Should we be Heating Greenhouses for Early Crops?
In this era of rapidly accelerating climate change - can we really justify the energy used for heating and artificially lighting greenhouses and polytunnels, if we're genuine about wanting to lower our collective carbon footprint as much as possible, so that our food growing doesn't add to climate-changing CO2 emissions? Is it really necessary to have our tomatoes perhaps two weeks earlier than our gardening friends, when it is so easy to enjoy them in early June anyway, given the choice of the right variety and taking just a little time and trouble? It may feel good to have the earliest tomatoes - but is it actually just a bit of an ego trip on a smaller scale? A bit like the planetary scale ego trips of those billionaires competing to have the first passenger spacecraft to the moon - while seemingly not caring about the damage they're doing to the future of this planet which we all live on? I know many people may think that 'their little bit ' of peat, or a few slug pellets, or pesticides, or air travel etc doesn't make that much of a difference in the general scheme of things - but if everyone thinks like that then frankly folks - we're sunk! As I first wrote on the opening home page on this blog 12 years ago when I started it - "every little bit does make a difference - because all those little bits add up"! - I'm afraid that the attitude of - I'll lower my carbon footprint when everyone else does - is selfish and simply doesn't cut it!!
If you're able to move heavy loads of fresh farmyard manure, which few people would have access to anyway - certainly not organic, or have at least a cubic metre of green bark chips, both of which will heat up - you could of course make a hot bed! But having tried both years ago - in my experience it's hard to get an even temperature and keep it just right, and you can destroy a lot of seedlings very fast if you get it wrong! Anyway I can't lift anything heavier than a large plat pot these days, due to cervical spine damage after a fall many years ago, which caused nerve damage in my left arm and is gradually deteriorating. Lifting heavy weights aggravates it now and makes it worse, so I have to be very aware of it - which I sometimes forget! Still - I'm not complaining, I did a lot of hard work for many years, after my original successful surgery. I was warned then that if I did any heavy lifting, the nerve no longer had any protection after the removal of the two offending collapsed discs and that it might become even more damaged. So becoming an organic grower and a sculptor was not perhaps the cleverest thing to do - but I got away with it for years! I'm an awkward cuss, and wanted to prove that nothing could beat me! I achieved a lot, met some wonderful people who I otherwise wouldn't have met, and have some lovely memories from it - which I'm grateful for. However - I digress! I'm sure there are many others like me who are less able to do heavy work, but who still want to grow crops of their favourite foods as early as possible to avoid buying them. So what are the most environmentally-friendly options to heating a greenhouse or polytunnel?
Well the first is obviously to eat only seasonally available food. But who doesn't long for the taste of fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter? Interestingly, in his talk at one of the Totally Terrific Tomato Festivals a few years ago - Dr Matthew Jebb, the Director of our National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin, mentioned tomatoes being imported from Spain, and he said that he'd worked out that buying produce imported from Southern Europe actually had a lower carbon footprint than Irish or UK-grown, if you took into account the energy requirements of heating of glasshouses in the British Isles in mid-winter. I'm certainly not going to argue with him, as he's great at crunching numbers! Bit if you'd prefer to eat tomatoes all year round without buying imported ones - you can eat frozen, semi-dehydrated ones when your fresh ones are out of season, which may not taste quite the same as fresh - but in fact they are equally delicious. I mention that in my blog post about preserving your homegrown tomatoes here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/525-totally-terrific-tomatoes-health-benefits-growing-cooking-eating-preserving-my-talk-for-tttomfest17
The other option is to grow your earliest tomatoes, aubergines etc in the cheapest and least carbon-guzzling way possible, which is what I've tried to do for over 40 years. After initially germinating them over the pipes at the back of the kitchen range, which is always around 70 deg F/22 deg C, as soon as they're up and need good light - I transfer them to a small electric propagator in the polytunnel, which can be kept at a temperature of approximately 50 deg F/10 deg C. Filling every little gap between pots in the propagator with recycled bubble-wrap to insulate them and prevent any heat loss. This is fine for giving seedlings and small plants the root warmth which they need to grow on well - they don't need more than that. If you need more space to grow on a lot more plants later - then a heated roll-out mat which is a bit like an electric blanket will do the same. Both will need some kind of sturdy structure over them so that you can cover plants on cold nights with bubble-wrap or fleece, secured with wooden clothes pegs, to prevent the tops being damaged by frost. Propagator lids are always far too low for anything but small seedlings. You can get extenders to make them higher - but they're horrendously expensive, and if you have a good look around at home most of us can find something that does the job just as well. The only limit is your imagination! Over the years I've variously used old freezer baskets, wire laundry baskets, clothes horses and other things to make structures, and my current method is to use an old walking frame, which is very sturdy, fits neatly over the propagator and does the job perfectly! You can see my magnificent edifice pictured above! It looks a bit 'Heath-Robinson' - but does the job just fine! At night for the first few weeks, I add more bubble-wrap or fleece to guard against cold, taking it off again in the morning and just leaving one clear cover on the plants, so that they get the best light possible, but without drafts.
I would never use a greenhouse heater as they're incredibly wasteful - using a huge amount of precious energy to only heat the air, which is totally unnecessary and is lost very quickly. It is root warmth that plants really need, with very careful watering - giving them just enough to stop them drying out, but not totally soaking the roots, which can cause disease and attract pests like fungus gnats. By now you will have gathered that I don't use artificial light either. Seedlings sown now won't need extra light in a couple of weeks time as the days will get brighter, and if they look a bit 'stretched' - they'll soon recover. The secret is not to push them by giving them too much heat - just enough is all they need. Then with careful ventilation and no drafts - your tender seedlings will be fine.
My ever-faithful little Robin friend signifies everything that I will keep faith with and stand up for until my last breath
Stand up for Organic, Peat-Free, Real Food now if you want a Healthy Future for our Children, Biodiversity and the Planet.
I've often had private Twitter messages from people asking me to stand up for them in often very bitter arguments on social media, where they are attacked and bullied simply for pointing out that organic is best way to produce food for us, for biodiversity and also for the planet. It's very noticeable that many on Twitter are then afraid to tweet about organic, in case they are targeted again. While I understand and sympathise with their upset and discomfort - and would support them all if I only I had the time - such is the level of attacks from all sides now, both from conventional chemical farmers and the Big Ag bullies, that it would mean me having to spend my entire time on social media, and I would simply never get time to do anything else done, including writing and updating this blog - let alone growing my own food!
The fact is that the powerful global agrochemical/seed/biotech companies such as Monsanto/Bayer, and Vilmorin & Cie feel threatened by people becoming more aware that they are trying to control our global food system by taking over small independent seed companies whenever they can, and have no compunction in destroying the planet for profit. (Many people are unaware that they actually own Suttons, Dobies, The Organic Catalogue etc for gardeners) -information here: - https://www.vilmorincie.com/en/strategy/external-growth/ )The more threatened they feel - then the more their supporters on social media will try to attack and undermine all those of us who know without question that organic and peat-free is the only way forward if we want a healthy future for all life on the planet, and are brave enough to say it!
After I tweeted about this 5 years ago, I received a veiled threat by DM (direct message) from one particular ' celebrity' bully - insinuating that he would sue me for actually telling the truth! Needless to say I immediately unfollowed him so that he couldn't contact me secretly again! Someone else very recently told me that she had also been threatened - and yet some people still don't seem to realise who these people are, and what's really going on - because many of them seem clever and amusing! But there is a sinister dark underbelly there that most don't see.
It's vital that we continue to be brave and stand up to bullies wherever they are - whether it's about organic farming or anything else happening in society. I've been supporting organics in particular for over 40 years now - and like many of you I suspect, I often get tired and wish that those who are destroying Nature would just go away, and that things could go back to the way they were, before the massive rise in toxic agrochemicals over the last 70 years destroyed so much. But we must not be afraid, and give up and go away as the bullies hope we will - so that they can continue to destroy more of Nature for short-term profit! Science is so close to proving that organic is the only way forward to protect the future for our children, their children and indeed all of Nature. It is far too important to give up now.
I have a much-treasured collection of the old Soil Association magazines 'Mother Earth', on the front of which are some wonderful quotes. They often make me wonder if we have learnt nothing during the more than 70 years that Nature has been gradually disappearing, along with the massive rise in antibiotic resistance and diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and other NCDs or non-communicable diseases. This quote from the summer 1950 magazine, by Sir Albert Howard, is so relevant right now - if only people would listen: "The crucial test of real scientific achievement is whether it recognises and respects the supremacy of Mother Earth, or ignorantly attempts to substitute the false for the true."
Pesticides and Pollinators? - It's OUR choice!
The early buds of fruit trees are now starting to swell in gardens everywhere. Soon all gardeners will be hoping for plenty of bees and other pollinating insects to pollinate our crops, so that we will have plenty of healthy food to eat later on. This is something which we have been lucky enough to be able to take for granted since the beginning of human life on earth - but now we cannot take it for granted any longer! Intensification of agriculture, with it's use of vast amounts of fossil fuel-derived pesticides and fertilisers is destroying insects, habitats and all the vital, inter-connected biodiversity which depends on them. Those chemicals are also increasingly destroying soil health and soil carbon - with the result that soils globally are releasing massive amounts of CO2.
THIS is happening while so much of those crops produced by industrial agriculture go to waste! The pro-chemical and pro-industrially produced fake food people constantly promote the idea that organic farming couldn't possibly feed the world's growing population. The reality is that because organic farming both protects and improves soils, and also biodiversity, it is actually far more sustainable in every way.
Instead of saying that we can't feed the world without intensive agriculture and pesticides - why don't scientists come up with clever solutions for preventing the almost 40% of all food produced globally which is wasted throughout the food chain every year? Then tell us that we can't feed the world organically - as Nature has done for billions of years! It's funny how they go quiet when one mentions that - of course there's very little profit in preventing waste - and far more in promoting it!
Some interesting recent research said that if we cut out all food waste - then we could feed another billion people tomorrow. But even if we stopped all food waste now - if we continue to destroy our soils and pollinating insects with fossil fuel-derived chemical fertilisers and pesticides, then there will be mass starvation anyway! Firstly there would be be no soil left to grow crops in, and in addition, many of the valuable crops like fruits, nuts and seeds etc. would have no insects like bees to pollinate them. Healthy crops also depend on a microbially-alive and healthy, humus-rich soil in which to grow - otherwise all plants are more susceptible to pests, diseases and the increasing fluctuations of the weather. Few people seem to be warning that plant growth will also naturally be affected by climate change.
Climate change is something which I have been warning about for over 35 years now - as I could see those climate fluctuations happening before my very eyes, even then. It was obvious that was what was causing the weather to swing wildly from unseasonably mild, almost spring like weather too early in late winter, back to sudden, seriously damaging weather with violent storms or bitter, unexpected frosts. One didn't have to be a scientist to see what was happening - but many concerned scientists were warning back then that global warming wasn't going to be the lovely Mediterranean-like weather that some were hoping - but the wild and unpredictable weather patterns now happening worldwide. In the last week of January here, we were the wettest spot in Ireland, with 275% of the normal rainfall in this area for the last week in January, and 'February Fill-Dyke' is so far already living up to it's name - it hasn't stopped pouring with torrential rain for 3 days! 35 years ago I was told by someone from Teagasc, our agricultural advisory service, that then. this area was statistically the driest spot in Ireland. Not any longer! Polytunnels will be essential in the future for producing many crops - and I certainly thank heavens for mine! The more we can produce for ourselves - the more Independent and resilient we will be, and the less affected by political decisions such as Brexit - which is currently causing many problems in food supply chains,
We are now faced with a choice.... And it's up to us to make the right choice if we want life on earth as we know it to continue, and our children and grandchildren to have a future. That's not being melodramatic - it is the stark, absolute truth which we now face! We can no longer ignore it. Politicians must step up to the plate quite literally, end the age of fossil-fuelled chemical farming, and put organic food back on our global plates - for the same of biodiversity. To do otherwise is not simply utterly irresponsible and selfish - but will, quite simply, eventually destroy all life on Earth as we know it!
|Apricot buds just bursting into flower in late February
||Peach buds about to burst in the polytunnel in late February
The 'Darling Buds' of February - Attracting bees and other beneficial insects to help pollinate them
Rant over - back to more cheerful matters! Spring is fast approaching to cheer us all up - isn't it exciting? I can already see all of Nature responding to the lengthening days as weed seeds are germinating in the tunnel soil and the buds on the apricots and peaches in the polytunnel are swelling fast as you can see above. No matter what the problems in the world are - plants still want to grow and seeds want to sprout! Buds are beginning to move everywhere. Every day more of the early spring bulbs are beginning to peep out of the chilly wet ground and the Robin's loud singing starts at least ten minutes earlier each week. But winter isn't done with us quite yet - so take care - and don't be fooled into thinking that Spring's arrived just yet! Don't be too impatient to start planting stuff outside though, however tempting it may be on the milder days. The soil is far too wet after such a wet winter. But there's a lot we can get on with indoors - enjoying the anticipation before the main work becomes too urgent!
One thing which really helps to ensure indoor fruit pollination is to grow single flowers as early food for insects! As I mentioned last month - flowers are vital for attracting bees into your garden - as well as many other beneficial insects which help with both pollination and pest control. I've often talked about the little permanent ,mini gardens, which I grow at the end of the tunnels - in the corners either side of the doors - where space is so often wasted or taken up with tools or junk. I also have flowers planted in the middle at the sides too - and anywhere else I can tuck them in. These little 'mini gardens' have flowers all year round to attract bees etc. and mini pond habitat to attract frogs. They also have piles of large stones - little mini cairns - for ground beetles and other insects to hide in. Ground beetles are voracious predators of slugs. These little mini-ecosystems are vital in helping to achieve a natural ecological balance within the tunnels which ensures that I never have any pest problems. I also allow clumps of nettles to grow here and there - these play host to an early appearing aphid - specific just to nettles - which are the favourite prey of ladybirds that are just waking up in spring. Growing row upon row of green juicy vegetables - without a flower in sight either inside or outside - is not a natural environment. They make your crops an easy target for every hungry pest in sight!
Why would any self-respecting pollinating bee or pest controlling hoverfly visit your vegetable garden if there are none of their favourite flowers and food plants there to attract them? They have to go wherever they can find nectar and pollen or they may die. It's only common sense that if you're starving hungry and have to find food for energy within a few hours or die - you'll head for somewhere there's plenty of food on offer won't you? If you don't have anything flowering in your tunnel - you can bring some in in pots of flowers - hellebores, perennial wallflowers (like 'Bowles' mauve'), miniature narcissus, crocus, primroses, perennial Iberis or candytuft, etc are all good insect attractants. Feverfew and Hesperis (dames violet) are also flowering now. In fact anything that flowers now is useful - the only requirement is that they must be single flowered - It's impossible for bees and hoverflies etc. to reach the nectaries and pollen in double-flowered plants and at this time of year in particular - they may waste precious energy trying to find food, and then may die if they can't.
Orange tip butterfly on Orychophragma in early spring a few years ago
Despite the cold nights things are already starting to put on a surprising amount of growth. Joy Larkcom's beautiful Chinese brassica, Orychophragmus Violaceus (bit of a mouthful!), which the Chinese call the 'February Orchid' (much nicer), is living up to it's name and about to open it's first flowers. Seeing it in Joy's County Cork greenhouse a few years ago completely stopped me in my tracks - it was absolutely stunning in early March! I just had to have it - and she was kind enough to give me some seed. It has quite large flowers for a brassica, which are that lovely soft lilac-pink colour of sweet rocket. Sadly no scent though - but nevertheless the bees love it and it's a firm favourite with endangered orange tip butterflies, as this photograph from spring 2011 shows. So it deserves a place in any garden just for that reason. It would certainly be worthy of a place in any flower border. I've picked lots of leaves over the winter, and they're pleasant tasting in a salad, with a slightly 'cucumber/cress' flavour - not very strong - with quite an interesting texture. The flowers are really pretty in a salad too, again they have a slightly 'cress-ish' taste but they look so lovely it's almost a shame to eat them. I'll be saving seed again this year as it's very hard to obtain and I find it germinates best from fresh seed - but I know that occasionally, Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork have them.
The beginning of February marks the mid-point of winter - half-way between the shortest day and the spring equinox
It's also the time when the ancient Celtic calendar marked the Festival of Imbolc - or the 'Feast of Light' - which celebrated the returning of light to the earth and the beginning of the end of winter. An important day, this pagan celebration of light - which was seen as being both healing and life-giving. In Celtic times people rejoiced to see the sun returning just as we do today - but they understood how dependent they were on nature - an awareness that many of us seem to have lost now. They knew how vital the sun was to their lives and just how much they depended on those primitive seeds they had harvested so painstakingly the previous autumn and guarded so carefully all winter. They were totally in tune with the rhythm of the seasons and the forces of nature. Those of us today who are gardeners or nature lovers still feel the rise of that age-old visceral thrill of anticipation, and experience the same sense of celebration at the anticipation of longer days and delights to come. It truly connects us to our roots, both physically and metaphorically.
Our two late 'rescue' dogs - Flotsam and Jetsam - were real sun-worshippers! Immediately even the weakest rays of sun showed they would rush outside and arrange themselves to maximum effect against a south facing wall. Just like eager tourists dashing for the sunbeds - in order to catch every available scrap of precious sunlight! Our two new rescue dogs do just the same! They love to be outside all day if the weather's fine - occasionally tearing around playing and then flopping down onto their bale again! I hate to think of all the poor creatures that are left on their own all day, shut in up houses away from sunlight. All creatures have a desperate need for light and an innate sense of just how important the sun is. This particular animal (me!) makes a point of spending some time every day outside in the light, no matter how busy I am in the house. The sun feels surprisingly warm on one's face sitting in the polytunnel even at this time of year. The 'Trust Me I'm A Doctor' BBC TV series researched the theory that spending more time out in Nature was beneficial for us. Unsurprisingly, (to us organic gardeners), it of course found that it was - and that even spending 2 hours extra a week outside has massive benefits - reducing stress levels, lowering blood pressure etc.! Not a problem during lockdown - if you have any outside space, you can feed the birds and watch wildlife! That's something I find very therapeutic. And happily, in a polytunnel you can also provide plenty of habitat and food for so much beneficial wildlife, as I've mentioned above - all of which will help you to grown food organically without using chemicals.
In the last week or so there's really been an amazing surge in the growth of some of the plants - despite the cold weather! Plants know what time of year it is from the light just as all of Nature does - and they are ready and primed to start their yearly cycle once again. All the tunnel salads have really responded to even the small amount of increased light! The Oriental salads are positively burgeoning - the watercress in particular - growing at least six inches in a week! It's such a wonderfully reliable salad all year round, just needs regular watering - not running water - contrary to what some say. The only thing that makes it unhappy is being very short of water, which makes it flower. Then it becomes stringy, tough and very peppery - but bees really love the flowers though! If you only grow one salad - then do try growing it! It grows like a weed, from just a bit of stem stuck in a jar of water, comes top of the list for healthy nutrients and is chock full of immune-boosting, cancer-fighting phytonutrients such as sulforaphane. My watercress, like my kefir, is something I rely on and have kept going for many years. I was so thrilled to be able to gather lots of it's luscious leaves yesterday for a lovely fresh salad. My hens also really enjoy disposing of any old salads lingering in the fridge. There's never any food waste here!
Fruit trees suitable for polytunnel growing.
This morning I noticed a tiny hint of movement in the buds on the peach trees planted in the ground in the polytunnel - despite the low temperatures we've had recently. I'm so looking forward to their luscious fruits again and meanwhile carefully eking out the last of the frozen and dehydrated ones. Peaches, along with grapes, strawberries and of course figs are very easy to grow in polytunnels if you have enough space. My two 11 year old peach trees provide masses of fruit every summer now. I love peaches and it's well nigh impossible to get organically-grown ones. I always cut up the excess and freeze or dehydrate them for smoothies, sorbets or other treats. I think that peaches are the very best fruit tree to plant in a tunnel if you have space for only one tree - they're usually self-fertile and are easily kept within bounds by correct pruning. If you forget for a year, you can hack the hell out of them and they'll still come back for more - but if you aren't brave enough and don't prune them - they'll quickly outgrow any polytunnel or greenhouse and seriously threaten the roof!
The really great thing about growing peaches in a tunnel is they don't get peach leaf curl - so don't have to be sprayed with any nasty fungicides. One of the other great things about peaches is that because of the way they are pruned - you can keep them to whatever height and width you want. So as long as you have roughly 15ft or 3m of tunnel width - you've got room for a very productive peach tree. It's vital to prune them properly though - and remember that they mostly fruit on the previous year's new green growth, as I described in this January's Fruit Garden Diary. Soon both Lidl and Aldi will have bare root fruit trees on sale again. At around a fiver each - they're fantastic value and in my experience are very good quality. Bare-root planting is always best with any fruit tree and I talked about that last month too. They always establish far better than anything bought in a container. The vital thing to remember is to always leave a minimum of 4 in. or 10 cm between the bulge of the graft union on the stem, and the top of the soil. if you don't do that you will lose the dwarfing properties of the root stock.
Other trees, particularly cherries, can be an absolute disaster, unless you have a lot of time to fuss over them - particularly in the usually damp-ish atmosphere of the average tunnel here in Ireland. They really only work well grown on very dwarfing root stocks in the specialist fruit tunnels which I've seen in Herefordshire/Welsh border - where my family comes from and where many still live. Even then they need a lot of regular pruning to keep them under control. Specialised fruit tunnels have sides which can slide up, and tops that open up too - so that you get maximum air circulation and also good pollination when you need it. I'd love a specialist fruit tunnel - but sadly the finances won't stretch that far - so like most people I try to do as much as I can in one! It's so windy here that one might not be successful anyway! Over the last 35 years, I've tried all the latest dwarfing root-stocks for sweet cherries, even the 'minarette' ones, and none of them really work unless you are constantly pruning, snipping and fussing to keep them within bounds - something I really don't have time for. It's also difficult as you can only prune cherries at certain times of year - and this also happens to be the busiest time elsewhere in the garden. So take your eye off the ball at all and you'll find the cherry has lifted the roof off your polytunnel. Believe me - I've tried!. I would never recommend planting one in a tunnel. They seem quite innocuous for a year or so - and you might think - what's she talking about? But believe me - when they think you've taken your eye off them - they can take off like rockets! I've tried them in tubs too - and they're not that happy in those either for very long. On the other hand - Morello cherries, which are pruned in a similar way to peaches - can work fairly well in pots for a few years - but you'll never get huge crops from cherries in pots - and huge crops are what I always aim for! I'm a greedy fruit fanatic and the dark, sour or Morello cherries are also one of the best fruits for anthocyanins which are proven to lower inflammation and ease arthritis.
A reminder to order seeds now - if you want a tunnel full of healthy veg next winter!
A neighbour came to look at my tunnel the other day, and was surprised to see how great a variety of things there were to eat at this time of year. He has a small tunnel - and wanted to know how he could do the same next winter. It's really only a matter of remembering to sow the right seeds at the right time. Late June or July is the best time to sow many of the chicories, chards, oriental veg. etc. otherwise they don't have enough time to grow before the days really begin to shorten - when growth of many things slows dramatically. Summer is not always the most popular time to be anticipating winter though, much nicer to enjoy sunbathing instead! But gardeners must think well ahead if they want to produce food to be as self-sufficient as possible all year round food. So do remember to order seeds now of things like claytonia, chicories, endives, Swiss chards, leaf beets, sugar loaf chicory, Chinese cabbages, lambs lettuce, pak choi, winter radishes, winter lettuces, watercress and land-cress (you'll find a delicious soup recipe for these last two on the recipe page). Stupidly - many garden centres tend to take their seeds off sale once summer gets under way. They think that gardeners won't want seeds then - but REAL gardeners, growing real food do! So make sure you have them.
I am constantly amazed at the number of people who only get round to clearing up the remains of last year's mouldy and disease-ridden old tomato and cucumber stems or other crops now! They could have been eating delicious home-produced salads and other veg all winter..... not only are they completely wasting precious and expensive cropping space for at least one third of the year - but they then wonder why their lovely summer crops almost immediately get hit by pests and diseases as soon as they plant out this year's crops. This is because the spores of fungal diseases like botrytis etc. will be flying around the minute they go to clear up the mess! Any protected cropping space is so valuable - and often so hugely expensive to put up initially - that every inch of it it should be earning it's keep all year round!
How to afford what some call the 'luxury' of protected polytunnel cropping?
Several people have said to me in the past - "It's all right for you - I don't have a tunnel - I can't afford one - so I don't bother reading the bit about greenhouses and tunnels, because I can't do it!". - Well do you know what? For a start - you could actually grow many of the lower growing crops in a large polythene cold frame - that's what I did, long before I had my first small polytunnel. You could even make your own as I did! If you work out how much you spend all year round on vegetables and fruit - particularly now with food prices rising - and then compare that against the price of a small tunnel - where you could grow a huge amount of it yourself - I think you would be surprised at just how quickly it would pay for itself! Not to mention the convenience and added health benefits of absolute freshness, or being able to garden in any weather - even at night after work to de-stress!! Some of the DIY stores sell plastic-covered greenhouse frames very cheaply now - for less than €100.
But if you really don't have the space for a greenhouse or polytunnel, or can't afford one, you may have a large glass porch, or you could make a polythene frame easily and very cheaply, sit it on a concrete path and grow in containers if you don't have any soil to grow in - so there's really no reason why you can't grow even a few winter salads at the very least! In something that size you could also grow bush tomatoes, peppers or aubergines in the summer. I did that very successfully when I first started gardening years ago, making up my own frame from recycled timber and polythene, and I promise you that if I can do it - then anyone can! DIY is most definitely not my thing! I grew my best peppers and aubergines ever in that rickety old recycled frame! It lasted several years too - I was very proud of myself! So please don't use the "I can't" excuse - that is, unless you don't even have so much as a path to your front door!
Winter salad beds in the tunnel - Endives, land cress, ragged Jack Kale, lettuce etc.
One thing I can absolutely guarantee, is that when it comes to polytunnels or greenhouses - what I call my 'law of handbags' applies. That is - no matter how big your handbag, greenhouse, or freezer - it will NEVER be big enough for everything you want to put in it, once you've experienced it's delights!!
So always buy the biggest one you can possibly afford - you will bless every inch of it I promise you! I'll be making a new 'grow frame' this year, for hardening-off veg seedlings to be planted outside later. More protected cropping space is always useful here because it's so windy - and in late spring, when the tunnel is literally bursting at the seams, a grow frame or cold frame is a great halfway-house for hardening off plants to grow completely unprotected outside later on.
Will you have 'Extra early potatoes' for Easter?
Your extra early potatoes could already be up about an inch or so if you planted them as I described last month in pots. Make sure they're covered every night with fleece - even if you're not expecting frost - just in case. In the middle of this month, they may be about 10cm/4-5in. high, then you can plant them out carefully, keeping the root ball together, into a tunnel bed, covering with a double or even treble layer of fleece if severely cold nights are forecast. Or you can leave them in their pots. You'll be eating these in mid-late April! You can also plant well sprouted seed potatoes directly into a tunnel bed any time now, again covering if necessary. These should be ready to eat in May, roughly in about 10-12 weeks, depending on the variety. As mentioned in previous diaries - I've always found 'Lady Christl' to be the very best for really earlies in the tunnel, good flavoured, it's by far the quickest to 'bulk up' - one can often find usable potatoes underneath it after just 8 weeks - if you're impatient like me and do a gentle, exploratory 'finger-dig', leaving the rest to grow on undisturbed! 'Duke of York' or 'Red Duke of York' is next best for earliness (and also the best flavour of the lot), 'Mayan Gold' is only a few days after them - planted at the same time - and of course has an unsurpassed flavour - 'Apache' is a delicious early too and then 'Sharpe's Express' - 'Annabelle' is also not bad. I've tried all of the other earlies - including 'Rocket', Swift and 'Premiere' and quite frankly they were utterly tasteless compared to any of the ones I grow. Flavour is a very subjective thing however - and let's face it - given enough butter almost anything tastes good!! 'Mayan Gold' seems to be generally available now in Ireland (I smuggled mine in via my daughter's backpack years ago)! Try it and I can guarantee you will be as rapturous in singing it's praises as I am!! Never boil it or it falls apart because it's so floury - steam or roast it instead. Mayan Gold is also energy saving as it actually cooks far more quickly than normal varieties - in about half the time!
Water only if absolutely necessary in the tunnel at the moment. Doing it in the morning is best if you can - as this allows any surface moisture to dry off before evening. If you're covering crops with fleece it also helps if the soil surface dries off a bit during the day or fleece tends to absorb more. I watered 3 days ago - for the first time in over 3 months! Plants were wilting in the sunshine - which is getting a bit stronger now. Also ventilate as much as you can whenever possible, to keep the air moving and avoid the atmosphere becoming too damp - which encourages fungal diseases. Keep an eye on weather forecasts for very strong winds though - you don't want your polytunnel taking off into the next parish - (a story there - tell you sometime - I'll never forget losing a polytunnel in hurricane 'Charlie' in the mid 80's!). Growth of all plants will suddenly start to increase in the next week or so - thanks to the light - so you can increase watering accordingly when you need to.
Also it's important now to continue scrupulous housekeeping! Tidy up any yellowing, rotting or diseased leaves etc. and also the remains of finished crops. Don't leave anything hanging around that could cause disease!
Waking up our soil friends after the winter
If there's not much worm activity in your soil generally - then do a pH test. Worms like a pH of about 6.5 - 7 and if your soil Ph is right and worms have plenty of green food to eat - then they should be lively and bright pink - not sluggish and pale. If you find your soil is a bit too acid then add some calcified seaweed to gently raise the pH. You can't go wrong with this, as it's very gentle and also contains lots of other valuable micro-nutrients and trace elements. Then lightly scratch over the ground, add some nice well-rotted compost and perhaps a few handfuls of seaweed meal which worms also love. If you don't have compost then a handful per square yard of a general organic fertiliser like 'Osmo' will add more nutrients but if you've got time before the next crop planned for a particular space - maybe 6 weeks - then sowing a fast growing green manure is a really good idea. Not only does it help all the biological activity in your soil but it also adds humus which makes soils more resilient and helps them to hold onto moisture like a sponge. Even claytonia - not usually used as a green manure, is brilliant. The worms go mad for it - it's like crack cocaine for them! This will help to kick start all the biological activity in the soil as it warms up - giving the worms, microbes, fungi and soil bacteria some TLC and a welcome gourmet breakfast, just when they're starting to wake up. Interesting fact - did you know that there are more billions of microbes, soil bacteria, fungi etc. in just one teaspoon of soil - than the total number of people who have ever lived on this earth? If it wasn't for them - we wouldn't even exist!! So learn to love your microbes!
Organic growing feeds the soil and all the vital microbial life it contains with compost and animal wastes just as nature does. It doesn't directly feed the plants with synthetic chemicals. That's the most important thing to remember - because if you by-pass all the microbes and funghi that evolved to interact with plant roots symbiotically and produce their by-products which keep plants healthy, you will ultimately produce unhealthy plants. A healthy, vibrant, living soil grows healthy, vibrant, nutritious plants. Healthy plants make healthy food for people. This is particularly important to remember in a polytunnel, where things tend to be magnified, happen a lot faster, and we are totally responsible for the growing environment.
Time to start sowing early seeds in modules
To make sure I have something to plant as soon as the winter crops are finished both in the tunnel and outside, I started sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you can sow now are in the 'What to sow in Feb.' section, so I won't repeat them here. Things like onions, leeks, beetroot etc. can be multi sown in the modules - in 3's or 5's - depending on how many you want in a clump - or how big you want your onions (less in a clump for bigger onions) and they're planted out later without thinning. These will push each other apart as they grow and develop quite normally. You can do the same with summer spinach, chards and 'baby leaf' or salad mixes. Rather than use an expensive propagator at this time of year I germinate everything near the back of my range cooker - which keep things at a steady 65-70 deg F/16-20 deg C. As soon as the first seedlings are showing they need good light, so then I put them out in the polytunnel, on a roll-out heated mat which provides very gentle bottom heat of about 50 deg F/10 deg C - or just above during the day - and is very economical to run. This is all most things need to grow on nicely without forcing. In another 2 weeks in the warmer propagator I shall sow my aubergines Bonica F1, (the very best and most reliable one) these develop quite slowly at first and need a long growing season. I'll also be sowing my earliest tomatoes - Maskotka, Latah and John Baer. These are always ripe in the first week or so of June. I can't wait for ripe tomatoes again! Talking of which - there may be some very exciting news soon on the tomato front - but can't reveal it yet!!
What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?
Occasionally there are seedlings that develop they're first seed leaves or cotyledons as they are known - but after that they don't grow any more new leaves. These are known as blind seedlings. In cases where you may only want one plant per space - like lettuces or hybrid calabrese - it's normal to thin seedlings to one per module, but only do this after they have clearly developed their first 'true' leaves - not the seedling/cotyledon leaves - as 'blind seedlings they will never develop 'true' leaves and grow on. This is quite common with brassicas and if it happens you could waste space on a seedling which will never develop any further - so don't thin them too early! With calabrese seed in particular - which can be expensive - it also wastes seed and money! I've never seen any of the 'so-called' experts telling you this - they always tell you to thin as soon as you can handle the seedlings! Over 40 years of experience (OMG can't believe it!) does actually teach one a few useful things!
Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots
Sprouted broad beans sown in 500g yogurt pots
Sprouted mangetouts sown for pea shoots and pods
At this time of year - I always soak my broad beans and peas for a couple of hours before then sprouting them on damp kitchen paper on a plate covered with cling film and put in a warmish place. I always get the best germination this way. It saves the seed sitting in cold wet compost for too long and possibly rotting. They sprout in about 2-3 days and then as soon as the 'radicle' or main tap root appears - I then sow them in large pots as you can see above (I use recycled 500 ml yogurt pots - they're the perfect size!). 3 broad beans to a pot or a small handful of peas (don't count them) per pot. I don't thin the beans or the peas as it's totally unnecessary - I've tried doing it over the years but the plants produce just the same crop per plant - so obviously crop more per sq.ft/m if on a deep, raised bed. Thinning them after germination is not only totally unnecessary, but is also time-consuming and wastes valuable seed. These potfuls will be planted out about 30cm/1ft. apart when big enough.
I am always amazed at just how much better the germination is with home-saved seed. I got 100% germination of the yummy Crimson Flowered Broad Bean as per usual (good job as we've just finished the last from the freezer!). Beans and peas are the only things I cover with organic peat-free seed compost after sowing - everything else is covered with vermiculite - which promotes good air circulation and drainage around the seedling stem, virtually guaranteeing no 'damping off' disease - as long as you are careful with your watering. After sowing anything - only ever water again from underneath. This is easy to do by sitting the tray or module in a tray of water for a few seconds. And as I've often said before - if you do happen to overdo it by mistake - and we all do it occasionally - don't despair and leave them to rot in cold wet compost! It's very simple - just sit the tray of seedlings on a newspaper for 1/2 hour or so which acts like a wick to draw out the excess. All seeds need is a good seed compost, a little thought and plenty of TLC to grow - it's not rocket science!
Despite all the years I've been gardening - I never cease to be surprised, thrilled and full of wonder at Nature's miracle of a tiny seed and it's determination to grow. That perfect little pre-programmed parcel of DNA - full of history and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And - best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food!
Do you know someone actually complained to me a few years ago that there's too much information in my blog? I suppose these days everything is presented in small bites - which often leaves one with not enough information to do things properly - so then you think it's your fault when it doesn't work! Luckily many others disagree and really appreciate the work I put into it - so for it's for those nice, appreciative people that I write it! I try to put on new, improved and relevant stuff each year - depending on the latest research. Although there's no substitute for experience - and you never stop learning in gardening - every year is different. I hope you find my experience useful.
I can remember only too well what it was like many years ago - trying to find out how to grow chemical-free food for my very sick child! You couldn't even buy organic vegetables and fruits then! Although there is much more availability of organic produce now - it's not only much cheaper, more satisfying and far fresher if you can grow it yourself even if it's only salads - but you can also have a far wider choice of produce and nutrients by growing your own food. If you want to grow a lot of things then you need all the information to be successful. Very often gardening advice in magazines seems to have been written by people who either haven't actually done what they're talking about - or are complete novices and are just repeating stuff from old gardening books almost verbatim! That won't do any more - our climate is changing, soil science is moving on and we are better informed than ever. Despite that though - we should never assume as some arrogant scientists do that we know it all - because Nature doesn't give up her secrets easily! True science is humble - it continues to learn and evolve to meet new challenges.
Early spring has already arrived in the tunnel - and I couldn't possibly garden without one now!
As I've been saying ever since I got my very first tiny one - about 40 years ago now - 'If I only had a small garden - I would cover the entire space with a polytunnel'. I definitely think there should be government grants for back-gardeners to put them up! Just think of how much they'd save the health service with all that gentle exercise, fresh air, light and healthy chemical-free food! It's just what the doctor ordered! It's truly wonderful to be able to walk into the tunnel and feel the gentle background warmth and dryness when the sun shines at this time of year - it's so full of hope. Every time I open the door and walk into that other world, I thank the Garden Gods once again for the blessing of such a snug and richly-productive space to grow things in.
As Fionnuala Fallon so beautifully put it in her Irish Times article about my polytunnel in November 2010 - "....it was a bit like walking into the wardrobe of C S Lewis - not quite Narnia perhaps, but definitely a very different universe....." - Indeed it is! Here's the link to her article below:
(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.)