Contents: Sets versus Seed - Why it pays to know your onions! Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is easy if you grow it yourself!.... Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!.... Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - A daft idea!... It's the season of firsts - but also gluts!.... Soil is more precious than Gold!.... Splendid spiralisers!.... Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now.... Carry on composting!.... Drown perennial weeds.... Keep mulching....
|1. Multi-sown onions 'Golden Bear' & 'Red Baron' - in module tray hardening off before planting out 30th March
||2. Multi-sown Golden Bear onions in clumps of 4 or 5 - pushing each other apart to form medium sized bulbs.
|3. Multi-sown red and green onions starting to die back and ripen in late August - only a few have bolted,
||4. Multi-sown Onions ripened, harvested and drying off well in the polytunnel. 17th September. They will keep for months
Sets versus Seed - Why it pays to Know your Onions!
The end of July and beginning of August is the perfect time to plan for one of next year's most important and nutritious culinary crops - onions. Seed companies are just starting to advertise next year's seeds and sets now, and as I'm always saying - planning really pays off. Recently on social media I've seen a lot of pictures of onion crops being incorrectly harvested, long before they are ready, while the growing tops are still beautifully green and the 'neck' of the onions is still thick. Often the gardener has actually bent the tops over while they are still growing well. It's such a pity to see this, when a few more weeks growing would have given the crop a chance to die down naturally, drying off gradually from the top down, and bending over as they do - with the necks narrowing and the bulbs becoming ripe enough to dry off and store for months. Many of the crops I've seen have clearly also 'bolted' - producing tall, hard flower stalks which are pretty much unusable in the kitchen as they're so tough and woody - unless one spots them very early on and uses them immediately for some onion flavouring. Most of those crops have been grown from 'sets', which are basically just immature onions, grown to a small size, with growth then artificially halted and the tiny bulbs heat treated to prevent them from 'bolting' or running up to flower after re-planting - which isn't always effective.
While planting these sets is undoubtedly easy and quick, and will give you slightly earlier crops - 18-20 weeks to harvest, as opposed to 20-24 weeks for seed grown crops - sets can be unreliable and may come with a host of problems. So what are those? First, from experience, I find that sets are much more sensitive to the fluctuating weather conditions which we seem to be experiencing more frequently with climate change. They're more sensitive to sudden heatwave and drought, and less frost-hardy than onions grown from seed, with many more likely to bolt. This is the same whether the sets are organically grown, or if they are conventionally, chemically grown with pesticides and fungicides. Even when grown in the well-drained conditions they like - in a cool, wet year, onions from sets are also far more prone to diseases like downy mildew and neck rot than those grown from seed. The worst disease of all that onion sets may bring in is onion white rot - something you really don't want in your garden! This will infect any members of the onion family, even ornamental ones, which are grown in the same soil within 15-20 years, and can even be carried around on your tools and boots! Chemically-grown sets are far more likely to bring this disease in, despite being treated regularly with toxic fungicides which leave residues in the sets. This is because conventional growers don't have to worry about crop rotations, and may grow plants destined for sets in the same soil for many years, resulting in that soil becoming unhealthy, and if not infected, definitely lacking in biodiversity and trace elements. Certified organic growers can't do this, as they have to agree under the legal requirements of their certification agreement to provide cropping plans for their holding for inspectors approval every year, and they can also be spot-checked at any time without prior notice to check if they are following their plan and doing things correctly. Organic soils are also far more healthy and contain more biodiversity, so any plants grown in them will naturally be much healthier, having the ability to protect themselves better from disease.
In general I prefer to grow onions from seed - multi-sowing them in March in blocks or modules of organic, peat-free compost, for planting outside in April. As I don't want huge exhibition onions - just a usable size for the kitchen, I tend to sow 5 or 7 seeds to a block, without thinning - the higher number of seeds giving smaller onions. But if I want some really early onions in the spring to guard against my stores running out - I plant some 'autumn planting' sets in well-drained, peat-free compost in large tubs, which means that I can vary their cropping time by growing some inside and some outside. These can be planted quite close together, about 10 cm (4 in.) apart giving medium to large bulbs which push each other apart as they grow. Growing sets this way also means that any diseased sets can be yanked out immediately they're spotted, with any compost surrounding the roots, and put into the recycling bin. - NOT the compost heap! My favourite red onion variety is Red Baron, and my favourite white or yellow onion is Golden Bear. Organic seed of both of these reliable and tasty varieties is quite widely available now. Organic sets are also available if you prefer those, or want to grow an earlier crop in tubs. I shall write more on growing multi-sown onions early next spring.
Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is so easy, more healthy, fresher and more delicious if you grow it yourself!
One of the greatest joys of growing your own organic vegetables is being able to eat seasonally and rediscover how really fresh organic vegetables, untainted by chemicals, should taste. I believe it satisfies a very deep-seated need in us - and that's not surprising since humans evolved to eat food grown by nature, in its purest form possible, in an unpolluted world - each type of food in it's proper season. I think that all year round availability of everything has ruined many people's anticipation and enjoyment of food. It's lost much of it's excitement and has become almost boring! These days you can find vegetables and fruits from the furthest corners of the globe on supermarket shelves which are all particular varieties chosen for productivity, uniform appearance, ability to travel without bruising and for long shelf life. They're sadly not chosen to taste fantastic and to be as nutritious as those you can pick fresh from your own garden. They are often picked long before they are ready to eat, and are devoid of most of their natural taste and nutrients. They are mere commodities, conveniently packaged into whatever form makes them the most commercially profitable for the 'pile it high and sell it cheap' supermarkets! Low cost food seems to be more important to some people than food quality - but you get what you pay for! It's definitely worth growing a few vegetables yourself if you possibly can - even if you only have the smallest patch of ground, a tub outside on a path or a window box.
Increasing numbers of scientific studies suggest that long-term consumption of a diet high in a wide variety of colourful plant phytonutrients - 'eating the rainbow' in other words - offers protection against the development of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases. The healthy exercise and fresh air that gardening entails is also good for us - both physically and mentally! Only organic food, free of man-made synthetic chemicals, grown in it's natural season and then harvested at it's absolute peak, can ever have all the properly-developed nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. I would also suggest that chemically-grown produce and processed foods have ruined people's taste buds - so that they have become dulled, less sensitive and discriminating. Taste is very often tied to nutrition in fruits and vegetables. Many of the aromatic compounds which actually give fruit and vegetables their wonderful array of flavours are in many cases the very same ones that give them their health-protecting phytonutrients. And of course, as I'm always pointing out, studies by Newcastle University some years ago proved that organic fruits and vegetables are up to 70% higher in such valuable phytonutrients.
Just how wonderful is it that you can grow and eat so many things that are not absolutely delicious but are actually good for you? We vegetable gardeners are so lucky! Far luckier than those unfortunate people who are restricted to just buying and eating the often days or weeks old produce they can find in shops!
Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!
Potatoes are one good example of a colourful veg that packs a very powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits. In the last few years, many scientific studies have found that the antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients in purple potatoes like those pictured above, combined with other compounds they contain, can lower blood pressure and actually even kill cancer cells in the lab! That's not the only reason I'm such a big fan of them though! They look utterly fabulous and taste fantastic too! What's not to love as they say? Happily a lot more people now seem to be interested in the stunning looks and health benefits of the blue and purple potato varieties. This was very much shown by the huge reaction on Twitter when I posted a tweet about the very attractive but rare variety Peru Purple. That's why I decided to write about a few of the ones which I have personal experience of. As you will know if you're a regular reader - I never write about anything unless I can write from my own personal experience.
I found my very first purple potatoes, Truffe de Chine - about 40 years ago in Harrods Food Hall in London of all places - which used to be a treasure trove of unusual vegetables then. They were such an exciting find - I'd never seen them before! Since then I've discovered that upmarket veg shops are always well worth investigating for interesting things to possibly grow if you're in London, or any other large, ethnically diverse city. It's amazing what you may find!
I got my original elephant garlic bulb in a small fruit and vegetable shop on First Avenue in New York of all places, many years ago on a rare holiday - long before I decided that I didn't want to fly anymore and contribute to climate change. My very rare holidays or short trips anywhere have always included visits to the local food markets and shops, to see what treats I can find to save seeds or tubers from! If my children are on holidays they are always instructed to do the same! To me, such shops are just like sweet shops are to children, or handbag shops to some 'fashionistas'!! I can never resist that childlike urge to try to grow anything different from pips, seeds or tubers. I grew Cucamelons and Kiwanos that way many years ago - long before anyone had even heard of them. I find it hugely amusing that certain 'celeb veg writers' have apparently only just now 'discovered' them! I've been growing them since before many of them were even born - as I've been a keen 'food tourist' for years!
I've always grown for taste and nutrients rather than bulk, and being an artist, looks are also important for me. After all - we eat with our eyes! As I've already mentioned, both looks and taste are often linked with nutrients. We don't need to eat potatoes 365 days a year - in fact they could become boring if we ate them every day - rather than the treat they are when you grow only the very best-tasting varieties. Food should never be boring - it should be a joy! I like eating tasty potatoes but we don't eat them more than two or three times a week at most - due to their high carbohydrate content. By the way - I never, ever boil potatoes - I always steam or bake them. Boiling potatoes means that you are pouring many of their valuable nutrients straight down the sink! That means they're also losing much of their flavour - which you can see very clearly if you boil the purple ones - as the water turns bright blue! We also always leave the skins on when eating any potatoes. Not only are many of the nutrients actually in or just beneath the skin - but again there's lots of gut-healthy, satisfying fibre in them too - so it's incredibly wasteful not to eat them!
Purple Majesty is an interesting and delicious variety that makes large tubers. This is the particular potato which featured in the blood pressure reduction study. Unfortunately a problem with plant breeders rights means that you can't get Purple Majesty seed tubers here in Ireland. So I'm afraid that being a bit of a rebel - I've always ignored that legal restriction! I've saved my own seed tubers for about 15 years now from some which I originally bought in a Northern Ireland supermarket about 10 years ago, and I've grown them ever since. As long as you don't sell them - that is perfectly legal! And as long as you always ONLY save tubers for seed from the healthiest plants - you can keep your stock healthy so you won't have problems. Purple Majesty is a main-crop variety which really benefits from my method of starting tubers off early in pots. This gives them the longest season possible before the dreaded potato blight hits. As soon as I see evidence of blight I take off the tops, cover the bed with something waterproof and they keep really well for months that way, as long as you don't have slug problems. They also keep well in normal cool storage if you do have slug problems. Purple Majesty retains its colour and phytonutrients well when cooked, has a lovely floury texture for making mash and a fantastic, 'nutty', sort of 'baked potato' flavour - despite being a relatively new introduction compared to some. It's so far proven to be the highest in antioxidants of all purple potatoes and is one of the best tasting varieties too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years. It bakes, fries and steams well - and makes a lovely fluffy mash.
Salad Blue is another potato which is a great masher and baker too. It is an early maincrop heritage variety, thought to have been bred in Victorian times. It's recently become very popular again and well deservedly, and is fairly widely available online. It also keeps very well in storage, after growingin my particular way. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots to give them a long season - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using this method and I never need to use any spray for blight - even copper-sulphate. Fruit Hill Farm in County Cork had it again this year.
Violetta is a deep purple, second-early variety. It's the earliest of the purple varieties to be ready here, and it crops well both in the polytunnel and outside. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some of the non-organically grown Violetta which I tried seven years ago from a well-known Dublin food shop - but I've since found that growing them organically, without the chemicals that make them absorb more water, really makes a huge difference to the taste! I got my original seed tubers from Tuckers Seeds in Devon, who used to sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and were good about sending to Ireland - but sadly they no longer sell online and are now only open to customers at their shop in Devon. Violetta is delicious steamed and eaten with lashings of butter - when it has a nice 'waxy' texture. It's good cold too, in tortillas and potato salads. Sadly it doesn't mash well or make good scalloped potatoes though, as it absorbs a lot of oil when cooking and doesn't crisp up well. It's not a bad baker though.
Attractive Vitelotte Noire after steaming
Vitelotte Noire - (otherwise known as Negresse or Truffe de Chine) is a very old heritage variety which was first recorded as being sold in the early 19th century, in the markets of Paris markets - but it is thought to be originally far older than that. Also a maincrop variety which is fairly late to bulk up - it is a salad type with a similar long shape to 'Pink Fir Apple' but not as knobbly. It has very dark purple flesh sometimes marbled with a lighter colour and has a wonderful flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket vegetable shops. Vitelotte is more resistant to blight and other diseases than many other potatoes - so it is well-suited to organic growing. This was that first potato that I found among the tempting exotic-looking displays in Harrods Food Hall all those years ago. I've been growing it ever since and have passed it on to many people. One of my favourites, I love that I'm growing history too.
Peru Purple, steamed, chilled overnight & scalloped in olive oil
Peru Purple is extremely rare and currently only available from seed banks such as The Irish Seed Savers Association or possibly other keen potatophiles - which is where I obtained mine. It's well worth growing if you can find it! It is very pretty with a deep red-purple skin, and is a slightly lighter colour, marbled with white inside. Although I've found virtually nothing about this particular variety online - (only that purple potatoes originally come from Peru!) - it seems to be a maincrop cultivar. I can certainly vouch for the fact that it makes the most deliciously fluffy, pale mauve mash. It also makes absolutely THE most fabulously crispy scalloped-potatoes ever! It quickly crisps and browns on the outside while staying light and fluffy on the inside. This is an aspect of their cooking qualities that I'm sure you'll understand I naturally felt that I had an obligation to research extensively on your behalf! It will definitely make fabulous oven fries or crisps......but more research will undoubtedly be necessary to investigate this! It definitely deserves to be far more widely known and grown! If you have it - share it - that will ensure that it not only survives but thrives!
A much newer variety which I grew for the very first time last year, looks set to become a firm favourite, is Blaue Annaliese, and I can tell you I'm already completely hooked! A hybrid between Violetta, which I've talked about above, and another purple variety - it was selected for its excellent disease-resistance from its breeding trials and was launched in 2007. It's now late July - there is blight everywhere and so far it is looking beautifully healthy again. despite being in the polytunnel, as I couldn't get any ground ready outside early enough due to my ankle problems - so finger's crossed! It's tubers are such a gorgeous deep violet/indigo- blue colour that they're almost black, so are clearly very high in healthy anthocyanins. They look absolutely stunning cooked too, and have a lovely sweet, almost chestnutty taste. I think it certainly has the most vigorous and healthiest-looking foliage of any potato I've ever grown, but clearly likes plenty of room! It's already smothered the Peru Purple which was 4 feet away! In future I shall give it an entire bed to itself, where it's wandering, far-reaching roots can't get mixed up with any other varieties. Although it is a maincrop variety rather than a first or second early which are more suitable, I held back some tubers from my spring planting to plant in the next week or so as an experiment for Christmas potatoes. I shall report back. Seed tubers were available this spring from Fruit Hill Farm in Co. Cork. https://www.fruithillfarm.com/seeds-and-propagation/organic-seed-potatoes/gourmet-potatoes/blaue-anneliese-organic-seed-potatoes.html
Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - A daft idea!
|Purple Majesty left showing its violet-purple flesh colour - with the deeper-coloured indigo blue-black Blaue Annaliese on right
|Blaue Anneliese looking healthy and vigorous - taking over an entire bed!
While talking of polytunnel potatoes I want to knock this misconception on the head once and for all! I NEVER keep my polytunnels closed to prevent blight at this time of year - because it doesn't! In fact if anything, it positively encourages it! As always - I write this blog from 45 years of personal experience - not from something daft that I've read in a book! You cannot possibly keep a tunnel so airtight that it doesn't allow any air in. And anyone who grows in a polytunnel can tell you that when they are closed, even on a dull day with no sun at this time of year, they can feel like a sauna - especially in Ireland with our higher air humidity, even if the soil in the tunnel were to be so dry that nothing would grow in it! I've grown in a lot of different-sized polytunnels for many years now, starting off with a tiny, 6 ft by 4ft, 'Garden Relax' polythene-covered greenhouse in my very first garden 44 years ago. I now have 2 large, quite high ones with good air circulation - but I can still confidently say that THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO WAY YOU CAN SHUT POTATO BLIGHT OUT OF A POLYTUNNEL! Blight spores are always circulating in the air at this time of year, and all they need are the right conditions to germinate and grow on either potatoes or tomatoes. Those conditions are humidity and warmth, both day and night for 48 hours - and keeping a polytunnel closed day and night for that length of time at this time of year does precisely that!
Careful hand watering of potatoes, ONLY when necessary, in a polytunnel or outside, and NEVER, ever, watering from above or wetting the foliage are key to avoiding blight in hot, dry weather. Automatic watering systems often encourage blight by over-watering and never allowing the surface of the soil to dry out. That's one of the reasons why I hate them, as I mentioned in the polytunnel blog this month. OK - I know standing and watering plants is not everyone's most favourite occupation, but not only is it a lot cheaper than an automatic system - but it allows you more control and also gives you time to really see what's going on with your crops. And that observation and knowledge is what makes the difference between being a really good gardener and just an adequate one.
It's the season of 'firsts'....
Nothing ever tastes quite like that very first bite of truly seasonal produce at it's best - whether you're a new gardener or if you've been growing you have grown your own food for many years! The first strawberries, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas...etc. One of the simplest, most satisfying and most joyous pleasures in life is to be able to cultivate a garden, and to produce as much of your own food as possible - while at the same time helping all of the other creatures that are part of Nature, just as we are. Our garden here has not just been a source of sustenance for many years - but also a source of great joy, health and peace for the soul.
This picture here was taken in 1983, of some of my first summer's produce here at Springmount. It was proudly displayed on the then kitchen table. It gave me such a great sense of achievement back then - and a feeling that no matter what life threw at us - we would survive it all and feed ourselves well! .... I still hope that will be the case for many more years to come - but in the future with the erratic weather of climate change - that is definitely going to be more of a challenge!
I could already clearly notice the effects of climate change beginning to happen here 36 years ago. But few wanted to listen then, and many denied it - when something might still have been done to mitigate its worst effects! In September of 1992, just after the first Rio Earth Summit that June - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. It was given by Alan Gear - then chief executive of the HDRA (now re-named Garden Organic) - the local Irish group of which I organised at the time. His lecture was entitled 'The Road From Rio - Where Do We Go From Here'. His warning was stark - act NOW or it will rapidly get worse, and all of Nature, including humans, will bear the consequences of our inaction! Even then it was clear that soil was part of the solution - and increasingly science is showing this to be more true with every passing day.
Restoring soil carbon through regenerative organic agriculture, by gardening organically without using climate-destructive peat products, or by supporting organic farming, are the best chance each of us has to truly be able to do something personally to help mitigate climate change. The soil was so bad when I started growing here, after years of chemical agriculture destroying all of its carbon, that it was almost like lifeless concrete when it was dry - and like sticky glue when it was wet! It is so much better now after 38 years of minimal digging, constant mulching and loving organic husbandry that I can plant just with my hands - I don't need tools! It is now completely transformed, and it is so wonderful to sink one's hands into it, with its vibrantly alive community of creatures and microbes - truly plugging into the earth and the source of our earliest beginnings. Is it any wonder that it benefits our mental health just to feel it and to inhale beneficial microbes like Mycobacterium Vaccae - which has been scientifically proven to cure depression? It is so sad that so many people never get the chance to experience that.
There have been many changes here since those early days. The children have grown up, various people - some much loved family, assortments of animals, and momentous life events have all come and gone. But one thing never changes - that is that my enthusiasm and desire to learn from mistakes and successes, to constantly look for good new varieties or better selections of old ones and ways to do things even better so that I keep improving the soil with every year that passes. Also to find easier ways of growing that will allow me to continue my gardening even after accidents have left me partially disabled and now less able to do many things. Experiments continue. That's the wonderful thing about gardening - and why it holds such a continuing fascination for me. One never stops learning and no one ever knows it all, no matter how long we do it. Nature doesn't give up all of her secrets easily - but if you work with her - the rewards are plentiful.
Take good care of your soil - it is more precious than Gold!
Gold can't grow food either! We didn't evolve to eat commodities grown with chemicals in the poisoned, impoverished and lifeless medium that conventionally farmed soils have become. Neither did we evolve to eat foods grown in chemical hydroponic solutions, with artificial light where the plants are fed with fertiliser (also often fungicidal) solutions and deprived of all the vital symbiotic bacteria & fungi that are present in a living soil which they need to produce all their proper nutrients! To be healthy and productive - soil and all it's microbial life needs to be replenished, encouraged and protected constantly. That's what Nature does.
We cannot keep taking crops from soil without helping it to regenerate all those natural things it needs. Soil is a living community of microbes - or it should be. In some parts of the planet - soil has just become a completely lifeless, carbon-depleted dust which simply holds up plants while they're fed with chemicals. It has so little organic matter left in it that it erodes, washes away or blows away very easily. We can't keep taking crops from the soil and not replacing all those elements that made them - any more than we could give up real food and just live on vitamins and protein supplements! Soil loss is also becoming more and more important from an environmental, as well as from a food growing perspective, as it traps carbon dioxide and is a massive carbon sink, so it is absolutely vital to mitigating climate change. Only a healthy, living organic soil can do this!
If you would like to know more about how us gardeners can restore soil and by doing so help to mitigate climate-change - here's a link to the soil talk which I gave at our National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin in 2016:
The soil gave us our past and nurtured us. We now hold its future, and ours in our hands. We must use it more wisely. If we keep taking more and more from it without giving anything back, what we are actually doing is robbing our own future - and so are the multinational manufacturers of these planet-polluting chemicals which are destroying it! They don't care about the future of our children - or even apparently theirs! Their only concern is big profits now!
The season of Plenty - but also gluts!
One winter veg I would also never want to be without, no matter what, is Ruby Chard - and now is the perfect time to sow it for good winter crops, before the end of July. I particularly like the variety Vulcan - I've found that it's far better in terms of productivity than any of the other coloured chards, which tend to run up to flower very easily at the slightest excuse. It's very easy to grow and much more bolt-resistant than those as long as you give it plenty of root room and keep it well watered in hot weather, especially in polytunnels in spring. It has equal standing ability to the plain white stemmed one - and of course it's far more nutritious than that, having a lot of the phytonutrients I mentioned earlier, due to the red colour. We think it tastes better too.