Contents: Sets versus Seed - Why it pays to know your onions! Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is easy if you grow it yourself!.... Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!.... Keeping polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - What a daft idea!... It's the season of plenty - but also gluts!.... Restoring soil carbon is the key to helping to mitigate climate change... Soil is more precious than Gold!.... Splendid spiralisers!.... Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now.... Carry on composting!.... Drown perennial weeds.... Keep mulching...
|1. Multi-sown onions 'Golden Bear' & 'Red Baron' - in module tray hardening off before planting out 30th March
||2. Multi-sown Golden Bear onions in clumps of 4 or 5 - pushing each other apart to form medium sized bulbs.
|3. Multi-sown red and green onions starting to die back and ripen in late August - only a few have bolted,
||4. Multi-sown Onions ripened, harvested and drying off well in the polytunnel in September. They will keep for months
Sets versus Seed - Why it pays to Know your Onions!
The end of July and beginning of August is the perfect time to plan for one of next year's most important and nutritious culinary crops - onions. Seed companies are just starting to advertise next year's seeds and sets now, and as I'm always saying - planning really pays off. Recently on social media I've seen a lot of pictures of onion crops being incorrectly harvested, long before they are ready, while the growing tops are still beautifully green and the 'neck' of the onions is still thick. Often the gardener has actually bent the tops over while they are still growing well. It's such a pity to see this, when a few more weeks growing would have given the crop a chance to die down naturally, drying off gradually from the top down, and bending over as they do - with the necks narrowing and the bulbs becoming ripe enough to dry off and store for months. Many of the crops I've seen have clearly also 'bolted' - producing tall, hard flower stalks which are pretty much unusable in the kitchen as they're so tough and woody - unless one spots them very early on and uses them immediately for some onion flavouring. Most of those crops have been grown from 'sets', which are basically just immature onions, grown to a small size, with growth then artificially halted and the tiny bulbs heat treated to prevent them from 'bolting' or running up to flower after re-planting - which isn't always effective.
While planting these sets is undoubtedly easy and quick, and will give you slightly earlier crops - 18-20 weeks to harvest, as opposed to 20-24 weeks for seed grown crops - sets can be unreliable and may come with a host of problems. So what are those? First, from experience, I find that sets are much more sensitive to the fluctuating weather conditions which we seem to be experiencing more frequently with climate change. They're more sensitive to sudden heatwave and drought, and less frost-hardy than onions grown from seed, with many more likely to bolt. This is the same whether the sets are organically grown, or if they are conventionally, chemically grown with pesticides and fungicides. Even when grown in the well-drained conditions they like - in a cool, wet year, onions from sets are also far more prone to diseases like downy mildew and neck rot than those grown from seed. The worst disease of all that onion sets may bring in is onion white rot - something you really don't want in your garden! This will infect any other members of the onion family, even ornamental ones, which are grown in the same soil within 15-20 years, and can even be carried around on your tools and boots!
Chemically-grown sets are far more likely to bring diseases in, despite being treated regularly with toxic fungicides which leave residues in the sets. This is because conventional growers don't have to worry about crop rotations, and may grow plants destined for sets in the same soil for many years, resulting in that soil becoming unhealthy, and if not infected, definitely lacking in biodiversity and trace elements. Certified organic growers can't do this, as they have to agree under the legal requirements of their certification agreement to provide cropping plans for their holding for the approval of inspectors every year. In addition to this, they can also be spot-checked at any time without prior notice to check if they are following their plan and doing things correctly. Organic soils are also far more healthy and contain more biodiversity, so any plants grown in them will naturally be much healthier, having the ability to protect themselves better from disease.
In general I prefer to grow onions from seed - multi-sowing them in March in blocks or modules of organic, peat-free compost, for planting outside in April. As I don't want huge exhibition onions - just a usable size for the kitchen, I tend to sow 5 or 7 seeds to a block, without thinning - the higher number of seeds giving smaller onions. But if I want some really early onions in the spring to guard against my stores running out - I plant some organic 'autumn planting' sets in well-drained, peat-free compost in large tubs, which means that I can vary their cropping time by growing some inside and some outside. These can be planted quite close together, about 10 cm (4 in.) apart giving medium to large bulbs which push each other apart as they grow. I often plant both onion sets and garlic into the tubs which the early tomatoes have been growing in, just refreshing the nutrients in the compost. Growing sets this way also means that any diseased sets can be yanked out immediately they are spotted, with any compost surrounding the roots, and put into the recycling bin. - NOT the compost heap! My favourite red onion variety is Red Baron, and my favourite white or yellow onion is Golden Bear. Organic seed of both of these reliable and tasty varieties is quite widely available now. Organic sets are also available if you prefer those, or want to grow an earlier crop in tubs. I shall write more on growing multi-sown onions early next spring.
Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is so easy, more healthy, fresher and more delicious if you grow it yourself!
One of the greatest joys of growing your own organic vegetables is being able to eat seasonally and rediscover how really fresh organic vegetables, untainted by chemicals, should taste. I believe it satisfies a very deep-seated need in us - and that's not surprising since humans evolved to eat food grown by nature, in its purest form possible, in an unpolluted world - each type of food in it's proper season. I think that all year round availability of everything has ruined many people's anticipation and enjoyment of food. It's lost much of it's excitement and has become almost boring! These days you can find vegetables and fruits from the furthest corners of the globe on supermarket shelves which are all particular varieties chosen for productivity, uniform appearance, ability to travel without bruising and for long shelf life. They're sadly not chosen to taste fantastic and to be as nutritious as those you can pick fresh from your own garden. They are often picked long before they are ready to eat, and are devoid of most of their natural taste and nutrients. They are mere commodities, conveniently packaged into whatever form makes them the most commercially profitable for the 'pile it high and sell it cheap' supermarkets! Low cost food seems to be more important to some people than food quality - but you get what you pay for! It's definitely worth growing a few vegetables yourself if you possibly can - even if you only have the smallest patch of ground, a tub outside on a path or a window box.
Increasing numbers of scientific studies suggest that long-term consumption of a diet high in a wide variety of colourful plant phytonutrients - 'eating the rainbow' in other words - offers protection against the development of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases. The healthy exercise and fresh air that gardening entails is also good for us - both physically and mentally! Only organic food, free of man-made synthetic chemicals, grown in it's natural season and then harvested at it's absolute peak, can ever have all the properly-developed nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. I would also suggest that chemically-grown produce and processed foods have ruined people's taste buds - so that they have become dulled, less sensitive and discriminating. Taste is very often tied to nutrition in fruits and vegetables. Many of the aromatic compounds which actually give fruit and vegetables their wonderful array of flavours are in many cases the very same ones that give them their health-protecting phytonutrients. And of course, as I'm always pointing out, studies by Newcastle University some years ago proved that organic fruits and vegetables are up to 70% higher in such valuable phytonutrients.
Just how wonderful is it that you can grow and eat so many things that are not absolutely delicious but are actually good for you? We vegetable gardeners are so lucky! Far luckier than those unfortunate people who are restricted to just buying and eating the often days or weeks old produce they can find in shops!
Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!
Potatoes are one good example of a colourful veg that packs a very powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits. In the last few years, many scientific studies have found that the antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients in purple potatoes like those pictured above, combined with other compounds they contain, can lower blood pressure and actually even kill cancer cells in the lab! That's not the only reason I'm such a big fan of them though! They look utterly fabulous and taste fantastic too! What's not to love as they say? Happily a lot more people now seem to be interested in the stunning looks and health benefits of the blue and purple potato varieties. This was very much shown by the huge reaction on Twitter when I posted a tweet about the very attractive but rare variety Peru Purple. That's why I decided to write about a few of the ones which I have personal experience of. As you will know if you're a regular reader - I never write about anything unless I can write from my own personal experience.
I found my very first purple potatoes, Truffe de Chine - over 40 years ago in Harrods Food Hall in London of all places - which used to be a treasure trove of unusual vegetables in those days. They were such an exciting find - I'd never seen them before! Since then I've discovered that upmarket veg shops are always well worth investigating for interesting things to possibly grow if you're in London, or any other large, ethnically diverse city. It's amazing what you may find!
I got my original elephant garlic bulb in a small fruit and vegetable shop on First Avenue in New York of all places, many years ago on a rare holiday - long before I decided that I didn't want to fly anymore and contribute to climate change. My very rare holidays or short trips anywhere have always included visits to the local food markets and shops, to see what treats I can find to save seeds or tubers from! If my children are on holidays they are always instructed to do the same! To me, such shops are just like sweet shops are to children, or handbag shops to some 'fashionistas'!! I can never resist that childlike urge to try to grow anything different from pips, seeds or tubers. I grew Cucamelons and Kiwanos that way many years ago - long before anyone had even heard of them. I find it hugely amusing that certain 'celeb veg writers' have apparently only just now 'discovered' them! I've been growing them since before many of them were even born - as I've been a keen 'food tourist' for years!
I've always grown for taste and nutrients rather than bulk, and being an artist, looks are also important for me. After all - we eat with our eyes! As I've already mentioned, both looks and taste are often linked with nutrients. We don't need to eat potatoes 365 days a year - in fact they could become boring if we ate them every day - rather than the treat they are when you grow only the very best-tasting varieties. Food should never be boring - it should be a joy! I like eating tasty potatoes but we don't eat them more than two or three times a week at most - due to their high carbohydrate content. By the way - I never, ever boil potatoes - I always steam or bake them. Boiling potatoes means that you are pouring many of their valuable nutrients straight down the sink! That means they're also losing much of their flavour - which you can see very clearly if you boil the purple ones - as the water turns bright blue! We also always leave the skins on when eating any potatoes. Not only are many of the nutrients actually in or just beneath the skin - but again there's lots of gut-healthy, satisfying fibre in them too - so it's incredibly wasteful not to eat them!
Purple Majesty is an interesting and delicious variety that makes large tubers. This is the particular potato which featured in the blood pressure reduction study. Unfortunately a problem with plant breeders rights means that you can't get Purple Majesty seed tubers here in Ireland. So I'm afraid that being a bit of a rebel - I've always ignored that legal restriction! I've saved my own seed tubers for about 15 years now from some which I originally bought in a Northern Ireland supermarket about 10 years ago, and I've grown them ever since. As long as you don't sell them - that is perfectly legal! And as long as you always ONLY save tubers for seed from the healthiest plants - you can keep your stock healthy so you won't have problems. Purple Majesty is a main-crop variety which really benefits from my method of starting tubers off early in pots. This gives them the longest season possible before the dreaded potato blight hits. As soon as I see evidence of blight I take off the tops, cover the bed with something waterproof and they keep really well for months that way, as long as you don't have slug problems. They also keep well in normal cool storage if you do have slug problems. Purple Majesty retains its colour and phytonutrients well when cooked, has a lovely floury texture for making mash and a fantastic, 'nutty', sort of 'baked potato' flavour - despite being a relatively new introduction compared to some. It's so far proven to be the highest in antioxidants of all purple potatoes and is one of the best tasting varieties too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years. It bakes, fries and steams well - and makes a lovely fluffy mash.
Salad Blue is another potato which is a great masher and baker too. It is an early maincrop heritage variety, thought to have been bred in Victorian times. It's recently become very popular again and well deservedly, and is fairly widely available online. It also keeps very well in storage, after growingin my particular way. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots to give them a long season - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using this method and I never need to use any spray for blight - even copper-sulphate. Fruit Hill Farm in County Cork had it again this year.
Violetta is a deep purple, second-early variety. It's the earliest of the purple varieties to be ready here, and it crops well both in the polytunnel and outside. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some of the non-organically grown Violetta which I tried seven years ago from a well-known Dublin food shop - but I've since found that growing them organically, without the chemicals that make them absorb more water, really makes a huge difference to the taste! I got my original seed tubers from Tuckers Seeds in Devon, who used to sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and were good about sending to Ireland - but sadly they no longer sell online and are now only open to customers at their shop in Devon. Violetta is delicious steamed and eaten with lashings of butter - when it has a nice 'waxy' texture. It's good cold too, in tortillas and potato salads. Sadly it doesn't mash well or make good scalloped potatoes though, as it absorbs a lot of oil when cooking and doesn't crisp up well. It's not a bad baker though.
Attractive Vitelotte Noire after steaming
Vitelotte Noire - (otherwise known as Negresse or Truffe de Chine) is a very old heritage variety which was first recorded as being sold in the early 19th century, in the markets of Paris markets - but it is thought to be originally far older than that. Also a maincrop variety which is fairly late to bulk up - it is a salad type with a similar long shape to 'Pink Fir Apple' but not as knobbly. It has very dark purple flesh sometimes marbled with a lighter colour and has a wonderful flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket vegetable shops. Vitelotte is more resistant to blight and other diseases than many other potatoes - so it is well-suited to organic growing. This was that first potato that I found among the tempting exotic-looking displays in Harrods Food Hall all those years ago. I've been growing it ever since and have passed it on to many people. One of my favourites, I love that I'm growing history too.
Peru Purple, steamed, chilled overnight & scalloped in olive oil
Peru Purple is extremely rare and currently only available from seed banks such as The Irish Seed Savers Association or possibly other keen potatophiles - which is where I obtained mine. It's well worth growing if you can find it! It is very pretty with a deep red-purple skin, and is a slightly lighter colour, marbled with white inside. Although I've found virtually nothing about this particular variety online - (only that purple potatoes originally come from Peru!) - it seems to be a maincrop cultivar. I can certainly vouch for the fact that it makes the most deliciously fluffy, pale mauve mash. It also makes absolutely THE most fabulously crispy scalloped-potatoes ever! It quickly crisps and browns on the outside while staying light and fluffy on the inside. This is an aspect of their cooking qualities that I'm sure you'll understand I naturally felt that I had an obligation to research extensively on your behalf! It will definitely make fabulous oven fries or crisps......but more research will undoubtedly be necessary to investigate this! It definitely deserves to be far more widely known and grown! If you have it - share it - that will ensure that it not only survives but thrives!
A much newer variety which I grew for the very first time two years ago, and looks set to become a firm favourite, is Blaue Annaliese, and I can tell you I'm already completely hooked! A hybrid between Violetta, which I've talked about above, and another purple variety - it was selected for its excellent disease-resistance from its breeding trials and was launched in 2007. It's now late July - there is blight everywhere and so far it is looking beautifully healthy again. despite being in the polytunnel, as I couldn't get any ground ready outside early enough due to my ankle problems - so finger's crossed! It's tubers are such a gorgeous deep violet/indigo- blue colour that they're almost black, so are clearly very high in healthy anthocyanins. They look absolutely stunning cooked too, and have a lovely sweet, almost chestnutty taste. I think it certainly has the most vigorous and healthiest-looking foliage of any potato I've ever grown, but clearly likes plenty of room! It's already smothered the Peru Purple which was 4 feet away! In future I shall give it an entire bed to itself, where it's wandering, far-reaching roots can't get mixed up with any other varieties. Although it is a maincrop variety rather than a first or second early which are more suitable, I held back some tubers from my spring planting to plant in the next week or so as an experiment for Christmas potatoes. I shall report back.
Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - What a daft idea!
|Purple Majesty left showing its violet-purple flesh colour - with the deeper-coloured indigo blue-black Blaue Annaliese on right
|Blaue Anneliese looking healthy and vigorous - taking over an entire bed!
While talking of polytunnel potatoes I want to knock this misconception on the head once and for all! I NEVER keep my polytunnels closed to prevent blight at this time of year - because it doesn't! In fact if anything, it positively encourages it! As always - I write this blog from 45 years of personal experience - not from something daft that I've read in a book! You cannot possibly keep a tunnel so airtight that it doesn't allow any air in. And anyone who grows in a polytunnel can tell you that when they are closed, even on a dull day with no sun at this time of year, they can feel like a sauna - especially in Ireland with our higher air humidity, even if the soil in the tunnel were to be so dry that nothing would grow in it! I've grown in a lot of different-sized polytunnels for many years now, starting off with a tiny, 6 ft by 4ft, 'Garden Relax' polythene-covered greenhouse in my very first garden 44 years ago. I now have 2 large, quite high ones with good air circulation - but I can still confidently say that THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO WAY YOU CAN SHUT POTATO BLIGHT OUT OF A POLYTUNNEL! Blight spores are always circulating in the air at this time of year, and all they need are the right conditions to germinate and grow on either potatoes or tomatoes. Those conditions are humidity and warmth, both day and night for 48 hours - and keeping a polytunnel closed day and night for that length of time at this time of year does precisely that!
Careful hand watering of potatoes, ONLY when necessary, in a polytunnel or outside, and NEVER, ever, watering from above or wetting the foliage are key to avoiding blight in hot, dry weather. Automatic watering systems often encourage blight by over-watering and never allowing the surface of the soil to dry out. That's one of the reasons why I hate them, as I mentioned in the polytunnel blog this month. OK - I know standing and watering plants is not everyone's most favourite occupation, but not only is it a lot cheaper than an automatic system - but it allows you more control and also gives you time to really see what's going on with your crops. And that observation and knowledge is what makes the difference between being a really good gardener and just an adequate one.
Restoring soil carbon is key to helping to mitigate climate change
Nothing ever tastes quite like that very first bite of truly seasonal produce at it's best - whether you're a new gardener or if you've been growing you have grown your own food for many years! The first strawberries, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas...etc. One of the simplest, most satisfying and most joyous pleasures in life is to be able to cultivate a garden, and to produce as much of your own food as possible - while at the same time helping all of the other creatures that are part of Nature, just as we are. Our garden here has not just been a source of sustenance for many years - but also a source of great joy, health and peace for the soul.
This picture taken here in 1983, was some of my first summer's produce here at Springmount. It was proudly displayed on the then kitchen table. It gave me such a great sense of achievement back then - and a feeling that no matter what life threw at us - we would survive it all and feed ourselves well! .... I still hope that will be the case for many more years to come - but in the future with the erratic weather of climate change - that is definitely going to be more of a challenge!
I could already clearly notice the effects of climate change beginning to happen here over 36 years ago. But few wanted to listen then, and many denied it - when something might still have been done to mitigate its worst effects! In September of 1992, just after the first Rio Earth Summit that June - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. It was given by Alan Gear - then chief executive of the HDRA (now re-named Garden Organic) - the local Irish group of which I organised at the time. His lecture was entitled 'The Road From Rio - Where Do We Go From Here'. His warning was stark - act NOW or it will rapidly get worse, and all of Nature, including humans, will bear the consequences of our inaction! Even then it was clear that soil was part of the solution - and increasingly science is showing this to be more true with every passing day.
Restoring soil carbon through regenerative organic agriculture, by gardening organically without using climate-destructive peat products, or by supporting organic farming by buying organic produce, are the best chance each of us has to truly be able to do something personally to help mitigate climate change. The soil was so bad when I started growing here, after years of chemical agriculture destroying all of its carbon, that it was almost like lifeless concrete when it was dry - and like sticky glue when it was wet! It is so much better now after 38 years of minimal digging, constant mulching and loving organic husbandry that I can plant just with my hands - I don't need tools! It is now completely transformed, and it is so wonderful to sink one's hands into it, feeling its vibrantly alive community of creatures and microbes - truly plugging into the earth and the source of our earliest beginnings. Is it any wonder that it benefits our mental health just to feel it and to inhale beneficial microbes like Mycobacterium Vaccae - which has been scientifically proven to cure depression? It is so sad that so many people never get the chance to experience that.
There have been many changes here since those early days. The children have grown up, various people - some much-loved family, assortments of animals, and momentous life events have all come and gone. But one thing never changes - that is that my enthusiasm and desire to learn from mistakes and successes, to constantly look for good new varieties or better selections of old ones and ways to do things even better so that I keep improving the soil with every year that passes. Also to find easier ways of growing that will allow me to continue my gardening even after accidents have left me partially disabled and now less able to do many things. Experiments continue. That is the wonderful thing about gardening - and why it holds such a continuing fascination for me. One never stops learning and no one ever knows it all, no matter how long we do it. Nature doesn't give up all of her secrets easily - but if you work with her - the rewards are plentiful.
Take good care of your soil - it is more precious than Gold!
Gold can't grow food either! We didn't evolve to eat commodities grown with chemicals in the poisoned, impoverished and lifeless medium that conventionally farmed soils have become. Neither did we evolve to eat foods grown in chemical hydroponic solutions, with artificial light where the plants are fed with fertiliser (also often fungicidal) solutions and deprived of all the vital symbiotic bacteria & fungi that are present in a living soil which they need to produce all their proper nutrients! To be healthy and productive - soil and all it's microbial life needs to be replenished, encouraged and protected constantly. That's what Nature does.
We cannot keep taking crops from soil without helping it to regenerate all those natural things it needs. Soil is a living community of microbes - or it should be. In some parts of the planet - soil has just become a completely lifeless, carbon-depleted dust which simply holds up plants while they're fed with chemicals. It has so little organic matter left in it that it erodes, washes away or blows away very easily. We can't keep taking crops from the soil and not replacing all those elements that made them - any more than we could give up real food and just live on vitamins and protein supplements! Soil loss is also becoming more and more important from an environmental, as well as from a food growing perspective, as it traps carbon dioxide and is a massive carbon sink, so it is absolutely vital to mitigating climate change. Only a healthy, living organic soil can do this!
If you would like to know more about how us gardeners can restore soil and by doing so help to mitigate climate-change - here's a link to the soil talk which I gave at our National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin in 2016:
The soil gave us our past and nurtured us. We now hold its future, and ours in our hands. We must use it more wisely. If we keep taking more and more from it without giving anything back, what we are actually doing is robbing our own future - and so are the multinational manufacturers of these planet-polluting chemicals which are destroying it! They don't care about the future of our children - or even apparently theirs! Their only concern is big profits now!
The season of Plenty - but also gluts which need preserving!
There is no more delightful and satisfying sight than a really well organised and productive vegetable garden at this time of year. It's so satisfying to stand back and look at everything after a hard day's work. The whole garden has a summer carnival atmosphere about it - like a glorious celebration of Nature's abundant generosity. We're surrounded by masses of delicious vegetables - so many luscious things to choose from that we could have several different ones in gluttonous portions every day! Mother Nature has pressed the 'fast forward' button and everything is growing so incredibly fast that it's hard to choose what to eat next!
Of course with seasonal growing and eating - gluts of many fruits and vegetables can naturally sometimes become a problem. It's always a feast or a famine! One minute you're dying for that very first taste of something - then all of a sudden there's far too many! It's a good problem to have though. In these times of fast rising prices for so many things, and even food shortages lately due to COVID19 - it's not just a good feeling to be as self-sufficient as possible in most things. but also sensible. Particularly with the other uncertainty brought about by the forthcoming Brexit - but I won't start on politics! When under pressure I tend to try to find positive, practical side ways to cope! This is when it's so useful to have a freezer - particularly since we're not that into chutneys or jams, all being high in sugar! Priority for eating fresh has to be given to those that perhaps don't tend to freeze quite as well as some others. Most things freeze well, but some veg need cooking first.
Courgettes, which we've now been eating for over a month from the tunnel, don't freeze well raw but do freeze very well as a component of my caramelised roast red onion ratatouille, which is totally addictive, incredibly useful, and a brilliant standby to have in the freezer (if it makes it that far - because it's so delicious cold it's hard to resist! You can find it in the recipe section). It's a terrific way to use up too many courgettes - something which always happens! They freeze very well cooked like this and are so useful to have put by to use as a side vegetable or to throw into sauces.
Broccoli is another brilliant freezer candidate which always seems to be all ready at once - particularly the more productive F1 varieties like 'Green Magic' from Unwins - my all year round favourite. I pack the small individual florets into recycled plastic take-away boxes. Donated by other people I hasten to add! We don't eat Chinese takeaways - but it's amazing how many so-called healthy eaters do! I'm not complaining though, I'm only too happy to do their recycling for them - one box holds two portions of broccoli very nicely. That way they don't get smashed up in the freezer. There's no need to blanch them before freezing quickly either - it just wastes nutrients! They are perfect if tipped straight into fast-boiling water from frozen when you want to use them. I always sow a late crop of 'Green Magic' calabrese this month for planting in the tunnel in September - this will give us useful pickings all through the winter if covered with a bit of fleece when a very hard frost threatens.
Some crops like climbing French beans, broad beans and peas, I tend to grow specifically for freezing - firstly because they obviously don't grow over winter in the polytunnels but also because they are mostly unaffected by several months in the freezer, and make a very welcome change during the darkest months of the year. They are mostly 'squirrelled' away for winter suppers, after enjoying the novelty of the first few platefuls of fresh ones. It can be hard to keep up with filling the freezer as well doing all the garden jobs that all seem to need doing at once, but it will be so welcome during the long winter months when organic vegetables and fruits are scarce, expensive, depleted of nutrients and without much variety, unless they've come from God knows where, along with a massive carbon footprint! . It feels so good in the depths of winter to enjoy a bit of the summer's sunshine - captured in the harvest from your own garden!
Things like pumpkins or winter squashes that will store for a long time overwinter are also a major priority crop here. They don't need valuable freezer space either, just a cool dry place. With careful ripening they can often be stored right up until next year's are sown or even later - increasing in vitamin A while in storage. So they are a very valuable winter staple. On the subject of pumpkins and squashes - unless you're entering giant pumpkin competitions you don't want huge ones, so encourage fruiting side shoots to form by pinching out the main shoot after 4-5 leaf joints. Then each of the side shoots produces flowers and that way instead of just one huge pumpkin - I get 3 or four good sized ones which store very well for the winter. Last week I had my first major basil harvest of the year, grown in the tunnel as it's far too windy here to do well outside. To me - my vegetable garden is far more important than money in the bank. It's so comforting knowing that I have a really good range of foods preserved for the winter. In fact. even if I had oodles of money - I could never buy most of the things that I grow.
A few years ago I discovered another fantastic way to use courgettes - and I promise that I could never have believed that their taste could be so utterly transformed just by the way they are prepared! I first read about them in Domini Kemp's column in the Irish Times Magazine. They looked fun so I bought a cheap 'Lurch' model just to try it - half expecting it to be rubbish! I couldn't have been more wrong! Fabulous 'courgetti spaghetti' in an instant - but watch your fingers!! 4 years ago my June 'Tunnel to Table recipe was Spaghetti Courgetti with Pesto and it was really delicious (in the recipe and 'listen' sections if you want to try it). The 'courgetti' are also delicious, just very simply stir-fried with a clove of garlic and some soy sauce - from the taste you would think you were eating a whole Chinese stir-fry, they're just fantastic! The very best way to cook them in my opinion though is in my Creamy Courgette and red onion Gratin - also in the recipe section. It's my most popular recipe ever! Everyone loves it and now we don't have enough - something that's never usually a problem at this time of year!! Another of my recipes - my Lemon Courgette Cake - is I think is my best cake ever! It keeps brilliantly, getting better over three or four days (if it lasts!) and also freezes fantastically well. I don't know why some people make fun of spiralisers - they clearly haven't tried them properly - they're brilliant! I wouldn't be without mine now!
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!
Talking of the winter months - it's now that we need to think about next year's 'hungry gap'! Difficult I know - with everything growing so quickly and so much staking, watering, weeding and mulching etc. to be done! It can be difficult to remember that a great many winter and late spring crops take almost a whole year to grow. Some, like Brussels sprouts and leeks, should have been sown a couple of months ago. At the same time as storing some of the tender vegetables for a bit of winter variety - we have to think about planting the hardy ones that will be the mainstay of our diet then. This may seem an odd time of year to be thinking about winter veg, when we hope we still have a lot more summer to enjoy - but it's just a reminder that if you don't think about them right now, then come winter or next year's spring 'hungry gap' you won't have any! You need to plan now for what's going to follow on after your summer crops - both outside and undercover - and then make sure you have the seeds or the plants that you will need.
From mid-June to the end of August is when most of the seeds need to be sown for many things like chicory, oriental veg., winter lettuces etc.
If you sow them from now on in modules using organic seed compost - you will have them ready to plant as soon as early summer crops are over - thereby making the best use of your growing space. If you haven't already sown things like leeks, kale and purple sprouting broccoli for growing outside - then garden centres should still have good plants at the moment - but get them as soon as you can because plants that are still hanging around in a month or so may have become starved or root bound in their modules and won't produce good crops. There's lots more info. on what to sow now and next month for winter and also quick growing crops to mature this autumn in the sowing list for this month. There's also still some sowings to be done of vegetables that will mature in the autumn. Some, like Chinese cabbages and radicchio, actually prefer the shortening, post-solstice days. If sown before then they'll often run straight up to seed in the late summer heat (we hope!). Again there's a lot more suggestions in my 'What to Sow' section of the blog.
Cabbage damaged by root fly on right
It's time to transplant winter brassicas like Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflowers, kales and cabbages to their final winter cropping quarters if you already have the plants - the bigger and more well established they are before the autumn - the better your crops will be. Don't forget to put brassica collars around the stems to keep off the cabbage root fly and also to suspend netting above them to stop the cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs on them. If you just rest the netting on them, the butterfly will still manage to lay her eggs onto the topmost leaves! I find that carpet squares are best for making brassica collars, as they are flexible and don't shrink. I tried to make some from old, paper backed carpet underlay but when they dried out a bit one had shrunk so the root fly got in - you can see the result here! You could still sow some kale, if you can cover them with cloches later on - these won't make huge plants but can still be well worth picking as 'baby' leaves, even if we get a cold autumn. Kales will also do very well over the winter in a polytunnel and will be far more productive than they ever would be outside. If you didn't sow any brassicas, a friend of mine bought some very good organic plants online last year, so you could try that - or visit one of the good local garden centres who are worth supporting in these days of big DIY multiples. You can also sow spring cabbages and swedes - I find sowing in modules under fine netting best, to avoid any pests, and also seedlings possibly getting smothered by weeds, as can easily happen with everything growing so quickly now.
Keep sowing lettuces and other salads little and often - I sow a few lettuces in modules each time I'm planting some out- this keeps up a regular supply, as I never like to be without the makings of a good salad. There's lots of great lettuces to sow in July. I grow 'Little Gem' baby cos because I love their crunch and I also grow a lot of the loose leaf types like the wonderful Jack Ice too - as they can crop for months, particularly in the spring and autumn if you keep them well watered, just picking a few leaves from each plant every time you need some. They're really useful in an ornamental potager, as they're very attractive and picking a whole head of lettuce does tend to leave rather a hole in one's planting pattern! Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is always a reliable one for this, very colourful, disease resistant and full of antioxidants, the seed is cheaply available everywhere now - and is often given away free with gardening magazines. 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino are my favourite loose leaf winter lettuces now, but 'Fristina' (pictured) and 'Belize' are also very tasty, bolt-resistant green ones, which both have nice firm leaves and are nicely 'crunchy' in the middle, not 'floppy' as some of the loose leaf types often can be. I've found that 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino also overwinter really well in the tunnel, are very disease resistant and also slow to bolt. 'Cherokee' is a really good crunchy leaved Batavian which everyone remarked on last winter/spring - wanting to know what it was. Nymans is a great red Cos variety. Like a lot of the red lettuces - it seems quite hardy, has a lovely flavour and eventually makes nice crispy hearts in spring, after picking a few leaves from the outside over winter. All of these benefit from cloche protection later on in autumn if outside rather than in a tunnel - more to prevent excess wet than cold.
'Sugar loaf' chicory - Pain de Sucre is another old favourite standby for sowing now or up until mid August that will grow well all winter both outside and in the tunnel - making nice big, tightly wrapped, blanched hearts like cos lettuces in late winter and early spring - and with slightly more bitter outside leaves that make a great late winter tonic for hens. Early July sowings seem to make the biggest hearts - so don't delay sowing it!.
One winter veg I would also never want to be without, no matter what, is Ruby Chard - and now is the perfect time to sow it for good winter crops, before the end of July. I particularly like the variety Vulcan - I've found that it's far better in terms of productivity than any of the other coloured chards, which tend to run up to flower very easily at the slightest excuse. It's very easy to grow and much more bolt-resistant than those as long as you give it plenty of root room and keep it well watered in hot weather, especially in polytunnels in spring. It has equal standing ability to the plain white stemmed one - and of course it's far more nutritious than that, having a lot of the phytonutrients I mentioned earlier, due to the red colour. We think it tastes better too.
Carry on composting!
Keep collecting compost material, mixing it up well as you do, particularly if you're incorporating grass clippings which can be very wet and slimy put on in an anaerobic, unmixed layer. Their very high-nitrogen green sappiness needs to be balanced with plenty of high carbon, brown and more stemmy stuff, or ripped up newspapers, cardboard etc. Keep your compost covered, so that it heats up really well, destroying any weed seeds and breaking down the plant material quickly. You could fry an egg on my compost heaps at this time of year! - The hotter it is - the better! It's easier to get the heap to heat up if it's fairly big. Compost bins are OK but don't heat up so much. They're very useful for keeping rats out though if you have a lot of fruit waste which tends to attract them. A very hot heap also puts them off, and by the time it cools down - everything in it should be well broken down and not so attractive to them.
I use old pallets to make my compost bins, they allow air in at the sides, and then I cover the tops and front with recycled, heavy-gauge black polythene silage cover. This also keeps the rain out and so keeps all the nutrients in the compost where I want them. I'm always astonished to see 'experts' on TV not covering compost heaps - haven't they heard of nutrient loss, 'run-off' and pollution? Uncovered compost may still make a good soil conditioner - but most of the nutrients will have been completely washed away, wasting all the valuable soil-enriching fertility, polluting groundwater and emitting climate-change accelerating Nitrous Oxide!!
Drown your perennial weeds!
I don't put perennial weeds like docks, scutch (couch) grass and mares tail onto the compost heap, as it wouldn't kill them - I reserve extra special treatment for them in order to recycle the nutrients they've robbed from my soil! First I put them in a black bin bag in the sun to wilt & cook for a week or so, then I put them into a large barrel of water beside the compost heaps, with about half a bucket of chicken manure to get them festering nicely! Or you could alternatively use HLA - 'household liquid activator' as the wonderful late Lawrence Hills euphemistically called it! (use your imagination - the final insult to a weed!!) This is added to throughout the summer and by the following year everything has rotted nicely, any fibrous plant material remaining can at that stage go onto the compost heap with the rest of the now benign liquid being used as a liquid feed, diluted about 10-1. Warning here - cover this when it's festering - the smell is appalling and attracts horse flies like a magnet! It's actually very good for seeing off unwanted visitors though. Just invite them to admire your compost heaps and give it a really vigorous stir while they're standing beside it - it works like magic!! Don't get it on your hands though - or you won't get rid of the smell for a fortnight! The same goes for comfrey, borage and nettle feed - much the best when all mixed together in a large barrel - as the high nitrogen nettles help the high potash comfrey to break down quickly, the borage supplies valuable magnesium, and they make a nice balanced feed for most things when diluted to the colour of weak tea after a few weeks, when the smell had mostly gone.
End of brassica bed planting of Nasturtium, Tagetes & Viola, to attract beneficial insects.
The first runner beans will be flowering soon - but you won't have any problem with pollination if you've been encouraging bees and other pollinators into the garden by growing lots of flowers among your vegetables as I do. It makes the 'potager' or kitchen garden look beautiful too, and flowers such as Nasturtiums and violas are also edible and can be used in salads.
The value of mulching
Talking of runner beans - it's important to keep them evenly moist at the roots as any dryness at the roots encourages the flower buds to drop. A good mulch now will help to etain moisture . Grass clippings are brilliant for this - also keeping weeds down. As I've said so many times before - always mulch on already damp soil, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the direct stem area to avoid possible rotting, and watering in well as soon as you put fresh grass clippings on - to avoid any burning of the roots by the high nitrogen in the clippings.
Keep mulching everything you can, little and often, as this stops evaporation, saves on water, protects the soil surface from heavy summer rain (I wish!), encourages worms and keeps the weeds down by excluding light. Plants and worms love mulches rather than bare soil. A nice cooling mulch keeps the worms working in the upper layers of soil - rather than disappearing lower down, away from the dry summer heat. That means they're making more plant nutrients available to the roots of crops. Worms like green food - it's much better for them than newspaper or cardboard, although they do need carbon too. I know a lot of people use newspapers under grass mulches, but all I can say is they can't have very many birds in their gardens! I tried that years ago around shrubs and fruit bushes, but the birds here had one helluva time scratching them up everywhere looking for worms! The garden quickly resembled the local rubbish dump - so I just use grass clippings on their own now! They still get scratched about but don't look so bad and after a few days they fade to a nice light brown colour!
Don't use massive mulches of manure - doing that promotes soft growth that's far more vulnerable to both diseases and slugs! It also buries too deeply and suffocates many of the vital organisms that live in the top layers of the soil, which plants need to be healthy. The majority of soil-dwelling bacteria need oxygen to survive and do their job of interacting with plant roots. If you make life hard for them, you make it much harder for them to do their job. Lashing on tons of non-organic manure can also contain chemicals which can unbalance the population of soil bacteria. This is something many people don't know. In every layer of soil there is something that specifically evolved to live in that particular place. Leave it where it evolved to be - don't make life hard for it!
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and over 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.)