September contents: Any veg you can grow now is like money in the bank - whatever happens!.... Now is really the last chance for serious seed sowing!.... A Wonderful Memory from 2019 - Tomatoes truly without borders!.... Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!..... Future Food Security depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity..... Polytunnels come into their own even more now.... 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!
|Blaue Annaliese - still looking healthy in the polytunnel
||A basket of Blaue Anneliese gathered for supper - 22.8.20
Any veg you grow now is like money in the bank for the winter - whatever happens
The weather this August and the first couple of days of September has thrown everything at us! Despite one or two days when it was like high summer - with unbearably hot temperatures in the polytunnel - it's mostly been wet, windy, chilly and autumn-like - even down to 0degC in there a few nights ago. It feels as if autumn has already well and truly arrived already! I've had water running through the polytunnel several times over the last three weeks, so I'm grateful for any crops that are surviving without going down with disease! The French bean Cobra really hated it - turning up their toes fairly quickly, despite giving them all the air circulation possible! The Rosada tomatoes have as always been simply wonderful. One of the best aspects of that variety is the more than usually well-spaced foliage - which allows for a lot more air to circulate and keep the bushes disease-free. It's such a pity that it's no longer available thanks to the greed of the big seed companies!
The most astonishing crop of all is the potato Blaue Anneliese - it's without doubt a paragon of a potato and one that will become a mainstay here from now on! Started off in pots on the 23rd March, as I could barely walk at the time due to my ankle being so bad, I planted it about a month later, and it's been looking beautiful and growing vigorously ever since. In fact it's been making a takeover bid for the entire tunnel! I kept looking for blight but never even found a single spot. It's without doubt the tastiest, healthiest potato I've ever grown - especially of the blue/purple ones which are so beneficial for our health. Many of those are fussy divas though - and are not very blight-resistant wherever you grow them - but especially in the polytunnel. Although I've dug up a couple of plants to save seed from, just in case we get an invasion of rodents which often happens when the cereal crops are harvested around us - I've been loath to dig up the rest while they are growing so well, and obviously swelling the crop! I'll have to bite the bullet in the next week or so though - as I have loads of things ike lettuces, chicories and other leafy greens which I've already potted on once, otherwise they would have become root bound, but they really must be planted in the next couple of weeks to get established well before the autumn equinox. Light is already decreasing dramatically and the hens are even going up to roost just after 8pm - especially on the darker wet evenings.
At this time of year so many people are content to just wind down and enjoy the last delights of the summer crops. Here I'm also still doing that - but also thinking ahead, to when fresh vegetables won't be so easy to grow, or perhaps to find a good variety of, in shops or farmer's markets - especially if there are shortages due to a possible 'no-deal' Brexit! Any fast-growing veg which I haven't already sown in the last month is being sown now, or in the queue for sowing as soon as possible! I'm also planting more potatoes in pots as I grew none outside this year due to dodgy ankle. So when the Blaue Anneliese ar finished, it will only be new, pot-grown potatoes until next spring - but I don't think anyone will be complaining!
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 and growth is also winding down a lot from the hectic pace of summer. With so much of summer's bounty still to be harvested and preserved, it's so easy to forget that winter crops need attention right now - or we won't have any! Even this year - we're still facing the possibility of a 'No Deal Brexit' - despite the political gymnastics currently going on in the UK Parliament! If the UK does crash out without a deal, the British Retail Consortium who have studied the possible effects of a 'No Deal Brexit' - say that it WILL cause shortages of fresh food, due to delays at ports. Many people don't realise that a vast amount of fresh produce both in the UK and Ireland is imported, and much of our supply comes through the UK. But 'No Deal' won't mean no fresh veg here! If you haven't already sown some winter salads and fast growing veg - you've still just got time to sow some types of leaves to have some fresh salads if they're in short supply - but only if you do it NOW!
I sometimes get criticised by people on Twitter - saying that my blog posts assume that everyone has a garden - which is very unfair criticism because I don't! When we rented a small semi-detached house for 2 years while we were in transition from our first garden, before we moved here, I only had a really tiny garden - but I still grew all of our own veg in pots. I learned a huge amount from that, and understand only too well the limitations of trying to produce as much food as possible in small, or no gardens. Even now I still grow a lot of things in large pots, as it's a great way to avoid slug damage - very important when I want to photograph crops for my Irish Garden Magazine articles. It doesn't matter if you don't have a polytunnel or even a garden - as long as you even have the smallest bit of outside space you can sow something useful, fresh and super-nutritious - even if you can't be self-sufficient as much as possible as I try to be. It really takes very little effort - but I suspect that many of those criticising me are the "I can't" brigade, who assume that is the case - without even trying! I often feel that if people just made the effort - it would massively benefit their mental health - which often seems not the best from the way they attack me! There is no space so small that you cannot grow something that wiull make a real contribution to your diet and health - unless you live in a hole in the ground without even a door or a window!
The most important thing which all plants need is really good top light though - they won't really be happy on a windowsill for more than a few days. This is because they're unable to photosynthesise properly and turn sunlight into the sugars they need to grow. Lack of light makes them become weak, sickly and spindly, more prone to diseases and also far less nutritious. A windowsill is fine for houseplants - but really no use for food plants - as it can't produce enough food for it to be worth the trouble. If you happen to live in an apartment without even a balcony though - then sprouting seeds or growing microgreens can produce valuable, highly nutritious crops to help supplement your diet. I used to produce mung bean sprouts, alfalfa, and sunflower greens etc. for the Dublin Food Coop 35 years ago, when I was growing commercially, and they are really very easy to grow. They do need regular consistent care though - rinsing very well several times a day - to avoid the build-up of moulds and bacteria which can cause spoilage and even potentially cause food-poisoning!
I've written several articles here on the blog over the years on how you can grow in pots and tubs, or even in recycled boxes on a stepladder. There's very little that you can't grow in large pots - although some plants with very long tap roots aren't too happy in pots unless they're dustbin or skip bag sized! But I've grown in those too! Here's a link to a blog post I wrote this April - "What if you don't have a polytunnel or garden, can you grow anything?" it includes a link to my stepladder gardens article elsewhere on the blog :
Now is really the last chance for serious seed sowing!
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
It's already too late for some crops to produce well this winter - but there's still time for quite a few - so 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 in tubs and pots under large cold frames - or even on a balcony in good light - 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 double bed-sized polythene covers which I begged from a bed store years ago!
Some fast-growing crops like summer spinach, Oriental vegetables, quick salad mixes, kohlrabi 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 without fail 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.
And most importantly - 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! And talking of which.....
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 which is the only decent one available here in Ireland 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 absolutely guarantee that 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 really 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. Even thirty years ago, I was very uncomfortable about using any peat-containing seed composts at all due to peat extraction's destructive carbon footprint - especially when they also contained synthetic, fossil fuel-derived chemical fertilisers. But there hadn't been a really good alternative until relatively recently. Now there is plenty of choice - especially in the UK - and there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever to use peat, or any compost which contains it! Peat use is no longer acceptable in this era of rapid climate change and more environmental awareness - there is NO excuse!
OK, so a good peat-free compost is a little bit more expensive than bog-standard peat-based composts - but is that really any excuse for destroying bogs, which are huge carbon sinks storing millions of years of carbon - which when released massively accelerates climate change? Or is it worth the cost of destroying along with them the huge amount of vitally important biodiversity which they sustain? Especially 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! In over 40 years of growing experience, I've found that chemically-fed plants in peat-based composts are far more susceptible to disease. Sadly even some of the peat-free composts made from composted bark are truly dreadful and are not organic either.
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.
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 watering seedlings and 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, then 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 of 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 as 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. I want to be able to pick a good mixed salad at a moment's notice every day over winter - and also to have a brassica of some sort to eat at least 3 times a week.The rewards for taking a little trouble are great though. There are many crops which really enjoy the winter shelter in the polytunnel. Ruby and white Swiss chards, sugar loaf chicory, celery. Welsh onions (scallions), 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 no point just sowing stuff that will sit there all winter and then crop only in the spring. Many indispensable soft herbs like parsley and also perennial herbs like thyme are also far more productive inside.
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-produced hen ration - organic hen food is not allowed to contain any artificial 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 more slowly and is less nutritious in the winter and that means that the hens are less healthy too. My hens are happy and bursting with organic good health all year round!
A Wonderful Memory from 2019 - Tomatoes truly without borders!
View of both sides of the World Record-Breaking Exhibition of Tomatoes for the 2019 Totally Terrific Tomato Festival which was held in The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin
I'm really missing 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' this year, which we couldn't hold due to Covid19 pandemic.
So I'm repeating the pictures from last year - when we didn't just have one great day - but once again two fantastic weeks, thanks to our wonderful National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, their dynamic director Dr. Matthew Jebb and his hardworking staff. It was a stunning sight, all beautifully displayed sitting in terracotta pots. A new world record of 261 varieties was set - surpassing the 2018 total of 258! There was 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 originally conceived the idea of holding the first 'TTTomFest', as it is now 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 all over the world again - all who loved tomatoes - and even some who didn't think they did until they saw these! 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 no matter where we hail from!
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 and fun way to demonstrate that richly valuable and irreplaceable diversity. After all - different varieties of wheat, for instance, all look pretty much the same don't they? So they wouldn't be as much fun to most people - unlike these gorgeous, plumptious, incredibly diverse 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 Killruddery - the entire human race eats half its own weight in tomatoes every single year. That is 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 of our seeds, and are increasingly buying up smaller seed companies in order to control seed availability and increase their profits. Forget money, forget oil and forget politics. Owning the supply of seeds which produces all of our food globally is the surest way to ultimate power over the human race!
It was another 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! Let's hope that next year the Pandemic will be over and we'll be able to hold this fantastic event again - and make it even bigger and better!
I truly feel that 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' is now in the safest possible hands - many years after I held my first 'Tomato Day' at the National Botanic Gardens in the early 1990s, which was the original seed of this wonderful Festival. It has now returned to its roots - back to the original place where it was first conceived. I am so grateful and thrilled and feel 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!
This is a short extract from my 'Tomato Talk' on the main tomato day. 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 Hills 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. 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 January that it would be an instant attention grabber, so sent off to the USA for seed, and I believe became the first person in Europe to grow it! 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 agrochemical/seed corporations. It's now more vital than ever to preserve genetic diversity in all food crops including tomatoes - with such huge economic and dietary relevance. Anyway - I knew I could no longer stand idly by and watch this happening without feeling that I was at least trying to do 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. In 2012, I felt I had to have another try to light that candle while there was still time - to help raise awareness of how important genetic diversity was - and how it was increasingly being threatened by global 'Big Ag'. So the 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' was re-born under its current name. The candle is now burning brightly thanks to our wonderful National Botanic Gardens - to my lasting gratitude.
Future Food Security depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity
Genetic diversity should not be entrusted to the 'care' of 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 the 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! Recently I posted this tweet on Twitter:
"If you're buying #seeds to sow winter veg try to support small & organic seed companies if you can - seed diversity helps to ensure future food security - Global multinational chemical/seed companies are buying up smaller seed companies - closing them & dropping varieties!"
Judging from the amount of retweets - it seems that perhaps people may at last 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 the challenges of a changing climate - so it is extremely dangerous to narrow the choice of genes (or characteristics) - present in different varieties of any staple 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 gradually 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 is profit NOW - not the future of genetic diversity! They are continually buying up smaller seed companies, then closing them down, taking over their seed lists, reducing their diversity, 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 like the ones pictured below -which have been grown perhaps for centuries!
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!
Polytunnels come into their own even more now
After the excitement of the Tomato Festival it's certainly back to earth with a bump - but earth is just 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 we 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! Not an inch of valuable polytunnel space should be wasted - especially in winter . 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!
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 especially won't be anything like as productive. In a tunnel most will continuously produce huge crops! Outside in most winters you'll only get a few pickings from some 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, both kale and calabrese/broccoli thoroughly enjoy 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!
The other brassica I always grow in winter is Green Magic calabrese/broccoli. 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 at 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, because 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 any 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 stored 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 - especially when they produce their beautiful, convulvulus-like mauve flowers..
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 fertiliser 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 - just give them enough to get going without being starved. Lashing on manure, compost or compound fertilisers is wasteful, 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 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 foods? I definitely think so - I never had any so-called, 'picky eating' problems with my kids. They ate everything! Anyway - my children's schoolmates 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" 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 gives 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 your own 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 fermentation 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 - and do remember to label it! Sorry if you're of a delicate disposition - but it does pong a bit! 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, pick out any remaining skin 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 immediately! 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 just as 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 than the earlier summer one does which is better, and means we can eat more fresh over a longer period, rather than having to deal with a huge glut all at once. The only problem in a very 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 favourites 'Joan J' and 'Erika' in pots too - again hugely productive and which I think just have the edge on flavour. It's a way of stretching the season which is very useful. One big plus that 'Joan J' has in its 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 and Black Strawberry. 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 and Mara des Bois perpetual strawberries are still reliably producing their delicious berries - people must be tired of me saying what wonderful strawberries they are. They 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 regularly 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' I make in plant saucers 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 - leaving those wees there actually encourages 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 few years ago a listener called after our August radio show to say that it sounded more like the Gerry Kelly Food Show than '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' a couple of years ago 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 whole 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.)