Topics for July: Polytunnels should be available on prescription!..... A Polytunnel can be your alternative to a 'Mediterranean' holiday in Summer! ...... Holiday time and watering plants..... Rough guide to watering/feeding Tomatoes in containers & in the ground..... Side-shoots on Tomatoes.... Pollination of Tomatoes..... Other Tunnel Crops..... Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads......Thinking ahead to late autumn and winter crops
|NW bed, late Mangetouts and Runner Bean Moonlight with watercress seedlings in centre, Parsley Italian Giant and spinach Viroflex seed dryng top end. Atena courgette in side bed with Ruby chard producing seed.||NE bed, Rosada and Blush tomatoes starting to ripen, celery Chinese Pink forming seed in centre. Early peach ripening at top end|
|SW bed John Baer, Dr. Carolyn and Pantano Romanesco tomatoes, celery in centre, climbing French beab Cobra beside path. Saving Jack Ice lettuce seed top end||SE bed Blaue Anneliese from south end bed - looking very healthy|
Polytunnels should be available on Prescription - they are so beneficial for Mental Health!
Is there anything as wonderful as this time of year in the garden? If the glorious abundance of healthy foods that surround us everywhere now doesn't excite you and make you grateful for Nature's generous abundance - then you're a lost cause as far as organic real food gardening is concerned!
Most kinds of gardening can be challenging at times - especially when you have any sort of movement-limiting disability, but having an area which is accessible in all weathers like a polytunnel can make it very much easier! Having a polytunnel means that even if you're in pain or just don't feel like doing anything on that particular day - you can still get your daily dose of sunlight and Nature watching, even if it's lashing with rain! This is especially so if you plant your polytunnel as I do - with lots of flowers, herbs and fruit, as well as vegetables - which attract bees and other beneficial insects, frogs, hedgehogs and birds all year round. I make a point of sitting in there for at least 20 minutes at sometime during each day. But usually the sitting doesn't last very long - there's always something which needs doing - especially at this time of year.
One of the reasons I started this blog was because I wanted people to know that no matter what your problems - if you're really determined to grow healthy food, it's still possible to find a way - unless one is completely paralysed! It's often just a matter of thinking laterally - and finding another way rather than giving up and saying "I can't"! I refuse to say that, and I always prefer to get on with things no matter what my problems - because I feel that doing anything rather than just sitting and complaining is far better and more positive - no matter what one's situation.
This year I've seen so many people complaining about being 'locked down' due to COVID19 - how bored and stressed they are, how much they are missing socialising with other people and how it's badly affecting their mental health. Very often they say that because of that they're eating cake, chocolate or crisps, or finding themselves at the bottom of a bottle of wine - but believe me - I've 'been there and done all that' many years ago. I have the ultimate Tee Shirt - with probably more excuse than many! NONE of those are the answer to any problems and will only make them feel worse! So although I'm not a fan of complaining about personal problems - I thought I'd share just a little bit more about my life experiences with you, in case you might think my life has all been easy! .... I hope I won't bore you!
Before we moved here, I spent 5 months in 1980 unable to walk due to a fall, on top of which I contracted viral meningitis and was seriously ill. Luckily my children didn't catch it, and I think the only reason that I did was because my immune system was already at an extremely low ebb, low due to taking so many painkillers, serious antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. These are drugs which no matter what problems I've had since - I have refused ever to take again! They gave me a stomach ulcer on top of already serious problems - which I cured purely by natural means - as I also did the M.E./Chronic Fatigue/Post-Viral syndrome which I suffered from after recovering from the initial viral meningitis infection. I think the meningitis may have been brought in by my doctor, who was visiting another poor woman on the same road who had caught it, and who sadly, subsequently died from it. Anyway, I spent the time I was unable to move very much reading everything I could lay my hands on about soil, and potager gardens and no-dig, raised or deep bed gardening, so that I would somehow still be able to garden and grow my own food - even if I was confined to a wheelchair. I also read a lot more about natural health cures, as I had a lot of time!
Luckily I very slowly recovered, but what kept me going through that awful time and kept me sane were the dreams, hope and inspiration I found in those books! As I got better I also experimented and learned how to grow a huge amount of organic food in tubs and strong carrier bags - even though I could often do little more than 10 minutes activity before almost fainting and having blackouts due to the ME/CFS I was suffering from. That time was good practice for what unfortunately followed only 2 years later, after we moved here - when once again I was in severe pain and unable to do anything, after simply bending down to undo a very stiff bolt on the bottom of a stable door, something which when I straightened up from doing it, left me with rapidly progressive weakness in my left arm, serious nerve pain from nerve damage, and needing cervical spine surgery to remove pieces of collapsed discs which were pressing on my spinal cord and impacting on nerves originating in my cervical spine area. It was probably the final straw for my spine which had already been damaged time and again from many years of falling off horses (or them falling on me!), which had culminated in the 5 months in bed, after which I was banned from ever riding again, which was a severe blow, as I had to face the fact that I was never going to be able to fulfill my lifelong ambition to be a Grand Prix dressage rider! That undeniable fact was pretty hard to deal with, as I'd ridden since before I could walk.
Up to that point - horses had been my life - with growing organic food for my severely allergic child as a necessary side occupation. But once again gardening saved my mental health from severely deteriorating. Over the next 20 years or so, I even became a commercial organic producer for a time, also fulfilling my other ambition to become a sculptor (with a little success). But throughout, as progressive and debilitating degenerative disc-disease gradually made things more difficult - I was constantly finding new and easier ways to do things, so that I could continue to grow our own food, which was my first priority. I've always treated whatever life has thrown at me as a bit of a challenge - saying to the fates "OK - whatever you throw at me - I will NOT be defeated, and will damned well find some other way to do it!". I won't bore you with any more about all the other accidents etc along the way! Well done if you've got this far!
Fast forward to 2020 - and although the left ankle which some of you may know I broke badly last year has healed brilliantly - all through natural healing. This spring things have been made really difficult once again by me having to spend another 3 months on sticks due to the planned reconstructive surgery for a very old injury to the other right ankle, exacerbated by hopping about on it after breaking the left one last year! This had been postponed due to COVID19. Anyway - despite being unable to do very much for 3 months - I've still managed to sow some seeds (sometimes that was all I did some days), and do a little bit of gentle planting and clearing and also write this blog four times a month. It's surprising how much one can achieve even if sometimes you only have half an hour's 'standing time' as I call it - as long as you just make a point of doing it every day. I know from experience that it makes you feel so much better to achieve that.
The tunnels are both looking a bit hectic right now! You won't find bare soil and neatly weede rows of anything anywhere! In the bigger east tunnel, along with the few crops like lettuce, spinach, watercress and kale which I had left over from last autumn until last month, I still have the other perennial fruits and veg that I grow, which means that there's always something to be found for a meal. There's peaches ripening now, sorrel, perennial Welsh and Egyption Walking Onions, garlic, Red Leaved Dandelion (a chicory actually), Vegetable Mallow (like spinach), watercress, herbs, self-sown Nasturtiums and Glin Castle perennial kale to pick. I'm also sneaking off a delicious few of the incredibly vigorous and healthy-looking Bleu Annaliese potatoes - which were planted quite late, on 21st March inside, purely because I wasn't able to clear any space outside. They've taken over an entire bed in the tunnel, completely smothering the extremely rare Peru Purple potatoes which had been planted 3 weeks earlier - so I don't mind stealing any of their tubers that I can find just under the surface! Grapes are looking very promising too, and the blackberries which keep returning from the remains of those growing in the spot where I put up the new polytunnels 13 years ago, are fruiting deliciously in the fruit tunnel right now. I've never been able to completely eradicate them - so now we've reached a sort of uneasy truce! I allow them to form early fruit on the canes that keep coming back - and then I cut those right down the minute they've finished fruiting - when the rest of their siblings outside have started ripening their early ones! That way I get a longer season of fresh fruit and they produce new shorter growth after this month, which they will fruit on next year, and don't become too dangerous!
French beans, mangetout peas and runner bean Moonlight are only a couple of weeks away from cropping = despite being sown late due to my ankle problems delaying the clearing of winter crops. Although most people grow those outside at this time of year - we always get severe gales in August which flatten them, just when I hope they'll start cropping. They'll be fine in the polytunnel and they will also go on cropping much later than any grown outside, so worth doing. There are also figs, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and potted mulberries ripening.. And of course there's always lots of flowers for the all important wildlife - that look after the pest control for me. I also have Sungold, Tumbler and Maskotka tomatoes ripe in the smaller and warmer fruit tunnel (or west tunnel), gherkin baby cucumber Restina producing tons of baby-sized cucumbers, and early Atena courgettes have been cropping so well for weeks that we're almost fed up with them already - and it's only July!
Also in the bigger east tunnel, I'm saving a lot of my own seed again this year. I hadn't done so of some crops for a couple of years, but the unavailability of several varieties this year, and some seed companies running out completely of others, due to the sudden rise in popularity of growing your own veg during the pandemic, reminded me that it was time to do so again. This will ensure that I will have plenty of seed of all my staple crops like winter spinach, lettuce, purple carrots, kale and celery! Potatoes are saved each year as a matter of course, as many of those I grow are rare and can't be obtained anywhere. As you may know I start all of my potatoes off in pots now, and each year I hold back a couple of pots to save for seed tubers, when I'm planting the rest. I've found that to be the most successful way to ensure that I don't lose them.
A Polytunnel can be your alternative to a 'Mediterranean' holiday in Summer!
Protection from the elements and warmth, even on cloudy days in summer, means that with the almost Mediterranean climate in a polytunnel at this time of year - you get so much more in return for the work you put in compared to growing fruit and vegetables outside. As I've already said, they're a great 'uplifter' on a grey gloomy day and also an incredibly cost-effective method of food production - no matter what size they are - if every inch inside is used as efficiently as it should be. They're also a way of keeping us gardeners sane when the weather's against us! Inside a polytunnel it can feel more like southern Europe - especially on a sunny day or even when it's so foul that you wouldn't even put a cat out - which can often happen in our Irish 'summers'! Mine certainly feels like that in most summers - a Mediterranean banquet! It's a real feast of colours, scents and tastes - of tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, courgettes, French beans, melons, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, figs, lemons, oranges, blackberries, cherries, cape gooseberries and grapevines literally dripping with fast-swelling, emerald bunches. The list goes on - with scarlet geraniums, nasturtiums, feverfew, orange marigolds and many valuable herbs like Perilla dotted about wherever they can be squeezed in, attracting insects like butterflies, hoverflies and with the constant hum of happy bees. I also grow some flowers in big pots which like hot dry conditions too - like some of the most richly-scented but slightly more fussy roses that don't flower well outside here - like Emporeur du Maroc - which really hates our damp weather. Its scent hits me when I open the polytunnel in the early mornings at this time of year. It flowers in the polytunnel for months, repeat-flowering well, and it's wonderful for using in recipes especially for making Rose Petal Syrup. With the scent of the citrus blossom, lemon verbena and Jasmine filling the air too - it's really like being in another country altogether! Who needs Mediterranean holidays? I personally think that money is far better spent on a polytunnel where you can grow healthy food and enjoy relaxing in sunlight almost all year round! It's absolute heaven - and I can't bear to be away from mine for very long!
I get a lot of questions about this. I grow some of my tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in 10lt containers on grow bag trays. This is because I only ever use a quarter of the 'in the ground' ground space in my tunnel for the tomato family - which also naturally includes peppers and aubergines. In the tunnel - just as in the outside garden - I always operate a strict minimum four course rotation. Many people say there's no need to and don't bother for a few years, getting away with it for a while - but without doing that you can encounter soil problems like diseases and nematodes sooner or later. The containers I use are either recycled empty coleslaw buckets from the local deli, which I cut drainage holes in around the base - or sometimes 12 litre containers which I get from the local horticultural supply shop very cheaply compared to the DIY multiples! They are a similar size to the average large bucket. I start to feed with the brilliant Osmo organic Tomato Food (which is high potash and encourages fruit production) as soon as the first truss has set. Why is Osmo so brilliant? Because you will never get magnesium or any other sort of deficiency when using this feed - and as it's also organic, it's safe to use and totally natural. When Dermot O'Neill came out to look at my tomatoes a few years ago for RTE's Mooney Show - he was amazed at how healthy my tomatoes in containers looked and how much fruit they were producing!
2. One week later - flower truss with new shoot on end getting much larger.
3. Same flower truss, after remedial action with secateurs!
Air circulation is absolutely vital to tomatoes especially, particularly all the continental beefsteaks, which can rapidly go down with botrytis (grey mould) and also blight at this time of year in very humid, damp conditions. Ventilating as much as possible, even on dull or rainy days, is most important. Leaving doors shut can even hinder pollination of flowers, as too high a temperature can actually damage the plants and the bees can't get in either! My tunnel doors are always open every day - unless there's a howling gale blowing from the wrong direction. And if the temperature on a very hot day still gets too high - then 'damping down' the paths, not the plants, will help to reduce the temperature by water evaporating - keeping the atmosphere 'bouyant' and the air moving.
Pollination of Tomatoes
If you're growing sweet potatoes, they don't want too rich a soil starting off otherwise they just produce masses of foliage - not tubers. They need similar soil to carrots, deep and well drained. They just get a light dusting of seaweed meal when planting and mulching with moisture retaining grass clippings to prevent weed growth. After that they only need watering occasionally to prevent them drying out. Like Oca and Yacon they don't start to produce their tubers until August - so from then on they get fed weekly with a high potash tomato feed - I use the Osmo food for them too. If you want to try growing them it's still worthwhile planting them now - and if they're a bit hungry in their pots by now just give them a liquid feed just to encourage them, then plant as above. Once you have good varieties you can keep tubers from your own crop each year and propagate slips from them.
Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads