makes soup! In the far east where chickens originated - they don't look like supermarket chickens either. They race around the jungle doing what chickens naturally do - looking very lean and fit - but they still provide nutritious meat and bones for the people who raise them! My 'skinny hybrid chickens' will have the happiest, most pampered life here that any chicken could possibly have, and when their time to be useful has come, they will be gently removed from their perch in the middle of the night when they're naturally dozy, and dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible - they won't know a thing about it. Perhaps 'skinny hybrid chicken' could become a fashion statement like 'skinny jeans'? A sort of badge of ethical omnivore-ism - to counteract some of the more vile vegan criticism! For me - if they can just make enough of something edible to justify the cost of their feed - then I shall be more than happy and will have proved a point.
As an ethical omnivore, eating only higher-welfare organic meat - even if only 2-3 days a week - I believe that a system which discards half of all stock bred simply cannot be justified on welfare, environmental, or sustainability grounds. While organic production generally doesn't have to justify it's methods - I believe that ALL meat production, whether for organic or any other system does. Quite apart from the fact that we should constantly strive to improve standards of all organic production - for animal welfare reasons alone this is something which we must take a hard look at and seriously improve. Anyone who eats meat is now under constant attack from some of the militant, more recently 'converted', what I call 'fashion-vegan' elements of society. While I despise some of the more uninformed 'fashion-vegans' - those who openly don't care about the environment or pesticides (which I find astonishing given that all pesticides are routinely and cruelly tested on animals) - I feel that they do actually have a point when it comes to the case of animals which are industrially-bred, but then routinely discarded as they are considered non-viable for commercial production. When I posted a picture of my chicks with my comment about this on Twitter recently - I was thrilled to discover that there is now a firm in the Netherlands who have very recently started rearing both male and female chicks of a new, dual-purpose hybrid chicken which I hadn't heard of, for commercial, state of the art, environmentally sustainable production. They have just done a deal to provide chicken to Lidl - so it must definitely be cost-effective! Although their chickens are not organic, as they are fed on conventional food waste. I think that this really is something that organic production should be emulating. As long as the chickens have plenty of space to do everything they need to in order to be healthy and happy, as they seem to have in this system - even if they can't be moved constantly to fresh ground as I do my small flock - green food could be grown elsewhere to provide that missing element of their feed. Seeing the pictures of it reminded me somewhat of the system I used to use to raise my organic broilers in one of my polytunnels years ago - but much more hi-tech! The chickens loved lazing around in the warm dry sunshine and venturing outside for a snack whenever they felt like it - it was like the chicken equivalent of the Riviera!
Here's a link to their website so you can see the Dutch system for yourself. It offers plenty of food for thought - if you'll pardon the pun! : https://www.duurzaam-
Quite apart from anything else - having my new baby chicks has really given me something to look forward to - something which at that at this time of year is badly needed! I was so excited when I was on my way to pick them up in Northern Ireland last week that I almost couldn't bear to go to bed last Thursday night! I was just like a child at Christmas! Everything making up their snug enclosure is recycled. A giant dog cage, which last hosted a rescued hedgehog, lined with the huge sheets of cardboard from the boxes I can't resist saving - (you never now when they might come in handy!)! Bubble wrap which some new furniture for my son's room came wrapped in 4 years ago, and on the top are 2 grow bag trays also helping to keeping the heat in - and they will be filled with some seed trays in the next week or so, to start off some very early seedlings using the small amount of residual heat coming off the top of the cage.
This is how I used to do all my propagation years ago - by raising chicks underneath the greenhouse staging every spring - with plants on top! The upper end of the top left bed which the cage is sitting on has already been sown with all my leftover lettuce, mustard and edible green manure seeds, and covered with polythene to help germination, so that when the chicks are old enough to start venturing out beyond the warmth of the infra-red lamp for a few minutes - there will be green food there, which will teach them to forage. All that in the lovely wind-proof environment of the polytunnel. In 6-8 weeks, when they are fully feathered and hardy enough to go out, they will go into the 'Hen Hilton' - as a friend described the re-purposed Wendy house that my son turned into a hen house! Lucky chicks or what?
In the meantime, they'll also be manuring the bed which is their 'mini-range' for now, and then that will grow another green manure to recycle their nitrogen-rich droppings and improve the soil more after they go outside. I will love watching my 'Christmas present to me' growing! I could sit watching their antics for hours - especially in the first few days - when like toddlers they try to do all the things that 'grown-up' hens do, like preening their feathers - then wobble and fall over! But most especially - I love knowing that each of the hens will have the best life possible, and provide me with at least 1,000 eggs each during their lifetime of 3 years or more. So our food security is hopefully assured for the next few years! Especially with new reinforced runs and some effectively 'fox-proof', solar-powered electric fencing!
Talking of 'that' time of year - the sun is very close now to reaching it's lowest point in our sky and at this time of year us gardeners are eagerly looking forward to the solstice. That's when the year turns the corner and life giving light starts to return to our little corner of the planet, heralding a new gardening year to come. Like most of you - I can't wait! Ancient peoples celebrated the Winter Solstice as the start of a new growing year. They were far more in tune with Nature than us - they had to be for their survival - and as a result they had far more respect for the soil than we do now. They valued it in a way that we seem to have forgotten and knew this only too well......
"Human welfare is fundamentally linked with Mother Earth.....not just because the soil is the primary source of most of our food....but because it occupies a key position in the rhythmic cycle of life itself." - Stanley Whitehead. (from Mother Earth - the Journal of The Soil Association, Winter 1947-48)
|The dead and impoverished 'soil' I inherited 38 years ago||A lump of that original soil sitting on my soil now - full carbon and of life!|
There is no healthy life or even a healthy planet without a healthy soil!
The two pictures above show an example of haw any soil can be healed - even one so badly degraded that it is almost devoid of all life! The picture on the left shows the totally exhausted soil which I started off with here 38 years ago - so badly degraded and impoverished by over 20 years of 'industrial farming' and poisoned with glyphosate and other chemicals - that not even weeds wanted to grow! The picture on the right shows a lump of that very same soil, which I had carefully saved an example of, sitting on a bed of the soil which I now have - a vitally alive, healthy, carbon and humus-rich soil full of the vital microbial life that keeps both plants and humans healthy. I knew by the time we moved here - from my own seven years of organic gardening and also by watching how Nature works - that soil can be restored to healthy life gradually by feeding it with natural plant wastes and composts. I'm not superwoman, I'm now partially disabled and don't have any help here. It won't take you 38 years - it can be done! And from the moment you start to heal your soil you will become part of the solution - and not part of the problem. The health of the entire planet - as well as the health of all biodiversity including humans - depends on a healthy soil. Without a healthy soil - we cannot grow healthy crops full of the vital nutrients which we evolved to eat to keep us healthy.
Two years ago I had the great honour of being invited by 'The Environmental Pillar' (an advocacy coalition of 28 Irish environmental groups) to give a talk at the Irish launch of the European 'People4Soils' initiative at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, on World Soil Day. It was with the above quote that I began my presentation. I was asked if I would talk about what practical action gardeners could take to help to restore soils. I was delighted to accept their invitation since soil is a subject very close to my heart and which I am absolutely passionate about having been an organic grower and farmer for over 40 years. Looking back through over 38 years of photographs, to find the best ones which illustrated the points in my presentation, brought back so many memories for me and it was a great pleasure. For the benefit of those who weren't able to attend, I'm repeating my opening and closing few words here. The talk was filmed - and you can watch it here (apologies for the sound quality and background noise!): https://www.youtube.com/
The enthusiasm and energy from all of the people who attended was infectious. A wide diversity of environmental groups were represented - not just organic farming organisations. I sincerely hope that they will all go on and continue to spread the awareness that soil is not just essential to growing healthy food for us - but also that restoring soil carbon, by regenerative organic farming methods, is absolutely key in helping to mitigate climate change. In the last 35 years we have lost approximately 30% of our soils globally, mostly through the destruction caused by intensive chemical agriculture. Felling forests, drainage and destruction of wetlands is also not just adding to this loss of carbon-fixing humus but also causing emissions of even more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. As the living soils in forests and peat bogs are major carbon sinks, this is having a massive effect on accelerating climate change. But there is hope that we can do something and this is what I wanted to get across. We can ALL do something - and we all should act now - without delay!
The well-known and highly-esteemed soil scientist Rattan Lal, from Ohio State University estimated a few years ago that just by restoring 2% of global soil carbon - we could mop up ALL of our current greenhouse gas emissions from whatever source.... What a stunning statistic! Regenerative, sustainable organic farming and growing is the ONLY method of agriculture which can do it. Just putting back some plant wastes into soil but still continuing to use fossil fuel-derived, soil-destroying chemicals can't do that. A combination of the two simply doesn't work, as one will cancel out the other! Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil life which is vital to making carbon-fixing humus in the soil. In addition - using chemicals literally 'mines' carbon from the soil and also depletes it of many nutrients which are vital to our health and that of all other creatures.
In 1963, the late Rachel Carson - author of Silent Spring and heroine of the environmental movement said "I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with Nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature - but of ourselves." - Sadly too few heeded her timely and much-needed warning. The lure of chemical farming and cheap fossil fuels proved too seductive. We thought had it all - and like irresponsible teenagers we squandered the riches of our Mother Earth to the point were in many places soil can no longer do the job it evolved to do - which is to sustain healthy life on this planet.....But like irresponsible teenagers we now have to grow up, prove our maturity and urgently take responsibility for our actions!
In the autumn of 1992 - just after the first Rio Earth Summit - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens which was given by Alan Gear - who was then Chief Executive of HDRA - now called Garden Organic, which the largest organic gardening organisation in Europe. His lecture was entitled - "The Road From Rio". His warning was again stark - that we ignore the value of soil at our peril! Hearing his motivating talk, many of us were re-energised and went home determined to do whatever we could to help raise awareness of how valuable soil is and what a vitally important contribution organic farming could make to a more sustainable future. Not just for growing healthy food but also in mitigating climate change.
A lot of people talk about climate change now - but actually do nothing to help mitigate it! As a 'doer' and a practical person not a philosopher - I went home from Alan Gear's lecture and planted 300 more trees - many of them biomass willows, oaks, hawthorns, hornbeam and birches. I'm so glad I planted them - and a lot more since. They've been so useful for shelter for animals and plants, for fuel and for making soil-healing compost from the smaller prunings. They're also a wonderful year-round resource - hosting biodiversity of all kinds - bees, insects and other creatures so vitally important in the connected web of life. If you only do a couple of things for our children's future and for the planet - please plant a tree or two, use peat-free compost and try to support organic agriculture if you don't have somewhere to grow your own organic food. Don't put it off until tomorrow - do it now! I know organic produce isn't cheap - but the more people who buy it the cheaper it will become and the more governments globally will sit up and take notice! Consumer power works!
Ultimately - only climate-friendly, carbon-restoring agriculture will be able to help to combat climate change. We cannot go on mining the remaining carbon from soils and replacing it with fossil-fuel derived, climate-destroying chemicals which worsen the problem even more. Intensive farming is costing us the earth - quite literally! Fast forward over 50 years since Rachel Carson's dire warning....and the words of Rattan Lal give us hope that we CAN do something to avoid total catastrophe - and that the answer to doing that lies in the soil. But only in a healthy, living soil. It's no good us burying our heads in the sand and saying that it's all too depressing, there's nothing we can personally do, so we'll just go on ignoring it as usual! That's a mistake! It's no good either just "talking the talk" without "walking the walk" too!
The soil that gave us life and nurtured us holds the key to our past - and the evidence of may past civilizations who didn't heed the warning signs of impending disaster........that soil also holds the key to the future of life on this beautiful earth as we know it.......and THAT KEY is now in OUR hands!
Trying to reduce our carbon footprint can begin at home - because we all have to eatl! We can't turn back the clock - but we CAN ensure a future infinitely better than it otherwise will be if we do nothing. I know that as gardeners or even just as consumers we can all do something. Act globally but think locally is the mantra of the Green Party. As co-founder of our local Fingal Green Party - that has always been my mantra too, and being a practical person - I find it helps to physically do something when I'm stressed-out from worrying about bigger issues which I can't personally control. Organically-managed soils have massive potential to capture and store carbon - and the more we support organic agriculture - the greater the chance is that our children will have a viable future on this planet, which is the only home we have. I believe that if only half the resources had been put into inventing technology to deal with the challenges we face with climate change that have been put into space exploration - we could have halted the steep rise in the greenhouse gases and already have the problem if not fixed - then at least it's rapid progression halted. Instead of that scientists seem increasingly fascinated by childish fantasies of space exploration. (Landing on Mars is a total denial of the problems we face while the world is burning up - quite literally as the disastrous fires in California this year proved).
Despite low light levels now - there's still plenty of healthy food to eat in the polytunnel
So - back to every day practicalities! Last Friday, Gerry Kelly was here to record our Christmas edition of From Tunnel to Table - and we unearthed a couple of pots of the 'new potatoes' which I grow each year for a special Christmas treat! The results are pictured below - and my mouth is watering at the prospect of these smothered with butter, with our Christmas meals! They'll definitely lift the winter gloom!
At the moment - some days are so gloomy that they barely seem to get properly light at all. Despite this, as you can see - there are still lots of lovely 'squeaky-fresh' vegetables to pick in the tunnel beds - or even just growing in containers - as you can see from the pictures here.
|One of this year's beds of luscious loose-leaf winter lettuce||Home bred purple kale hybrids & Sugar Loaf chicory.
||NW beds in east tunnel 2015. Broccoli in side bed cropping. Lettuce interplanted with spinach
|Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container||Salad mix Colour & Spice planted with red-stemmed cutting celery||Watercress gives lots of nutritious lush leaves even in a large tub|
Lovely luscious leaves
I don't know why more people don't grow at least a container or two of mixed leaves, even if all they have is a balcony or windowsill. It's so easy if you choose the right varieties - and it needn't be very expensive. Mixed salads or lettuce mixes are always the cheapest seeds - you get far more for your money - and you can grow in almost anything that will hold compost once it's deep enough for the roots! You don't need to fill it right up with expensive peat free compost - save broken polystyrene or plastic plant trays, or even tougher un-rotted plant remains from your compost heap, and fill up the bottom with those. They'll give you good drainage as well. Most salad plants are very happy with just 10 - 12 inches of good compost to put their roots into as long as you keep them sufficiently watered. You can mix some soil into the lower layers as well - which gives the compost more water holding capacity and makes it cheaper again! When you compare it with your outlay - even just one or two meals would easily more than cover the cost of doing it! Make an early New Year's resolution for 2018 - and if you're only a summer gardener - then vow to make next year the year that you will have salads all through the winter too. Brussels sprouts and parsnips may be delicious comfort food from outside I grant you - but somehow they don't feel quite as vibrantly bursting with health as a salad picked five minutes before you eat it! I look forward to mine every day.
Planning ahead and remembering to sow winter veg. in August and September is often difficult to remember while dealing with summer gluts, but it really pays off now. Loose leaf lettuces, chicory, chards, spinach, kales, watercress, lamb's lettuce, Chinese leaves, rocket etc. are all really useful winter salads that I'm cutting now. What isn't quite perfect for the table - the hens get - which keeps them healthy and laying eggs with lovely orange yolks all winter! I would never want to be without my winter tunnel crops - you can really feel the crisp, green lusciousness doing you good! Vegetables that are often taken for granted in summer because they're plentiful, become treasures to be relied on in winter! It's so nice to be able to go out and 'pick & mix' a really varied salad every day - sort of 'dowsing' the salad beds to see what feels just right for you on that particular day! There are only pathetic organic salad or spinach bags in the shops right now and - at the moment it's mostly just baby spinach which is tired, several days old and often already practically composting in the bags! Frankly, I can think of far better ways of spending €3!
Another of my 'old reliables' in winter is Calabrese or summer broccoli. I've been growing the very productive variety 'Green Magic' since it was first on the market. It's the best I've found for winter tunnel production and after the main heads are cut in mid-late November from a late July sowing - it slowly produces deliciously sweet, smaller side shoots all winter long, which are lovely either raw in salads and dips or stir-fried. It's quite happy given some protection with fleece if severe frost is forecast - but otherwise doesn't need any more protection than just being inside in the tunnel. I grow it throughout the year - in mid-late January I'll sow more which will give me an early tunnel crop - and then another sowing in late March or April will see me through the summer nicely. Again it's another crop I wouldn't be without as it's so full of healthy nutrients