Contents: Make Space to Nurture Vital Nature Undercover.... Grow Winter Flowering Plants Inside for Pollinators..... Gardening is like Gambling - and well-planned inter-planting like hedging your bets!... Some exciting new Oriental vegetables... Pot on seedlings if planting is delayed.... Peat-free compost and protecting winter salads.... Planting winter lettuce to avoid the common problem of stem rot..... Growing winter salads in containers.... A few seeds saved now means a lot of money saved on seed later.... Saving seeds may even give you your very own new variety!
|Intricately-marked, beautiful Shield Bug hiding under a leaf!
||A polytunnel is a useful protected space in winter for insects and the small birds which hunt them.
Make Space to Nurture Vital Nature Undercover
Ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference (Cop15) this week - a study by experts at London's Natural HIstory Museum has revealed some really shocking statistics about global biodiversity-loss, which make grim reading. "The world's overall biodiversity intactness is estimated at 75%, which is significantly lower than the 90% average considered to be a safe limit for ensuring that the planet does not tip into an ecological recession that could result in widespread starvation."
With biodiversity currently in free fall - now, more than ever, we need to ensure that Nature has some space to survive wherever it can. For you can be sure that as long as destructive industrial chemical farming exists - destroying habitats and using toxic pesticides - then the situation won't get better. So it's up to the rest of us organic growers and gardeners to make sure that Nature has enough space to survive somewhere, so that it can recover when it's under less pressure. You may think that there's little we can do as individuals, perhaps with a small garden, or even just on a windowsill - but it's amazing how little space it takes to attract and feed some of the wildlife essential to helping us to grow food crops, and to keep the whole food chain going. If you're a regular reader you'll know that I've been banging on about this for almost 12 years now on this blog - and before that by giving talks and holding various events, trying to raise awareness of how vital biodiversity is to every aspect of our lives. No matter what our level of awareness or action was in the past - we all need to redouble our efforts and do whatever we can now. And as I'm also always saying - even if you don't want to grow that much food - you can help to support biodiversity, both above and below ground, simply by buying organic. Don't leave it to governments who won't do it, or voluntary organisations who just don't have the resources. It's up to each one of us to ensure that Nature has a future, because if we do that - it will mean that our children have a future too! As gardeners - we CAN do a lot.
At this time of year, when the weather outside gets a bit colder, it becomes very obvious that the dry, protected space in polytunnels and greenhouses are not just a great resource for us, but also for wildlife. It's very valuable in winter for insects and the small birds which rely on them for food. That's one of the reasons that I always grow so many flowers and herbs among my crops, which I often mention. Growing flowers and a wide variety of crops - rather than just one or two - attracts many insects which help with pollination and pest control, and those naturally attract the other wildlife which preys on them. Combining crops with flowers and herbs, sometimes even small potted flowering shrubs, adding some pots of nettles and native plants, with a small pond or even just a small saucer of water in your polytunnel helps to make it almost an entire functioning ecosystem in miniature - with everything naturally connected just as it is outside. That's why I almost never see any pests. I've barely seen any Blue Tits for months as they've been busy finding plenty of food in the garden outside - but yesterday as I was clearing up the last scruffy bits of the tomato plants which have finished - there was a pair eagerly hunting for any insects they could find wherever I was disturbing the leaves. Luckily the beautiful shield bug pictured above had the good sense to keep moving under the leaves when it sensed me trying to photograph it - so it was quite difficult to get a good picture! I do hope the Blue Tits didn't eventually find it - it was so intricately marked, incredibly beautiful and almost jewel-like! Nature is endlessly fascinating!
Most wild birds become surprisingly tame once they realise that you're not a threat - and that in fact you're even helping them by moving plants and uncovering potential food sources. There were loudly cursing Wrens in the polytunnel too, emitting their sharply staccato "Don't come near, don't come near" cries (incredibly loud for such small birds) and my very friendly Robin closely following my every move in case I produced a worm or two while pulling up the plants. They are so entrancing that I never lose my joy in watching them all. They so clearly enjoy being in my 'Narnia' as much as I do - and their antics are such a distraction that I spent a lot of time time just watching them all instead of getting on with my work. but I don't mind! It gives me so much satisfaction to feel accepted as part of their world and to know that I'm helping all of them to thrive by gardening organically without any chemicals.
Grow Winter Flowering Plants Inside for Pollinators
Another way to help Nature is to sow or plant a few winter flowering plants for bees and other pollinators. I often bring in small plants like winter flowering violas, or potted shrubs like Mahonia or Daphne, just for the winter too if I have room - and they cheer me up too! It's lovely to sit in the tunnel for a while on sunny days, soaking up the sunshine, scent and Vitamin D. The non-hibernating bumblebees are so grateful for the dry pollen and nectar that winter-flowering plants provide under cover - especially if the weather is very wet. On mild days even in mid-winter the tunnels are absolutely buzzing with them. If you leave radishes or some of the Oriental veg to bolt in late winter/ early spring and let them flower, you can eat those flowers in salads and they also provide early pollen and nectar for other important pollinating insects like early hoverflies. Then you may even get the present of a naturally occurring hybrid of some sort - as I did a few years ago. You can see the beautiful results of that event at the end of the article. Winter flowering violas, pansies, calendulas are all favourites with bees and will go on flowering for months, providing flowers for bees which are also edible and brighten up winter salads. Even nasturtiums are worth a try if you germinate them in the warm first now - mine provide flowers and leaves for salads all winter as long as we don't get a very hard frost, and sow themselves all around the tunnel. In Ireland many perennial plants hate our wet winters - but many thrive in the dry environment of a polytunnel. This is exactly that same environment which many butterflies and moths like. Perennials like wild marjoram, Verbena Bonariensis, Scabious, Salvias and others will flower for much longer and often all winter if it is mild..
|Sweetcorn late September - pollinated and swelling nicely. Inter-planted with 'Scarlette' Chinese cabbage
||Chinese cabbage Scarlette interplanted with leeks in a tub
|Celery Tall Green Utah with watercress running around underneath
||Red lettuce Strikeforce and endive White Curled looking as colourful as any carpet bedding scheme!
Gardening is like Gambling - and well-planned inter-planting like hedging your bets!
Over the years I've discovered many combinations of crops that work well together - flexibility is key to growing our own food in a time of climate change, and inter-planting gives us that. I've always loved the French 'Potager' gardens, which were just as productive, but a little more organised and decorative than the classic, sometimes chaotic English cottage gardens, and that is how I try to plant my 'Polytunnel Potager'. 2 years ago having started late due to breaking my ankle badly in March - I sowed many summer crops much later than usual. That makes them much more dependent on good late summer and autumn weather to produce a crop at all - even in a polytunnel. The sweetcorn 'Lark F1' pictured above wasn't sown until mid-June - when in a normal year I would have sown it in pots in late April! My usual method of sowing 3 seeds to a pot, and planting them out in their clumps about a metre apart always works, and they pollinated really well - despite not flowering until early September. I had a great crop. and the beautiful Chinese cabbage 'Scarlette F1' - seemed to really enjoy being in the slight shade of the taller plants. It made lovely firm heads and was very welcome in autumn and winter salads. I usually throw a few of it's outer leaves into 'Chinese-style' stir fries, because the crunchy inner heads are far too beautiful to cook, and also far more nutritious eaten raw with an olive oil dressing, which helps us to absorb the polyphenols in it's colourful leaves. I always inter-plant taller, more upright polytunnel crops with something low-growing, as every year is different, and experience has taught me that even if one crop is a disaster I won't have wasted that ground space completely. The secret is obviously to choose those which like the same growing conditions, whatever those happen to be.
Celery and watercress, which both like moist soil conditions, always seem to really enjoy growing together, inter-planted, and the watercress doesn't mind the little bit of shade from the celery. They are one of my most important winter pairings - both being so useful in the kitchen. Sugar Loaf Chicory and garlic also work well, the garlic growing on to maturity into summer, long after the Chicory has been harvested. Garlic also grows well between lettuce and endive, as again the garlic is tall and upright, and doesn't shade the other plants too much. In the photo above of the red lettuce Strikeforce ( a Lollo hybrid) and endive White Curled - they have been inter-planted with garlic, which won't show for another couple of weeks yet. Perennial Welsh onions or scallions are another good plant for inter-cropping with anything leafy, as again they are upright, and you can cut them as you need them rather than pull them, so as not to disturb the roots of whatever they're growing with, and possibly cause 'bolting'. Of course edible flowers are also a must everywhere - as not only do they provide valuable phytonutrients, like lutein for good eyesight, in the case of Calendula and Nasturtiums, but they also attract beneficial insects.
These plantings can look really beautiful too - an aspect of growing vegetables which is often forgotten, but which is so cheering when it's a dark, midwinter's day outside - and is so beneficial for mental health. It's a win-win in every way growing like this, just as long as you make sure that you always maintain good air circulation - which is especially important in winter. The other really good aspect of this way of growing is that it confuses pests if there are any around, as there is never one huge monocrop for them to aim at! It's also a much more natural way of growing, because Nature doesn't do monocrops. Even in a desert there's always plenty of biodiversity, which is good for soil and any soil-dwelling life! So have fun, experiment, come up with your own colourful combinations!
A young plant of Chinese Cabbage 'Scarlette F1' contrasts beautifully with lemon Pak Choi from Real Seeds 'Vibrant Joy' mix
Some exciting new Oriental vegetables
Oriental vegetables are becoming much more popular and well known now - mainly thanks to the wonderful books written by Joy Larkcom - who I mention again later. I've always found them very useful for fast-growing autumn and early spring cropping in the polytunnel. One very new Oriental vegetable that I trialled in the polytunnel three years ago is this stunning Chinese cabbage Scarlette F1, pictured above growing alongside a beautiful lemon Pak Choi from the new Pak Choi mix called 'Vibrant Joy' from Real Seeds in the UK. 'Scarlette' was only released in 2015 and is the first red Chinese cabbage. Actually 'red' really doesn't do it justice - and neither does a photo. The outside leaves are actually an incredibly deep crimson, shading to cherry-pink which is almost neon-like in sunlight - and the hearts with the tightly-wrapped inside leaves are also gorgeous shades of ;paler pink as you can see below. It has the most fantastically sweet, 'more-ish' taste too - delicious in salads or lightly stir-fried and of course a very unusual colour - a first for Chinese cabbage. The deep crimson colour means it's obviously higher in beneficial polyphenol phytonutrients, so even better for our health than the more usual green Chinese cabbage, and it's definitely one of the most exciting vegetables I've found in years. I've been experimenting with growing it in various ways over the last two years.
I grew three crops of it last year - a spring one, a late summer crop outside and a late autumn one in the tunnel - although it's only actually recommended for sowing outside in May. The late autumn on got attacked by late cabbage root fly sadly and I lost about half of them - although I was still able to use the younger un-hearted plants that had been attacked in salads. Wilting in sunshine is always a dead give-away for root fly - but it's always too late to prevent them by then. Chinese cabbage can't be lifted and replanted which can work with some winter brassicas - because they would bolt. So rather than waste the plants I just used them as small leaves before they died.This year I kept them covered with enviromesh to keep the root fly out - which seems to have worked - although somehow a fat green cabbage white caterpillar appeared on a leaf this morning! Easily spotted against the dark red background as it did rather stand out and was quickly dispatched!
This year I've planted Scarlette in a tube with leeks to see how they do - they're certainly looking very happy and colourful at the moment! I love to experiment with different crops and it's fun trying to push the boundaries with all kinds of crops in the polytunnel. Every year the weather is different and as long as we have fairly even temperatures, with not too many wild swings or hard frosts - I'm hoping that Scarlette will give me a decent crop again before Christmas and avoid the worst of the weather. It stores quite well for 2-3 weeks in a cool place once it's picked, which is useful - although this year I may try covering it with fleece if the weather is cold in December.
|Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart
||New Chinese cabbage Scarlette outside in late spring 2016
I'm also hoping that this year I'll have far fewer slug problems inside the hearts, with planting in tubs! Unfortunately they seem to love Scarlette just as much as we do! If even only one of those little grey ones gets inside a head of Chinese cabbage - it can sit there undiscovered for weeks and do an awful lot of damage! This means that I end up having to do a lot of leaf washing - but I'd far rather do that than ever use slug pellets. Although I try to control slugs as much as possible by trapping them using various methods - I do occasionally get the odd messed up cabbage that needs more leaf washing! Those small grey slugs can be a problem in damp autumns both outside and in the tunnel - but my method of putting pieces of slate around the base of things is a good way to trap them before things like cabbage and lettuce start to heart up. After that they tend to hide in the hearts and it's much more difficult to get the little blighters before they do damage! Remember though - a few slug holes won't kill you and won't affect the taste of the cabbage - but metaldehyde slug pellets kill many creatures indiscriminately! They also pollute our groundwater, so that we may eventually end up drinking it! Interestingly though - veg that have been attacked by pests often produce more phytochemicals in order to protect themselves. So who knows - perhaps those with a few slug holes may make them even more nutritious! Now there's a thought - maybe we should encourage them??... No - I'm only joking!
Anyway - unless you're showing your veg - do a few holes in them really matter that much? Wildlife matters far more - and I'd rather have a few slug holes and keep my lovely blackbirds and hedgehogs than be without them forever - which may happen soon if we don't stop poisoning the things they eat! Remember how that Joni Mitchel song "Big Yellow Taxi " went?..... "Give me a hole in my apple - but leave me the birds and the bees!"............
Pot on plants if planting is delayed
I would normally have planted all of my winter salads in the polytunnel by now, but have had to pot on some of them, as they're waiting for the courgettes to come out which are currently still cropping, albeit a bit more slowly. Although some might think this is a lot of trouble - it's well worth it because it means that plants keep growing well and don't get a set back. If they're checked at this time of year they don't recover as well due to the lack of light - but on the other hand - if we get an unseasonable warm sunny spell many things like spinach and Oriental veg could even bolt and run up to flower if they get checked, and they'll certainly never crop as well. I always try to plan any autumn planting for early mornings, so that I have a whole day with the tunnel doors open after watering them in. Doing that gives the air a chance to circulate and gives any sun a chance to warm up the soil and dry off the soil surface a bit before night time. This avoids damp air hanging around the plants and helps to prevent diseases. After the end of October growth slows up so much that they're mostly just 'ticking over' then.
I'm still sowing some fast-growing Oriental veg at the moment - they germinate gratifyingly fast considering the time of year - especially if you germinate them in the house and then put them out into the polytunnels as soon as they're up and need light, as I do. The Oriental salad mixes are all great for adding a bit of colour and variety to winter salads - adding a bit of 'zing' to the more usual winter lettuce. They're fast-growing, great value and more hardy than most people think. They even survived the really cold spell early last year when we were snowed in for about 10 days - just covered with a bit of fleece on the coldest nights! All those brassica flowers are great food for bees in late winter/early spring - and if you like one plant in particular you can save seed from it if it's not an F1 hybrid (see below). I always sow a few modules or small pots of these useful vegetables for tucking into odd corners in the winter brassica rotation.
Talking of Oriental veg always reminds me of the wonderful Joy Larkcom - the Oriental veg queen. Given the season that's in it - I thought you might enjoy her picture of my pumpkin display below, from the early 1990's. I make an arrangement of them every year as they are so beautiful to look at and very photogenic! This photo of pumpkins in my hall was taken by Joy when she stayed here to give a talk on oriental vegetables in 1991, which I organised at The National Botanic Gardens. She's been the acknowledged expert on Oriental vegetables and salad plants for many years - her brilliantly comprehensive book 'Oriental Vegetables' is still very relevant now and well worth seeking out. Many of you will have met Joy and enjoyed her inspiring talks more recently, as she now lives in Ireland - very happily for us.
Anyway the pumpkins and squashes pictured are so unlike the usual 'Halloween'-type carving pumpkins - the flesh of those is pretty watery and tasteless. These wonderful varieties of pumpkins and squashes are dry and rock hard, keeping for months, often for a year! But beware - you'll need a machete or an axe to break into them! When you do though, they make all sorts of delicious and nutritious meals. I haven't grown nearly as many in the tunnel this year as I was growing so many tomatoes again for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival - and I must say I miss the wonderful variety of them. I normally grow at least a dozen varieties but this year only grew four with having to restrict myself to growing them in the polytunnel due to sowing them so late. There just isn't room for everything - and sadly they are one of the few plants that really hate container growing' and also takes up a lot of room! They like plenty of root room, or they tend to become unhappy and get powdery mildew very quickly. I usually grow a few in one of the tunnel beds as an insurance policy, because our 'summers' can be so unreliable here in Ireland and they really don't do well in very wet summers. They're one veg I would hate to be without for the winter months. They look so cheerful and full of summer sunshine sitting on the recycled butcher's block in the hall, that I hate using them! They're always a terrific standby though, as they keep so well and one slice just baked on its own with a few herbs and garlic, with butter or olive oil makes an easy filling meal. They also make the most wonderful soups and stews.
My display of long-keeping pumpkins and Winter pumpkins and squashes grown here in 1991 (photo by Joy Larkcom)
One fast-growing oriental veg that I'm sure that Joy would love is the multi-coloured Pak Choi 'Colour and Crunch' - pictured here.
The young leaves are really tender and delicious in salads, and the older leaves in stir fries. I love the acid lemon-coloured leaves of one of the mixed varieties - but sadly, that one seems to want to be the first one to flower first out of all of the plants in the mix, so probably won't crop as long as the other varieties. As they're very fast growing - I'm going to make another sowing now and hope for a relatively mild late autumn, when they should still develop well under cover, in the shelter of the tunnel. They did exceptionally well last year in the tunnel, cropping for months, by picking individual leaves, not cutting the whole plant. They were really delicious in salads and stir fries. They need to go in the brassica bed though - not with the lettuces. Another thing I've just planted in one of the brassica beds is calabrese Green Magic - which produces lovely tender shoots steadily all winter which are lovely lightly steamed or raw in winter salads.
Oriental radishes and all other brassicas are very good for our health, being a member of the brassica/cruciferous veg family and full of health-promoting phytochemicals. Another recent new favourite of mine is the lovely 'Pink Dragon' (from Marshalls seeds, pictured here). It will grow in deep containers as well as in the ground, and if kept well-watered, it's really tender and crisp, not at all woody and not too fiery. Delicious fermented as pickles or in Kimchi too! The leaves of radish 'Pink Dragon' are also tender & tasty enough for salads, and if you leave one or two until spring, they will also produce beautiful edible flowers which pollinators like bees and hoverflies love. You can still sow other Oriental winter radishes like Pink Dragon in the tunnel now (see my 'What to sow in Oct list). They won't be as large but will still be useful and the leaves are also delicious and very nutritious.
Using peat-free composts
Winter salads following tomatoes
All the different winter salad seedlings have done really well in the peat free organic compost again as usual - even the multi-sown ones with groups of seedlings in each module. Since I started using the peat-free - I've never lost so few autumn-sown plants. In fact, I haven't actually lost even one tiny seedling this autumn. In the peat composts I used years ago before peat-free ones were available, I would have expected to lose anything up to 30% through damping off in cool, damp autumn weather. Seedlings don't have as much disease-resistance grown in peat composts as it's not a natural growing medium, and the chemical fertilisers in them definitely make plants far more disease-prone. I know that the organic peat-free one costs a bit more than the peat based ones - but if you get healthier plants with far fewer losses any - then it actually makes the compost look a lot cheaper!
When you consider how expensive seed is these days, or buying-in plants because yours have failed, peat-free composts are more than worth any extra cost - quite apart from any environmental considerations! Peat bogs are precious habitats which have trapped and store carbon for millions of years. Digging them up for fuel or gardeners' use can release more carbon than cutting down rain forests! That never seems to get as much publicity though! They also support a massive range of biodiversity. Many bogs have specialised plant, insect and bird life which you won't find anywhere else. When the bogs go - they go too!
There is no excuse for using peat composts because you just can't be bothered to think about the damage to wildlife and our rapidly changing climate, or just want to save a few pence! There are plenty of good alternatives now, and because your seedlings are healthier you will lose fewer and produce more veg anyway, which will offset any difference in the cost!
Planting winter lettuce to avoid the common problem of stem rot
Keeping wet soil away from the base of the stems of lettuces, endives, chicory and other 'soft' salad plants is absolutely
key now to avoid stem rots - which can often happen at this time of year. When planting lettuce in particular, I'm very careful not to plan too deeply and completely bury the modules. I make sure that the top of the module is just level with the soil surface, and I only firm them in very gently before watering in. After that I only water between plants if necessary - not directly onto, or very close to the plant. It's not as much of a problem with spring plantings - as plants are growing far more quickly with the increasing light at that time of year. The opposite happens in autumn.
Pictured above are several different types of hardy winter lettuce, claytonia and lamb's lettuce, inter-planted with quick growing summer spinach for late baby leaves and also some winter-flowering violas which provide nectar for any late beneficial insects, which look really attractive and are edible. I can never understand those people who think that tunnels should be utilitarian and boring in the winter - or even summer come to that! I always make an effort to make them look ornamental as well as being full of useful vegetables. I try to achieve a sort of 'Polytunnel Potager' effect as I've mentioned many times before, by growing lots of flowers all around the tunnels among the crops to attract pollinating and pest-controlling insects! The varied colours really lift one's spirits in late winter, when you begin to wonder if spring will ever arrive. A few years ago, in the depths of winter, Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon kindly wrote that my tunnels were "Not quite Narnia - but definitely a very different universe to that outside"!
Protecting winter salads
After planting I put wire cloche hoops at intervals along the newly planted beds, so that they're in place and ready for suspending fleece just above the plants on cold nights. Doing this traps warmer air - giving much more effective frost-protection than having fleece resting on the plants which can also stop air circulation and cause leaves rotting in very cold weather. I uncover the plants in the mornings - and dry off the fleece, which can become quite wet and heavy in the damp atmosphere of a polytunnel. I hang it up on the crop support bars to dry out. Fleece is invaluable for protecting winter salads and other tender things in the tunnel. Buying a big roll and splitting it with friends is a good way to reduce the cost. You can buy a huge role of light fleece in your local farm supply shop for less than the price of two miserable lengths in any of the DIY multiples or garden centres! I cut some new pieces each year for the salad beds so that they're absolutely clean. Then I use the older bits for other crops like potatoes etc. that don't need clean fleece. It really is worth taking the trouble to use it - there's nothing like walking into your polytunnel on a cold winter day and seeing lush, almost summer-like growth!
Always have some fleece at the ready from now on - cut to the size of your beds - in case we get hard frosts. It really can make the difference between having or losing crops and is well worth what some might say is a lot of bother - only 5 mins in fact! Although a couple of days ago I was out in the tunnels in bright sunshine trying to plant stuff and the heat was so unbearable in there at 11.30 am in the brilliant sunshine - the nights can be really cold from now on. All plants will benefit then from the extra protection of some fleece if the weather gets much colder. It can often actually be colder inside a polytunnel than outside on late autumn and winter nights. Greenhouses aren't as cold - something to do with thermal radiation.
Growing winter salads in containers
You don't just have to grow in the ground in polytunnels - you can grow all sorts of vegetables in containers very successfully too. In fact it can often be a lot easier to grow some organic crops this way rather than growing them in the ground, as growing leafy salads in containers almost completely avoids problems with pests like slugs and snails, since the pots are well above the ground. All you need is a container which is big enough to support the roots and has drainage holes in the bottom. There is almost nothing that you can't grow this way given a big enough pot or container. The sky is quite literally the limit - and so-called 'vertical gardening' works well in a polytunnel too. It's something I've done since I had my first small garden over 40 years ago long before we moved here, and I still do it! It's so useful for cramming plants into small spaces and even into big ones - it can really extend the range of what you grow.
It's important not to forget that container-grown plants are completely dependent on you though - so even in the winter you will need to make sure that they never dry out or they won't crop for long
. You could even grow a few winter flowers for salads too. Winter flowering pansies or calendula look really pretty mixed in with your veg and things like trailing nasturtiums which will go on flowering for much of the winter too, as long as it's not too cold. Again they will attract beneficial insects to help with pest control and pollination of other crops. Anyone, even those without a garden, can have their very own beautiful and productive potted mini 'potager' as long as they have even just a path to their front door! If you have a well lit glass porch, or one of those tiny lean-to greenhouses on a balcony - you can have some crops inside even if you don't have a polytunnel! The winter radish 'Pink Dragon' that I mentioned earlier is very happy in a large tub and can be ready to eat quickly at this time of year. In the picture here it's growing with Kohl Rabi which will go on growing up to tennis ball size when the radish have been harvested. They're both useful crops for containers which can still be sown now.
Radish Pink Dragon & Kohl Rabi Azur Star growing in large tub
(slightly drunken angle!)
I needed some extra growing space when I grew so many tomatoes (46 varieties!) for my Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012 and 2013 - so I grew a lot of the tomato plants in 10 litre buckets - 3 to a 'grow bag' tray. It was the first time I'd tried so many different varieties. It worked really well - far better than grow bags due to the greater depth of compost. Even beefsteaks ripened at least 6 trusses on all of the plants - and eight huge trusses ripened on the cherry plum variety Rosada (but then - that tomato always outdoes anything else!). They actually did far better and were earlier than those planted in the ground - possibly because the roots were warmer. There's no need to immediately ditch all the compost from the buckets afterwards - you can re-use it for different crops with a little bit of re-charging. When the tomatoes were finished I cut them off at the base, cutting out the toughest bit of the stem and roots with an old bread knife. I then forked over and recharged the soil/compost mixture with a little worm compost and Osmo general organic fertiliser.
I added a bit more soil/compost mix where necessary and then planted them up again with things like salad mixes, lettuces, spinach, broccoli and kale plants. For potatoes I would use home made garden compost in the bottom of the pot - or if you don't have any then a little well-rotted manure would do. I then make up a half and half mix of soil/organic potting compost plus a very small handful of a general organic fertiliser like Osmo, and fill up the container. For plants that need well-drained conditions, I use broken up polystyrene for drainage in the bottom of the larger heavy pots - this is a really great way of using this otherwise non-recyclable material that bedding plants are often sold in. It's free - and also makes the pots a lot lighter than the stones or gravel usually recommended - so you don't hurt your back moving them! Very important for me, as I've had degenerative disc disease for over 30 years but absolutely refuse to give up gardening, as it keeps me fit!
The stepladder garden I invented a few years ago is a terrific way to grow salads in a very small space and even a convenient way to have healthy salads right by your back door all year round, even if you don't have a garden.
The same salads growing on the ground would take up about four times the amount of space! Here it is beside the log bag raised beds in the west tunnel, at the end of March. Many years ago while expecting to move house at any moment - over the course of a year I grew an entire veg. garden in various containers! I even grew over 40 lbs of runner beans in M&S carrier bags! (They were a lot stronger in those days!) Even though I have a big garden now - I still grow lots of things in containers of one sort or another. It's a very flexible way to maximize space in a greenhouse or polytunnel - for instance planting a few very early potatoes in pots rather than in the ground - which can then be moved outside later to make room for other crops when any danger of frost has passed. On the other hand - in the autumn you can do the reverse - lengthening the season by bringing container crops in again to protect them from colder weather. I've got a terrific late crop of basil in containers at the moment - it loves the drainage and warmer root run of the buckets. Even onion sets and garlic can be grown in pots - that way you can get really early onions and also avoid any possibility of bringing diseases like white rot into the garden. If you have onion white rot disease in your garden soil - containers are a great way to still be able to grow them, as long as you don't use infected garden soil. It also avoids growing crops in the same place too often and causing a build up of diseases.
Apart from pumpkins which I've already mentioned - most crops are quite happy with a depth of only 30cm to grow in - perhaps a bit more for very tall crops. The only exception to this are sweet potatoes - which need a minimum of 18in/45cm depth of compost under them. This year I've grown them again in the recycled log/skip bags that I get the logs in for our wood burning stove. They love them! The skip bags make fantastic home made raised grow bags and two fit onto a large grow bag tray very conveniently. As they're so deep I fill up the bottom with all sorts of garden rubbish to save using up good compost - old pot plants and used potting compost, newspapers, prunings, grass clippings etc. and topped them with a layer of garden soil mixed with good organic potting compost, about 30 - 45 cm deep. I plant 'extra early' potatoes, kale, beans and peas in these homemade 'Hugelcutur' grow bags very early on in spring - and then follow them with the sweet potatoes. They take off like rockets - obviously thoroughly happy, and grow luxuriantly in all directions, so much so that I had to keep cutting back the trailing foliage, something I would never normally do for fear of weakening the plants. Many crops also grow well in 10 litre recycled mayo/coleslaw buckets begged from the local deli. They only last about 3 years before they start getting brittle from exposure to light - but since they're free and you can then recycle them - who's complaining?! Start collecting your buckets and containers now, ready for next year!
A few seeds saved now means a lot of money saved on seed later!
Saving seed of tomato 'Doctor Carolyn'
One of the other things I've been doing over the last few weeks is saving tomato seed. I always keep one or two of the best, really ripe fruits from any non hybrid (non F1) varieties I will want to grow again as this saves a lot of money. Also the best examples of those that have done here well may become gradually more acclimatised to my own garden climate. I came up with a new way to rot them a few years ago! Instead of putting the fruits in small trays or plastic cups to rot as I used to - I now put them into freezer bags with the name written on them straight away so they can't lose their labels! You'll be amazed how similar all tomatoes look when they're rotting and starting to nicely decompose - they really stink too! Nature doesn't put them into jars of water - it just rots them where they drop! When they're nicely rotted, I squish them up (technical term!) to a smelly fleshy pulp which I then push through a small fine sieve and just rinse briefly then.
When I've pushed out as much flesh as I can I smear the seed that's left in the sieve onto a couple of layers of kitchen paper to dry - immediately writing the name in one corner with an indelible marker! I've lost count of the number of times I forgot to do that one particular vital thing and ended up with lots of unnamed seeds! I'm afraid I'm not always the most organised person in the world, always have at least two jobs on the go at once, and often get called away when I'm in the middle of doing something! (Cake burning in the oven etc. - you know - usual thing!!) Last year I sowed what I thought were the black tomato Indigo Rose, and ended up with John Baer - a very good, early middle sized tomato with a great flavour - luckily for me! Last year I sowed what I thought were John Baer and most of them were, But I got a huge surprise when just one plant produced a deliciously meaty, orange egg-shaped medium sized tomato . Luckily it wasn't one that I gave away as I always do with my excess plants. I gave a huge amount of spare plants again this spring to someone to distribute among local allotment gardeners. So I'm saving the seed of that one for sure. I will have to keep sowing it for
4-5 years to see whether it will keep reproducing the same tomatoes though. If it does I will have bred a new tomato quite by accident - which brings me nicely onto the next topic!
Saving seeds may even give you your own new variety!
I've been saving seeds of all sorts of plants for many years. It's such a satisfying and fun thing to do - and I'm always so surprised and delighted when they germinate the following year - even after all these years of gardening! Nature is wonderful! Over the years I've saved some varieties that would otherwise have been lost altogether, and that's even more satisfying. Why not try doing it yourself - if you don't already. It's great fun! You can save seed from anything that's not an F1 hybrid - whether vegetables or flowers. Who knows - Nature may even give you the gift of a new variety - as happened in the case of the several new kales I have grown which are descended from an interesting looking seedling that I was too curious to weed out a few years ago while hand-weeding. I dislike hoeing for this very reason and always weed by hand. You're not close enough to recognise what you may be losing when you're hoeing! Anyway - that original seedling was almost certainly a hybrid (or cross) between my Ragged Jack Kale - which I've been saving my own seed of for around 35 years now - and a frilly leaved purple mustard, which the bees must have cross-pollinated.
I always leave my overwintered brassicas and Chinese leaves to flower in late winter early spring to provide early food for all the nectar loving early insects and vital pollinators. In return - Nature gave me a most welcome and beautiful present! Although I isolated it, pollinated it and saved seed from the original seedling when it grew up, it set very few seeds being a 'mule' - a millions-to-one chance as a very rare cross. I also tried to take cuttings but it wouldn't come from those as it's DNA was obviously leaning too much towards the biennial mustard end of the spectrum. Mustard is determinedly biennial, whereas some kales can come from cuttings. It tasted horrible too - really hotly 'mustardy' which I don't like. I sowed some of the resultant seeds and you can see some the incredibly diverse and beautiful results below. 12 sown, 10 germinated, and every single one was different! The following year I sowed the last few seeds and got 12 more beauties. I was hoping that these would come from cuttings, as they had a much more pronounced kale taste and were perhaps leaning more towards the kale end of the DNA spectrum. Sadly gave the plants away to a well-known plant breeder who promised to raise them from cuttings but apparently didn't! However - I still have some saved seed from those original hybrids and will sow them again next year. Luckily brassica seeds keep well for several years.
Perhaps I was far too trusting and naive? I certainly rue that decision now - although I'd hate to become too cynical. The sad moral of that tale is - that if you have something very special - don't just trustingly give it away like I did. Similarly - although many ideas in gardening have been handed down for countless centuries - some may be new - perhaps discovered through individual circumstances, gardens or climate. I always credit others if I use their original ideas - but sadly not everyone does. It's a lesson I've learnt over the last few years of writing my blog and from being on Twitter in particular - so perhaps you will understand the copyright notice that I put at the end of each blog page now - just to make people consider that a lot of work goes into it.
The pictures below of two of my lovely kale hybrids really don't do them justice!
Kale hybrid 1. contrasts stunningly with Anthemis and worthy of a place in any herbaceous border!
Kale hybrid 2. the colour of one of it's grandparents, Ragged Jack but the finely cut leaves of the other frilly mustard!
(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.)