Contents: A Growbag Gardening Update... Tomato Memories and New Discoveries.... A gloriously abundant but hectic time in the polytunnel!.... Growing new potatoes for Christmas..... Barely controlled chaos!..... Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes..... How to get a second crop of Climbing French Beans from the Same Plants!... Time to think about winter now!..... Routine jobs......
Growbag Gardening Update
In May I realised that although I have written quite a lot about growing in different containers - growbags specifically were not something I had written about before. But they come with their own unique challenges, so I decided that it was high time that I did! I'm clarifying my instructions for making them here - with an update on how they've done so far. Even if you already have plenty of growing space (and what keen gardener ever has enough?) they can provide really useful extra growing space in a small garden, or even if you have no garden at all - and they will very quickly pay for any outlay in terms of the amount of produce you can grow in them. Just saving the cost of four or five bags of spinach or mixed salads from your average local supermarket at around €3 each would quickly pay for the cost of one bag of organic, peat free compost. But all of the crops you will be able to grow in them will be worth far more than the initial outlay. Two years ago they were charging €15 for large Crown Prince winter squashes in our local farmers market, selling them by weight, and I have several growing in just one growbag here right now! The growbags can also be recycled and re-used endlessly by refreshing the nutrients in them after they've grown a few crops!
I have mentioned before that many years ago, before we moved here, I grew all our vegetables and fruit in containers and homemade growbags for two years. It was impossible to buy organic produce back then, except from a handful of small-scale commercial organic producers - and most of those were situated a very long way away. So if you wanted to eat truly 'clean', pesticide-free food for your family - which I did - you had to grow it! Having only a tiny back yard, in a rented house where we couldn't dig up the only small patch of soil which there was - there was no choice but to use growbags and containers. This was also essential as in the second year there when we had to be ready move at any moment - and bringing our crops too! The big problem back then was that the only growbags available were filled with peat-based composts, containing artificial fertilisers, and not what I wanted to grow vegetables in to feed my severely allergic child!
Luckily now there are at least a few choices of peat-free bagged composts - and although these not all are organic, it is very easy to turn those into growbags ourselves, with a little ingenuity. Most have a larger volume of compost in them than normal growbags, which is a good start. When buying growbags, there is in my opinion another absolute essential - and that is a growbag tray to fit underneath it, to catch any water and nutrients which will drain out of the bags, thereby stopping any water loss and preventing waste of nutrients and possible pollution. The trays I use for my home made growbags are just slightly bigger than most standard growbag trays, with a small lip around the sides, about 5cm or 1 & 1/2in. deep. Most large bags of peatfree compost will not fit onto normal growbag trays when lying flat, without hanging over the edge, as they are wider than normal growbags - so theses larger trays are essential. They are sold in various sizes for displaying plants in conservatories and garden rooms, and are ideal for the larger 75l bags of compost, which will fit on them easily with some room to spare. This allows for easy watering and feeding from beneath later on, rather than always watering at the top around the neck of the pant. The added advantage of being on a tray also means they can also be placed anywhere you have room for them, on a path or a balcony, so they don't have to be outside, and can be placed anywhere with good enough light to grow plants.
Before you plant anything in them the first thing to do is decide where you're going to put them obviously! Most leafy salad vegetables and greens like spinach will tolerate partial or total shade during the day, but if you want to grow great tomatoes, melons and aubergines, then they really need as much sun as you can give them. The next thing to do is to lay your bag of compost on the tray and give it a couple of good shakes to make sure that the compost is as evenly distributed as possible. When you've done that - then make either two or three crosses in the top, depending on what you want to grow. I cut the crosses with a sharp pruning knife, about 15-20cm either way. Two works for courgettes and squashes, which have a big root system, and three works for tomatoes and peppers. I never cut out whole pieces as this can make the bags much less useful for recycling later for other uses in the garden, which is always something I think of in advance of using anything. Remember - you can make them larger, but you can't put anything back once you've cut it off! DON'T make drainage holes at this stage - as the compost should be fairly dry when first opened, and the water may just run straight out, taking some compost and nutrients with it, as I saw happening to someone recently on television!
Next water the bag as evenly as possible without saturating it. Do this gradually, and after putting some water on, go back a few hours later to see how that's been absorbed, and if you think it needs more, add a little more then. It can take fresh composts some time to absorb water at first. Leave it to settle and absorb that for 12-24 hours, and if you think it's damp enough, only then cut or puncture 2-3 small drainage holes in either end, just below the end joins in the bags, which will allow for a small reservoir of water to settle at the very bottom before it overflows. In the larger growbag trays, as some plants grow bigger, you can make the drainage holes slightly bigger, and make more along the bottom later, and even mound a little fresh compost up against the ends of the bag, so that the roots can find their way out to forage a bit more and that will give the hungry plants a boost, giving your crops a longer season. You can pour liquid feed into the trays as well, rather than pouring it directly onto the plant stems, which can sometimes cause stem rotting - especially in crops like cucumbers and aubergines. Next place your plants into the bag, watering them in just a little to settle the roots in, but DON'T Saturate them. Again, you can always add more gradually, but if you get them too wet and the next few nights are unexpectedly cold, they may suffer.
If you need to support the plants later on, it is very easy to make a rectangular or triangular wooden frame which I did many years ago out of some wood which I found in a skip and recycled - and I'm no carpenter! These can be very useful covered with polythene later too - making a handy cold frame. I've also used old clothes horses or airers, and even ild metal wardrobe frames and metal stepladders temporarily, or you can buy metal concrete-reinforcing frames or panels in DIY stores. These are quite expensive although they will last forever. But never underestimate the usefulness of a bit of skip diving outside houses which are having a makeover - I'm rather shamelessly addicted to it! It's amazing the useful stuff some which some people will thoughtlessly throw out to be consigned into landfill sites - it's no wonder we have a planet polluted with stuff that some people consider rubbish!
I must say that the winter squash plants I planted, two plants per bag, in late May have done incredibly well. In fact they're currently making a takeover bid for all of the space at the top end of the polytunnel, and it's quite difficult to walk around them! I planted four varieties, Blue Banana, Burgess Buttercup, Crown Prince and North Georgia Candy Roaster - all dense-fleshed great keepers. These will be left in the bags until probably the end of September - until they have stopped growing, are really well-ripened, and their stems have become 'corky' - looking. Then they will be cut off their vines, with a 'T'-shaped handle or stem, and left to ripen off a little longer in the sun, they will keep for months, often until it is time to sow the next year's crop. Squashes and pumpkins don't die when they are harvested, and kept in a cool dry place - they will go on increasing in healthy carotenoid nutrients (precursors of vitamin A) for at least couple of months after picking. Really dense-fleshed squashes are delicious, nutritious and really useful for all sorts of dishes - bringing the distilled essence of summer sunshine to the darkest depths of winter. Even though they're grown up now - my kids still look forward to my 'Sunshine Soup', which is always a staple here in winter. The recipe for that is in the recipe section here.
|Baselbieter Roteli - truss, with 2 already picked!||Baselbieter Rotelli halved|
|Ripe Thorburn's Terracotta - halved. Showing green gel in seed cavity||Thorburn's Terracotta - a real find this year|
Tomato Memories and New Discoveries
Tomatoes must surely be one of the most universally-grown fruits in the world. Almost anyone who has a garden grows them, as they're so redolent of summer and so useful in the kitchen. If not - then almost everyone certainly eats them! As I've mentioned before, a few years ago I invited Dr Matthew Jebb, the director of our National Botanic Gardens here in Ireland and a fellow tomato fancier to speak at one of the early Totally Terrific Tomato Festivals. He has spoken at every one since, and until recently hosted it at the Gardens. He produced this amazing statistic for one of his talks - that "the human race eats half it's own weight in tomatoes each year". At first incredible to imagine - but when you start to think about the mind-boggling amount of processed products which contain them - apart from those eaten fresh - then it's not as fantastical as it at first seems.
My first encounter with tomatoes began almost before I could walk. The scent of them is one of my earliest memories. Every early spring, that first evocative whiff of tomato foliage when separating tiny seedlings, takes me instantly back to the old greenhouse in the Edwardian garden where I grew up, and the warm, comforting greenness of it. Enclosed by high, red brick walls which seemed bathed in perpetual warm sunlight, that garden only exists now in my memory, having long since disappeared under a housing estate in the late 1960's, like so many lovely old gardens. I never did any gardening at home, although I enjoyed the garden and the food it produced. I was too involved in horses then. However when I got married and had children, I started to grow my own tomatoes for the very first time, and began to discover their seemingly endless diversity. They have fascinated me ever since. It isn't just their shapes, colours, textures, flavours and uses which fascinate me - but also their individual histories. The heirloom varieties especially, as because someone else found them delicious, useful or particularly tasty, they have been handed down, often through families and friends for centuries since humans first grew them.
While on the subject of heirlooms - I really wish people would stop calling ALL unusually-coloured or odd-shaped tomato varieties "heirlooms"! They are only heirlooms if they are rare old varieties, the diversity of which has been preserved from the past. While it may be a catchy selling point for tomato producers and supermarkets to use - it's not only very confusing and untrue, but also incorrect. Especially since most of them are tasteless, modern F1 hybrids!
Last year I discovered at least two wonderful new varieties - which I shall now definitely grow for as long as I grow tomatoes. I normally wait until late autumn to recommend new varieties - but we seem to have experienced almost every season of the year over the last 3 months, from freezing to intense heat to almost freezing temperatures again - the last week having been only 3 degrees centigrade almost every night in the polytunnel. So I have no hesitation in recommending the two easy to grow, disease resistant, absolute gems pictured above which seem so far to have stood up to everything thrown at us! Both are sumptuously tasty, and have resisted heat stress of well over 40 deg C for weeks better than any other of the tomatoes growing here except the always fabulous Rosada. I only grew two plants of each this year, but next year I plan to grow more of both. Thorburn's Terracotta is a beefsteak has been a juicy and aromatic new star turn in Caprese Salads - and from it's meaty texture and flavour, I know that the delicious medium plum variety Baselbieter Rotelli will definitely dehydrate well, and also quite possibly freeze without collapsing. Both are open-pollinated varieties which can be grown either as cordons or semi-bushes with several stems, and this is useful, as I've been looking for a replacement for the F1 hybrid bush Chiquito. I prefer to save my own seed, and I want to grow all non-F1 hybrid varieties from now on - with the exception of Rosada which I shall endeavour to keep going from cuttings for as long as I can.
A small selection of just some of the produce currently available here. It's a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the body and the brain!
A gloriously abundant but hectic time in the polytunnel!
At the moment every day seems to be a mad dash to get some crops preserved - and to think up some new recipes for using the produce which just can't wait another minute to be picked and eaten NOW! But time and the days are getting shorter for gardeners and polytunnel growers. We urgently need to think ahead to winter and possible shortages of veg later on. If you haven't already got more than enough seedlings to fill your tunnel or greenhouse for the winter, then sow some more while there is still some chance that they will make enough growth to give you good crops over the winter, or you won't have any until early spring. I always think that it's far better to have too many in case I have a disaster with one crop - rather than not enough. And if I end up with too many seedlings, surplus to requirements - then there are always plenty of delighted recipients! I've already sown crops like Sugar-Loaf chicory, kales, perpetual spinach beet, and chards etc which I find so useful over winter, and I've also rooted lots of new watercress plants - but there are still plenty of faster growing crops you can sow now that will give you useful crops this autumn, as well as continuing on through the winter if we have a mild one. With our winters having been so wet over the last few years, I've tended to rely on the polytunnel more and more as the most reliable source of fresh winter food - particularly salads. I'll be sowing more of those this month.
Before our supper every evening - I like to mindfully say the 'grace' which was repeated parrot-fashion, as fast as possible, before every meal while at school - but which now has so much more meaning..... "For what we are about to receive - may we be truly grateful" - Because we truly are so grateful to Nature for her abundant generosity, and to all of the wonderful creatures which help us to grow such vibrantly life-giving food.
Growing New Potatoes for Christmas
I've already potted up some potatoes for Christmas, and I'm repeating this advice in case you didn't read it last month. This year I grew all of my potatoes in pots large and small again and none outside in the ground. This was because the surgery for my dodgy ankle was postponed again due to Covid19, and I wasn't able to get enough ground ready early enough, so we've eaten a lot of those already. The only potatoes which I did plant in the ground were planted in the polytunnel, I planted just one row of the healthy, anthocyanin-rich, maincrop
In addition to that though, so far it's also the healthiest looking, and clearly the most disease-resistant of all the purple potatoes I've grown all the 40 odd years I've grown them! It is still growing so strongly and looking so healthy that I'm leaving it be for now, until we've eaten all of the rest in pots. It's more than happy to be left alone, with just an occasional careful watering at the roots and never wetting the foliage, which would cause blight. At this stage it has already covered the entire bed and is now half covering the main centre path on the opposite side of the bed, and still looking astonishingly healthy again! I could really do with the space to plant some autumn and winter crops now - but far be it from me to upset a potato which is clearly so thoroughly still enjoying itself at this time of year! I think I shall leave it to grow for as long as it wants to - as an experiment. It will be interesting to see if it finally goes down with blight - although the Fruit Hill Farm website said that it is resistant to late blight. I usually lift all my potatoes before the end of August because rodents often become a problem, and I doubt it will be resistant to them!.
You can use any sprouted potatoes to plant for Christmas potatoes, as all of them will grow, but first and second early types are the most reliable if you have any left from early crops. Alternatively you can buy suitable tubers for growing Christmas crops from garden centres now - although these may not necessarily be the best-flavoured types. These are just tubers which have been kept in cold storage from the same spring planting seed tuber crops that suppliers would have been selling in spring. I do that every year with some of my spring planting tubers saved from the previous year - which by this time look shrivelled and often have very long sprouts on them - often 30 cm or a foot long! Long sprouts aren't a problem though - I just lay them on their side and wind them gently around the pots - usually using 2 or 3 litre pots for these Christmas crops. They soon take off like rockets as they're so delighted to finally be planted. I also normally save healthy some small, healthy-looking tubers from the current year's early crops. Either way works just fine.
If I'm saving some of my early crop from the same year for doing this - I dry them off in the sun for a few days and let them go green, then I put them in the fridge to chill them for a week or so before planting in the pots. But I'm not sure doing that is strictly necessary. Potatoes are always keen to grow whatever the time of year - as anyone who has ever accidentally left a forgotten bag of them half-finished at the back of the veg cupboard will know! When they're potted, just keep them outside for a few weeks somewhere where they'll get good air circulation, to hopefully avoid late blight. Then bring them into the polytunnel as soon as any frost is forecast. From then on always cover them at night with fleece just in case, and don't over-water or they may rot at this stage as they won't be growing strongly any more - just 'ticking over'. It may seem like a bit of a faff I know - but at Christmas your 'new' potatoes will be a real treat - and you'll be so glad that you went to the trouble of doing them!
If the variety you are growing isn't a first or second-early one, and isn't ready in time for the festive season - then just as long as you don't let them get damaged by frost, and keep covering them at night with some fleece - then they'll just keep growing on after Christmas, through a few more weeks until they are finally ready. I've often done that depending on what variety I'm growing - and in fact they'll be even more welcome in a dismal, dark January than they will be at Christmas - when there are so many other goodies to eat! I may even plant some more of the 'Blaue Anneliese' to see what they do - although they're a late maturing, maincrop really, so I doubt they'll be ready for Christmas. They're also so vigorous that they're not very happy in pots either - but I might put a few in very large tubs as an experiment. Apart from the obvious advantage of growing our own fresh food, especially varieties which I could never buy - experimenting is what keeps me interested in gardening. Finding new and better varieties and new ways of growing them is always exciting. When I stop being excited by that - then I shall give up!
The most important place in my Polytunnel Potager - my seat under the peach trees. Here I sit and think - surrounded by scented herbs & flowers, with lemon verbena either side of me, Nicotiana behind me - bees buzzing, butterflies dancing around me and birdsong.... This is my personal Narnia - pure Paradise!
A few years ago, someone who had just put up a new polytunnel asked me if I could put on a whole page of tunnel photos as they needed some inspiration! Someone else asked me if I could walk around once a month and take a comprehensive video. While they were both brilliant ideas - apart from the time it would take which at this time of year I don't have with so much work to be done - when I walked round my tunnels later with these ideas in mind and tried to take a few photos, I realised that it would be impossible to get a real idea of what's going on in them without a lot of description too - which is what I've tried to do in my blog over the last few years, also in my 'Late Lunch' radio feature on LMFM, and more recently in my daily Tweets. You don't need to have a Twitter account to see these - you can just enter through the Twitter window here - and then just go down through my timeline - which good friends of mine do who don't want to be on social media.
The picture above provides a small 'vignette' of my polytunnel potager garden - which is repeated in various combinations all around. I try to have a balanced ecology which echoes the garden outside and because of this it's almost impossible for anyone to get a true picture of what's really happening in there - especially at this time of year. Unless one examined it inch by inch - it's so like a jungle that it's impossible to see it all! So many things are growing through things, around things, underneath and up and over things - just as Nature grows things. There's a riot of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs, with happily buzzing bees and butterflies everywhere - and also sparrows and other small birds flitting around hunting for insects to feed their broods. There's even a few resident frogs.
It's very hectic and really difficult to see anything too clearly, and to get a sense of just how much is really going on - one just sort of 'feels' the energy of it. There are no neat rows of crops with wide, uncultivated bare spaces in between, like one sees in so many polytunnels, because that's not how Nature grows things. I think the best term for it is 'controlled chaos' - barely! It's a fine line I know - and one has to take care that things don't sometimes get smothered, or that by reducing air circulation too much one encourages disease. Science is now proving what I always knew in my gut from observing Nature - and that is that communities of plants are actually much healthier than monocrops of just one type of plant. Plants are just much happier growing together. I don't give the way I grow any special title - like Permaculture, or No Dig, or Agroecology, because I don't feel the need for a 'badge' - and because it's all of those things and more. It's just gardening with Nature without synthetic chemicals, exactly how Nature does it. That's what organic gardening is!
So often the photos of my vegetable beds look more like flower borders - but then that's just how Nature loves to grow things - and that's why the plants are happy and healthy! Sadly though, it does make it rather difficult to take photos that don't just end up looking like one great big colourful and leafy blur! You can see what I mean about being hectic from the picture of the sweet potato bed above! They actually have very beautiful flowers too. So as a result - this month, my polytunnel looks like a very colourful jungle! But there's a very fine line between trying to make every possible inch productive, or the whole lot descending into total chaos - and believe me - it's not far from that right now!! Hardly any space to walk around the tunnel at all without tripping over or walking on something!
Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes
Don't cut off curling up tomato leaves unless they are discoloured or going brown, or grey and mouldy at the tips - curling up is normally caused by excess heat a couple of weeks earlier, or depletion of nutrients as the plants get older. Only take off the first couple of leaves below the ripening trusses to help improve air circulation - even if they are still green. The others further up are needed to help the plant to photosynthesise and to keep drawing up the sap. Keep looking for any side shoots which may still appear all down the stem. Be very careful with the watering in the whole tunnel now. Try to water in the mornings if possible, on a day when sunny weather is forecast, this gives surface moisture a chance to dry off before the tunnel is closed in the evening. Watch the weather forecast, try to plan your watering and don't go soaking the whole tunnel thoroughly if wet dull weather is forecast for a couple of days. Try to keep the moisture content of the soil fairly even. Fruit may split if the roots have dried out too much and the plants are then soaked, and uneven, erratic watering can also cause 'blossom end rot' (where the fruit gets round black patches on the flower end) or the small fruit may even drop off altogether.
How to get a Second crop of Climbing French Beans from the Same Plants!
Delicious white flowered runner bean Moonlight