September contents:  "Civilisation is only nine meals away from anarchy"..... Brexit-proof your kitchen garden and larder!...'Winter-proof' soil NOW - before bad weather!.....The secret to growing healthy vegetables or healthy flowers isn't a secret!.....Heavy manure rant!......More seeds to save before other creatures help themselves!.....Out with the old...... And in with the new - Potatoes for Christmas and New Year crops......Colourful cabbage bursting with health!.... Beware of bringing in the dreaded onion white rot!

 

A busy shady bench! Seedlings in modules and young plants sheltered by a north wall waiting for potting on or planting outside in the raised beds or polytunnel

 

 "Civilisation is only nine meals away from anarchy" - said the head of the UK's Countryside Agency, Lord Cameron of Dillington, in 2007, warning that on day three, "there will be rats, mayhem and even murder." 

 

I hope that wasn't a premonition!  According to the latest news - it's looking increasingly likely that in the UK and Ireland we may well face shortages of those fresh foods which can't be stored - in the event of a 'No Deal Brexit'.  Much of the fresh produce sold in shops here in the winter in Ireland comes from the EU via the UK, and in the event of 'No Deal' happening both Ireland and the UK may experience shortages of many goods.  The British Retail Consortium said recently that 85% of lettuce sold in the UK in November comes from the EU - a pretty staggering statistic when you consider that it can be so easily grown in the UK.  Sky News also reported that there could be a 6 month delay in some food supplies if the worst happens.  Luckily after Christmas us gardeners will be into a new year with increasingly good light and conditions for growing things - so we won't be without fresh veg supplies for too long. According to the UK government there won't be any problems - but frankly I don't trust them any more and I think that whoever you believe, or whatever you think may happen, it's important to ensure that your kitchen garden if you have one and your larder are Brexit-ready and resilient.  If not - then here's a few suggestions as to what you could still do now, to prepare for a worst case scenario. And even if it doesn't come to that - it's still a great feeling to know that whatever happens - you can still feed your family on healthy food.  So don't be caught out with your larder or garden empty!  

 

Brexit-proof your kitchen garden and larder!

 

I've always tried to make sure that whatever happens, we have enough food growing in the ground and stored in the larder here to cope with several months of unavailability of either fresh foods, or dry goods, to keep us well-fed on healthy foods.  Healthy food that boosts our immune system is also our best insurance against the usual winter illnesses like colds and flu - as well as the very virulent COVID19 virus.  Whatever nasty bugs there are around - we're far more likely to resist them or get a less serious dose of them if our immune systems are healthy.  Speaking of which - possible shortages of medicines are another thing which the British Government's leaked 'Yellowhammer report' last year warned may happen, so stocking  up on whatever your favourite cough and cold remedies are is also a good idea.  I was also warned recently by one of the wholefood/health food stores which I go to, that many supplements may either be unavailable or rise in price by as much as 65% after Brexit. So it makes sense to stock up on any of those that you regularly use. 

 

Some people have accused me of having a 'siege mentality' or being 'depressing' - but burying one's head in the sand and ignoring reality is frankly never a sensible thing to do whatever our problems!  I prefer to meet them head on, deal with them by trying to do something proactive, and be prepared!  It's better to be safe than sorry!  Whether your worries are about climate change, Brexit, or some other insecurity - being as well-prepared as possible for every eventuality is a very comforting feeling, and can at least take away some worries which you can do something positive about. I've always been a realist, and having been through many serious recessions, rough times, and shortages - and come out the other side much stronger and wiser, I know without doubt that anything you can grow or store now will be a godsend this winter - even if we don't have to deal with 'worst case scenarios' outlined in the rather worrying 'files'.

 

In terms of fresh produce which you could still start to grow now outside if you get a move on - there are still plenty of things - especially salads. Even if you don't have a garden, but only a balcony or path, as long as there is enough light you can grow almost everything in large containers.  It's often much easier to grow some things that way, as this keeps them safe from menacing slugs!  In the picture above you can see the beautiful Chinese cabbage Scarlette - which is so much easier to keep slug-free when grown in containers.  Those nasty little grey slugs always manage to get right into the heart of them and ruin them when they're growing in the ground.  They are interplanted with baby leeks which as they're upright don't bother the Chinese cabbage and will go on to produce a crop long after the cabbage has finished.   Mixing crops in containers can be fun and often quite decorative.

 

This year thanks to the plague of field mice which invaded as soon as the crops around us were harvested - the tomatoes which I always grow in tubs in one of my tunnels were decimated overnight!  Normally those tomatoes in containers would often go on cropping until late October, but there's no point in prolonging the agony now just for the sake of the one or two tomatoes which remain, as I already have plenty dehydrated and frozen.  As a result I now have a lot of  unemployed containers to gradually replant - so I shall experiment with growing some new container crops which I haven't tried before.  To be honest for me at the moment I'm rather glad to be doing that - because trying to get even raised beds ready when one is on sticks and not able to carry much is not easy!  I can just sit on a stool and plant the containers!  Suggestions for fast-growing crops are on my 'What to sow Now' page, which I update at the beginning of every month. link here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/690-what-to-sow-in-september-2020  - There's still time to sow most of those mentioned if you can't buy plants. 

 

Everything naturally grows much better and faster with shelter and cover over winter - but if you don't have a polytunnel, don't despair.  While cloches may be of some help to crops in the ground, they can often be too low, and not offer enough frost protection. If you don't have a garden you can easily make a taller and much more useful homemade 'grow frame' - as I did over 40 years ago, before I had either a greenhouse or polytunnel. It was very effective and although I'm not much good at DIY, and it was made out of 'skip-found' recycled materials,  it still lasted several years before finally collapsing!  I found it really useful all year round, and even when I didn't have much garden - it worked just as well sitting on a concrete path against a wall.  It housed various recycled pots, tubs and even recycled fish boxes!   

 

Plan of my grow frame. Sides A-B were left open and uncovered so it could be used either on the flat or against a wallPlan of my grow-frame. Sides A-B were left open and uncovered so it could be used either on the flat or against a wall

 

Sadly I don't have any pictures of it.  It never occurred to me that I might need them and I was also coping with 2 lively toddlers then!  I find it rather amusing now that everyone takes pictures of everything with an eye to becoming an Instagram 'expert' or social-media influencer'!    How fast things have changed!  But anyway - here's a rough drawing I made to give you an idea of what it looked like. Side A the diagram here, and the base were left uncovered and open, and the rest was covered with clear polythene. In summer, it could be used standing up against the wall for growing taller, cordon tomato plants, or used on the flat as on the left in the diagram to cover bush tomato plants or peppers and aubergines in tubs to keep blight-inducing rain off. In both cases it was slightly raised on bricks, and also pulled away from the wall slightly, in order to give good air circulation.  In winter it had to be held down with guy ropes, as we lived near the sea then and our small garden was very windy!  But it did the job very efficiently and allowed me to grow some of my best aubergines ever!  What more could you ask?  As for pots, you don't need to buy them unless you're worried about appearance!  There's really nothing you can't grow food in - as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom and enough depth of soil/compost to support the plant's roots.  

Please don't use peat composts or any 'multipurpose composts' which contain peat - they may be cheaper to buy but they are very expensive in terms of their cost to the environment, accelerating climate change and loss of biodiversity. 

 

When it comes to dry goods for the pantry and stored produce for the larder - only you will know what your daily staples are that you won't be able to manage without.  As I cook everything from scratch here - including our bread, I've already made sure that I have enough supplies of Irish-grown organic flour, and other organic pantry staples which I buy that come directly from the UK, that I don't want to be without, and which will store for several months.  We'll have plenty of apples stored in my recycled dead freezers - more than enough for 'an apple a day' anyway! That's something you could do too, and even if you don't grow your own - you may know of someone with excess fruits, or perhaps a pick-your-own orchard.  If they're picked carefully and treated gently, most apples that are ready from October onwards will keep for several months, if you have somewhere to store them like a cool garage. Earlier apples won't keep for more than a week or so, but if you have a local source of them, it's worth getting some as they all dehydrate well, or can be frozen as puree and fruit leathers. 

 

Don't forget that Irish or UK-grown apples have a very short season in the shops, and the rest of the year they're imported, so may well be in short supply later in the winter. Exotic fruits like lemons and oranges can be frozen, and although I grow some for fun - as they're serious larder staples I always have a few frozen, so that I'm never without them. Root veg can be stored in damp sand if you've grown them yourself and know that they're sound and won't rot.  But if you haven't grown them, make sure that you buy them unwashed - most important or they quickly rot - and direct from the grower if possible.  They will need checking over every week or so for any rots etc, but if they're sound going in - it's rare that you will have any such problems.

 

If you've always fancied trying to keep a few hens to supply you with eggs, you don't really need a lot of room.  You can easily keep a few very healthy and happy hens, even if you only have a very small garden. Growing greens for them is most important, even if you have a lot of space for them, because in winter grass and other pasture plants are much less nutritious. That's why I grow leafy things like kale and chicory all year round just to keep them healthy. Greens also ensure the eggs high in things like vitamin A, choline, lutein and other essential nutrients, which are vital for our health too.  Our hens also get all the scruffy leaves of lettuce and other leaves that most people would normally discard into the compost bin. Here's a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago:

“Keeping Back Garden Hens for Organic Egg Production - the Basics" -  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/607-keeping-back-garden-hens-for-organic-egg-production-the-basics

   

In over 40 years of living in Ireland, we've been through several recessions, and on some occasions were even snowed in for up to three weeks. Those times taught me a lot about real resilience. I was raised by parents who both came from farming backgrounds and had also been through the deprivations of the Second World War.  They made sure that our family never wanted for anything, and that even the tiniest scrap of anything was never wasted. Even though I was born well after that - the example of self-sufficiency I inherited from them has stood me in good stead.  Having a child with very serious food allergies was also a great motivator to start practicing what I call my 'organic, micro self-sufficiency'!   It really is such a satisfying feeling knowing that whatever happens - you can feed your family. We've all become so used to being able to buy anything we want at virtually a moment's notice from shops - or at the press of a button - that we've been spoiled compared to people of decades ago.  We've been lulled into a false sense of food security!  I think if we can make ourselves more food-resilient though, by producing as much of our own produce as possible, it can only be a good thing.

 

 Leeks inter-planted with lettuce. In the foreground Oriental radishes & Chinese cabbage Scarlette - keeping the soil well-covered.

 Leeks inter-planted with lettuce. In the foreground Oriental radishes & Chinese cabbage Scarlette - keeping the soil well-covered.

 

It's quite cold this morning and feeling very 'autumn-y'!  The misty evenings also suddenly seem to have drawn in quickly. The robins are already singing their sweet winter songs quietly as I work in the garden, just as in Keats evocative poem, and the hens are now going to roost just after 8 pm - rather than staying out late like naughty children who won't go to bed until 11 pm!  Around these parts even then, there is also still a more modern sound - the constant drone of combine harvesters and tractors working frantically day and night - and there's an air of urgency to get the last of the crops in.  Frantic harvesting of crops and storing some of them for less abundant winter times is the main priority here too!  Every year, as soon as the last of the crops in the fields surrounding us are harvested - creatures that were out there all summer start looking for alternative sources of food and can decimate root crops left in the ground. As I 've already mentioned above - every rodent in the neighbourhood seems to move en-masse into the garden to picnic as soon as all the cereal crops surrounding us are harvested - so time is of the essence - as well as keeping an eye out for rodents!  

 

Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heartChinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart


The main priority now is to get the remains of the summer crops cleared and finish planting any autumn and winter crops not yet in, while the soil is still in good enough condition to work, and before harsher weather. There are still some seedlings waiting around for enough space to plant them. They're in the shade and shelter of the north wall of the stables, so that they don't come on too quickly if the weather is warm.  Any brassica seedlings are covered with 'Enviromesh' to keep out the cabbage root fly which is still very active now in mild weather.  I've sown even more than usual this year to make sure that neither us or the hens will go short of food!  In my newer raised beds, my heavy clay soil has taken a few years to become really humus-rich and workable most of the time. It must not be worked if it's wet and sticky, so time is of the essence!  Winter salads in the two new beds being planted now just get a very light dressing of well rotted compost. Before growth slows up too much the plants will take up those nutrients so that they can't wash away in heavy winter rain. My original soil is a neutral to acid very heavy County Meath clay, with a pH of about 6-6.5, but it quickly improves with mulching in the summer to protect the structure and light dressings of good compost before planting. Once a year it gets a light dressing of calcified seaweed to provide a slow acting calcium to raise the pH slightly - doing this encourages worms and helps plants to access all the nutrients they need. It also supplies valuable trace elements and is gentle on all soil organisms and plants   

 

'Winter-proof' Soil NOW - before bad weather!

 
 

If you have winter crops in the vegetable garden with a lot of bare soil between them right now - then why not grow a cover crop between them?  Or perhaps inter-crop with something fast-growing like lettuce, Oriental salad mixes, baby leaf spinach or even radishes. This is something I've recommended here on my blog for a long time now - and I see many other people recommending it too now, which is a good thing for soil and the climate. Doing this protects and covers soil - studies show that doing this helps to stop nutrients leaching and being lost in heavy autumn rains and may also give you a useful crop from your space instead of just hoeing to keep weeds down. I always grow lettuce or spinach between my leeks as you can see in the picture above. Until the leeks are quite large they have a very upright habit - so the two crops don't interfere with each other in any way by competing or grabbing each other's light. 

 

At this time of year - most people are starting to clear and compost remains of crops which have finished. They then often tend to leave ground bare all winter - which is not how Nature does it!  Nature knows better - and will already be trying to grow lots of weed cover to replace what was there. The soil is so warm now after the summer that if you have any empty space in vegetable beds which won't be used over the winter - it's also a very good idea to sow some fast growing green manures now wherever you can - there's still plenty of time for them to grow well before growth slows up dramatically at the end of next month. A cover crop like clover will also add valuable nutrients to the soil via the nitrogen-fixing nodules on it's roots. Other green manures take up any nutrients left in the soil after crops, and hold onto these - stopping nutrient loss and possible leaching. 

 

Green manures will feed worms too, which are still very active, and as they're broken down by worms they'll add humus and carbon to the soil.  Humus is the sticky 'glue' of decaying plant materials which feeds the billions of vital soil microorganisms and prevents soil erosion by literally 'sticking' soil together. Adding soluble chemical fertilisers to soil doesn't do this and also adversely affect soil-dwelling microbes. Chemical fertilisers and also pesticides kill some of the microbial life that turns plant remains into humus and by doing that cause the soil to become impoverished - with crops 'mining' of any remaining carbon in the soil until there's no longer enough left for them to be healthy. The soil becomes lifeless and devoid of all the vital microorganisms which are needed to interact with plant roots and feed healthy plants. The absence of humus and carbon also gradually causes soil erosion, as the lifeless mineral dust that remains no longer has anything to hold it together and washes away more easily - eventually ending up in rivers and seas. In dry climates this can even cause the dry soil dust to be blown literally thousands of miles around the globe - possibly carrying a cargo of pesticides too. Remember the Sahara dust many years ago that appeared in Ireland? 

 

All around the world now you can see the increasingly disastrous effects of this type of 'soil abuse' - the world is losing fertile, carbon-rich topsoil at an extremely dangerous rate, due mainly to the soil damage caused by intensive chemical agriculture.  In the hotter countries of the world the effects can be seen even more quickly - where ground is cleared of native forest and precious biodiversity is lost in order to produce food for a greedy, developed world wanting more and more meat or other crops like palm oil. A world that wastes so much unwanted food without a thought - since almost half of all food currently produced in the world is actually wasted!! 

 

Long before we run out of oil or even clean water - we will run out of soil to grow food crops. If we keep pouring on artificial man made chemicals - what is left will be devoid of all the essential life it needs to sustain healthy crops!  Soil health is vital to human health - that's how Nature designed it. Hydroponic farms where crops are fed with solutions of chemicals are not the answer - they can't produce the naturally healthy food that nature intended us to eat. But in our own gardens - there IS something we can each personally do about it! 

 

A healthy soil which has all the right nutrients for the plant to choose from, with the right structure and pH to enable the plant to use them will produce a healthy plant - whether it's a vegetable or any other type of plant. And healthy plants make healthy food for healthy people! I often hear people say things like "Oh I don't grow vegetables - I don't know anything about them - I just grow herbs or flowers".  Vegetables are just plants - like any other plant - they just happen to be plants that we like to eat!  Growing them well is no different to growing any other plant well. It's just purely a matter of learning the environment that each type of plant needs in order to be happy and healthy - and that includes what particular type of soil each prefers. Healthy, naturally-grown plants feed healthy animals and people and they also don't attract as many pests!  Organic gardeners need to understand what plants need in order to grow them successfully. And organic gardening isn't just about growing vegetables - it's about growing everything naturally - working with nature and trying to achieve a healthy ecologically balanced environment within your soil as well as above ground in the wider garden. 

 

The secret to growing healthy vegetables or healthy flowers isn't a secret!

 

Just feed your soil and it's microbial community naturally - as Nature would. If you feed your plants directly with man made chemicals - at the same time you're both poisoning soil microbes and starving them to death!  Green manures are an easy and valuable way to do this. Make sure that you do your homework though, and consult your garden plan (you should have one!) to decide on the green manure you might want to use - in order to ensure that it fits into your minimum 4 year rotations. The 'Caliente' mustard, for instance - so helpful in improving the soil after tomatoes - and which I've mentioned several times when talking about green manures, is a brassica and this must be taken into account when deciding where to use it. It is a very effective way to clean up soil after tomato crops - but you wouldn't for instance want to use it where you're planning to grow other brassicas (cabbage family) next year, as I unbelievably saw one organic gardening 'expert' recommending!  Red clover, lupins and winter tares are nitrogen-fixing legumes which 'fix', or absorb, 'free' nitrogen out of the air - so they would actually be a far better choice. But again - don't use those where you want to grow peas and beans next year - do you get the picture? Otherwise you will have potential pests and diseases all 'tee'd up' (in 'golfspeak'), already 'on the starting blocks' and ready to go early next year! There are plenty of catalogues online if you 'Google' green manure seeds - and they're full of really good free information, so I won't go into it all here.

 

All it takes to grow green manures is a minimal bit of planning. They are well worth the very little trouble they are to grow and they increase biological activity in your soil hugely. The populations of worms and smaller microbial life will increase, making soil much healthier. Contrary to what many people think - worms like green food to eat - just like us. The reason you see so many in manure and compost is because they've already been there for a while at that stage, chomping away on any edible green bits and breeding like mad!  When plant remains have been processed by worms, they are full of beneficial bacteria and something like 9 times richer in nutrients like potash than they were before - which is a stunning statistic!  So worms are really your best friends - do all you can to encourage and feed them. If you're continuously using your soil for food crops and won't be leaving any 'fallow' just to grow green manures, then having a home worm bin is a very valuable adjunct to the garden. What it produces is so much richer in nutrients than the contents of your normal compost heap - and it also adds beneficial microbes, fungi and enzymes to the soil.

 

Green manures also increase carbon in the soil - sequestering  (holding onto) soil carbon as opposed to releasing it into the atmosphere as bare soil does. They protect the mineral surface of the soil and stop it washing away in heavy rain.  If you cover the softer green manures like mustard after they get hit by the first frosts - the worms will gradually draw the rotting plant material down into the soil over the winter - leaving a lovely 'tilth' as it's called. Tilth is 'garden speak' for a nice crumbly surface and just the sort of place that if you were a seed - you'd really like to be sown! This fine tilth is perfect for sowing the root crops which would naturally follow brassicas in the classic four course rotation. Getting your worms to do free work for you in return for their food - is a win/win situation!  Some people advocate covering soil with heavy layers of wood chips but unless your soil is already very rich in soluble nitrogen, or you mix them with a high nitrogen manure like chicken litter, wood chips can rob your soil of nitrogen, as they need it in order to break down - and this can unbalance the soil environment. Dumping loads of compost or manure on top of the soil and leaving it, is equally as bad! Nature doesn't dump loads of anything in one go - it adds things very gradually over time. There are no 'quick fixes' in Nature - but there are some very quick ways to ruin precious soil - so take care of yours! 

 

Heavy manure rant! 

 

The other thing I've seen some people advocating is to dump heavy loads of manure or compost onto your garden - just leaving it uncovered over the winter. This is so totally irresponsible and selfish that it makes me extremely angry! The last thing you should ever do is to cover your soil with farmyard manure, or a heavy layer of compost and leave it open to the elements for any length of time - let alone all winter!  A couple of years ago I was contacted by someone who said that I was completely wrong to tell people that they shouldn't cover ground with manure or compost at this time of year and leave it uncovered all winter!  This was because a particular 'expert', who does it, had said that it was perfectly OK to do so, as leaching of nutrients did not actually happen, and that a lot of organic people had got it wrong! (And presumably all the many scientific studies which have also found the same to be the case!) 

 

The 'expert' also apparently stated that if nutrients were lost by leaching, then the earth would never have grown anything, would be completely barren - and life wouldn't exist - so that proved that leaching didn't happen.  Sorry to disagree - but that's complete rubbish! That attempt at justification really does not hold water!! (sorry for the pun!)  Leaching of nutrients, whether they are natural or chemical, will happen over time if there's nothing growing to 'mop up' the nutrients and if the soil, or surface of the manure covering it, is left open to the weather. The fact that the expert's crops apparently still grew well the following year, without adding more nutrients as apparently stated - even though compost and manure had been left uncovered - is perhaps more a testament to the horrendous amount of compost/manure perhaps used in the first place!  In other words - that in spite of the undoubted leaching into groundwater which would definitely have taken place - there were still enough nutrients left in the underlying soil to sustain crops. That however is NOT proof that leaching doesn't happen - as stated!  I personally worry about the waste of valuable nutrients, the wider environment, pollution of groundwater, water courses, rivers and of course wells - which many of us have in Ireland. This is happening all over the world and the pollution is destroying life in the oceans too with algal blooms etc! The Great Barrier Reef is dying and experts now think that it is mainly due to artificial fertilisers - phosphates in particular - leaching and eventually polluting seawater. We may not think that our little bit makes any difference - but all those little bits add up to a lot of pollution on a larger scale! Think globally but act locally as the Greens mantra has always said.

  

Organic growing tries in every way possible to work along with Nature, to grow crops in a sustainable way,  damaging the earth and all the precious life that inhabits it as little as possible.  We shouldn't just selfishly focus on how well my own crops grow now, without giving a damn about the health of the wider environment - because that eventually affects us anyway - perhaps in the lack of availability of certain species of fish for instance. As I'm always saying - everything is connected!  I think that the majority of organic gardeners care about biodiversity and the wider environment too - and don't just care about not eating chemicals in their food. Growing crops and gardening generally is not a totally natural activity anyway - man invented it many thousands of years ago. 

 

It's man that causes soil disturbance, damage and degradation - erosion, nutrient loss and pollution. Only man that takes more than he needs, causing food waste, carbon loss, leaching of nutrients and also methane emissions when food waste is dumped. Nature doesn't pollute and thoughtlessly dump rubbish everywhere like humans - it continually recycles everything quite naturally - but gradually. Have you ever watched how a cowpat changes quickly over time? - a classic example. Along comes a whole community of creatures like manure beetles and other insects to start on the recycling job immediately!  That Nature abhors a vacuum is a very true saying. It has evolved a perfect system, which never leaves soil bare where there is even the minutest amount of nutrient. Nature covers soil with plants if it can - not manure or compost!  Even when it covers the soil with leaves in the autumn - the trees have withdrawn the nutrients from the leaves before they fall - that is why we have autumn colour. It is also why leaf mould is high in carbon but lacking in nutrients - as that is how Nature ensures that leaf mould doesn't pollute or leach nutrients, and that carbon is returned to the earth from whence it came. 

 

So Nature has it all beautifully worked out because Nature invented it  - or rather - evolved it - so that's no surprise!  Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of ecology surely knows that! They also know that something will grow in even the most unlikely or impossible of niches. Look at environments such as the limestone pavements of the Burren in the West of Ireland for instance, or the Arctic, where even the tiniest amount of soil will have something growing in it. Even apparently barren deserts will spring to abundant colourful life after rain. The only places on this planet that are completely barren are where pollution and soil degradation have been caused by the activities of man.  Anyone can see how leaching happens after heavy rain - in Ireland we have plenty of opportunity to observe that - with fish kills happening regularly in rivers, and the water in some places so undrinkable that people are now having to rely on bottled water!  So I will continue to cover my soil either with a green manure or crop, or even compost covered with a waterproof cover - (if I will need that bed early in the year). I have seen with my own eyes precious nutrients leaching out of it if compost or manure is left uncovered for any length of time. 

 

The old fashioned way of leaving bare ground open to the weather may undoubtedly give you a very nice frost-induced tilth in the spring, but is that any justification for selfishly ignoring possible pollution worries? I think not!  Frost here is becoming more rare and wetter winters are becoming the norm with increasing climate change. I rest my case! 

 

More seeds to save before other creatures help themselves!

 
 

Another thing that needs to be done at this time of year is seed saving, before dried out seeds get damp again and possibly go mouldy -  or little furry creatures help themselves to them!  You can save seeds of any non-F1 hybrid varieties of anything - it's fun to try and it's enormously satisfying to grow things from your home saved seed. Always store seed in envelopes or paper bags. I never put seeds in the fridge as recommended by some books - mine is far too damp! I've always had great success with just keeping them in a very cool room.  I find that all my home-saved seed lasts for years, far longer than commercially produced seed, and it saves a lot of money. Don't do what I did though a few years ago - and put them in a safe place - then promptly forget where that is!  This year I sowed some of my rare McGregor's Favourite beetroot seed, which I saved back in 2009!  At 11 years old, it still germinated like mustard and cress, and beetroot seed is notorious for not keeping long!

 

Mouse damage of precious Purple Podded peas - the joys of seed saving!Mouse damage of precious Purple Podded peas - the joys of seed saving!
 

A few years ago I finally managed to find the 'Duke of Albany' Victorian pea seeds which I'd put in a safe place (fatal in my case as I've mentioned!)  It's an old-fashioned very tall and tasty, main-crop pea - an incredibly rare variety and not available anywhere. I grew it in the tunnel a few years ago and when I went to collect the seed, all the mice had left me was just one pod, containing 6 seeds! Anyway, when I eventually found those 6 in the 'safe place'!  I sowed them - this time into a large pot which I then brought into the tunnel to ripen safely. From those 6 seeds - I had 122.  I was thrilled!  Enough for a 15ft/5m row in the garden this year (about 70 seeds) while making sure I have enough to carry over to next year if any of next year's seed gets robbed!  I now never sow all of any very rare variety, as an insurance against total loss. This winter I shall put the D of A with the rest of my rare seed, in an old cake tin with holes punched in - rather than in that safe place where mice got them before!!    

 

Out with the old -

 

The next job is to finish lifting any potatoes that were covered after blight hit.  It was almost 2 months later this year than the last couple of years due to the hot dry summer - so despite not being able to water them much there's a good crop underneath what's left of them that we haven't yet eaten!. The tops or haulms were taken off, and they were covered with black polythene to stop the blight spores washing down through the soil onto the tubers, which is what actually rots them. Since then I've just been lifting them as needed. They won't survive the rodents though and will just encourage slugs now - so I always lift them now, wash them, dry them well and then store them either in black dustbins in the feed shed, or in large plant trays covered with blankets or old duvets to keep out the light and stop them going green. Over the years I've found this much the best way of keeping them, first putting either an old brown feed bag or a thick wodge of newspaper in the bottom to absorb any moisture and more on top under the lid to catch condensation. Being in the shed keeps the light and frost out of them - much easier and more reliable than an earth clamp - and also a lot less hard work - though not as evocative I grant you! Over the winter I'll lift the lids every so often and inspect them - even early varieties will keep well all winter this way. Always make sure they're well dried off first though, and have absolutely no damp clay on them.  

 

And in with the new! Potatoes for Christmas and New Year crops 

 
 

We're looking forward to a festive treat for the taste buds! Over the years I've found the old-fashioned Duke of York and Sharpe's Express to be the best for producing Christmas new potatoes - but I've also had great success with Mayan gold - which is delicious-flavoured and also Lady Christl too.  I love experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what's possible. They were all tubers held back from last year's crops that were not planted in spring. I kept them very cool - though not in the fridge, in an unused room with no heating, and just lightly covered the crate they were in with cloth - rather than polythene which would sweat. I think the seed companies who have potato tubers for Christmas planting probably keep them in cold storage - but they look nearly as wrinkled as mine, so they're definitely last year's crop! No matter - as long as they're alive - potatoes are always mad keen to grow. I planted some on 22nd August, and a few more a couple of weeks later. 

 

All an early or second early potato needs to have some sort of crop underneath it is no frost and 10-12 weeks of growing, and at this time of year after that they'll just be 'ticking over' anyway. As soon as frost threatens I'll bring them in to the coolest end of the tunnel, where they'll be covered with fleece if it's very cold. Last year I tried Violetta which I grew for the first time 6 years ago and saved seed tubers from this spring. After lifting the spring crop, I put them in a pot ready to take into the shed and then promptly forgot them! The other day I discovered them in their pot still sitting waiting for me on a seat in the garden bless them - but now sprouting because of the rain! Not wanting to disappoint them - I've now potted them up! I think they should do well. I grow several different types of purple potatoes now as they have so many health benefits due to the anthocyanins they contain which gives them their wonderful colour. They're also delicious!

  

Other crops

 

I lifted the last of the garlic a couple of weeks ago. The variety 'Cristo' is one which I always grow every year as I find it the most reliable, even in a very wet year.  You can plant Cristo in autumn or spring - but I find late October/November best for the biggest bulbs. 'Thermidrome' is another very good variety for autumn planting - but that seems to prefer the warmth of the tunnel - where it makes absolutely massive bulbs. Both of them are really good strong-flavoured bulbs. I really can't see any point in growing mild garlic - just use less! The house rule here is you can never have too much garlic in anything - except when the pesto is so strong it burns your mouth - which has been known to happen just occasionally! I shall save the biggest outside cloves from the outside of the largest, healthiest looking bulbs to plant in a few weeks time - and so the cycle begins again. They'll be in the shops soon - so keep an eye out for them!

 

Lettuce planted after cabbage cleared - garlic will be planted in October

In this picture you can see that I've planted several different varieties of lettuce. I like to have lots of different salads all year round - I get bored with just one variety. I always tend to plant alternate 'heading' and 'loose leaf' lettuces so that I can pick the heads, leaving the others to keep on producing for as long as possible. In this bed are 'Little Gem', a good crispy loose leaf variety called 'Fristina', a butterhead and good old 'Lollo Rossa' - which I always find is quite hardy. When any heading ones have been cut, next year's garlic crop will be planted between the remaining loose-leaf lettuce which crops for longer. This makes continuous use of the space in a way that I call 'layered cropping'. 'Inter-cropping' or 'catch cropping' doesn't really describe it well enough for me. It's a bit like layering bulbs with a continuity of herbaceous plants in a border. 

 

There's usually a 2,3 or 4 variety continuity of overlapping crops in all my beds if possible. It isn't really as complicated as it sounds, once you've planned it the first time - you just keep moving it all around your veg plot as part of your normal rotation. Things like growing together - as long as they have the space each one needs to develop properly - and making sure you don't plant 'thugs' with more timid crops!  It's a far more natural way of growing - again just as Nature does it. It also means there's less of one particular crop for any pests to aim at - a problem faced by some of the huge monoculture farms one sees now. This particularly happens if all the hedges have been removed so that pest-controlling beneficial insects have no habitat left, or have all been wiped out by pesticides!  My way of planting the raised beds keeps them looking nice and full too, and what I aim for is a 'raised ornamental potager' effect - just as I do in the polytunnel. It's much easier to achieve when you're not actually eating any of it though!  As I always say to visitors - this isn't a show garden - it's a working garden which hopes to make us as self-sufficient as possible all year round.

 

As I said earlier - it's still not too late to sow some fast-growing salads - there's a good variety available from seed now which will crop in late autumn and overwinter, particularly if you can give them the shelter of some cloches.  Also make sure you have a few good pieces of fleece on standby for the first frosts.  For most of the last few years, we seem to have got one sharp frost around 6th October - and then not much more frost before Christmas. But it pays to be prepared. A couple of layers of fleece if it's really bad, then covered with clear polythene or cloches, will do a lot to save your crops even if we have a very hard frost.

 

Colourful cabbage - bursting with health!  

 
 

A cabbage I grew for the first time a few years ago was an old Eastern European variety 'Kalibos' - pictured here - which has huge beautifully perfect, pointed heads which have a gorgeous deep colour.  It was really delicious, slightly milder-flavoured than many of the round varieties like the old Red Drumhead and with slightly thinner leaves.  It's only drawback is that it takes up a huge amount of room - a bit more than usual. It's one worth putting on your seed list for 2021 though - if you're a red cabbage fan like me. Another excellent new variety of red cabbage which I tried a couple of years ago is 'Red Rookie'. Cropping now, it makes lovely tight heads with no sign of splitting so far - but I'll have to keep an eye on it if we get a lot of rain which can cause that to happen.

 

Cabbage 'Red Rookie' on right - 2 euro coin sitting on top for comparison.
Cabbage 'Red Rookie' on right - 2 euro coin sitting on top for comparison.


We ate the first of the red cabbage a few nights ago -'Red Rookie' is certainly is very early, already having made huge, tightly wrapped heads of crisp, easy to slice leaves. Like Kalibos - it's really delicious made into a coleslaw or just gently sauteed in a little apple juice and butter - a lovely fresh taste and not too overpowering. I didn't do the 'full on' spice thing yet - that's for later on - for cold late November and December evenings when we feel the need for some warming spices and richer meals. Two years ago it stood really well without splitting, gradually getting larger but we harvested it before we got a deluge of autumn rain and it stored well on into winter. Red cabbage is actually more nutritious than green cabbage - especially raw which preserves all it's vitamin C and anthocyanin phytonutrients intact. A recent programme in the 'Trust Me I'm A Doctor' series on the BBC - presented by Dr Michael Moseley - showed that the vitamin C in cabbage also helps us to absorb its iron - so eating it raw regularly is important too.

 

Beware of bringing in dreaded onion white rot!

 

I won't be tempted to plant non-organic autumn onion sets which I saw someone mention on Twitter recently.  I don't want to take the chance of bringing in onion white rot!  A few years ago I was very cross with a particular TV presenter, when he said rotations didn't matter and he didn't bother with them!  Then the next year though  - he was actually honest enough at the end of the year to admit that he now had onion white rot (a couple of Brownie points for that) . The only problem was though that after he admitted that - he then went on to say that it would be fine to plant onions again in 3 years! Sorry but that's complete rubbish!  IT WILL DEFINITELY NOT BE OK!  Onion white rot can survive for up to 20 years in the soil, during which time you cannot grow ANY of the allium (onion) family in that spot or they will die, and it can actually be carried all around your garden on your boots and tools too - so never risk it.  If you want early onions - then plant some organic onion sets, which are widely available now, or plant non-organic ones in tubs, that way if they are infected - they won't infect your garden soil!  But also remember that unlike organic growers who have to be scrupulous about having a proper approved rotation plan for their crops - conventional growers don't have to worry about rotations - so non-organic onion sets will have been grown using many toxic pesticides and fungicides - and I certainly wouldn't want to risk even eating tiny amounts of those!  Wet winter weather after planting also encourages onion white rot. Growing onions from seed in early spring is so easy that I think it's simply not worth the risk! I always sow mine in March in modules, multi-sown 5 or 7 seeds to each block of compost, planting the blocks out in April. I get great crops growing them this way every year - which keep very well. 

 

Onions ripening in late August Onions ripened, harvested and drying off well in the polytunnel.


 

Now's the time to start planning your veg garden for next year - while this year's successes or failures are still fresh in your mind.  Get your seeds ordered early - don't wait until next March! 

 

One of the many wonderful things about gardening as I've said so often, is that unlike in many areas of life - each fresh year brings you another chance to get it just right!  And if there's only one thing more satisfying or beautiful than a garden full of gorgeously-coloured organic vegetables - then that is sitting down to a delicious plateful of them, smug with the satisfying knowledge that you have all of the summer's goodness stored up for the leaner months ahead! With that in mind - I'd better get out and do some more harvesting on this lovely sunny day!

 

My earlier comment about time being so short reminded me that many people have asked me if I ever open the garden to visitors. I don't want to seem like an anti-social grouch.....but sadly I'm not able to - and if I did - I think visitors might well be very disappointed!  This isn't a 'show garden' run purely as a perfectly-groomed example of organic growing - as I said earlier!  If it was it would be an awful lot tidier!  It's a proper working garden that produces most of our food all year round. Combined with cooking everything from scratch, looking after various livestock and also storing produce - that's a full time job in itself! That's without writing detailed blog posts 4-5 times a month, doing my radio programme 'From Tunnel to Table' and other features, writing a monthly column for The Irish Garden magazine, doing talks, inventing and testing new recipes, putting daily organic gardening tips on Twitter and time-consuming extras like Tomato Festivals!  This year I've been delayed by my dodgy ankle and knee too!  However I'm not complaining - it all makes life interesting. And it's especially rewarding that in my small way - perhaps I'm helping to make the world a better place for Nature.

 

I don't have any help here - apart from my son who does all the mowing now since I broke my right shoulder very badly a few years ago. Also because of that injury, many gardening jobs take me quite a bit longer now - like tying up tomatoes!  Much as I really love meeting other gardeners and exchanging ideas - there simply aren't enough hours in the day, or days in the week, to open the garden as well and to show people round in addition to all of the other things I do. So I'm really sorry - thank you so much for your interest - but please no more emails asking me if you can visit - as that entails me having to use up more very precious and limited time in having to reply. While I'm on the subject by the way - I also don't sell plants either as one emailer recently asked me. All of the varieties I talk about on Twitter and here on my blog are available online if you search for them.

 

Do you know that someone actually said to me a few years ago "Wouldn't it just be easier to go and buy it all in Tesco?" .........My answer was unprintable as you can imagine!!  Apart from anything else - no supermarket or any other store sells the satisfying variety of vegetables and fruits that I grow here - especially in a soil which has been organic for over 39 years now!  I love this poem which is so evocative of the abundance of this time of year.......

 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel ....................

....Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

(John Keats)

 

 (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.)

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