Topics for June: The first fruits of summer......Should we really eat fruit - or is it just sugar?..... Can you have Strawberry Fields forever? .....Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?.....Raspberries.....
Mixed berries - Nature's precious midsummer jewels.
The first fruits of summer!
Above is a bowlful of the early mixed berries and cherries that we're enjoying from the polytunnel right now before the outside ones are ripe. There are raspberries Erika, Joan J and purple one Glen Coe, Tayberries, blackberry Reuben, Alpine (or wild-type) strawberries, also Albion, Mara des Bois, Gento and Old White strawberries, and Morello cherries. I grow a wide variety in the polytunnel so that there is almost always something to pick no matter what the weather is like outside - or how ingenious the birds are!
Some of the more exotic top fruits like figs, potted dwarf cherries and early peaches are just starting to ripen now too - a little later that most years due to the lateness of the season - and it's really beginning to taste like high summer now! The ever-reliable perpetual-fruiting strawberries were the first fruits to produce berries in early May - but we've been eating fruit of all kinds for several weeks now as you can see above. The weather has been really hot during the days for the last couple of weeks - although the nights have been very cold. Although some nights have been really chilly, today the weather is hot again - and windy - which is drawing any moisture out of tree's leaves quickly and many are wilting. If this weather continues for much longer - the apples may drop a huge amount of fruit! Luckily though - with the protection of the polytunnel all the berry crops in pots will continue to crop well if kept well-watered - so they are definitely worth the space they take up! Keeping fruit well watered and mulched will be most important in hot weather now - as the first thing to go is the fruit - if plants are stressed by any dryness at the roots. The sweet cherries outside have already dropped many fruits. Due also to the good summer last year - there are a lot more bees around too - doing their vital job of pollination. As I'm constantly saying - growing flowers for bees and other pollinators is a good idea everywhere in the garden, including and especially in the fruit garden. Without bees - we wouldn't have a lot of fruit or nuts such as peaches, apricots, almonds and raspberries, to name just a few. Bees are vital to almost 3/4 of our food supply, so we need to encourage them and look after them by not using pesticides, particularly now that they're in serious trouble, being in decline in many areas.
Should we really eat fruit - or is it just sugar as some people say?
Does night follow day? Nature evolved us to eat fruit as part of our naturally omnivorous mammalian diet! All mammals eat fruit. Even stone age humans were storing fruit in caves as archaeological evidence proves, but then - they didn't have polytunnels! Some consider growing fruit in polytunnels to be a bit of a luxury and not worth the space it takes up - but I consider it an absolute essential to make space for at least some! It's not just that it saves an absolute fortune on buying fruit in shops - although it's rarely possible to buy organically-grown berries. It's also because it's really well worth extending the outdoor season at both ends by growing fruit in pots - because it means you can enjoy them fresh for much longer and also freeze more. When the pots have finished fruiting then they can be put ion a sheltered place outside to make way for other crops. I read the science papers regularly, and every single day more and more new research is being published which shows how incredibly beneficial all kinds of fruits are for our health! This meta-analysis of 95 worldwide studies, published in 2017, by Imperial College London, showed that the greatest benefit came from 800g or 10 portions of fruit and veg per day (one portion being defined as 80g) and that vitamin or antioxidant supplements have not been shown to be effective. This is hardly surprising since, despite all our much-vaunted scientific knowledge - we still don't know all of the beneficial compounds which are present in fruits and vegetables, or how they may all work together synergistically to produce their legion of health benefits. Nature doesn't give up her secrets easily! http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/
Some of the anti-sugar people equate eating fruit to being the same as eating sugar - but they clearly know very little about the massive amounts of phytochemicals and the other antioxidant benefits contained in those perfectly delicious packages that Nature provided for all creatures to eat - including us humans! The one-track-minded 'fruit-
Tunnel-grown strawberries Albion, Gento, Christine & Malling Centenary - which have been cropping since early May
Well maybe not forever - but certainly from May until November if you're growing some of the perpetual (or ever-bearing) varieties in a polytunnel! I ordered 'cold stored' runners of a new variety of 'perpetual' strawberry - from Ken Muir's Nursery last month by phone (I like to try at least one new variety of something each year). The beautifully established plug plants (with flower buds!) arrived quickly by post (you can't beat that) and are now already settling into their new home! They will fruit very soon - not too long to wait to try a new variety! Apropos the 'buying local' principle by the way -which I mention later - I always try all the Irish nurseries for plants first (more in hope than expectation!) Usually they have very little choice of varieties. The - 'couldn't care less' - "You can put your name down, and we might have it if we remember it next autumn" - which I've had from some nurseries is an attitude that doesn't really do it for me! Helpful, efficient, informative and knowledgeable (rare) service is so much better if you want people's return business! So many of the nurseries don't even sell the varieties that are best suited to our climate!
Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?
Some people say you should replace strawberry stocks after three years but personally I think that's unnecessary if your plants are healthy. It's perfectly alright to continue to propagate from healthy plants. This year my old favourite Gento seems even better than ever - thoroughly rejuvenated and enjoying the five star treatment it's now getting in the east tunnel and the last few weeks of hot weather! It has been producing wave after wave of huge delicious fruits and has been flowering continuously since early May! The most important thing with strawberries is to only ever propagate from the most productive plants which are fruiting well, with perfect looking, healthy leaves - not twisted or blotched with yellow. Then you can't go wrong. It's also a good idea to move them to fresh ground every 3-4 years.
We've been enjoying the first of our strawberries from the tunnels for over a month now. We had a taste testing recently and decided that meltingly delicious Gento was still definitely tops for flavour - with Albion coming a close second, Mara des Bois next, then Malling Opal and the much vaunted old French variety Gariguette after that. Christine and Malling Centenary came last - good flavour but not that sensational - and I want sensational in strawberries! Malling Centenary is the one set to replace Elsanta - which I don't grow because I think it's completely tasteless - sadly that's the one sold in many garden centres! Malling Centenary is summer fruiting - but a huge cropper with a pretty good taste and also good disease resistance. Gento is an old variety I've mentioned before - which was bred in France in the early 1960's - and my stock came as runners taken from plants growing in the garden where I grew up, almost 40 years ago. I took some runners from the plants in the kitchen garden there, when my now grown-up children were toddlers - and the plants I have now are the much propagated offspring of those original plants! I would hate to lose them - they're a lovely connection to that magical garden I remember so well - most of it, including the 6 acres of wonderful orchards I played in as a child are now sadly lost under a ghastly housing estate - like so many other long lost old gardens!
Cherries are my favourite fruit - I think! Always difficult to choose though - as it's often just what happens to be ripe and tasting fabulous at the time! But there's nothing like a plump, scrumptious, crisply ripe cherry picked straight from the tree! Denis Healy's fruit and veg stand at Clontarf Farmers Market had some lovely early French ones last week. There was a fabulously tempting array of seasonal produce there - everything you could possibly want. I had to severely limit myself! It's wonderful to think there is such a huge range of organic produce available now - particularly exotic fruits. Not everyone wants to grow their own, or even can! Let's face it - mangoes, persimmons and limes are a bit of a challenge in Ireland or the UK aren't they? Believe me - I've tried!!
Cherries are something I've been trying various methods of growing for many years without much success. They do grow and I get loads of cherries - but the birds get most of them! If I ever will the lottery I'll have a polytunnel just for cherries! They're really difficult to protect from the birds - the blackbirds in particular enjoy them as much as I do! I thought I'd found the solution a few years ago when a new, more dwarfing root stock came onto the market - called 'Minarette' . I decided I would plant another cherry walk, across the middle of my kitchen garden/potager, which might just stay dwarf enough for me to net all the trees to keep the birds off. Sadly it didn't work out very well, because although root stocks do have a big influence on tree vigour, varieties of scion (the top bit that fruits!) still have a big influence, particularly with cherries and also with some triploid apples. I rather stupidly forgot this when ordering, and went for a spread of fruit over the season - early, mid. and late - rather than noticing that the catalogue suggested that 'Celeste' was the most naturally compact variety! They were right, and for my purposes, it would have looked far neater if I'd planted all of that one variety, then the walk would have looked much more uniform. There's been a good set of fruit on the cherries this year, and plenty of bees around to do the pollination work. They have been working hard! I'd been wondering how I could stop all the fruit being eaten by blackbirds yet again, when a couple of years ago, I had an absolute brainwave!
Pictured here, the result of a morning's work was what looked like a rather questionable art installation in the garden - (as if some mad artist had been let loose - well??!!) It worked like a charm on the branches I was actually able to cover though - and so I will do the same again this year - and hope for more cherries again! (I thought I might ask my log guy if he did them in green - which might at least blend a bit more and not look quite so untidy - but then realised that because they're red they tend to camouflage the fruit and confuse the blackbirds - so that when the fruit ripens the birds don't see it as easily - neat eh?)
The golden berries/cape gooseberries now ripe on last year's overwintered plants come ready packed by Nature in their own, protective little 'designer' paper cases! They will keep on fruiting all summer from now on in the tunnel - and this year's new plants from seed sown in February are just starting to flower too. They'll be ripening from late July/August onwards.
Is locally grown more important than organic? Some say it is!
The answer is - that both are important actually! This is a topic hotly debated at the moment. To those who say that eating local is more important than eating organic - my reply is that firstly I want to support organic farming wherever in the world it's being done. And by the way - don't they eat lemons or other fruits we can't grow here in enough quantities to supply our local demands? In addition - if you eat seasonally as we try to do - not only is it more environmentally sustainable but it's also healthier, as my recent research for a blog article proved. Organic farming doesn't just protect the environment but also protects bees and other biodiversity and also regenerates precious soil which are becoming increasingly endangered. I know some people are against imported organic produce, but regardless of where in the world it is being produced - the sale of that produce is also supporting local economies, communities, schools, often Fairtrade producers etc. - and also the local environment - wherever that happens to be.
Some of the 'local purists' should keep quiet about carbon footprints - if that's why they say local is better - especially if they're flying off on holidays here there and everywhere at least once a year - and if they're also supporting industrial chemical agriculture by buying it's produce! Frankly that's just a tad hypocritical! Agricultural chemicals have a massive carbon footprint because they are made using fossil fuels and also destroy soil life - thereby releasing even more carbon! Ireland is also a net exporter of agricultural produce. This is often a point rather selfishly overlooked in the 'local' argument! ("Sauce for the goose" springs to mind!) If I need to buy anything I would always choose Irish organically grown if there is actually a choice. Anyway, if you think about it, the carbon footprint of something organic produced in a warmer country may often be far less than that of something grown with artificial heat and light much closer to home. Of course it also has to be transported here - and that's not always something taken into consideration - but it's something that should be taken into account.
Generally I think that seasonal and organic eating, as far as possible, is a the best thing to aim for - because in that case - you're probably eating local most of the time anyway. It greatly increases the pleasure you get from food too. Firstly it's properly ripe so it has far more flavour and also a better nutrient profile. Eating seasonally means that you can look forward to and thoroughly appreciate each season as it comes around. I know that it hugely increase the pleasure I get from food. That first peach yesterday was like just nectar! Who wants to eat the same tasteless, plastic-wrapped stuff all year round? Growing some your own organic fruit is so easy - even if you only have a small garden or room for just a pot. There's no reason to buy the exorbitantly expensive, non-organic junk we see for sale in supermarkets or even at local 'pick your own' farms' - which are rarely of ever organic!
I certainly wouldn't want to eat the highly-sprayed local produce currently available in every supermarket just because it's grown locally! If I buy anything - it's only ever organic - no matter where it comes from. Some conventional, chemically produced, locally grown lettuce for instance may be sprayed 20 times or more with a cocktail of different pesticides, fungicides, weedkillers etc. and the soil they're being grown in already will already contain residues of chemicals from previous crops. Studies have already shown that these can interact and become up to 1,000 times more toxic as they amplify each others effects! Frankly - you might as well go and forage for food in a chemical dump!! There's obviously some imported stuff - like lemons for example - that even 'local' purists are going to have to buy unless they're going to live a very spartan life! If more people supported organic - then it would become cheaper and more widely available.
Enjoy the bountiful harvests of summer - and don't worry about the cream!
The latest scientific thinking on that is that it's actually good for you! I always thought it was anyway! And of course all organic dairy products, including cream, are naturally far higher in good Omega 3 fats than non-organic, so it's even healthier! The fat in dairy products is where most of the nutrients are. If you're worried about all the calories - then just work them off with all that weeding and mulching!! Actually though, I think creme fraiche is much nicer than cream anyway - it's even better for you than ordinary cream - as it's also probiotic and especially so if you make it at home more cheaply using kefir grains. Try making an ice cream with just strawberries, home made creme fraiche or yogurt, a little sugar or organic Stevia drops and a dash of lemon juice - it's heavenly! Yum! That's for when you get fed up with them straight, or dipped in melted 99% dark chocolate of course - and that's healthy - positively medicinal in fact, with all the healthy polyphenols in the dark chocolate!!
Really the best thing about growing your own organic fruit is that you can eat it properly ripe and still warm from the sun - while it's super-fresh and mouth-wateringly good! - Enjoy!
(Please note. 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. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)