Contents:  Don't Trash the Planet!... '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!

 Celery and autumn salads in raised no-dig bed in the kitchen garden - underplanted with garlic to mature next year .

Celery and autumn salads in raised no-dig bed in the kitchen garden - underplanted with garlic to mature next year .

 

Don't Trash the Planet! - Some thoughts for 'International Day of Awareness of Food loss and Waste' 2021

Can you imagine anyone going to all the bother and hard work of cultivating the bed of beautiful, nutritious salad vegetables above - only to throw more than a third of them into the bin?  What would you say to someone who goes to the shops every day and buys three bags of food - then throws one of them straight into the bin on arriving home?  I'm sure like me that you'd call anyone who would do either of those things completely crazy wouldn't you?  But essentially that's exactly what humanity is doing every single day!  Although I've always been aware of the problem of food waste, both from a budgetary and environmental point of view - for this year's Food Loss and Waste day, Gerry Kelly asked me to do a short piece on LMFM radio.  So I did a bit of research which revealed some statistics which shocked even me!  Irish consumers are dumping 80 kg of food each per year - with 50% of salads and 25% of fruit and vegetables binned daily!  Potatoes are apparently the most wasted vegetable, while bananas and apples are the most wasted fruit.  About 20% of bread and bakery products are thrown away, and 10% of meat and fish.  The cost is estimated to be approximately €700 per household every year - money that I'm sure most people could find a much better use for, and it's totally unnecessary!  When you think how easily that could be reduced with just a little thought and planning - it's literally like throwing money into the bin!  Reducing emissions from this waste could also make a huge contribution to reducing the Irish population's collective carbon footprint - something which the government is increasingly anxious about with EU penalties for overstepping emission targets down the road!  The shocking reality is that globally - 30-40% of all food intended for human consumption isn't eaten and ends up in landfill.  As it rots it causes emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which, according to the UN, has a 100 year global warming potential 25 times that of CO2.  THIS - in a world where more than 800 million people go hungry every day isn't just shocking - it's frankly immoral!  

 

Lately we're constantly being exhorted by organisations such as the UN to eat less meat in order to reduce our methane emissions - but none of those organisations distinguish between the methane emissions from meat intensively raised in CAFOs - (combined animal feeding operations, or feedlots) - and organic extensively grazed, sustainably-raised meat. They also don't emphasise reducing our general food waste nearly as often as they should, except on days like yesterday's 'International Day of Awareness of Food loss and Waste'.  But general food waste is something which could be tackled right now, far more easily, especially from the consumer's point of view, without reducing all meat eating to the ludicrously low level suggested as a solution by the so-called 'Great Re-set' brigade - which would leave many people seriously nutrient-deficient, especially in developing countries, who depend on their livestock, live more sustainably, and aren't the ones producing the major portion of agricultural emissions. 

 

However - this blogpost isn't about meat eating, it's about food waste.  But frankly I'm really fed up with the current narrative that livestock reared for meat is to blame for climate change - while many other sources of emissions, not just agricultural, are largely ignored.  And don't even get me started on the obscenely pointless emissions from billionaire celebrities space flights, frequent unnecessary flying, Formula 1 motor racing around the world, and other non-essential human ego trips!  Food is essential to life - but how it is produced matters.  I agree that there is no doubt that the huge methane emissions from the vast industrial CAFOs lagoon-stored slurry, from animals raised on intensively, chemically-grown feed is a result of that inhumane, unnatural and extremely polluting method of that particular method of industrial livestock production.  Eventually all the antibiotic and pesticide-polluted, phosphate-rich slurry produced in the process ends up in watercourses, rivers and then goes into the sea - where it causes toxic algal blooms, killing ocean biodiversity, having already destroyed much biodiversity on land through it's chemically-intensive production methods.  

 

On the other hand, manure from livestock extensively raised on biodiverse grass pasture, by sustainable organic methods and not fed on grain, is gradually taken into the soil naturally with the help of the insects, invertebrates, microbes and fungi, in the integrated circular system which Nature evolved, where nothing is wasted.  This increases the soil's capacity to draw down and store carbon from the atmosphere, and also therefore to hold more water - thereby reducing run-off, and decreasing emissions and pollution.  Some may feel that this is an oversimplified explanation of the very complex problem of methane emissions but although Nature is intricate and complicated - the problem with intensive farming is simply obvious.  I realise that not everyone wants to eat meat, and I certainly wouldn't be happy if I didn't have the choice of being able to eat organic, humanely reared meat.  If I didn't have that choice, then I would be vegetarian or vegan, which I was many years ago.  But I would always eat organic whatever I ate, as it supports soil health and biodiversity, and doesn't use pesticides which are cruelly tested on animals - a fact some vegans often forget.  As my zoologist/archaeologist son reminds me often - humans evolved to be omnivores, but I find that eating meat perhaps 3-4 times a week is quite enough for us, while we enjoy eating a mainly vegetarian or vegan diet for the rest of the week - especially since I grow such a wide variety of vegetables and fruit here.  Eating meat less often, and supplementing it with plant proteins, means that we can luckily always afford organic meat.  

 

Anyway I digress - food waste is a huge problem and preventing it as much as possible is one of the solutions to reducing our collective carbon footprint.  Solutions need to be found to the problems in production and distribution of food, but it is a problem that at least at our level as consumers should be relatively easy to deal with, if we have the will to do it.  When all's said and done - why on earth would you not do something which is far better for the environment, improves the future for our children and saves you money at the same time?  Not to do it is not only stupid but is quite literally throwing our children's future and the future of all other life on this planet into the bin!

 


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

 

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 fast-growing 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 us once again 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:    - 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.  

   

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 salad leaves 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 and conatiners 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, and later broke my ankle. Also because of those injuries, 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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