January contents: On your marks, get set - grow!...  Why organically-grown potatoes are more healthy than conventionally-grown.... Some tips if you're only just starting to grow your own food..... Seed orders are the main priority..... Why spend time NOW making a cropping plan?.... Why not try growing Oca this year?..... Another job for now is organising your seed sowing equipment.... Recycling saves money and avoids plastic waste.... A home made cold frame is useful if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel..... Grow some 'extra early' potatoes for Easter?.... 


Jack Ice - an exceptional lettuce for winter or all year round growing Lattughino Rossa - another hardy winter and early spring lettuce
Jack Ice - an exceptional lettuce for winter or all year round growing Lattughino Rossa - another hardy winter and early spring lettuce


On your marks - get set!  To grow your own health, reduce your carbon footprint, truly help the planet AND save money at the same time by growing your own organic food.  What's not to like?  


In mid January, as the light starts to increase, the sap starts rising in us gardeners and I always get the urge to sow something!  Pay no attention to those who tell you it's far to early to sow anything!  Things are much quieter in the garden right now, so we all have a bit more time, and if you take care to harden things off carefully and gradually when they starting to grow well and are big enough - there are plenty of vegetable seeds you can sow now for earlier spring crops!  I shall definitely be sowing more of two of my favourite hardy lettuces now - Lattughino Rossa and Jack Ice - both of which can be sown now for early spring crops in the polytunnel or outside.  Both of them are open-pollinated - meaning that you can save your own seed from them and not be reliant on seed companies who may drop wonderful old heirloom varieties without notice, something which I wrote about in this month's polytunnel blog.  I saw that the now 'Big Ag' owned Organic Catalogue has dropped Lattughino this year, when I checked for you to see if it was still available.  Luckily I've saved my own seed of Jack Ice (available from Real Seed UK) and Lattughino for years now, but when I looked to see if Lattughino was now available anywhere, the only company now listing it is: https://www.sativa.bio/en/vegetables/lettuces/leaf-lettuces/lattughino-rosso-ps21 .  It's a terrific lettuce well worth seeking out, and also saving your own seed in future, which is very satisfying and costs you nothing except a little effort!


Waiting until mid-February or early March to start sowing seeds may be fine for those who don't have frantically busy lives otherwise - but decades of experience have taught me that if something unforeseen happens then - that may delay things further and I may not get crops of some veg at all.  Anyway - I'm always impatient to get going too - so I like to steal a march on spring and get a few seeds in early, to ensure I have crops of some of my favourite healthy salad greens and other veg.  In fact, I find the best time to sow anything is when I have the time and the inclination!  You can find my list of what you can sow in January here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/754-what-to-sow-in-january-2022


Fleur Bleue potatoes at the top of the picture sprouting well. Non-organic not sprouting, due having been treated with chemicals

Fleur Bleue potatoes at the top of the picture sprouting well. Non-organic not sprouting, due having been treated with anti-sprouting chemicals


Why organically-grown potatoes are more healthy than conventionally-grown - whether you want to use them for seed tubers, or to eat them!


As most organic gardeners will know - there are many toxic chemicals such as artificial fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides like Glyphosate used in the growing of conventional potatoes. You will also know if you are a regular reader of this blog that I have been studying the effects of such chemicals since my daughter was born with serous allergies over 40 years ago, when our unusually enlightened doctor for that time recommended a totally chemical-free, organic diet. The reason I am going into a little bit more technical detail than usual here, is because I was asked a question on Twitter last week by a doctor who was perhaps questioning my knowledge of such chemicals, as often happens on Twitter!


In addition to all those used during the growing and harvesting of potatoes, there is another which is used after harvest - a so-called 'sprout-suppressant' chemical which prolongs the storage-life of the tubers by preventing them from sprouting, as they would normally start to do in mid winter, once the natural dormant period of potatoes is over. Many people are completely unaware of the use of these toxic chemicals, which I believe everyone ought to know, given their toxicity. 


Potatoes for processing, commercial and table use often need to be stored for 6-9 months, and so some sort of sprout suppressant is required for this unnatural, long-term storage - whereas the homegrown potatoes I have stored here are already starting to sprout. Although there are several chemicals used -  the most wide-spread and most commonly used is one called CIPC or Isopropyl N-(3-chlorophenyl) carbamate or Chorapham.  It is a selective systemic herbicide - 'systemic' meaning that it is translocated and present throughout the plant tissue of the tuber. CIPC has been in use for more than 50 years, and has been the most commonly found residue in potatoes in all surveys since 1994. According to studies, it is among the pesticides which have been found in the highest concentration in the diet of the average American, and comprises 90% of the total synthetic chemical residue found in US potatoes. Studies have also reported that toxicological evaluation of CIPC, as tested and documented under lab conditions, is an underestimation.  Recently various important safety concerns have surfaced over its long-term and continuous use, due to the higher toxicity of it's metabolites (the degradation or breakdown products it produces in the potatoes after treatment) and the fact that the levels of these can increase with the multiple treatments carried out during the storage period, something which was unknown at the time the chemical was first used. 


CIPC belongs to a group of pesticides known as Carbamates.  It is applied by a process known as 'thermal fogging' in order to reach all the stored potatoes, and this step causes not only the thermal degradation of it, but also its breakdown into aniline-based derivatives which have a high toxicity profile. One such breakdown product of CIPC is  3-chloroaniline (3-CA ) and being an aniline-based derivative, it is considered more polluting and highly toxic that the parent compound itself and potentially carcinogenic to humans. According to the Extension Toxicology Network, chronic exposure of laboratory animals to CIPC has caused "retarded growth, increased liver, kidney and spleen weights, congestion of the spleen and death." In the UK, over 6 million tonnes of potatoes are produced annually, and more than half of this production is stored for the fresh market and for food processing. CIPC is currently used as the main sprout-suppressant in commercial potato stores.


Perhaps you might not find those non-organic baked potatoes or crisps quite so tempting now? - Sorry!........ And you'll also now understand why I recommend that you only use organic potatoes to get them sprouting for your' extra-early' potato crops which I talk about later on - otherwise you could be waiting a very long time!  This is obvious in the picture above, showing a comparison between the nicely sprouting organic potatoes in the top of the picture, and the same variety of non-organic ones at the bottom - which have clearly been treated with a sprout-suppressant chemical!


Overture and beginners - some tips if you're only just starting to grow food


Welcome to a new gardening year here on the blog and an especially big welcome if you're a first time reader!  The main advice I would give to any beginner just starting off, is don't be tempted to start off by trying to take on too much - because that can be a recipe for disaster. Start off growing your own food by doing it a little at a time,  then any disasters you may have will only be small ones - not so big that they make you feel utterly useless and you give up!  If you're only starting on a windowsill - or you've even taken on an allotment for the first time, do it a little at a time. Don't try to run before you can walk! 


If you have an allotment - PLEASE don't listen to the old timers on the site who will tell you to spray everything off with weedkillers like Roundup which contain Glyphosate!  Not only do ALL weedkillers kill vitally important soil life that would otherwise help you to grow naturally healthy, more disease-resistant plants - but what the manufacturers don't tell you is that they're actually a complete waste of money, as they don't kill weed seeds.  So as soon as you touch the soil with even a hoe and uncover long-buried seeds, they will grow, because that's what Nature designed them to do!  Seeds will also blow in from other places, and you can't avoid that, but don't worry - there are plenty of non-toxic, nature-friendly ways to beat weeds! 


Instead of using a weedkiller - blocking out the light which encourages weed seeds to germinate is the best thing to do. You can do this by covering the whole site with some sort of mulch and then cardboard or thick wadges of newspaper with cardboard or recycled polythene on top.  Don't be tempted to buy in farmyard or stable manure which may well be contaminated with chemicals like weedkillers or worm-destroying veterinary 'worming' medicines. In the first year, you could either uncover just a small patch, or grow stuff in large boxes or containers on top of the weed-suppressing mulch - that's how I started in my first garden 43 years ago.  Start off with just a few lettuce plants if you can get them - they'll give you faster results and something to pick quickly to spur you on.  But most garden centres won't have them until March - so buy some really cheap 'value' seed like lettuce mixes, or oriental salad mixes, Claytonia etc (see my what to sow list) (non-F1 hybrid seed is cheaper and often more reliable as they are older, more commonly grown varieties).


One thing I would never advise is trying to save money on compost - this is where your growing budget is best invested!  Buy the best quality organic peat-free seed compost you can get.  This will last well if you keep it in a dry place or you could also share a bag with a friend. Buy some organic peat-free potting compost at the same time. Why do you need that? Because it has more nutrients than seed compost and will either be suitable for growing plants to maturity, or for potting them on into larger pots until conditions are suitable for planting either outside or in a polytunnel.


Don't buy expensive seed trays and pots - save money, recycle and ask friends to save for you - soon you'll be inundated! Ask for mayonnaise or coleslaw tubs at supermarket or local shop deli counters - they always have them as they buy that stuff in and then just throw them into the plastic reycling bin when empty.  They'll save you loads of money, make great growing tubs after you put drainage holes in them, they're free and last years if you keep them out of the light when not using them, as light makes the plastic brittle. Some of mine have often lasted for over 30 years!


Start to grow your own nutrients. Make some worm compost - feed worms instead of feeding your council food and garden waste bin!  It's much less hard work as the worms do it for you - then all you have to do is put food waste in and magically get the best super-charged compost out!  Worms turn food waste into wonderful stuff, which doesn't smell, and which is high in nutrients and important beneficial enzymes and microbes.  Making one is a very easy project for cold days.  You could get a suitable bin in the Jan sales - or perhaps you may have something suitable already which you could re-purpose?  Here's a link to my 'How to make your own worm' bin article: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/537-how-to-easily-make-an-affordable-home-wormery


Grow some 'extra early' potatoes for Easter.

Well sprouted Annabelle being planted in a 2 litre pot for an extra early potato cropPlanting well-sprouted seed potatoes in pots
A really easy project for first time gardeners and a really useful one for more experienced ones is to plant some sprouted seed potatoes in pot inside in the next week or so, for a super-early crop.  This is the time when I start off my 'extra earlies' as I call them. They won’t need heat or light yet, as they won’t be up for two or three weeks, so you can start them off anywhere that’s basically frost free - and mouse proof!  I usually do some under my large kitchen table, and in the past often in the spare bedroom!  They won't need light until the tops emerge, but when they do - then move them into your greenhouse or polytunnel and sit the pots on polythene or some other hard surface, not on soil or anything which they could root into, as the roots will come out of the bottom surprisingly quickly and root into whatever’s underneath - which will cause root disturbance later on when you lift the pots to plant them. They hate this and will sulk for ages if that happens! 
For the same reason use a good fibrous, peat-free organic potting compost to pot them in - not soil.  Compost will hold together much better when tipping them out of the pot to plan out - whereas soil would probably fall apart. Just put one seed potato in the middle of each 2 litre pot of compost about two-thirds of the way down the pot - and cover it with compost up to the top. Do this before the end of this month and first-early varieties should be ready for Easter. They only need roughly 10 weeks growing time to have baby new potatoes ready to eat. Lady Christl is the very best variety for doing this as it's the earliest bulking variety and can produce usable sized potatoes after only 8 weeks! I always save my own seed tubers from the previous year - but Lady Christl is widely available now.
If you don't have any of your own early potato tubers saved from last year - then you could look around in veg shops or supermarkets for any suitable first or second early variety which would have stored from last year - but make sure they're organic - as I've already explained above!  Take them out of the packs when you get them home or they'll sweat. Put them somewhere warm and dark (important as they'll start to sprout much quicker that way) like a box under the kitchen table for instance, and then in a week or so they will be well sprouted and you can plant them. Annabelle or Charlotte are very good salad potatoes which are quite happy to be grown this way,. I've seen them all in the shops just recently. When the tops have emerged from the compost, then put them somewhere in good light - like a polytunnel, or if you haven't got one - a cold frame - and cover with lots of fleece whenever it's very cold to prevent frost damage, uncovering if possible during the day if it's mild enough. In case you think this is a lot of faffing around - you'll be so glad you did it, when you proudly serve your very own homegrown new potatoes at Easter!  If you can keep frost from damaging them - you can get really great early  crops before blight hits in a polytunnel.
Extra Early potatoes 'Lady Christl' & 'Mayan Gold'. Harvested 30th April.Extra Early potatoes 'Lady Christl' & 'Mayan Gold'. Harvested late April.
This is usually the month when your stocks of stored main crop potatoes may begin to run low - unless you grew acres of them. If you need some inspiration, then just think of new potatoes, with lashings of butter, in mid-April - yum!  OK - so they're quite high in carbohydrates - but you can reduce their carbs and turn them into what's known as 'resistant starch' by cooking and then chilling them for at least 8 hours in the fridge, then reheating by using whatever method you like. Doing this can reduce their carbohydrate content by up to 50% and make them more gut-healthy. But anyway - if you're not living on them all the time they can't do you any harm occasionally! They're also nutritious and the resistant-starch encourages the good bacteria in your gut to multiply, which is good for your immune system too. If you're still worried about carbs, then just cut back on them in other areas of your diet so you can enjoy some new potatoes - they're one of life's great pleasures!  I'd rather have them than sugar in my tea any day - and we rarely eat cakes or biscuits here, as healthy veg always come first!
Purple potatoes are one of my obsessions - I just love their deliciously nutty, 'baked potato' taste and the fact that they are higher in gut-healthy antioxidant polyphenol phytonutrients which have many health benefits, like lowering blood-pressure and even blood sugar.  There are more varieties of these great potatoes becoming available now to home gardeners, and different varieties can often be found in farmers markets too. They are an unusual and tasty alternative to the more ubiquitous white or yellow-fleshed varieties, and they're becoming increasingly popular with celebrity chefs for their stunning looks. I've grown many varieties of them since first discovering them 35 years ago.  In 2020 - I grew the Blaue Anneliese for the first time, and it was so blight-resistant that one row took over a whole bed in the polytunnel and I was still digging them in early September!  I grew it again last year and was equally delighted with it!  I'm starting some of those off in pots now too, so that I get some earlier, as they are slower to start being a maincrop.
Purple potatoes are grown in exactly the same way as any other potatoes, but the one thing which is very important is to ensure that purple potatoes are always well 'earthed-up'. This is to prevent any tuber 'greening' from light reaching the tubers and causing areas of the toxic and indigestible phytochemical solanin developing, as this is very difficult to see on a dark purple tuber. There are several good varieties available now - Violetta, Salad Blue and Purple Majesty are three of the best that I have grown, and these are generally available online.  



At the moment - there isn't very much that can usefully be done outside 


Now is the time to get on with inside jobs while you have the spare time - because there won't be too much of that in March!  If you try to do anything that involves walking on your garden soil - you will actually be doing more harm than good by compacting and squashing the air out of it. If you have heavy clay like mine - when it dries out it will turn into concrete! I've often been tempted to make bricks or a cobb house out of it - and I have in fact made small pots just to prove it!


The well-known rule with winter soil is - if it sticks to your boots or if you sink into it - then it's far too wet to work - so just stay off it!  Get on with some jobs you can do inside in the warm instead, like getting all your seed sowing kit ready, cleaning seed trays and pots, and ordering the last of your seeds if you haven't already done that - this will be a real help when the spring rush of jobs arrives! It's closer than you think - so it's really time to get on the starting blocks and be ready for action! So keep to the paths if you need to do things! If you're growing in the traditional way on the flat - and you have to step onto the soil to harvest things like brassicas (cabbage family) and leeks - then get a wide plank to walk on in order to spread your weight a bit. This will minimize damage to the soil as far as possible. If you grow in raised beds - as I do - they're great because you can always work from the path without compacting soil at all. This is far better for all the soil life that actually needs air too. Raised beds are also a lot easier on the back, which does make life easier at this time of year.



Why spend time NOW making a cropping plan?


A few months ago someone asked me - "if I could come up with a suggested rotation and cropping plan" for early in the New Year, but this is really something you just have to work out for yourself, other than the usual rule of not growing any one plant family in the same place more than once in 4 years. The main reason for that is to prevent pests and diseases, or nutrient deficiencies building up. It's impossible for me to suggest cropping plans and rotations, as I don't know what you like to eat. or what quantities you may need of any particular vegetable all year round. The classic four course rotation would be potatoes, peas and beans, brassicas, and then roots along with any others like cucurbits (marrows, courgettes and pumpkins) or onion family (leeks, scallions etc.). In practice it's almost always a longer rotation - so 6 beds or more to accommodate the different plant families is probably more realistic if you're aiming at self-sufficiency.. Growing lots of different varieties of veg is a good idea - 1. because it prevents you losing everything if a disease or pest strikes that particular crop.  2. because all the latest research shows that the more variety of plant foods we eat - the healthier our gut microbes are. 3. Obvious! It stops you getting bored and having massive gluts that you can't eat or process for preserving all at once!

Planning also helps to give you an idea of how much seed you may need - so it's another job worth spending an hour or two on now.  A minimum four-course rotation in the vegetable garden is vital in order to avoid the build up of pests and diseases, depletion of nutrients and also to improve soil . If you do a 'scale' plan of your veg plot on graph paper - doing that will also give you a rough idea of how much seed you will need for the amount of any particular crop you want to grow. This may seem a bit 'OCD' to some people, but it's actually very useful. If you only do it once really well - then you'll never have to do it in this detailed way again, as you can just look at it each year and simply move your crops around using roughly the same rotation. Most seed packets will give you an idea of how much seed you will need per so many feet or metres of row, although I find they usually tend to overestimate how much you'll need - naturally - as they want to sell seed!  And of course they also say "sow the seed into the ground......and then thin....." (thereby wasting seed!) Many beginners take this as gospel - sowing ALL the seed in a row - which often then gets wiped out by slugs before the gardener even got to see the seed leaves emerging!
As I sow most of my stuff in modules of peat-free compost now, I find I need far less seed of most things - particularly lettuces etc.  This is because I rarely lose anything to slugs or weather, as seedlings aren't planted out until they're big enough to be far more resistant to the odd nibble from any pests. The spacing for peas and beans do actually work out roughly the same as that mentioned on the packets. I love looking back over all the plans I've made over the years, and remembering particular crops I grew. I have most of my plans going back to the beginning of this garden here over 35 years ago now, along with a huge master plan of the entire garden. Dreams on paper! - Some happened - one or two others didn't. Trying to replicate the large garden where I grew up (as someone once said I was doing) was never really going to happen without extra help - but I've loved trying to nevertheless!  Many disasters happened when I was just learning - but many successes too. The successes always spurred me on each year to do better. Experience is the best teacher - and it's very true that you always learn far more from your mistakes!

Seed orders are the main priority right now

If you haven't already done your seed orders - before you order any, just take an hour or so to organise your existing stock. Then you will know exactly what you already have and what you need more of.  I’ve tried several methods over the years - but the one I find best is to put them into a sort of filing system - sorting them into groups: roots, brassicas, peas and beans, spinach, lettuces, salad mixes and oriental leaves, tomatoes and aubergines, squashes and pumpkins, herbs, lettuces, other miscellaneous etc. - in a similar way to how you would plan your rotations. I stand them up in large recycled fruit punnets or deep plastic meat containers, with a large cardboard label at the front of each punnet. This keeps them all together and makes each vegetable group or packet of seeds easy to find quickly.  
When you've organised your seeds - you can then get on with ordering those you need as quickly as possible - many of the new or popular varieties will sell out quickly - especially since growing  your own has become even more popular with Brexit and Covid.  Definitely do it by the end of this month if you don't want to be disappointed. Many seed companies also give a discounts for ordering early, but sadly tahe UK ones can't send to Ireland now, so if I want anything I get it sent to a friend or family member there. Having my seeds organised in the way I've described is something I've found really useful over the years as it means I can keep checking my stock of seeds as I'm ordering. This stops me either duplicating or ordering too much. If you're anything like me, the seed catalogues all end up dog eared and marked everywhere with all the things I'd like to try. I then go through what I've already got - and after a major reality check (I don't have three gardeners - only me!) I then probably only order half or less of what I've actually marked in the catalogue. If I don't do this - and order online instead - I end up ordering far too much! Do compare prices too - it's amazing the huge variations for exactly the seeds in different catalogues. It's definitely well worth making the effort in these cost conscious days - and this month you have time to shop around!  Order your seed potatoes too - then you can get them well-sprouted which gives them more of a head start when planting.   
Colourful Oca tubersWhy not try growing Oca this year? 
Colourful oca tubers like the ones pictured here are available from Real Seeds now - but as they're always in short supply - order as soon as possible. They're a deliciously different member of the sorrel family - sort of 'lemony/artichokey' flavoured - and a good occasional potato alternative with fish and no problems other than rather ambitious territorial tendencies. They make a nice clump of the large tubers you can see pictured here. They also form masses of small tubers wherever the stems touch the ground - so just like Jerusalem artichokes - once you have them, believe me you'll always have them! I can't understand why they're apparently so rare, I have to weed them out in my veg garden now! I grew them a few years ago as a 'break crop' in the tunnel rotations and they really enjoyed it in there. I'm now weeding them out all the time in there too - but I can usually dig them up and give them away to grateful recipients!  As they don't really tend to bulk up their tubers in late autumn though - it's best to grow them where they can be easily protected from frost. They're not too fond of containers either - they're much happier in the ground like most things. Although having said that - last year I tried planting them at the bottom of a container and then earthing them up as they grew. As they seem to form their tubers along subsequent stems - this worked well. 
Oca leaves are pretty in salads but use sparingly

One thing I haven't seen mentioned in any magazine articles or books though, is the fact that being a member of the sorrel family, they are actually quite high in oxalic acid - which accounts for the sharp lemony flavour of both the tubers and the pretty clover shaped leaves pictured here, which can also be used sparingly in salads.  So rather than eating them daily, it's best to have them as an occasional treat, or you might end up with kidney stones if you're susceptible! There is some research currently being done into low oxalic acid varieties - but at the moment I definitely wouldn't think of them as a suitable everyday alternative to potatoes! We don't need to eat potatoes everyday either. There are plenty of lower carbohydrate alternatives that are equally as delicious - Jerusalem artichokes for one - which are incredibly healthy for your gut - being full of prebiotic Inulin which feeds your gut microbes and encourages them to multiply.



Another job to do now is to organise your seed sowing equipment. 


Doing this while you have plenty of time is really useful and will pay off in terms of both time and money saved later.  As you're filling your recycling bin - have a look to see what could possibly be used as seed trays, pots, seed labels etc. - you'll be amazed at how much money you can save. There are very few things normally regarded as 'waste' that can't be made use of for another job. It's far better than continually buying everything new which uses carbon intensive and increasingly scarce resources. I always have huge bags full of various plastic containers like yogurt or cream cartons - particularly those large 500g sized yogurt pots which are great for sowing peas and beans in. They save a lot of money as you don't have to buy expensive pots from garden or DIY shops. If you're careful and keep them in the dark when not in use so they don't degrade in the light - you can use them for years. I've still got some from a brand of yogurt my late mother used to like - and she passed away 17 years ago!  If you need module trays, you can buy large amounts  of different sizes in farm or horticultural growers supply shops in most areas. They will often split them and tape together lots of a dozen or so too, as they know that home gardeners are a growing market. The most useful size I think is the small tray of 12 x 1in/2-3cm modules. I sow most leafy things direct into these and they stay in those until planting-out time. I bought a huge box of 200 years ago, as that's the only way I could buy them at the time! They've actually made great presents for gardening friends - perhaps along with some precious, home-saved seed of a rare variety of something. Loo rolls of course make great long modules for things like sweet peas and even carrots or parsnips. I start off my early ones in these every year, as the soil is never warm enough for their germination at the end of January or early February, and you can plant out nice neat rows when the time comes - which is very satisfying..

Recycling saves money, and avoids plastic waste. 

And that means more money to spend on seeds! I have to make a confession here! - I AM that odd person who sidles up to strangers in garden centres and DIY shops just as they're looking at things like expensive biodegradable peat pots - suggesting that they don't waste their money on something that will only be of use once and encourages the destruction of our priceless, carbon-capturing bogs!  I have to say the reaction is always good - I've never been told to mind my own business, but there will no doubt be a first time one of these days!!  After all - who is averse to saving a bit of money - particularly at this time of year?  I've actually made one or two really good friends that way too - gardeners are usually very friendly folk and naturally have a lot in common to chat about.
A useful thing that you can buy from The Organic Gardening Catalogue UK (Garden Organic) and use for years is a small wooden paper 'pot former' in two sizes. These enable you to make your own biodegradable pots from old newspapers. It's quite fiddly and time consuming though - a bit like the gardener's equivalent of Origami - fun but not strictly necessary if like me - you've already got lots of recycled containers. Kids enjoy doing it though - and it's a good way to get them into gardening - which is never a bad thing!  I also recycle any plastic containers which could be useful for growing things - they can last for years if you store them away from light when not in use.  I'm still actually using recycled yogurt pots of a brand that my late Mother used to buy regularly, who passed away almost 17 years ago now. I have also been recycling many other plastic pots for over 30 years. The trick to getting them to last a long time is to keep them clean and out of the light when not in use. If occasionally one splits then it doesn't get thrown out - it's used as a sleeve inside another split one - making one strong, usable pot and avoiding more plastic waste. I still have some of the standard 2 and 3 litre pots which I got from a garden designer friend over 30 years ago!  I raise my early potatoes in them every year as well as many other things, they're such a useful size.

A home made cold frame is useful if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel

Plan of my home made grow frameSpeaking of recycling reminded me of this. If you're gardening on a budget or don't have a cold frame - you can easily make one using 2"x 4" rough timber and clear polythene sheeting obtainable pretty cheaply from builders merchants or DIY shops, or even from skips if you're like me!  Mattress covers which you can often pick up from furniture or bed shops also make great covers for cold frames or raised beds, and I never throw away any large pieces of polythene or bubble-wrap, as even relatively small pieces can be so useful!  A home-made cold-frame can be made a lot higher than those normally available and being higher allows you to grow taller summer crops which need protection too - like bush tomatoes and peppers etc. If you make a box shape from timber laths, leave one end and either the top or bottom of the box open, covering the rest with polythene - you can make a really useful cold frame in any size you like!   It's really useful if you have a path against a wall as I did when I made my first one, which gives you an extra bit of reflected heat. Then depending on whatever you're growing - you can turn it any way you like, or raise it up on blocks or bricks, pull it away from the wall for air circulation it even becomes a mini greenhouse if it's raised up high enough!  I grew my best aubergines ever in my old grow frame!
People often even wastefully throw away perfectly good windows and patio doors - ideal for sitting on bricks to make extra growing space!  A friend of mine has made a whole greenhouse using old shower doors from people re-vamping apartments in Dublin.  As she has a back problem like me - she's also made some raised beds from old bathtubs from the same source. It does help that she has a son who works in the building trade though - and not everyone has that advantage!  It's amazing the perfectly good stuff you see being chucked out when people are doing up their houses - my car is trained to automatically slow up on sighting a skip!  If you ask nicely and don't cause a mess - most people are often only too happy to give stuff away as it makes more room in the skip!  And a nice pot plant or a few veg later in the year doesn't go amiss either!
I made my very first large 'grow frame' as I called it - 45 years ago now, by recycling some timber laths I'd found dumped on a skip. It lasted for 5 years until we moved and my 'other half' flatly refused to bring it with us, as I had accumulated so much other 'plant stuff'!!  (I suppose it was falling apart a bit - it was made from recycled timber after all - and believe me I'm no carpenter!) And I suppose after moving about three lorry loads of plants - as opposed to only one of furniture - it was probably just about understandable, although I really hate waste!! That scruffy old cold frame made from 'skip-found' bits and pieces allowed me to grow my very first tomatoes, peppers and aubergines (the best ever) against a south-facing wall in my first garden - and I learnt such a lot from growing in it!  Sadly I don't have any photos from those days - I was far too busy raising very lively toddlers to think about such things in the pre-digital age - but I hope the diagram gives you an idea of how it was made! Even with polytunnels now - I still find a cold frame or two a very useful 'halfway-house', for hardening-off plants before they are planted out in the open garden.

Firm in and stake Brassica plants

Another thing to check after all the wind we've had is brassica crops. Firm in - and stake if necessary - any which may have suffered from wind rock in the wet soil - and also keep them well protected from birds with some netting suspended above plants. The pheasants and pigeons here are getting very hungry and were using the netting like a trampoline before Christmas in order to weigh it down and peck at the Brussels sprouts through the top. I think it's definitely time for a few roast pheasant dinners! The remaining Brussels sprouts would complement them nicely and I'd really enjoy them - given the damage they do if given half a chance!

Keep veg beds covered if they don't currently have a crop in them

For over four decades now I've practised what I call minimum cultivation gardening, in raised beds.  I don't call it 'no-dig' - because actually no type of gardening is truly that - you still have to plant things and dig potatoes or other root crops!  Anyway of necessity, now that my back is deteriorating even more - I do as little work possible to get maximum returns - while at the same time protecting the soil's structure and it's whole ecosystem as far as possible.  My useful co-workers are worms - and they do most of the work, and make it easy!  Cultivating soil in this way encourages a healthy, nutrient-rich and vitally alive soil which is the basis of all good organic growing and healthy eating.  

I just want to remind you once again that if you leave freshly dug ground uncovered and open to the elements, as some people do, our increasingly high winter rainfall will wash out and waste valuable nutrients, causing pollution of ground water, carbon loss and loss of soil biodiversity.  It's best to protect the soil and keep it covered either with a growing crop, a weather proof mulch that can't leach nutrients in heavy rain, like wood chips, or a waterproof cover. This is essential at all times in winter when the weather's very wet!  It's important to keep compost heaps covered too - for the same reason. The climate is changing, becoming much more unpredictable and definitely far wetter at certain times. We need to recognise this, be flexible and move with the times - not stick to outdated and old-fashioned modes of thinking from the last century! 

Double digging - as recommended in all the old gardening books is also definitely out!  I never did it anyway because I've always grown in raised or deep beds, created originally by just piling soil from paths onto beds, and then over the years adding more mulches which protect the soil and add more carbon-fixing humus.  The latest soil science shows that digging breaks up important fungal threads, disturbs and buries all the vital microbial soil life much too deeply - almost like suffocating or drowning them - so it can take years to recover.  Soil life needs light and air too - and it's vital for growing healthy crops as it makes the nutrients in the soil available to plants. If you need better drainage - then just make raised beds like me - you'll find they're much less work too!  

As I always say, look after Nature - and Nature will look after you!

Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. 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. Thank you.

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