What to Sow in May - 2020

"Remember - always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else, but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing you can do about it."   - ( A great piece of advice I was given many years ago )

 

  French bean Cobra and Sweet Corn Lark are just two of the reliable and delicious crops you can sow now directly into polytunnel soil.

 

Sow in a heated propagator, in a warm place, or directly in tunnel soil when it's warm enough - for polytunnel or greenhouse cropping, or for planting outside under cloches or fleece at the end of May you can now sow:

 

French beans, runner beans, sweet corn, courgettes, edamame (soy) beans, chick peas, cucamelons, gherkins, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can still sow cucumbers and tomatoes for late tunnel/greenhouse crops. Also 'soft' herbs such as basil, coriander, dill, Greek oregano (best for flavour), lovage, mints, parsley (giant flat-leaf Italian best flavour) Perilla (or Japanese beefsteak plant) and fennel, Alpine strawberries (Reugen is a good large-fruited variety). 

Also Florence fennel and half-hardy single flowers such as Tagetes, single French marigolds, nasturtiums etc. for bees and butterflies - and to attract other beneficial insects like hoverflies etc. to help with pest control and pollination, both under cover and out in the garden. 

 

It's really important to shade propagators and young seedlings from strong sun at all times now to stop seedlings from cooking! - You can also switch off propagators during the day to save energy - even if shaded, on sunny days they will be plenty warm enough - but do make sure you remember to turn them on again well before it gets chilly in the evening, in case of unexpected frost.. 

 

Outdoors: 

 

Sow in modules if the weather is still too cold, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in the ground where they are to crop - if the weather and your ground conditions are suitable:

 

 Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, all varieties of peas, savoy and other autumn/winter cabbages, all varieties of sprouting broccoli including calabrese and purple sprouting, cauliflowers, salad onions, Hamburg parsley, landcress, lettuces, perilla, orache, chicory, kohl-rabi, kales (those for cropping overwinter outside from the middle of May onwards), parsnips (early May) radishes, rocket, salsify, Swiss chards, spinach, turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. Asparagus peas, cardoons, Good King Henry and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside under cloches now, and also from the middle of May, if the soil is warm enough, sweet corn, French and runner beans. Marrows, courgettes, pumpkins, ridge cucumbers and squashes can all be sown outside under cloches at the end of May, in warm areas.

 

Also sow some single annual flowers such as Sweet Alyssum (perennial in polytunnels, sowing itself freely), limnanthes (poached egg flower), cosmos, calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc.  All of these will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds which will help with pest control, and also attract bees which help with crop pollination. 

 

Sow fast-growing green manures like buckwheat, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations), lupins & red clover (legumes) and phacelia, to improve the soil by adding humus, to encourage beneficial microbes, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that won't be used for 6 weeks or more. 

 
Although in theory you could sow almost everything outside in the garden now - except tender veg. like cucumbers etc. - our weather is so variable now that you must keep an eye on soil temperature and weather conditions!
 
 
Unless you've had ground covered with cloches or polythene so that soil is dry and really warm - then it's always much safer to sow in modules undercover in a greenhouse, polytunnel or cold frame to be sure of guaranteed results and to save wasting expensive seed.  Also don't make the mistake of sowing too deep. This is one of the main reasons for seed not germinating. Never sow seed at more than twice it's own depth - and some seeds like celery and alpine strawberries actually prefer to be sown on the surface of compost, or only very lightly covered with something like vermiculite or sharp sand which allows light to filter in. 
 
 
The soil in some areas is still cold after recent frosts & heavy rain. A late frost could destroy newly emerged seedlings of tender crops like French beans even under cloches. Seed is expensive and you can't afford to waste it. You can't afford to waste time now either, by possibly losing any sowings made at this time of year - especially as now with the sudden increase in people growing their own food with Covid19 seed has become almost impossible to get!. Many important staple winter and storage crops need to be sown this month - and if they fail it may well be too late to sow them again, even if you can get seed. Although the sun is strong now and sunny days are warm, there can still be serious frosts at beginning of this month.
 
 
In the tunnel you can plant tender veg like sweet potato 'slips' in pots this month - or in the ground if it's reliably warm enough, but I always prefer to get mine growing really well in pots first, as it gives them a better start. They need a long season as they don't bulk up until late, very frost tender and hate cold, wet ground. You can also plant Oca and Mashua tubers in pots now - again to plant out later, at the end of May or early June - or to plant directly into tunnel soil. The small growing tubers of Yacon can also be planted now in the tunnel or in pots to plant outside later. They are just starting into growth now.
 
 

(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in April - 2020

April contents:  Sour Cherry 'Oblacinska' - an Easy to Grow, Delicious and Healthy Fruit....  An Historic Treasure rediscovered! Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear'..... The importance of pollinators......Thinning peaches and apricots vital for good crops......Dwarf Cherries?- I don't think so!.....Tunnel fruits - grapes, strawberries and figs.... Other fruit jobs.....
 
 Pink staining at the base of sour cherry Oblacinska blossom indicating that it has been pollinated
 Pink staining at the base of sour cherry Oblacinska blossom indicating that it has been pollinated
 
"In this Month your Garden appears in it's greatest Beauty, the Blossoms of the Fruit-trees prognosticate the plenty of Fruits for all the succeeding Summer Months, unless prevented by untimely Frosts or Blights. The bees now buzz in every corner.... to seek for food: the Birds sing in every Bush and the sweet Nightingale tunes her warbling Notes in your solitary Walks, whilst the other Birds are at their rest..... The air is Wholesome, and the Earth pleasant, beginning now to be clothed with Nature's best Array, exceeding all Art's Glory." - (Worlidge, 1688)  
  
 
How I love the quote above!  How pristine and beautiful that relatively unspoiled countryside must have been. What a stark contrast to our countryside now! How much I would love to have seen it. I often long for a time machine, so that I could go back and see the abundant, unspoiled beauty of that world before we modern humans destroyed so much of it in our ignorance. I was lucky to see perhaps what were some of the last remnants of it as a child growing up in the country in the 50's and 60's. There are no nightingales here sadly - but one of the most wonderful things about growing fruit, especially tree-fruits which have to be propagated from descendants of the original trees, is that we can all grow that continuing history in our gardens. We can all touch what in fact are merely extensions of the branches of those many original  apple, pear or plum varieties which gardeners down through the centuries have tended lovingly - bequeathing them to us - to pass on in turn to our descendants. However, there are many more modern varieties, which are equally good - or perhaps even better, in some cases?  And their blossom certainly is every bit as beautiful, as you can see from the picture of sour cherry 'Oblacinska' above - even more so when I can see that they've been pollinated from the pink staining at the base of the white petals, and I'm anticipating such deliciousness to look forward to!
 
 
Sour Cherry 'Oblacinska' - an Easy to Grow, Delicious and healthy Fruit
 
 
One of the few 'upsides' of global trade is that we are now able to avail of many good varieties of fruit varieties from further afield, which may not have been available to our gardening forbears - like the wonderful Sour Cherry 'Oblacinska' from Serbia pictured above in bloom. I bought 2 trees of it in of all places, discount supermarket Lidl five years ago!  Just like the peaches I bought there 12 years ago now, they were so cheap that I just couldn't resist trying them at only €5 euros each, and I've been so pleased with them since!  As sour cherries are happy on a north-facing wall - I planted them on the back wall of the stables, facing the entrance to the polytunnels, hoping that I might be better able to protect them there. As sour cherries fruit on the previous year's green wood - just as peaches do - this means that they are far easier to keep under control by annual pruning than sweet cherries, which I've finally given up on! Sweet cherries are so vigorous even on the so-called 'dwarfing' (ha!) rootstocks without constant attention pinching back and pruning, which I don't have time for - they become too big very quickly and totally out of control!  This year the blossom on the sour cherries has been spectacular, and having been assiduously pollinated by a wide range of Bumblebees - are now promising a huge crop this year, all being well, as you can see above. All I have to do now is keep the birds away to ensure that WE get the crop instead of the birds - but I have a cunning plan for that which I'll elucidate in a month or so!  My mouth waters at the very thought of their deliciously tart berries - which aren't sour at all if they are allowed to ripen to dark red, and the extra hint of acidity gives them a far richer taste than any sweet cherry.
 
 
Tart cherries are rich in health-promoting, anti-inflammatory polyphenols, and have been found to have several beneficial health effects, including lowering blood pressure, improving brain function, protecting against oxidative stress and reducing inflammation generally. All that and they not only look so decorative that I almost can't bear to pick them - and they taste gorgeous too!  Other studies have found that freezing them makes the healthy phytochemicals in them more bioavailable to our digestive system. So they're perfect for anyone who grows and freezes their own produce, and you will never see them for sale anywhere. Their juice is available in some health food shops - at an exorbitant price! Far better to have your own anyway - along with all the other nutrients and fibre which the whole fruit contains.
 
 
An Historic Treasure Rediscovered - Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear'  
 
 

Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear' - an historic treasure rediscovered!

Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear' - an historic and fabulous-tasting treasure rediscovered!


 

A couple of years ago I was wandering around Orchard Garden Centre in Celbridge, somewhere I go occasionally if I'm In that area, as they always have an excellent range of plants, and often some of the less 'run of the mill' fruits. I really wasn't looking for any more tree fruits, as I have more than enough - being a 'pomoholic' - with over a 100 varieties of apples and a dozen pears here, which I've collected gradually over the years!  As I walked past the apples and pears though, something in the periphery of my vision caught my attention. I don't really know why - as the trees I was looking at seemed pretty similar at first to all the other pear trees they were standing among - but there was just 'something' about them. When I looked closer - I spotted that two, slightly taller trees, had several smallish fruits on - unusual for standard garden centre stock, as normally they're sold as one or two-year old trees which haven't started fruiting yet. I asked Adrian, the manager, if they had been sprayed recently, and he said that no - that they never spray the trees themselves, and that they'd had these trees in stock for at least a couple of years, as no one seemed interested in them. He didn't know anything about them, but thought that they were an ornamental variety, as they had beautiful autumn colour. I asked if I could just pick one fruit to try it.......... Well folks - they were obviously waiting just for me!

 
 
Let me tell you - bigger is not always necessarily better! Biting into what I expected might be a hard, bitter, dry fruit of an ornamental or perry pear, I was astonished when my rather tentative bite revealed the most beautiful crimson-flushed flesh, with a deliciously sweet flavour!  In fact I was completely stunned - it was like no pear I'd ever seen before!  Adrian said that it was called  'Blood Pear', and that he'd got it a few years ago from a small Irish grower who was into unusual ornamental trees, whose name he couldn't remember at the time, and who had got it from another nursery!  Not very helpful!
 
 
I thought that the pear's name 'Blood Pear' seemed possibly either very unlikely - or very ancient, so when I got home I looked in all my old fruit books and catalogues - of which I have many! That search drew a complete blank. But thank heavens for the internet - despite it's drawbacks - it is a real blessing sometimes! The more I researched this unusually-named variety - the more excited I became!  Lo and behold, I found it listed in 'The Perry Pears of Gloucestershire' - an enthusiast's book written by none other than the incredibly knowledgeable Charles Martell (of Stinking Bishop' cheese fame) - who recently featured on BBC's Countryfile TV series - and who I knew also just happens to be a very close neighbour of my favourite cousin in Herefordshire!  So I emailed the always helpful Charles to ask if he knew of anyone who was propagating it, as at that stage I still didn't know the name of the Irish grower who Orchard Garden centre had obtained it from..
 
 
Charles' beautiful book and my own further exhaustive research revealed that this incredibly rare Heritage pear was first recorded in 1675 in France - then 1684 in Germany - before Worlidge uttered those wonderful words which I've quoted above - but it may quite possibly be Medieval or even earlier.  It is, as I suspected, an ancient variety, with it's origins lost in the mists of time, which was recently rediscovered in Hasfield, in Gloucestershire. Hasfield is just a few miles away from where my cousin farms on the edge of the Forest of Dean - an area where I spent a lot of time in my youth and am very fond of. Apparently now a favourite in the National Pear collection, it bears slightly smaller than average fruits that have a rose-flushed skin when fully ripe, but the really exciting thing about this absolute treasure is the meltingly sweet, ruby-flushed flesh revealed when biting into the conveniently child-sized fruits. Their complex flavour is very hard to describe - the one or two European nurseries which have it listed describe it as being fragrant, with almost muscat or watermelon-flavoured fruits, having overtones of cinnamon. The colour and those complex flavours clearly show it's high content of aromatic, antioxidant polyphenols, something which regular readers will know I've been interested in for many years. 
 
 
It ripens in early August, ahead of many dessert pears, which is useful, and is absolutely delicious eaten fresh straight from the tree. It can be stored for 3-4 weeks in cool storage, can also be cooked, and the fruits dehydrate exceptionally well into deliciously-flavoured pear sweetmeats, which I discovered are especially good with a Brie-type cheese - like 'Stinking Bishop' oddly enough!  I recently heard of someone even making a pink sparkling Perry from this pear - I would really love to try doing that!  I could be wrong, but I think one might need to combine it with a perry pear which has a bit more sharpness, to make a really good balanced Perry - if making Perry is anything like making cider?  It certainly would be an interesting drink to try though. Perry is not something I've ever tried making - but I think I may just be ordering one or two Perry pear trees in the autumn. Pears will take a bit more of a damp climate than apples - so they should be happy enough here in Ireland! My Blood Pears certainly seem to be very happy anyway! 
 
 
This beautiful pear is a real find - and an absolute treasure for lovers of unusual fruit. It is hardy, disease-resistant and crops prolifically. It is self-fertile, but will crop even better with another pear such as 'Conference' nearby to aid pollination. The large flowers are very ornamental in spring, and it has beautiful autumn colour - which is a reason I would certainly grow it even if it didn't have such unusual fruit!  I know some of you may laugh at me for saying this, as normally I'm a very practical person and don't often talk about my more fanciful imaginings - but I swear that those trees - which originated so close to where my family's roots go back hundreds of years, might have been connecting or communicating with me in some way through the ether - who knows?  My late very 'fey' aunt - the eldest of my father's 6 sisters, my favourite cousin's mother and more like a mother to me also - could have put it into words so eloquently. She could read my mind which was pretty scary at times!  But all I can say is - "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamed of in your philosophy"  - to quote Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is so true - there is still so much left to discover which is as yet unexplained, given the inadequate scientific knowledge or indeed language which we currently have. I often go and talk to my new trees, which came from that area of countryside which I love so much. When I stroke them - I almost imagine I can feel that connection to the soil where I know my roots still are..........  
 
 
One of the very few positives about my broken ankle last year was a bit more time to do research into what interests me.  Microbiology has always fascinated me, and now is a rapidly-emerging field of science. More evidence of the complexity of bacterial communication is being discovered daily - and the more I learn about it - the more utterly astonishing things I discover!  Gut feeling has already been well-documented and scientifically proven as valid. Which one of us hasn't at some time experienced those tell-tale 'butterflies' in the stomach when worried or excited by something?  Or that 'flip' in the pit of the stomach when attracted to someone (- not always a good thing)!   Recently a lot more science is emerging not just about how our gut microbes can also actually control our emotions, by direct communication with our brain - but also how our diet can influence that for good or bad.  So perhaps our gut bacteria may even be able to recognise some kind of familiarity in other individuals of a similar bacterial heritage or background?  I know that there is definitely evidence of that in birds. 
 
 
Recently I was researching why it was, that despite the fact that the 3 different hybrid breeds of day old chicks I bought in December had been hatched on the same day, in the same hatchery, traveled home here in the same box and lived altogether in the very same quarters from day one - the 3 different hybrid strains have from the very beginning tended to gravitate towards their own breed in very distinct groups!  It's quite uncanny! There is definitely something which they somehow inherently recognise in each other. This is something which I've found astonishing in creatures that one normally thinks of as just  'chickens' - and not something that I would have ever noticed before in chickens. Naturally that is because I would normally have bought all the same breed when I reared them for commercial laying-hens years ago. I got the 3 different breed this time, as I though they would be a more attractive and entertaining flock - not something one would worry about when keeping a large commercial flock. This is the first time I've raised three different hybrids all hatched on the same day.  So that proves that it's not all about scent - if it is at all.  Is it possible that they sense some kind of recognisable, inherited bacterial signature?  Scientists aren't quite sure yet - again it's a very new idea that they are only just beginning to research.  One thing is for certain - we all originally came from microbes - we are still full of them, and enveloped by them. How many more fascinating things there are still to discover!  Anyway - before I ramble off into more 'what if's'  and bore the pants off you all - back to the more practical matters of fruit!  Although, come to think of it - microbes are relevant to fruit too - just as they are to everything other living thing on the planet, including precious pollinating insects!
 

 

The importance of pollinators 

 
 
Bee on peach blossom in the polytunnelBack in Worlidge's time of the 17th century, one could take the predictability of the seasons for granted. Gardeners back then could also take for granted that there would always be plenty of bees and other pollinators every year to pollinate our fruit trees and other important crops. Sadly our seasons are becoming quite unpredictable now and bee numbers are declining rapidly everywhere, mainly due to insect damaging pesticides and habitat loss but also erratic weather due to climate change.  It's in our interests to do everything we can to help all pollinators right now, to try to halt this decline, by providing different habitats for overwintering and breeding, with flowers for nectar and pollen - and by not using any pesticides whatsoever. I haven't used any in over 40 years of organic food growing - they are totally unnecessary. Correct growing conditions and encouraging biodiversity, in an environment with a good balance of pest and predator is the key to growing without pesticides.
 
 
 
If bees and other vitally important pollinating insects disappear - so will all of the food crops which are pollinated by them - including the peaches pictured here. That's an awful lot of our everyday foods - and we wouldn't last too long without them! 
 
 
Apricot fruitlets developing on the dwarf potted trees. Now for thinning!

 Apricot fruitlets developing on the dwarf potted trees. Now for thinning!

 

Thankfully, some frosty nights, over the last few sunny days there seem to be quite a few different species of both bumblebees and solitary bees around in the garden and the tunnels. Yesterday, the tunnels were bee central! There were masses of them in there, pollinating the last of the dwarf peaches, apricots and nectarines in the west (fruit) tunnel, and enjoying all the flowers in both tunnels, some of which I grow specifically just for them. Last summer's warm dry weather was a good one for them again and despite the fact that we're surrounded by intensive agriculture and so much habitat destruction, I like to think that all the work I've done here over the last 30 or so years to provide lots of different habitat for bees and insects is now paying off. Particularly the well-drained B&B bank as I call it - that seems to have been a great success, with so many bee nests in it that I had to stop tidying it the other day. Agitated bumblebees were flying around me everywhere as I tried to tidy the roughest of the grasses up a bit. So I left them to it and resigned myself to it looking what some very tidy gardeners would consider to be a mess.  Essentially my garden was planted over 30 years ago with wildlife in mind - because insects, wasps and bees are the organic gardener's best friends. They don't just carry out valuable pollination but also vital pest control - just as nature intended. 

 
 
 
Apple blossom 'James Grieve'Apple blossom - 'James Grieve'

Many people don't know that bees, moths and other pollinating insects don't just need flowers for food, but also grasses, dry banks, leaves and woodpiles to nest in and to shelter overwinter. A friend told me the other day that the 'Glas' scheme for farmers here includes a module on attracting pollinating insects and solitary bees - so that's very good news. Although we left it as late as we could, to allow for hibernating bees, I felt rather guilty when we were mowing the strips across the wildlife meadow at this time three years ago, prior to planting the new orchard. Quite a few bees crawled out from the tall clumps of grasses - but the strips are only about a metre and a half wide - I'm leaving the rest of the rough grass with it's wildflowers - so there is plenty of habitat for them to crawl back into. I'll also be planting lots more meadow wildflowers between the trees to provide even more food for them and to attract plenty of pollinators, so that our trees are well-pollinated. So far the new orchard is doing well and we got a good crop again last year.
 
 
There are lots of bumblebees but still very few native black honeybees around at the moment though - usually the pussy willow catkins are smothered with them at this time of year. I seem to see fewer every year which is really worrying. I've noticed on or two on the dandelions on the drive, and I was thrilled to see them. I know there are plenty of flowers in the tunnel for them right now though too. The scent when I open the polytunnel doors in the morning at this time of year is always amazing - it smells like a perfume shop!  There are also plenty of hoverflies around in the last few days. Hoverflies aren't just brilliant pest controllers - really gobbling up the aphids - but they're also great pollinators. Once again this shows the enormous value of growing flowers in your tunnel - in case anyone thought it was a waste of space, or a bit 'girly'! Growing flowers outside around your fruit areas or in orchards is important too. That way pollinating bees and other insects get to know where there is food for them and they so clever that they remember it's location - so then they'll keep returning to do their job and then there'll more fruit for you too! Hopefully we can look forward to another summer full of a wide range of delicious fruit. The bees and hoverflies have done a good job of pollinating the early peaches and apricots too, and they must be swelling fast! I hope I may be able to hobble up to the polytunnels in a couple of weeks to try to thin the lower ones that I can reach - as thinning is vital if you want decent sized fruits.
 
 

Thinning peaches and apricots is vital for good crops

 
 
Developing peach fruitlets in tunnelThe peach and apricot fruitlets shown here, which are about the size of large peas, will have to be thinned as soon as they reach pea size, and thinned again in a few weeks when walnut-sized, leaving them at least 4-6 ins/10cm apart eventually.  It's a fiddly job I really hate - especially now I only have one arm which will reach above shoulder height since breaking my right shoulder 5 years ago!  I can't bear picking off all those furry little babies - that potential fruit - but I have to steel myself, because otherwise I know that they won't develop properly! Most will turn yellow and drop off as the tree can't cope with that many. By thinning you stop that fruit drop and those left will develop properly to full size. It's hard fiddly work doing all that thinning but I congratulate myself when I bite into that first delicious really ripe peach and the juice runs down my chin. It will be peaches for breakfast for several weeks in the summer! The outside ones are two or three weeks behind, so if you have any flowering now, protect them at night with fleece if severe frost is forecast.
 
 
 
Dwarf cherries? I don't think so!
 
 
Most years the cherries come into flower later this month. The dwarf (ha-ha!) 'Stella' cherries were the first fruit trees to be planted in the garden 36 years ago,  as small sticks less than 2 feet high, in an otherwise bare field. Now when they're in full flower they resemble a beautiful arching cathedral of blossom and are as tall as the house! Not dwarf sadly - but still worth growing for the blossom - and the birds naturally appreciate all the fruit! They can reach it - I can't! Sitting at my computer, I can see over the half door out of the kitchen, through the courtyard gate and straight down what I rather grandly called the 'cherry walk'. The trees should be literally dripping with blossom in another couple of weeks. They're under-planted with bulbs, hellebores, primroses and a multitude of other shade loving spring flowers, so they're a wonderful sight every year! They fruit prolifically, but I hardly ever get more than one or two delicious cherries, the birds get the lot, as they're far too high to cover. Even if I could - the blackbirds in this garden seem to be a particularly ingenious and determined lot, no matter what I try to do to deter them. I've even tried covering some lower branches with old tights before the cherries start to colour (not the most attractive garden ornament!), but my blackbirds aren't fooled by a bit of old hosiery, they just peck at them through the tights and still ruin them anyway! Some people say it's because they could be thirsty - but there's always plenty of water around here for them to drink and that doesn't stop them. So I have to be content with just one or two of my favourite fruit - if I'm very lucky. However, I suppose there is a little compensation in the form of melodious bird song for much of the year. Right now I can hear them competing with the thrushes, goldfinches and chaffinches for 'best spring song of 2018'!  A joyous concert -  although a pretty expensive one thanks to some of them - if you count the cost of the cherries!!
 
 
Blue Sky Cherry BlossomTen years ago I had another try, buying more sweet cherry trees on a new, much-vaunted 'extra-dwarfing rootstock' - Gisela.  Sadly it doesn't seem any more dwarf than the others but perhaps with constant attention and pruning, which I don't have time for - it might possibly work? They're showing every sign of being just as vigorous as the others!  3 years ago - I invested in some more really dwarf fruit trees - this time to grow permanently in pots. I'm growing those in my fruit tunnel, so they'll get more attention while watering etc. and they'll also be protected from hungry birds - so I'm hoping that I may finally enjoy more than one or two cherries!  A few years ago I had the idea of putting empty netting log bags around many of the fruiting branches of the trees outside with some success but they're too difficult to reach now! The only cherries I will really be sure of getting outside are the Morello, or sour cherries - the buds promise a big crop on what are still quite small trees. 
 
  

Other fruit jobs 

 
 
You can plant all types of fruit from containers now, as it's too late for bare-root planting. Make sure they're nice young plants, not 'pot-bound' as they are more difficult to establish well. Gently tease a few roots loose around the bottom when planting, so they get the idea. Be careful to make sure that any graft union on fruit trees is at least 3-4 ins/10cm above ground level. I often see potted trees in garden centres with the graft union practically in the compost - those are a disaster waiting to happen for the unaware.  If the fruiting top part of the tree roots past the dwarfing rootstock, as can happen if it's too close to soil level, then the dwarfing effect of the root stock is lost altogether! Don't forget if space is short that you can also plant all sorts of fruit in containers too!  If you have a high 'pH' (limey) soil, this is in fact the best way to grow fussy acid-loving blueberries, always watering those with rainwater - never tap water if you're in a hard water area. This is where so many people go wrong
 
You can also prune to shape young and trained trees of stone fruits like plums and cherries now that the sap is rising. If pruned in the winter, they may possibly develop 'silver leaf' or bacterial canker disease. 
 
 
Keep a eye out for any blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry leaves which start to appear like lace - small holes appearing between the leaf veins. This is caused by gooseberry sawfly caterpillars. It's often a problem on young bushes just recently bought from nurseries, as it seems to be endemic in them! The best way to cope with these is not to spray! Just squash any caterpillars you find as soon as possible, and if you have space, put a temporary chicken wire fence around your currant patch and get a couple of chickens or even bantams to scratch around over the winter and pick up the eggs and grubs - that's how I got rid of it. A bit more protein to produce some nice eggs for you! The blackcurrants in particular will appreciate the extra nitrogen that the chicken's droppings will provide - and I can guarantee you won't have any more trouble with sawfly. Just make sure you move the chickens somewhere else in the spring, before the bushes start to fruit, or you won't have any fruit either!!
 
 
Feed and mulch all fruit trees and bushes if you haven't already done so. If you have wood ash available from a wood burning stove - all fruits particularly apples and pears, will appreciate the highly soluble, fruit inducing potash it provides.- Not blueberries though, as it raises the 'ph' of the soil - use seaweed meal and/or comfrey mulch on these. Fruit trees and bushes in containers would also appreciate a feed of an organic general purpose fruit fertiliser and a nice mulch to preserve moisture at the roots if you have room.
 
 
Don't forget that any fruit grown in containers is totally dependent on you for it's food and water, so from now on keep an eye on their watering too. If short of water, most fruit will immediately drop their fruits if allowed to wilt at all. Don't over water either - or the roots may rot unless the compost is free draining. Keep on top of weeds, but be careful hoeing raspberry beds, better to hand weed, as there may be new shoots appearing from ground level. Prune out some of the older fruited canes of autumn fruiting varieties (see March).
 
 
 

Tunnel fruits - grapes, early strawberries and figs

 
Inside the tunnel - grapes will be producing nice juicy looking shoots on the spurs now, with the flower bunches clearly visible. By the end of the month or before, you should pinch out the tips of all the shoots on the spurs (side shoots) after they have produced two leaves beyond the developing flower bunch. That is all except the very end two shoots, on grapes grown on a permanent rod (stem) system. These will draw the sap along the branch system and provide extension growth if necessary. Always leave two shoots in case one gets damaged or broken. In the case of 'Guyot' pruned grapes, also leave two shoots to develop at the base of the current fruiting branch to develop fully, those will make replacement flowering branches which will fruit next year. Next winter you will cut out this year's fruited branch completely, leaving the stems which developed from those two shoots at the base which grew this spring. I think the permanent rod system works best for amateur gardeners though - it's easier and less work.
 
 
 
Side shoot off main rod of seedless grape 'Rose Dream' - showing end of shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond prospective bunchSide shoot or 'spur', off the main rod of seedless grape 'Rose Dream' - showing the end of the shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond 2 prospective bunches

 

Grapes are very amenable to training and are also easy to grow in large bucket-sized pots grown as a small bush - allowing several branches to develop rather than just one main branch. They take up very little room this way and most people could grow them. You can get a surprising amount of different varieties into quite a small space this way and have a good spread of cropping time from July to November or even later. I experiment a lot with different varieties of grapes and various methods of pruning and training. Seedless grapes don't need the bunches thinning - whereas if you don't thin some of the seeded ones - the bunches can become crowded and disease-prone.

 

I don't juice grapes any more because what you're left with is just a lot of sugary water in most cases, without all the valuable natural fibre and nutrients in the whole fruit. I blitz the whole lot in a food processor or powerful Nutribullet blender now if I want a smoothie - so that I get all the skins, pips and important fibre from the fruit too. Grape pips and skins in particular are very high in a phytochemical called Resveratrol - which studies show is extremely good for blood vessel health and circulation. This especially high in black or dark red grapes. My favourite black grape is Muscat Hamburgh, which has the same fabulous taste as those huge Moscatel raisins that are only available before Christmas. Another very good black grape is Muscat Bleu, it has the same delicious flavour as Muscat Hamburg but also has the advantage of self-spacing bunches - with the individual grapes slightly further apart, which promotes good air circulation - so it is ideal for growing in polytunnels where the atmosphere is more humid.  A new seedless one I planted a few years ago is 'Rose Dream'. It fruits extremely well, is very early in the tunnel and very sweet. 'Lakemont Seedless' - is a deliciously sweet early green dessert grape that carries large bunches and is a really good variety for organic gardeners as it's very disease-resistant. It's available from many suppliers now. That's the one I use for making scrumptious sultanas in my dehydrator!  It makes a lovely decorative feature climbing over the door at the south end of my large tunnel in space that would normally otherwise be wasted. Growing them in a tunnel also means that it's far easier to keep the birds away from them!

 

 
Perpetual Strawberry 'Albion' in tunnel  Perpetual Strawberry 'Albion' in the tunnel
 
All the varieties of perpetual strawberries in the tunnel are starting to flower well now.  They rarely produce runners after their first year, so if you want to increase your stock - let some runners develop. The catalogues or labels never tell you this of course, they tell you to cut them all off. Well, they want to sell more don't they?  As long as the plants are strong and well fed - it won't affect them at all - and after all that's how they naturally grow. Many of the more modern summer-fruiting varieties seem to behave the same way, 'Christine' is an early, great-flavoured one I grow, which does the same, so it's safer to take one good runner from each plant in it's first year, that way you're sure of keeping them. Cut off any which develop after those, to avoid weakening the plant. 

 

 
  
Protect flowers of early fruiting varieties from frost with fleece at night - remove during the day for bees to pollinate. Liquid feed weekly once the fruits are developing, with a high potash organic food like comfrey liquid, or the excellent 'Osmo' organic tomato food (available from White's Agri at Lusk, Co. Dublin and many garden centres). If you're just planting a new bed of more than one variety, make sure you just grow one variety per bed, to keep them distinctly separated. I find an early one like 'Christine', grown both inside and outside, with another one or two perpetual varieties, like 'Everest' and 'Albion' again grown both inside and outside, and an alpine one provide plenty of delicious strawberries to eat fresh and to freeze, from May until November. I've also brought pots of 'Gariguette' into the tunnel this year. I've grown it for years but never tried forcing it before. It's the French version of the famous old 'Royal Sovereign' - so I'm looking forward to supreme flavour. Why on earth would anybody want to buy the tasteless, disgusting, chemically-grown ones grown out of season, imported from half way across the world - when it's so nice to look forward to them in their proper season - just helped along a little in a polytunnel? By the way 'Albion' freezes particularly well too - not going quite as mushy as some other varieties.
 

Cape Gooseberry - small plants ready to pot on to larger pots

  Cape Gooseberry - small plants ready to pot on to larger pots

The Physalis (golden berry, Pichu berry or Cape Gooseberry - whatever you like to call it!) will have to be potted on this week into larger pots as they've grown well. They'll be fruiting by late August/September and will go on until December. After that the fruits will keep for literally months in the salad drawer of the fridge - so they're well worth growing from seed and are a really easy fruit to grow. They have a delicious citrussy-sherbetty taste (even writing about them makes my mouth water!) - and they're very high in antioxidants lutein and vitamin C. They're even easier to grow than bush tomatoes, do really well in tubs or large pots, seem not to be bothered by any pests at all, the bees really love the flowers and the birds haven't sussed them yet! What's not to like? I've seen the dwarf version for sale in garden centres - but they produce so little fruit they're a complete waste of space - and I don't know anyone who's been successful with them. Some of last year's plants have overwintered well in the tunnel due to the mild winter, I gave them a feed about a month ago and they are now producing lots of nice new shoots at the bottom, and even flowering already on the few long branches which didn't die back. As a result I'm hopeful of some really early, very welcome fruits.

 
  
Frosty nights can be particularly difficult for any tender fruit growing in the tunnels. On the very bright sunny days after a clear night's frost the temperatures can rise at an alarming rate - so I have to watch the ventilation very carefully - trying as far as possible to even out the day/night temperatures - not always easy! There's a good crop of early figs developing fast on all the trees - many of the figlets overwintered without any damage. Those that are in any way damaged won't develop and eventually will turn brown and drop off. It's a good idea to take those off now so that they don't develop rots and spread diseases to the healthy younger ones.  In the picture you can see the early figs on last year's darker-coloured growth - the late summer's crop will develop on the new growth made this spring and summer. I'm being very careful to keep them evenly moist now too - if they dry out and wilt even the slightest bit - figs will ditch all their fruit without fail - usually about two weeks later - when you've completely forgotten that you possibly neglected them on just one occasion! The same goes for all potted fruit. Figs also like good drainage too, hating to be too wet - so they're temperamental devils in pots but well worth it, when even non-organic fresh figs are about a euro each in the smart fruit and veg. shops!  I should have my first ripe figs in mid June and will then have a second, bigger autumn crop on this years new green growth, on most of the varieties I grow.
 
 
The scent of the citrus flowers is apparently filling the tunnel now even though there's only a couple of trees flowering!  A real scent of approaching summer.  I always hate picking the last of the lemons and limes as they look so beautiful. Daft really isn't it?  If I leave them on though - they stop the new fruits developing even if the flowers are pollinated. They're also being protected at night as the dark red young growth is very soft and vulnerable to frost. They're getting a low strength 'Osmo' liquid feed mixed with tunnel temperature rainwater at every watering now - they hate limey, high pH tap water!  I do wish garden centres wouldn't water them with a hose! If they are in the garden centres for too long - the leaves start to turn yellow and drop off, as the staff don't know that they prefer the 'gentle rain' that 'droppeth mercifully from Heaven'!  Talking of which - I really had such a laugh on one of my much dreaded twice yearly ventures into Dublin a couple of years ago!  I wonder what on earth would Shakespeare have said at being quoted on an M&S food carrier bag? - "If music be the food of love play on"! writ large on a bright purple, recyclable bag - Whatever next!?

 Twelfth Night - Act 1, scene 1.- Duke Orsino:
 
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Music and food would certainly be pretty high on my list of priorities that's for sure - I really love all kinds of fruit. I wonder if Shakespeare liked figs? 'Duke Orsino' would certainly have prized them as a Mediterranean man. I don't think you could ever die from eating them - but eating too many might possibly be a little uncomfortable!  I find half a dozen just enough per day, any more is too many - but they're so delicious that they're very hard to resist them.  Anyway, I could never fall out of love with figs - they're one of my favourite fruits. Problem is - so is almost everything - each in it's own season! 
 
 
Sometimes it almost seems that the more fussily difficult things are to grow - the better they taste. But then isn't that the real joy of gardening - that you can actually taste the achievement a little too?! Added to that - we always have something new to look forward to!

 
Early figs forming from the overwintered buds on last year's darker growth - 13.4.12
 

Early figs forming from the overwintered buds on last year's darker 'woody' growth. New shoots will carry a later crop on most varieties of figs in tunnels.

 

Strong red-flushed young growth, overwintered fruit  and flowers on lemons in tunnel  -13.4.12
 

Strong red-flushed young growth, overwintered fruit and flowers on lemons in the tunnel

 

 (Please note. 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. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Vegetable Garden in April - 2020

April Topics: True Food Resilience Starts With Seeds.... Sow Super-fast Seeds now for salad greens!.... Early Spring Aphid Problems?.... My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots.....Growing on onion seedlings to cheat the weather!..... 'Hardening off' early vegetables.....Stop weeds and slugs before they start!..... When growing your own - you can choose the best varieties for flavour and nutrients......Get your seeds sown!..... Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden! .... and Last but not least - my thoughts on some 'so-called' scientists!
 
 'Jack Ice' is so delicious that it almost needs no dressing - and is the most reliable winter lettuce ever
 'Jack Ice' is so delicious that it almost needs no dressing - and is the most reliable winter lettuce ever
 
 

True Food Resilience Starts With Seeds

 
Over the last few unprecedented weeks of the COVID19 crisis - many of us have learnt for the first time what true food resilience means - and it doesn't mean having a weekly supermarket 'sweep' of hundreds of fresh foods imported from the farthest reaches of the planet!  Because of the difficulty of sourcing fresh produce with restricted access to shops, many people decided to try growing some of their own food for the very first time, or more of it if they already did so, only to discover that unfortunately most seed suppliers, even the huge global companies, were overwhelmed by the demand, and have now either limited their websites, or closed them down completely temporarily as they couldn't cope with the demand. So what can we do now to ensure that we don't have the same problem in future? We can save our own seeds, that's what - just as man has done for many thousands of years since we started growing food, rather than just foraging for it, up until recent decades!
 
 
It's surprising how few gardeners save seeds now - but it really couldn't be easier. Saving seeds is something I've done for years of many open-pollinated kinds of vegetables, because apart from anything else - it saves quite a lot of money!  In most cases, you don't even have to do anything much, except to choose which plant or plants you want to save seed from, then leave them alone and wait for either bees or wind to do the pollination and wait for Nature to do it's stuff - gradually developing and finally ripening the seed. Then hopefully giving us some good weather to harvest and complete the drying of them indoors until they are perfectly dry. This is why I grow many of the varieties of veg I want to save seed from in my polytunnel - as it's far easier to give them the perfect dry conditions in there in what often passes for our Irish 'summers', and then stored properly they will keep well and remain viable for many years.
 
 
So how do you choose a vegetable variety to save seed from? Well firstly one which you like obviously, and which is an open-pollinated variety - rather than being an F1 hybrid.  An F1 hybrid is a specific cross performed under isolated conditions in commercial glasshouses, so that there is no possibility of the chosen known varieties crossing with any other plants. This is why F1 hybrid seed is expensive and is also patented by the wholesale companies producing them, with the parents usually being a closely-guarded secret. This is sometimes how excellent varieties like the Rosada tomato - my favourite variety ever - are lost. There were many stories about how this happened, but I think the most likely (which I was told by a small family company who sell direct to the public) -  is that one of the big seed companies apparently tried to buy out the Rosada patent from the original producer, but refused to pay the asking price for the patent of this amazing tomato, which came top of all tasting tests, and so it was lost to us forever. Rosada truly is the best tomato I have ever grown, from every possible growing perspective, and for every kitchen use. I still have a few packets of seed left which have a 2014 date - so hope that they will remain viable for another few years, and by only sowing half each year and then taking cuttings of the resulting plants to produce more plants, I hope to keep it going for as long as I shall be growing tomatoes anyway!  Many people have tried to reproduce Rosada from seed of it's fruits - but apart from the fact that one would have to grow literally thousands to even perhaps find one which compared to it in flavour, disease resistance, productivity and everything else - you would then have to grow 100s of your selections on for at least 5-6 years before you could justifiably say that it was a 'stable' variety. I've tried one or two of those so-called 'Rosada seedlings' - and not one of them even has an iota of it's flavour, let alone disease-resistance. So sadly unless and until the original producer starts to produce that same hybrid again - then it's lost to us!
 
 
However - there are many other good so-called 'heritage' varieties of not just tomatoes, but also other vegetables to grow, and growing them is extremely important. This keeps them in general cultivation and preserves their genetic diversity so that it will be available for use in future breeding programmes. This is the major reason why I started The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012, and even before that ran various pumpkin, potato and tomato days in the late 1980s and 1990s - with the help of the HDRA Heritage Seed Library. I was trying to raise awareness of the importance of preserving genetic diversity for future food security. Those open-pollinated varieties which have the ability to adapt to local conditions, environments and a changing climate, will be far more valuable to humanity in the future than fussy and expensive patented F1 hybrids, which need to have absolutely perfect and very specific conditions to grow well - and of which we have to buy seeds every year, instead of saving our own - costing nothing but a small amount of effort. 
 
 
So what winter staples shall I be saving seed of this year, that I can't reliably buy either from shops or farmer's markets?  Which veg are not just unobtainable favourites, but are those that I have found the most useful for reliably tiding us over the winter and the so-called spring 'Hungry Gap' during the lock-down and until our baskets are once again filled by abundant summer harvests? My criteria will be disease-resistance, productivity, and an ability to stand for a long time before bolting as the weather warms up in spring. Four overwintering veg that I'm specifically picking out now to save seed from, and the ones which I would never want to be without growing personally in winter are: 
 
1. Perpetual Spinach Beet, which has been going strong all winter since it first started producing baby leaves early last September, and is still producing massive harvests now.  
2.Ragged Jack kale - originally from the HDRA Heritage Seed Library about 38 years ago and which I've been saving seed from ever since. 
3. Chicory Pain de Sucre/Sugar Loaf - which again has been producing leaves for the tables since last autumn, and also feeding the hens! 
4. Lettuce Jack Ice - originally from "Real Seeds UK" - which is truly the best lettuce I have ever grown in over 40 years of gardening and commercial growing. A 'loose-leaf' open-hearted variety - it produces huge crops of very substantial, crisp green tasty leaves that I pick individually all winter, it's hugely disease-resistant and is also very resistant to bolting if kept well-watered as the weather warms up. 
 
I shall pick out and mark the best plants of each now, and leave them to flower and then to set seed, rather than taking any more harvest from them.  Then later on in summer I'll be picking out the best varieties of other veg then too - varieties of beans, peas, tomatoes etc. any of which I don't currently have plenty of seeds stored. I'll be talking more about how to do this in future blog posts.
 
 
If nothing else, the COVID19 pandemic has shown us that we humans are not totally in control of Nature as some of us mistakenly thought we were.  But also perhaps it's taught us that Nature can truly be our ally when it comes to the true food security and resilience that comes from being able to grow our own food, or supporting reliable small local and organic producers nearby if we can't grow our own.  It has also perhaps taught many of us never to take anything (or sadly anyone), for granted, to always be as prepared as possible for the unexpected - and that relying on our own ability to produce seasonal, healthy food basics that we genuinely need to survive locally, is a lot safer than relying on global supply chains of whatever out of season produce we happen to fancy - like avocado toast! Am I the only person left on the planet who has never actually eaten it? 
 
 
Right now - I'm fantasizing about a world that could remain as unpolluted as it currently is without all the air traffic and other industrial pollution - with Beijing and the Himalayas being seen clearly for the first time in many decades. How I wish my much-missed cousin Mike, a big fan of James Lovelock's Gaia theory, and who lived in Beijing for 15 years working for the British Council, could see everything he predicted 20 years ago happening now.  He sadly died of a heart attack a few years ago - brought on by the continuous Beijing smog which doctors said had given him the circulatory problems of someone who would have smoked 100 cigarettes a day. And he had never smoked! We have a choice now - we have reached a crossroads - and now must decide the kind of world that we want our children to grow up in.  The old, polluted, unhealthy and undoubtedly dying world - or a brave new bright future for humanity and all biodiversity. It's up to us....... and to the leaders who WE elect to lead us into that future.
 
 

Sow some super-fast seeds now if you're desperate for fresh salad greens!

 
Some of you may know that I broke my left ankle badly in March last year - this put a lot of pressure on other old injuries to my right leg, which were then being an increasingly painful nuisance. As a result I had finally decided in January, after much dithering, to have the recommended reconstructive surgery on my right ankle and knee this spring as the pain was getting worse - and then the Covid_19 pandemic hit us, and all elective surgery was immediately cancelled!  So now I have no idea when I may be able to grow very much outside - just when things should be starting to get very busy in the garden! I haven't been able to do much at all outside - but the raised beds are covered for now and in the next couple of weeks I'm going to sow a few fast-growing veg in modules on the kitchen table in anticipation of perhaps being able to do at least a little planting in the not too distant future - all being well. If my problems prevent me from growing much even then - then I shall grow them in pots or in a stepladder garden again just as I did last year!  Having had a few injuries over my gardening lifetime, I've found plenty of alternative ways to grow things. It pays to be flexible, and determination will always find a way!  Luckily I'm currently able to pick some wonderful fresh salads, chards, beets and kale in the polytunnel, which is easier to work in than outside.  Having lots of fresh green food to eat and being able to get sun and fresh air is so important for both our physical and mental health - and I have genuine pity for those who can't do that right now.
 
 
The beautiful, delicately marked Rocket flowers taste deliciously of vanilla - so it's not surprising that bees love it!
The beautiful, delicately marked Rocket flowers taste deliciously of vanilla - so it's not surprising that bees love it!
The weather so far this 'spring' has been so erratic, that many gardens are still far too wet and cold at the moment to do anything - especially sowing any seeds direct into the soil. Many soils that were flooded are still saturated if they weren't covered or carrying a crop over winter - and even if not they will have lost a lot of nutrients. So if you're craving something fresh and green - sowing some fast-growing veg like spinach, baby leaf lettuce, pea shoots, rocket and Oriental veg into modules will gain you at least 2-3 weeks on anything you could sow outside now - that is if you could! You will be eating all of these within 4-6 weeks! If you plant them out on the ends of your veg beds where they won't be in the way of any subsequent crops - then after you've picked their leaves for a few weeks - later on you can leave one or two plants to flower. Doing this provides very welcome early food for bees and other beneficial insects that help with pest control. Many of their flowers are also delicious in our summer salads - especially the rocket flowers above - which actually taste of vanilla believe it or not! They look really pretty on salads or even on chocolate desserts due to the beautiful dark-brown veining on their flowers! A double or triple whammy! 
 
 
 
 

Early Spring Aphid problems?

 
 
The insects that help with pest control love these early flowers as much as we do - they rely on them for food to kick-start the breeding season and also like to feed their growing offspring a little protein on the side too! So while they're shopping for nectar and pollen - they'll also pick up a few greenfly or some early caterpillars!  The most likely time you'll see any pests like greenfly in an organic garden is on the very young and succulent emerging shoots of some plants at this time of year - roses in particular seem prone to them. If you've been attracting beneficial insects into the garden by growing lots of early flowers though - and also feeding your garden birds all winter - then you'll already have a willing army of pest controllers ready and waiting to help you dispose of them! All forms of gardening are to some extent disturbing Nature - but organic gardening tries to do this as little as possible and tries to encourage the most natural environment possible. Very often if you do see a large infestation of aphids - it means that plants are under some sort of stress, which makes them much more vulnerable to pests. This can often be because people have used too much manure, causing a lot of soft, sappy growth in the plants, which disrupts the plant's self-defences and makes them much more attractive to pests.
 
 
I see so many people using home-made concoctions like garlic sprays, washing up liquid etc for 'killing' aphids at this time of year in particular - but many washing-up liquids contain chemicals like formaldehyde, hormone-disrupting artificial scents, detergents etc - and there is no such thing as an environmentally-friendly detergent!  If these sprays kill aphids - then they must surely kill or harm other small insects like hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds - which are vitally important in controlling aphids. If there are too many greenfly for your resident predatory insects and birds to cope with, because their numbers haven't yet built up enough to deal with them all - then a quick spray with a jet of water from a garden hose, with your finger over the end, does the job just as effectively, and water doesn't kill anything! They won't climb back onto the plants, and most importantly, using only plain water renders any dead aphids still safe to eat, as they are uncontaminated with anything else, so that birds and insects can pick them up to feed to their young later! I have never had an aphid infestation that I couldn't cope with just by using my water method - ably assisted by the army of Dunnocks, Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and willow warblers here! When you think about it - isn't it timely that Nature seems to organise a glut of aphids just as baby birds need feeding? Nature never does anything without reason - as I'm always saying - truly 'everything is connected'!
 
 

My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots for guaranteed success!

 
 
Loo roll sown parsnips, hardened off and ready for plantingLoo roll sown parsnips, hardened-off and ready for planting
 
My 'loo roll' sown parsnips are already hardened off and begging to be planted, they have two nice first 'true' leaves and they're waiting impatiently now - first in the queue. They don't appreciate being delayed at all! There's still plenty of time to sow them in long modules like loo rolls though - if you haven't sown any yet. If you don't have a propagator - they'll germinate far quicker at room temperature in the house than they will in cold, wet ground. Then as soon as they're up and need light you can put them out into the greenhouse or a cold frame for a couple of weeks before planting out. They'll be way ahead of anything sown in the ground even 2-3 weeks ago - which may well have rotted due to the cold wet conditions - and they won't have been eaten by the slugs which are sadly still really active now despite the cold!
 
 
 
 
Parsnips multi-sown 3-4 seeds per module of peat-free compost.

 

Parsnips multi-sown 3-4 seeds per module of peat-free compost. 

If the soil is still too sticky in the raised beds, I'll do what the show vegetable people like the wonderful Medwyn Williams do - and take out a trowel-full or so of soil, mix it with some organic peat-free potting compost to dry it out a bit, replace it and then plant into that. They'll really take off like rockets then. Nothing likes being planted into cold, sticky clay, as firming them into it compacts and squashes the air out of it. Roots need a certain amount of air. The very first 'module' will need easing out very carefully from the corner of the mushroom box that's been their home for the last two months. I use two narrow trowels for doing this - either side of the first loo-roll module - in a sort of 'pincer' movement which lifts the loo roll with it's precious package out very gently. Then I lower it into it's hole - pushing the soil gently towards the sides rather than pushing down from the top, which would squash the loo roll down and disturb the contents. Lots of TLC is the secret - but it's worth it to get those lovely straight parsnips later!

 
 
In over 40 years of organic gardening - I've learnt a great many things from bitter experience! One of them is that when anything has been grown either in loo roll 'modules' or in paper pots - It's really important that the hole is deeper than the loo roll module. I can't stress enough that it must be buried well under the surface and not exposed to the air - otherwise it will dry out at the top and act like a wick!  Moisture will be drawn out of the module as the weather warms up and the soil dries out. The module will then also dry out and shrink - which can be a complete disaster! When well-buried under the surface, damp loo roll or paper modules will just rot away slowly, adding valuable carbon to the soil with no problems at all. 
 
 
After you've extracted the first module from the box or tray of seedlings - you'll find that they're then much easier to carefully remove intact. I just take them out of the mushroom box with one long narrow trowel at a slight angle so the already rotting loo roll is supported and doesn't fall apart. Then I plant in the same way, about a foot apart, as there's three plants to a module. After that they'll only need a minor weeding once, mulching afterwards (I use grass clippings) then the light excluding leaves will close over the soil and I won't need to touch them again at all, until they're ready to eat after the first frost in the autumn! 

 

Over the years I've found that my 'loo roll' module method is much the easiest way to get parsnips sown early enough to reach a really decent size - small ones never have the same flavour or usefulness. The ground is usually far too wet and cold with my heavy soil here in early spring for them to germinate well - even under cloches. We don't get much early warmth in this part of Ireland - it's different in the south east of England or even in the midlands there, where most of the books that give gardening advice tend to be written!  They've been nearly 10 deg C warmer there for most of this last week!  Parsnips take about 3 weeks to germinate even in a warmish soil. That leaves them far more vulnerable to damage by slugs etc. before they're big enough to withstand the odd nibble. That's if they don't rot in the cold soil. I always get fabulous parsnips this way, three to a module planted like that in each planting spot - with only one or two that are a bit odd shaped or curled around the others!  Who knows, I may even grow show standard parsnips this year! Even if they're not - with parsnips at almost a euro each for decent sized organic ones that have any flavour - they're well worth that extra little bit of trouble. 
 
 
After planting they're pretty much trouble-free, apart from keeping them well-watered in the raised beds. They just get on with growing themselves until the autumn frosts, when they develop their sweet flavour and I lift them as I need them for the kitchen. You can raise carrots just like this too, sowing a tiny pinch into each module, again eventually getting nice clumps a foot or so apart - just right for lifting a perfect bunch for each meal. A lot of people find carrots a problem because again they take ages to germinate, and they're tiny 'grassy' seed leaves are very vulnerable to slug damage just as they're germinating. This totally avoids the problem - and is a great way to raise the very expensive seed of the new purple ones. After they've reached a decent size in the modules you can plant into clean, weed free soil, so you won't have to weed, which attracts carrot fly. All you need to do after that is to keep them permanently covered with a fine mesh like 'Enviromesh' to keep carrot flies out.
 
 

My rather unconventional method of growing on onion seedlings also cheats the weather!

 
Onions from seed are always far more successful than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in any disease which sets may do. That can be even more likely in a wet year. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them if you get a move on and sow them now!



Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting on tray of compostOnion seedlings in a module tray, sitting on tray of compost 
 
I also have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when something sensitive needs planting out from modules. I first thought of this when I was behind for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time - which meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and can cause bolting. The trick I use now is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily unawares, and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - taking each plug of plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success four years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long. 
 
   
OK. Like so many of things I do - it's perhaps not the most conventional way of doing things - but it works! Being 'conventional' has never bothered me much anyway having been an organic gardener for 40 years! I've always felt that 'conventional' was always there to be challenged -  (not a trait my school teachers appreciated though)! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience - and experience is always the best teacher. Otherwise I would have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often just as important as saving money for me!  If you don't sit them on compost, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface, getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. They will then be far less efficient, the plants won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and they  may be more inclined to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they start to root into the matting - then roots get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a shock that many of them will 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing a nice firm ripe bulb - which is a waste of all your work! 
 
  
Leeks aren't quite as sensitive as onions - so if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way - you could just row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed instead of doing this - and plant them out as usual later - but this trick works fantastically well for them as well. I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions (Organic Catalogue) - and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind nowadays, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always has done - and we are all so busy! Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals, just because that's how things were always done, is always worth challenging. And as I often say - that's the only way science progresses too - but more on that later!
 
  

'Hardening off' early vegetables sown under cover

 
 
'Hardening off' is a term which first time gardeners often find difficult to understand. It's just a gradual acclimatising of plants to the outside world - after being raised in nice warm conditions inside. At this time of year I tend to operate a kind of airport style 'holding pattern' with plants in various stages of hardening off - gradually moving closer and closer to being completely outside. Gradually is the key though!Always be prepared to put them back under cover quickly if severe weather is forecast. I use this method for everything that's sown early under cover - including my onions. The weather's so bad here today that the gales would have battered and destroyed anything like tender lettuces in trays. Typical April weather! It really is worth taking that little bit of extra trouble to properly harden off module grown plants. If it's well done, in a few weeks time you will have perfect beds full of beautiful, healthy salads and other veg to start harvesting.
 

Lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
Normally at this time of year I'm running in and out of the tunnels morning and evening - putting stuff out during the day that needs to begin the 'hardening off' process - bringing everything in again at night in case of a sudden unexpected frost. I have trays raised off the ground on upturned plant crates, so any slugs can't get them - or sneak underneath and be brought unintentionally into the tunnel at night. When weather improves - I shall leave them out day and night at the side of the tunnels just covered with some fleece at night for a few days. After that they can be planted into the raised beds - which are looking like a very inviting (but very cold and wet) blank canvas right now - most of the winter crops having been cleared. The surplus late leek seedlings 'Bandit' which I couldn't bear to waste last year I planted out pencil thin - 3 in a clump  in August or early Sept. - mulching them with grass clippings to keep the weeds down and the moisture in. Pictured here you can see lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates, to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
 

 

Stop weeds and slugs before they start!

 
If you're an all year round gardener like methen you'll probably have already covered any ground vacated by any late winter crops lifted last month.  If you haven't done that - then do it fast now! This is important to stop the weeds merrily growing away while your back's turned doing something else! Otherwise you'll seriously regret it in a few weeks time - when trying to get a bed ready for sowing or planting takes a couple of hours because there's a jungle of weeds to remove - instead of the few minutes it would have taken if you'd covered it before they start growing! Don't forget that weeds tend to encourage slugs as well because they give them more places to hide! You can use the time that the ground's covered to lift the cover every so often and pick up any slugs - or just cut them in half if you really can't bear the slime!  Any light-excluding and also preferably rain-proof covering will do, to stop the weeds growing and keep the soil dry and in good condition until you can get round to preparing it for a new crop. As soon as we get better weather the weeds will simply leap out of the ground practically overnight! They're always the first to germinate at lower temperatures - that's why they're so successful!
 
 
Remember - Nature has strategies that can outwit even the best-laid plans of gardeners - that's why organic gardeners work with rather than against it Nature is always wisest in the long run and no matter how clever we may think we are - Nature will always have the last word!
 


With growth fast now - plots can quickly become an unmanageable mess if weeds are not dealt with promptly!

 
 
If that happens - then it's often the time when many first-time gardeners give up - thinking that this gardening lark's just far too difficult!  Either that or turn to weedkillers on the advice of chemical-minded gardeners!  This is a disaster for all the soil life and also for your health if you eat vegetables grown in chemically weed-killed soil!  Recently I bumped into a friend who opened some allotments on his farm - he said that several people had taken on far too much and ended up with a mess - so they've abandoned their allotments completely this year. That's a shame - with the right advice they wouldn't have been so disappointed. If that's happened to you in the past - but you're going to have another shot - then good for you but don't take on too much - a little bit of forward planning really pays off.
 
 
You're far better to get just one small area perfectly under control and cover the rest or just mow it for the time being. You can use the clippings to start a compost heap or for mulching potatoes to keep weeds down. They love the acidifying effect on the soil. While on the subject - only grow potatoes on one quarter of the plot in the first year - not everywhere as some 'know-it-all' people may advise! You could even grow some pumpkins, courgettes or even sweetcorn through any light-excluding cover later on too - or sit tubs on top to grow in this year.
 
 
If you spread manure or compost on the surface and just cover it until next year - you won't believe how much the soil will improve without you doing another thing - but it must be covered - not left open to the weather!  Don't make it hard for yourself and attempt to be self-sufficient in fruit and veg if you've only got a couple of hours a week to spare. Grow just a few things that are easy - or perhaps are expensive and hard to find fresh in the shops - or things that are better picked fresh just before you eat them like salads. Don't bother trying to grow bulk crops like main crop carrots, onions or potatoes if you haven't got much room or time - organically grown ones are easy to buy almost everywhere now. Grow some permanent fruit bushes which aren't as much trouble and as time-consuming as vegetables. And most importantly - and this sounds obvious - grow what you know you like and will actually eat!!
 
 

Growing your own means you can grow the best varieties for flavour and nutrients

 
Two types of Oca tubers - 1 scarlet with white eyes on left & 2 orange oca on rightTwo types of Oca tubers - 1 scarlet with white eyes on left & 2 orange oca on right
 
 
Commercial growers often have to use varieties that crop heavily, travel well and have a long shelf life - which usually means far less flavour! I find that the most difficult thing of all for me is restricting myself to things which I know I will realistically have time to grow! I want to grow everything - including many of the more unusual and exotic things. But surely one does have to have a little bit of gardening fun sometimes - otherwise life could be very boring. I also like to experiment with growing new varieties of old favourites, it's an interesting and useful way of discovering better varieties. The great thing about gardening is you never stop learning - and doing it is the very best way to learn!  
 
 
 
Another great thing about growing your own is that you can try more unusual crops which are never available in the shops. I've tried many unusual crops over the years - some successful - others not so! One of them was Oca - (oxalis tuberosa) - an ancient Andean crop. The steamed tubers taste rather like a lemony/buttery floury new potato. You can also use the delicious, sharp lemony-tasting leaves and pretty yellow flowers sparingly in summer salads. Sparingly though - as like sorrel they have a high oxalic acid content which can cause kidney stones if eaten in excess! That's something that many experts fail to mention - or perhaps don't know? There are several different coloured ocas - but I'm interested in the more highly-coloured ones for their possible higher antioxidant content. They're fascinating little tubers and very pretty plants - but I found they made masses of tiny tubers wherever the stems touched the soil as well as bigger ones - and I have a funny feeling they may become as invasive and hard to get rid of as Jerusalem artichokes! They're popping up everywhere now, wherever they've been grown previously, despite being cleared up thoroughly - or so I thought! They don't form their tubers until really late in the season - November or so - but they make an interesting alternative break crop in the tunnel rotation where they were obviously very happy in 2012, and also outside for the last few years!

  

Get your seeds sown on time!

 
 
You can get on with lots of seed sowing now - the list is elsewhere in the blog. If you're short of time - (and who isn't these days?) then sow your seeds before you do anything else. As I've mentioned before - you can catch up with everything else when you have time - but seeds must always be sown at the right time otherwise you'll miss the boat!  It can be a fine balance - I often make two sowings of a really important staple crop as an insurance policy. If sown too early some things may get a check if we get a sudden cold spell - then run up to flower and seed almost straight away instead of cropping properly. Alternatively if sown too late - they may often never have time to develop a crop at all - especially if we have a really poor summer. In Ireland, we're lucky enough to live in a climate where it's possible to grow most things in most years given a little care.
 
 
Seeds of some food plants like spinach and lettuce which grow best in cooler temperatures have a built in germination inhibitor that is triggered by high temperatures - so it's best to keep them fairly cool for the first 24 hours or so after sowing. Don't try to hurry them more by putting them in a heated propagator as they may not germinate at all. At 30 deg C the seed actually becomes dormant - this is nature's clever way of ensuring that they don't germinate in unsuitable conditions and have the best possible chance of growing on to adulthood and producing seeds themselves. 
 
 
I know they look lovely, and we'd all love one - but the perfect picture book, 'Country Living' style old brick potting shed (as beautifully seen on Gardener's World) isn't really necessary, or even standing outside in a freezing cold greenhouse, with numb fingers trying to sow tiny seeds! I prefer to sow mine in comfort! I keep a large tray under my kitchen table at this time of year, with a few module trays and small pots, a bowl of seed compost, some vermiculite and a few labels, ready to snatch a few minutes between other jobs, whenever I can, to sow some seeds. The tray is actually a 'grow bag' tray - about 1m long by 45cm wide (a standard seed tray width) which I find is the ideal size. It has deep sides, conveniently keeps all the messy stuff together, is waterproof, and can be whipped off out of the way and shoved under the table at a moment's notice if someone arrives, or at mealtimes! I use a new cat litter tray to sit seed trays in for watering seedlings from below. You may think that sounds a bit scruffy but it's actually quite tidy, very convenient, and at least it stays where it's put - unlike the lambs, chicks or ducklings that often in the past frequented a snug cardboard box under the table in my nice warm kitchen, whenever they required a bit of TLC! I do rather miss those days now - and the children's delight with all our various little fluffy babies! It was a bit frantic sometimes though! Hey ho - life moves on.......
 
 
Yes - I know the books all tell us to sow seeds in a perfect 'friable seedbed'!  But like a lot of you I suspect, when I first moved here I spent endless fruitless hours and energy, making an already bad back worse, struggling to break up the compacted, concrete-like, clods of clay that passed for soil!  I was desperate to make 'the perfect seedbed' as recommended. That was before I discovered, more or less by accident, the more convenient and sure results that come from sowing seeds in modules, which I do most of the time now, even for many early root veg as I described earlier. Then I just made 'planting pockets' in the soil of the beds later, as I described in an earlier blog post. After years of cultivation my soil does now make a good seedbed - but I actually still sow most things in modules now because you can be more sure of the temperature, the weather and importantly - the absence of slugs!. Seeds are so expensive now that one can't afford to waste them - and the one thing that is totally beyond our control is the weather. The earliest sowings are inside in my polytunnel, and later outside sowing is done in modules in a raised, slug proof, outside propagating area. You could also make a raised seedbed, if you wanted to but I still find that sowing in modules avoids the setbacks and occasional damage which can be caused by 'pricking out', uprooting and transplanting. Plants establish so much better, far more quickly and more reliably if they already have a really good root ball.
 
 

Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden to do it!

 
As my stepladder garden and containers prove in the polytunnel diary this month, growing some of your own food is easy, really satisfying and can save you a lot of money. There's a lot of information here I know - but you don't have to do everything here! I just try to give the advice and encouragement that I know I would have found really useful when I was starting my gardening life. I hope that you can benefit from my 40 years experience of growing food for my family and for my veg box and co-op customers years ago (can't believe it!). Many customers became friends for life - because an interest in healthy food is something we have in common - as indeed so have you! 
  
 
No matter how busy you are in the garden - I hope you'll take time to enjoy every moment of this wonderful spring time - it's such a joyous and hopeful time of year! The garden is bursting with hope. Planting a garden is really planting hope! That's something we all need plenty of - and it's something that we can renew afresh each year. Aren't we gardeners lucky?! 
 
 
 
Last but not least! My thoughts on some so-called 'scientists' - after all, if science hadn't been challenged centuries ago - then we'd all still think the earth was flat wouldn't we? 
 
 
Sadly too many so-called scientists refuse to accept that something they may have been taught in college may actually now have been proved wrong. This can particularly be the case if their science is biased by having a financial vested interest in maintaining the current status quo - as many of those scientists employed (either openly or covertly) by the globally-dominant, multinational seed and pesticide manufacturers have. In fact - today some science is for sale to the highest bidder and does not have the integrity it should! It's a case of "Give me the money - and I'll give you the results you want" - rather than what may be the actual truth! Some scientists on social media may not always be what they appear to be - their often entertaining, amusing and seemingly innocent public faces may disguise a much darker, self-interested and commercially-connected side.
 
 
Saying such things obviously doesn't make me popular in some quarters - but that's never bothered me! In fact I was even threatened by DM - (a private direct message) on Twitter over 2 years ago by one extremely arrogant but very popular and well-known advocate of industrial chemical agriculture and GMOs. This was despite the fact that I had only mentioned "some scientists" - in a tweet referring to my feelings about such obvious financially motivated bias - and had not mentioned their particular scientific discipline! This proved to me that particular person had a vested interest at the time - and events since then have proved me to be quite correct! 
 
 
To such people - using the hashtags #organic, #local, #wholefood, #processedfood or #realfood - seem to be like waving a red rag at a bull - they become almost apoplectic with rage!  Their tweets infer that the proponents of sustainable organic agriculture are ignorant Luddites and hippies - using such hashtags as #SenseAboutScience, or #FactsNotFear - which are real favourites of the biased, pro-chemical farming brigade! 
 
 
Some pro-chemical journalists even say that we are suffering from 'orthorexia' - a curious one that - since if you look at the Greek etymology of that word it actually means 'right diet'! They're clearly not fans of evolutionary science - since if we weren't eating the 'right diet' - surely humans wouldn't have got as far as the 20th century, when artificial fertilisers and pesticides were invented? An not only that - the emerging science on COVID19 is that it appears to be those who eat the most processed food, or perhaps have underlying health conditions in part caused by such foods, who are sadly among the worst affected by complications caused by the virus. So cheap processed food and pesticide manufacturers may have a lot to answer for when all is known about how such diets may have affected our immune systems.
 
 
It was only in the 20th century that the chemicals which are now being used as pesticides 
were invented. They were originally used as poisonous nerve agents - weapons of warfare just like those being used in Syria and other regions where there are wars now
! If scientists are so confident that their way is the right way and that their chemicals don't harm biodiversity or people's health - you would think that advocates of organic farming wouldn't bother them in the slightest!.... ............ Wouldn't you?
 
 
As I've said - it doesn't make me too popular to question them - and those who prefer a quiet life probably wouldn't. But it's too easy to look the other way and allow another Silent Spring to happen. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of good scientists out there who are as deeply worried as I am about the future. What makes me so unpopular is questioning those who only appear to care about amassing as much money as possible now - regardless of what harm it may do to Nature and our children's future! But I don't care about being popular - what I care about is the future of our children, their health and also that of Nature and the planet. Surely anyone who has children must care about such things? 
 
 
Nature and my children are the only vested interests I have to declare. And I don't keep those hidden - unlike some people!
 
 
(Please note. 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. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)
 
 
 

 

The Polytunnel Potager in April 2020

April Topics:  The proven health benefits of growing your own and eating natural foods grows longer every day!..... What can you grow if you don't have a polytunnel or even a garden?.... What you could be eating now from the polytunnel if you've planned well..... Not planted any potatoes outside yet?- Don't panic there's still time my super-fast way!.... Managing your polytunnel environment....Dealing with pest problems in spring polytunnels.... Polytunnels as an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.

 
 Left hand side of Polytunnel 7th April.  'Extra-early' blue potatoes in side bed will be followed by courgettes. Productive Ragged Jack kale under-planted with watercress on right
Left hand side of Polytunnel 7th April.  'Extra-early' blue potatoes in side bed will be followed by courgettes. Productive Ragged Jack kale under-planted with watercress on right
 
 

The list of health benefits of growing your own and eating natural foods grows longer every day! 

 
 
In fact, the most relevant of those benefits right now is the emerging evidence that those who eat an unhealthy diet, which may possibly predispose them to becoming pre-diabetic, are more at risk from the complications of Corona Virus - which without doubt we all want to avoid!  Now folks - while I love the undeniable delights of crisps, chocolates and squishy fresh doughnuts just as much as anyone else (as long as they're organic!)....  If it's a choice between those and good health - then believe me I value my health far more!  I discovered many years ago, long before 'low-carb' became the fashion, that eating those kinds of carbohydrate-rich processed foods is not just fattening and makes you feel sluggish - but also that eating them puts us at more risk of becoming ill, because it actually damages our gut bacteria - otherwise know as our gut microbiome - which essentially our immune system.  My kids were reared not eating those foods - junk was banned in our house because of my daughter's allergies,  and we have always eaten loads of healthy vegetables and fruits, along with homemade kefir and other fermented foods, as I mention in my 'How to make basic milk Kefir' article  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes/483-how-to-make-basic-milk-kefir . 
 
 
Recent science also hows that the more healthy fresh veg and fibre we eat - the healthier our gut bacteria are, and therefore the more active and effective our immune system is in protecting us from viruses. Or if we catch them unavoidably - in helping us to recover better without the serious complications of ensuing bacterial infections like pneumonia. So if we ever needed an excuse to get out there and grow anything we can, so that we can load up our plates with healthy foods it's right now!  Don't think that it's too late - it's never too late to eat a healthier diet!  No matter how much unhealthy junk you may have eaten in the past, the latest gut science shows that we can improve our gut health incredibly fast. Those little suckers that work 24/7 to keep us healthy will be delighted with your improved diet and respond very quickly. Our main problem here has always been finding space for the meat or fish on our plates, which we generally eat only 3-4 times a week. We love our delicious homegrown veg so much that we always have at least three veg with every meal, so we often need side plates to accommodate it all!
 
 
In addition to those benefts - some recent science proved that you don't even need to grow anything!  Apparently, just being outside walking gently around the garden for twenty minutes, or anywhere else in the countryside will give you some of those benefits!  A new study, just published in the journal 'Frontiers in Psychology'proves that taking at least 20 - 30 minutes out of each day, to walk gently, or just sit in a place that makes our senses feel in contact with Nature can have a real and measurable effect on our health - significantly lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can contribute to such health problems as high blood pressure.  Scientists say that healthcare practitioners will now be able to prescribe what they are calling 'the nature pill',  in the knowledge that it has proven benefits.  One stipulation was that while taking 'the nature pill' we should be outside in daylight. The other requirements were that we should at the same time minimize other factors known to influence stress, such as too much aerobic exercise (so heavy digging's out!), or social media use - such as internet, phone calls, conversations and reading, in order to maximise the benefits.  Or in other words - get a bit of peace! 
 
 
This is fascinating proof that, as I'm always saying, the further we move away from the natural world which we humans evolved to inhabit - the more damaging it can be for our health! But at the same time it happily also proves just how easy it is to reverse that damage with this easy, free and all-natural stress-relieving remedy. Growing up in a pretty frantic and stressful household, with two much older siblings, an adored father who was away often and a mother who suffered from mental health problems - I must say that I found spending my days mostly outside very calming when at home, wandering around in our large garden investigating 'jungly' green places, with my dogs and pony in tow. I still find such green spaces calming to this day - especially at this time of year when all the fresh green buds of spring are bursting in woodlands and birds are singing for joy. Perhaps that's why one of my good friends said years ago that I'd faithfully recreated an overgrown old garden - when in fact at that time my garden was barely 20 years old!
 
 
Robin having a little snack beside the Ragged Jack Kale!
Robin having a little snack beside the Ragged Jack Kale!
This time last year - you can imagine just how delighted I was to find this study, as I was feeling very nature-deprived and quite a bit stressed, being unable to go outside in the garden or even walk up to my polytunnel due to my broken ankle!  Although my planned reconstructive ankle surgery has now been postponed due to the Corona Virus, which means that I now have to use a walking frame all the time to take the pressure off my very painful ankle and avoid damaging it even more - I can at least do a little work in the polytunnnel and that makes a huge difference to my mental health.  Seeing all the productive beauty, sitting among the flowers and veg, listening to the sounds of the birds, smelling the scents all around me and talking to my constant companion, my pet robin, are what keep me from being stressed about what I can't personally change, and which help me to sleep at night.  Although it looks a bit chaotic in the picture above, and not what is considered the 'ideal' way to grow veg - in the neat straight rows with bare soil in between which you see in books, on many other blogs and on TV programmes - it works!  It's wonderful to see all the flowers and veg intermingling and looking so happy - and if they look happy - then I know they are!  While I admire the neat and tidy potager look - neat rows are anathema to Nature!  They're not the way things naturally grow, and if you've been reading this blog for long you know that I like to grow things as closely to the way that Nature would grow them as possible - even though they are growing what is in some ways the artificial environment of a polytunnel. That's why I never see any pests at all - because the polytunnel has become an entire and functioning ecosystem in it's own right. Soil, flora and fauna in balance - even including my pet Robin!  So it's not surprising that the kind of natural environment which we and the rest of Nature evolved to live in, and eating the kind of natural food we evolved to eat, makes us feel more cheerful and energetic is it?
 
 
 
Overwintered Matador spinachOverwintered spinach Viroflex cropping nicely 
 
April is one of the busiest months of the gardening year, with so much work to do both inside and outside but ultimately it will all be worth it - because what you're doing is actually growing your own health! Although we're completely unaware of it - when we're gardening we also absorb vital healthy Mycobacterium vaccae from our soil and environment. Studies have shown that when M. vaccae is inhaled it triggers the release of the 'happy hormone' serotonin in the brain, and that this is significant enough for it to be referred to as an antidepressant! This benefit, as well as the fresh clean air we're breathing, is something people who spend their lives mostly indoors miss out on. So us organic gardeners have it right don't we? We're saving money while at the same time growing our own health, and getting a huge sense of achievement, with enjoyable, stress-reducing healthy exercise! No wonder organic gardeners are such contented folk! 
 
 
  
Given that a Newcastle University study a few years ago also found that organically grown fruit and veg are at least 60% higher in vital antioxidant phytonutrients, with far fewer residues of neurotoxins like heavy metals and pesticides - then growing them ourselves organically, or buying organic is surely an complete 'no-brainer' and a winner from every point of view!  After all - why on earth would you buy chemically-grown, pesticide-sprayed, fruit and veg when it's so easy to grow even just a little bit of luscious produce like the spinach like you can see pictured here? Not only that - you're getting the freshest food possible and you can eat it when it's healthy nutrients are at their absolute peak! If you haven't read my blog post about when is the best time to harvest your produce - here's a link to it: 
 
 
 
Even more great news for all of us keen gardeners who grow lots of our own food is that a recent study by University College London in the 'Journal of Epidemiology and Health' stated that the more veg and fruit you can eat, the more beneficial it is for your health. As I reported a couple of years ago - most experts think now that 7 or even 9 a day - rather than 5 a day is the very best total to eat. That's no problem if you grow your own - and it couldn't be fresher picked straight from your own garden!  The only dressing that home-grown, deliciously fresh veg requires is a little olive oil or butter - or quite a lot in my case - which scientists also now say isn't bad for you either. But be sure to use a good oil, like organic extra virgin olive oil, or nut oils - not industrially-processed, chemically-extracted GMO seed oils! Thank heavens finally for some commonsense about fat!  We never ate anything but organic butter and natural, cold-pressed organic oils here!  For salads we mostly use olive, avocado and nut oils - all delicious - and which all help your body to absorb all the healthy nutrients from your salads. 
 
 
Filling up on veg also means you can cut down a bit on expensive organic meat too and you don't need the carbs from loads of potatoes to make you feel satisfied after meals! Much better for our health. In our house - actually finding room on the plate for the meat is often a problem, so we have side plates for extra veg too if necessary. We're so greedy for our lovely fresh veg here and for most of the year there's always plenty of choice. We still eat potatoes occasionally - but we eat far fewer heavy carbs like bread, potatoes and pasta here now than we used to, since we started on mostly LCHF - or low carbohydrate high healthy fat eating. We still very occasionally enjoy the odd healthy cake or pud made from wholegrain flours as we always have done - but not every single day!  We don't go overboard and we don't exclude anything forever more - but we do all agree that we feel much better for it. The one thing that I am absolutist about however - is that absolutely everything must be organic! After 40 years of research into how to feed my family the healthiest food possible - believe me I know far too much about the chemicals used on non-organic crops and the health effects of them on the animals and animal products that we eat! Never forget that what they eat - we are ultimately eating too! In fact - we are what they eat!
 
 

Growing your own is not just healthier for you but your budget too!

 
 
Thank heavens for polytunnels - where we can make a start on growing crops destined for outside by starting them off undercover to plant out later  - and they'll be all the healthier and stronger for it! The weather here's been so wet on and off all winter and early spring - every time it looked as if it was drying up - then we had yet another deluge! Even though things have really started growing in the last couple of weeks outside - it's still far too wet to do any useful gardening.  But in the polytunnel - spring is already well and truly underway, growth is accelerating and no matter what the weather outside - there's always something good to eat - for us and the many bees that have been constant visitors to all the flowers in there over the last few weeks! 
 
 
Despite the recent snow and freezing weather - there is still a glorious profusion of healthy salads to eat in the polytunnel right now. If I only picked just one leaf from each different type of plant there would still be too much to fit onto a plate! It really shows the benefit of planning well now for winter salads this time next year.  All the overwintered plants are cropping really well, producing a final burst of growth encouraged by the increasing light, before they try to flower in order to reproduce themselves. When they finally do  - I shall leave many of the flowers for the bees and hoverflies which are already busy helping to pollinate my fruit crops and control insects. Even in a polytunnel - organic gardening is all about doing everything possible to encourage Nature to work with you - and it's happy to do so if given the chance! In fact it's getting hard to keep up with eating all the lovely salads - but the hens enjoy helping out too and all the healthy greens supercharge their eggs with all that captured sunshine! 
 
 
I never cease to be grateful for my lovely polytunnels that I worked so hard for - they were worth all the effort and they certainly save me a lot of money all year round!  Why do so many people lose interest in their polytunnels over the winter and then only start to use them again in spring? They could be saving an absolute fortune on the household budget - and eating a far healthier diet too! When I see the tired and miserable-looking, increasingly nutrient-depleted selection of imported salad leaves which are available in supermarkets - usually just spinach or rocket which is probably 2-3 days old at least - I feel so sorry for people who have no choice but to buy them! (see earlier link). They're expensive too - most packs are around €3 and they would barely feed two people!  Last week when, browsing in M&S to see what they had in their organic section, I came across bagged organic spinach grown in Italy - only about 250g for €3 per bag! That is positively criminal! There is absolutely no good reason whatsoever why that couldn't have been grown here in the British Isles in a cold greenhouse - saving carbon and being far fresher! And there's no reason why you couldn't grow your own even if you only have a tiny outside space - as my stepladder garden pictured below proves - and that's even better for your budget!
 
 

But what if you don't have a polytunnel - or even a garden - can you grow anything? 

 
 At the risk of repeating myself - as I've already written about this last month - this is something which I'm asked a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is YES - quite a lot!  Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, you can grow in containers - but just on a smaller scale.  If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again! You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two?  So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything".  Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be fresher, healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill! If you've got a path with room to walk on it, then you've got room for at least some veg in containers. For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year!  I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg dept. of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit on each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them. 
 
 
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps a few years ago.  I also put a couple of large 10l buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew!  Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
 

My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - late March. Shows what you can do in a very small space. Lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs. Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?"  route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
 
 
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows! 
 
 
 
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy! 
 
 
You don't need a tunnel for container growing - but you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets for upwards of £20 or €25. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store!  They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them! 
 
 
What you could be eating now from the polytunnel if you've planned well
 
 
'Equinox Celebration Salad'  34 different leaves plus edible flowers all picked from the polytunnel
 
'Equinox Celebration Salad' 34 different leaves plus edible flowers all picked from the polytunnel
 
You wouldn't think that tunnel could be incredibly productive at this time of year would you? I decided last year to take a walk round the tunnel one morning to see what variety there was available to eat, at what is normally a pretty meagre time of year outside in the veg garden.I took this picture above on the morning of the Equinox on the 21st March! Believe me - it really tasted just as good as it looks! Here's the list from my large east tunnel in no particular order - but just as I happen to walk past it!  Calabrese, curly parsley, Ruby and silver Swiss chards, giant scallion 'Shimonita', pea shoots, 4 different kinds of radishes, coriander, Giant Italian flat-leaf parsley, 3 kinds of spinach, salad/spring onions, rhubarb, 'Sugar Loaf' chicory, red-veined sorrel, celery leaves, rocket, lamb's lettuce, claytonia, thyme, oregano, salad burnet, curly endive, 5 different kinds of lettuce, watercress, Mizuna, pak choi leaves and flower buds (delicious and something few people think of because normally they cut the whole thing whereas if you pick individual leaves carefully they'll crop all winter), other assorted mixed oriental salad mixes, red stemmed leaf radish, frilly purple kale, Orychophragma Violaceus (Joy Larkcom's Chinese Feb. orchid) for salad leaves and beautiful flowers, Ragged Jack kale for baby salad leaves, then larger leaves and now also flowering shoots (like broccoli but better) beet leaves - 'Bull's Blood and McGregor's favourite - baby beetroot, and delicious giant garlic chives - a treasured gift again from Joy Larkcom when she came to stay here a few years ago. 
 
 
Radish 'Rudi' crunchy, delicious & easy to growIn the West (fruit) tunnel there's also the Sutton's loose leaf lettuce mix planted in recycled containers, along with pea shoots and spinach. The lettuce seeds are fantastic value at just 60 cents for 1300 seeds - and are a good mix of colours and leaf shapes. Lettuce all summer long for half of nothing!  In another couple of weeks there will be the first new potatoes - although I still have a handful of 'Mayan Gold' left in a pot from the Christmas grown ones which I saved up and may eat this week!. So there's plenty to choose from. Actually I must tell you that radish 'Rudi' from unbelievably cheap Lidl seed was a real find a few years ago! Not usually a fan of radishes, I decided to train my palate on the basis that if something tastes foul - then it must be good for you! I did that with rocket a few years ago - and while not a huge fan I'm getting better about eating it, and in fact the flowers are absolutely delicious in salads - tasting of vanilla!  I sowed the first radishes in modules in the propagator in late January and they've been cropping for about 3 weeks now, getting bigger every day. With regular watering radishes don't tend to taste as hot, although it also depends on variety, and 'Rudi' - pictured here, is crunchy, delicious and easy to grow and isn't hot at all - even at almost golf ball size which some now are - I promise you! Chopped into 4 or even 8 in salads it's sweet, tender and crunchily delicious. I've just had some for lunch. I think that variety of texture as well as flavour is so important in vegetables, particularly salads. Then you don't get bored by eating the same old thing every day. Oh! I nearly forgot the other edible flowers of course - pansies, violas, primroses and borage - all delicious and flowering right now!


The above list doesn't include all the stored veg we still have available now - a few red onions which are still crisp and firm, the last of the potatoes left over from those kept for seed - and also fruit and veg in the freezer, French beans, peas, broccoli, broad beans, sweet corn, basil & parsley (in copious amounts!), peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, damsons and blackberries. We also still have a few leeks and parsnips still in the ground outside in the vegetable garden. Spoiled for choice really - all easily home-grown organically without toxic chemicals. They would cost a fortune in the shops if you could buy them but you wouldn't find even a fraction of these in any shop! I would go without veg if I couldn't grow them or buy them organically, so I make sure we always have plenty all year round. (Many people aren't aware that we share up to 40% of our genes with many insects, worms and even slugs - so anything that kills or affects them also eventually has an effect on us, especially since science is now proving that they have a cumulative 'cocktail' effect!). Most of the time we almost have too much choice - but the hens are always most grateful for any that we can't eat -  they then produce those delicious eggs!
 
 

If you haven't yet planted any potatoes outside because of wet soil don't panic! 

 

You can still cheat the weather, gain a few weeks and catch up by planting into pots now inside in the tunnel, which will bring them on quickly, then hardening off gradually and planting outside later, as I described last month - protecting them from frost with fleece. These will still be much earlier than any planted on the traditional St. Patrick's day outside into cold wet ground - especially with such cold soil temperatures after the recent snow and freezing weather. If you don't get round to planting them then - they will actually be quite happy in a 2 litre pot for their whole lifetime until you eat them, or you can pot them on into larger ones. They obviously won't produce as big a crop in pots and the tubers may be smaller - but I grow all the ones I keep for seed in 2 litre pots. That way they stay together, and don't get mixed up or stolen by hungry rodents in the autumn. When blight eventually strikes - I just take off the tops immediately, turn them on their sides so the blight spores don't wash down onto the tubers and let them dry out. They'll keep well all winter like that somewhere frost (& rodent!) free. Then I have them ready so that I can plant them early the following spring.

 

I always keep some of my rarer varieties in pots for the whole growing season, just turning them on their sides and drying them off if and when hey show any signs of blight. That way, not only do I ensure that I don't lose them - but it also means that I have perfect tubers for planting my extra early potatoes in January or later the following year. The Fleure Bleue that I planted in 10 litre pots on the 3rd Jan are looking amazing and should be ready for an Easter treat, and their siblings planted on 3rd Feb in 2 litre pots are looking great too. Those ??????????????????????? PIC

 

April is one of the most difficult months for managing the polytunnel environment.

 
Gerry Kelly - my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' radio series on LMFM Radio's  'Late Lunch Show' - helping to pollinate the peach trees 2 years ago.Gerry Kelly - my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' radio series on LMFM Radio's  'Late Lunch Show' - helping to pollinate the peach trees a few years ago.
 
It really feels like spring now on sunny days in the tunnels - in fact it almost feels like summer on some days at noon! The scent of all the flowers blooming in there when I open the doors is amazing. Even on frosty days it's lovely to work or sit in there. Brilliantly sunny days are lovely but temperatures can shoot up alarmingly high very quickly though. Then the sudden violent showers and gales gusting around in every direction can make ventilation a nightmare. I shouldn't complain though, I know how lucky I am to have my tunnels at home here - where I can dash out to open or shut doors in between bursts of writing.  I ran up just now to open the doors again and spotted two new species of hoverfly on the early potato leaves. Yesterday there were masses of them on the flowers of the peach trees - along with a couple of bumblebees too - so I won't need to do much if any pollinating.  All the oriental veg flowers look like a natural firework display and also smell divine! I always leave the oriental salad mixes to run up to flower now as the early hoverflies, bees and other insects really go mad for them. When was in the tunnel three weeks ago before my accident, there were a couple of bumblebees in there, as there are most days, and many of the flowers on the dwarf peaches, nectarines and apricots in pots, and also the peach tress planted in the ground, have been pollinated already. Bees love to come into the tunnels where they're sheltered from strong winds. Happily they seemed to have already done a pretty thorough job - lots of the flowers have turned dark pink already - so we're looking forward to lots of lovely juicy peaches again. Pollinating peach trees is a job all visitors love doing - and of course eating the odd fruit later on!  In truth though - the ever-wonderful bees do most of it!
 
  
Dealing with spring pest problems in polytunnels
  
I've already covered propagation over the last two months so there's no need to repeat that here. The first thing to say about pests is that if you see them in any numbers - it usually means that plants aren't healthy and happy and are stressed in some way, which weakens them and make them more attractive to pests. It can also mean that you don't have a healthy balanced ecology in the environment wherever the plant is growing - whether it's inside or outside. This can often be because they're in a hot dry conservatory or greenhouse, perhaps with no flowers - or that the soil isn't healthy. I always make sure that I have as much variety of flowers and plants as possible, growing in a healthy, living, microbe rich soil with plenty of fresh air. If plants have those conditions, they rarely suffer from pests and diseases. Plants are like us - if they're being fed too much or too little and are shut up in an unnatural environment without fresh air - they are far more likely to be unhealthy! Wherever you're growing plants, if you have lots of single flowers to attract insect predators like hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings and wasps, and if you also have open vents, windows and doors where they can get in - then they will generally deal with any pests. The insects in their turn will also attract small birds like wrens, sparrows, blue tits and robins - which are only too delighted to help with pest control - particularly at this time of year when they're feeding babies. Aphids are ideal small baby bird food! Polytunnels are basically an unnatural environment, so doing all you can to create as natural and varied an environment as possible, with a balance of pest and predator, is the key to happy pest-free plants.
 
 
There's so many birds here in this garden now and so much competition for food that I almost never see a pest - but unfortunately that also means they eat caterpillars of in some cases increasingly rare butterflies - so I have to protect those by covering the clumps of nettles I grow in the tunnels with netting! Yes! I do grow nettles in my tunnels in out of the way spots - they're ideal habitat for butterfly caterpillars and early ladybird larvae. Most of the year I have the tunnel doors open, as long as it's not too windy, so small birds are grateful to hunt in there for insects - particularly in winter. I have large pea and bean netting up at the doors to keep hungry pigeons and pheasants out! The larger netting also allows bees in to do their vital job of pollination. 
 
 
Although last summer was a good one for some butterflies - one of the most worrying effects of the last few year's wet summers, and the increasing use of pesticides, is the lack of bees and other vitally important pollinating insects in our gardens. This is something many people may not even give a thought to - until there aren't any and they have no fruit for instance! If the climate continues to be as erratic and wildly unpredictable in the future - then I believe that this is the single most important factor that we will have to learn to deal with if we want to continue to grow food - whether we are organic or not. You may be able to kill pests with poisonous chemicals - but if you do so you will also kill vital pollinating insects. You can't then manufacture bees and hoverflies out of thin air!  (Although I read this week that Monsanto are now trying to produce GM bees - another money-making idea! Their stupidity and irresponsibility knows no bounds!) Although it's hard work, you may be able to pollinate some fruit trees by hand on a small scale - but not huge fields of oil seed rape. I think some farmers tend to forget that fact when they're thoughtlessly sloshing around the pesticides!  All insect populations have plummeted over the last few years, due to the recent disastrously wet summers when they needed good weather and plenty of food for breeding, erratic winters seesawing wildly back and forth from unusually mild spells to severe cold - and of course increasing use of pesticides. Consequently bird populations have also dropped. Coming on top of all the pesticides used by farmers, decreasing habitats, hedges, wildflowers and sheltered breeding places - the changing climate could prove to be the last straw for some pollinators - and bees in particular. Without them there won't be much to eat! Many people aren't aware that we share up to 40% of our genes with many insects, worms and even slugs - so anything that kills or affects them also eventually has an effect on us, especially since science is now proving that they have a cumulative 'cocktail' effect! 
 
 

Polytunnels are an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.

 
 
My B&B border as I call it - made specifically for bees, butterflies, bats and birds, is a large question mark shaped border I put in a few years ago that wraps around the north end of both of my tunnels! I planted it specifically for wildlife, and I think that the insects, birds and bats that it encourages must deal with a lot of pests - both outside and inside the tunnels. The bank's also an ideal nesting site for solitary bees too, as it's south facing and well drained, being made mostly of gravel and bark chip mixed with sub-soil, so as it's just at the top end of the polytunnels - I'm never short of pollinators. On any mild day in winter there's always a few bumble bees in the tunnels foraging for pollen and nectar for their broods. You could build a bee and insect hotel or make a well-drained soil mound topped by an evergreen shrub even in the smallest garden, and this will provide shelter for hibernation and nesting sites for insects. In front of the border is a 'lawn' made mostly of perennial white cover, which is alive with bees when it's in flower and has the most fabulous scent. It's a lovely place to sit in the evenings in summer when it's planted with scented Nicotiana and Verbena Bonariensis, especially when bats are flying just overhead to catch the moths and insects that the flowers attract. My little Eden!
 
 
The first insect pests you may see in any numbers in a tunnel or greenhouse at this time of year may well be aphids (this is even more likely if your neighbours aren't organic!). You can easily deal with these by just brushing off with a soft paintbrush if the numbers aren't too high, or by washing off with a hose or under the tap for pot plants. If the winter's been a hard one and the predator population hasn't recovered enough in time to deal with them - then you may end up having to buy in biological controls like ladybirds. These aren't cheap, but the good news is that you will probably only have to do this once, because if you do as I suggest and grow lots of flowers in your tunnel - some beneficial insects will breed and stay in there permanently then. I don't like to use even organic insecticidal soap sprays as these affect all insects. You couldn't use them on anything you are going to eat anyway and even on things like lemons they can actually damage the young shoots in spring. As I said in an earlier article this year though - soap sprays are the only way to deal with scale insect on citrus trees. 
 
 
There seem to be a lot of people putting up new polytunnels at the moment and I've had quite a few questions about them. All advice naturally also applies to cold frames or outside too - but new polytunnels in particular can be a problem for a little while - before they 'settle down' and develop a balanced ecology of pest and predator, because any pests multiply far more rapidly in the warmer, more protected environment. So here's a bit more about pests that I wrote in the blog a couple of years ago. Some of it I may have already covered, but hopefully it may deal with anything else you might be looking for that I haven't already mentioned. Can you believe that someone recently complained that I actually write too much?? Ungrateful since this is free! You can't please everyone can you?  
 
  
Using chemical pesticides would prevent any chance of the ecological balance of the tunnel recovering for years. We need to do everything we can in our gardens to encourage and help all insects - whether you consider them good or bad - because they are all vital links in the natural food chain - and everything is connected. Birds, frogs, hedgehogs, bats etc. all the gardener's friends - all depend on insects  For the organic polytunnel or greenhouse gardener this is even more important - pests can multiply at an alarming rate in the warm, sheltered conditions of a tunnel.  Just in case there are a few predatory beneficial insects around in a week or so - it's a good idea to let some overwintered salads like mizuna and rocket run up to flower now and also to sow a few annual flowers like calendula, Virginian stock etc for later on. You could also perhaps plant a few perennials like Bowles mauve wallflower, nepeta or scabious. They've been a huge success with hoverflies, butterflies and bees over the years in my tunnels - and they're flowering really well now.
 
 
Peacock butterfly on endive in tunnel early last year. Many butterflies, moths, bees etc. are becoming increasingly rare due to pesticides.
Scientists are warning there's even more compelling evidence now linking the collapse of bee colonies to the widespread use of systemic pesticides. These nerve poisons affect foraging bee's navigation system - making them unable to find their way home, feed their colonies properly or to produce queens to breed new healthy colonies. Any surviving bees gradually become underweight, weakened, more vulnerable to virus diseases and die. Beekeepers say we're running out of time to halt the bee's decline and we're all being used as guinea pigs. Amen to that!  It's no coincidence that global chemical giant Syngenta are also currently investing huge sums of money into farming bumblebees - they see it as the next multi-billion dollar business opportunity. Neat eh? Killing off all the competition would leave the field clear for their farmed bees - quite literally! Of course I doubt if it's occurred to many farmers yet that if they kill off pollinating insects by using pesticides - that  they won't have any bees left to pollinate crops like oil seed rape etc. - so then they'll have to buy bees instead! Many butterflies, moths, bees and other insects are becoming increasingly rare due to pesticide use.
 
  
It certainly doesn't seem to have occurred to a neighbour of mine - who keeps complaining that he's got no bees, no worms and no drainage! He also blames my trees and hedges for harbouring birds that eat his crops and thinks organic people are all completely barmy - a myth deliberately propagated by pro-chemical and GM interests!  Now more vigorously than ever! Of course they're now getting worried that more people might actually start thinking for themselves instead of blindly accepting the deliberately packaged, misleading and often downright untrue information put out by the pro GM lobbyists!  Like many others - I've been convinced for years that the various combinations and 'cocktails' of nerve poisons and other pesticides being used in industrial agriculture may build up in our own systems, causing the cancers and other diseases which seem to be ever more prevalent - but who is going to prove that - when the chemical companies in most cases are the ones who are producing their own safety data - and constantly lobbying government scientific committees to pass their products as safe for sale? That's if their products have been tested at all - and many chemicals used in everyday household products have never been tested. Profits and shareholders are the only things that concern the chemical companies - not our future - whatever they may say. Would you let them pour their pesticides straight onto your doorstep? That is in essence what they're doing - our planet is our home address - and also our children's future!! What was it the visionary Chief Seattle said ? "Whatever befalls the earth - befalls the sons of the earth. - If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves".  
 
 
The WHO and The United Nations are now seriously worried enough about some pesticides in every day use and also possible 'chemical cocktails' that two years ago that they called for re-testing of many products - it's taken them long enough! But it keeps being delayed. Will it happen? - Who will do it? - Will the data be transparent?  And how long will it take? As a result of this re-evaluation - Monsanto/Bayer have really stepped up their lobbying campaign in favour of Glyphosate/Roundup. Reading their website you would think it was totally innocuous and completely harmless!  Forgive me if I'm just a little sceptical - I've read the research and even know personally of cases where people were made severely ill by being careless! Everyday now there is mounting evidence that it probably the most noxious chemicals ever invented - some scientists now even consider it to be worse than DDT!

 
In the meantime - the safest thing you can do if you're concerned, is to grow your own food organically or buy organic if you can't grow it. OK - I do personally know how hard it can be to remember the bigger picture when we're all so understandably concerned about how to make ends meet - but some things are more important than money, and health is one of them. Money can't buy health - and growing our own healthy chemical-free food - fresh and burstingly full of vital nutrients - is such a positive thing we can all do for our families which also makes a huge contribution to the household budget in these more cost conscious times. I enjoy giving advice to people about how to grow clean and healthy organic food - and it's something I can personally do to help more people to be just that bit more independent of big business and the supermarkets! But who knows what's next? Maybe governments will start taxing the veg. we grow in our gardens - on the grounds that it deprives the supermarkets and chemical companies of profits and therefore deprives the taxman too!! Who knows? The one thing that we can be sure of though is that by growing as much food as we can ourselves - we can be more self-sufficient and much less dependent on imported produce. Many experts are now warning that when or if Brexit happens - a lot of imported produce will become more expensive due to import costs and tariffs - but I for one won't be worrying about that! 
 
  
Close up of salads - lettuces Lattughino, Fristina, Cherokee,  claytonia, mizuna, lamb's lettuce, landcress, Bull's Blood beet leaves, spinach, parsley coriander etc
 
Talking of which - here's some pics of the wonderfully luscious salads we've been enjoying since last autumn all winter long, from the tunnel.The salads are lettuces Lattughino, Fristina, Cherokee, claytonia, mizuna, lamb's lettuce, landcress, Bull's Blood beet leaves, spinach, vegetable mallow, parsley coriander etc. You could be enjoying crops like this too - even if you only have a large cold frame or two. It takes very little effort really - but saves an absolute fortune! 
 
 
 
 
 
 
If you're getting short of warm space in the tunnel this month and any really early tomatoes are looking like they need potting on again - as mine are now - then just give them a half strength general liquid feed of something like the certified organic 'Universal Plant Food' from Osmo - available now in most garden centres. It's still far too early to plant out in the tunnel at the moment - the night temperature needs to be a constant minimum average of about 50deF/10degC - so mine will be staying on the gently heated mat for a bit longer, ensuring they have good air circulation around them to prevent disease and not allowing them to get starved. That way they can wait another week or so in their small pots while the weather's still cold at night. If delayed I'll pot them on again into larger pots - my recycled milk cartons which are easy to label individually with an indelible marker pen so they don't get mixed up! Then I'll leave them on the heated mat for another week or so - I won't risk them in any unheated space until the weather improves a lot. I always like to have really early tomatoes - so I don't want them to get a check. Planting out too early often means they'll get a severe check and be delayed.
 
(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. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

What to sow in April 2020

Growing heritage seeds & supporting independent organic seed companies ensures diversity in seed supply & future food security

Growing Heritage seeds & supporting small independent organic seed companies ensures diversity in seed supply & future food security

 
"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing whatsoever you can do about it."  (A great piece of gardening advice I was given many years ago) 
 
 
Also remember - this is just a checklist to remind you of what you could possibly sow now if you want to. Not what you have to! So please don't complain that it all looks far too much to do - as one person did! I still find this list a helpful reminder, even though I've been growing my own food for over 40 years!
 
 
Another good piece of old advice is that if you can see weed seeds germinating - then it means the soil is warm enough to sow some of the hardier things, and it will definitely be warm enough for planting hardy veg plants. I find sowing in modules or pots of peat-free organic seed compost best for almost everything now though. It gains me at least 2-3 weeks of extra growing time at either end of the year. It also means I can plant out much bigger plants that are far more slug-resistant and will withstand the odd night-time nibble without total destruction! 
 
 

Here's what you can sow now outside if conditions are suitable - or inside now for planting outside later:

In modules under cover without heat, or in a cold frame - (covering with fleece on frosty nights) - or under cloches, or if the soil's warm enough in the garden: 
 
 
Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, Claytonia, mangetout, maincrop peas, sugar snap, mangetout and early peas, parsnips, summer and autumn cabbages, savoy cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccoli, Hamburg parsley, onions (sow seed early in April (don't plant sets in the ground - as you could bring in disease. Plant in containers instead for an earlier crop if you need it), leeks, spring onions (scallions), lettuces (keep both lettuces & spinach cool for first 24 hours after sowing - as too high a temperature can cause poor germination or trigger dormancy), kohl rabi, Ragged Jack, Cavolo Nero and other kales for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, seakale, white turnips, landcress, watercress, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, 'soft' herbs like borage, basil, parsley, dill, fennel, Greek oregano and coriander. Remember - parsley likes to be warm and can take about 3 weeks to germinate anytime - always just when you think it's not going to! Basil also needs warmth.
 
 
As the light is increasing now - this month many hardy crops can still be hurried up a bit by sowing in the warm which will enable you to catch up if you're a bit behind because of the weather - but remember to reduce the temperature after germination and harden them off gradually so that they don't get a shock or a check, which could possibly initiate bolting or running up to flower (this particularly applies to cauliflowers and calabrese/broccoli). Rhubarb can also be sown from seed now - Unwins early red and Glaskin's perpetual (low oxalic acid variety) are both good varieties from seed. Asparagus peas, cardoons and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside from mid-April in warmer areas.
 
 
It's also worth sowing some single, early flowering annuals in the open ground or in modules - such as limnanthes (poached egg plant), calendula, cerinthe, convulvulus tricolor, phacelia or even red clover and buckwheat normally used as green manures (bees love them) etc. All of these will attract and provide food for vital beneficial insects including bees and hoverflies, which help with pest control, and also butterflies, moths and other insects into the garden and polytunnel for pollination. The will also provide nectar for any overwintered butterflies. Any insects will then in turn also attract and feed wildlife like birds, frogs and bats.
 
 

What you can sow now for growing on in the polytunnel or greenhouse:

 
In a heated propagator, for cropping later in the tunnel (or some for planting outside later) Alpine strawberries (Reugen - best var.), globe artichokes, asparagus, celery, celeriac (early in month or won't grow to decent size), Florence fennel, dwarf and climbing French beans for cropping in polytunnel beds ('Cobra F1' is a very heavy-cropping, thoroughly reliable climbing variety - it's a round-podded, stringless, improved form of the old 'Blue Lake' - available in the B&Q range at half the price of all other seed companies! Purple Cascade is another delicious var.), tomatoes, chillies and other peppers (soon as poss for a decent crop), physalis (Cape gooseberries), early courgettes, melons, cucumbers and early sweetcorn for tunnel cropping. Don't forget melons and cucumbers need to be grown on in consistently warmer conditions than tomatoes to be successful. Don't sow courgettes, marrows, pumpkins, squashes or other very fast developing vegetables such as sweet corn, French or runner beans which are destined for planting outside until at least mid to late April, so that they can then grow on without any checks, as they are fast growers. Also in gentle warmth you can now sow basil (water very carefully after germination, always from bottom by sitting in tray rather than drenching from top! Over watering, particularly in cold conditions, will kill basil faster than anything - I get more questions about growing basil than almost anything else!). 
 
 
Also sow some single-flowered more tender annuals such as Cosmos, Tagetes, French marigolds (T&M 'Tall Citrus Mixed' is good), also nasturtiums etc.- these attract many bees and beneficial insects which will help with pest control and pollination both in the tunnel and outside. It's vitally important that flowers are single-flowered, as bees, hoverflies and other insects can't access the nectaries of double flowersThis means they are completely useless to them, in which case they won't hang around for long. It also means they can waste precious energy trying to get at the nectar in the flowers!
 
 
In modules in the tunnel without heat, or direct in soil now, you can sow - Beetroot, broad beans and peas for planting outside, summer cabbages, calabrese, cauliflowers, carrots, white turnips and radishes (in the soil for an early tunnel crop), onions, chives, Welsh onions, scallions, leeks. Quick growing salad mixes (early in the month) to give some young leaves fast, leaf radishes, also summer spinach, kales, rocket, spinach and coloured Swiss chards etc. for baby leaves. Fennel and other 'soft herbs' like borage, chives, parsley, dill, Greek oregano, salad burnet and coriander. Single-flowered, insect-attracting hardy annuals like limnanthes, convulvulus tricolour and calendula can also be sown direct into the soil in beds now.
 
  

If you still haven't yet planted any potatoes outside don't panic! 

 
 
You can speed them up a bit and catch up by planting into pots now inside, which will bring them on quickly. You can then harden them off gradually and plant outside into their cropping positions later - protecting any exposed young shoots with fleece if necessary. These will still be far earlier than any planted on the traditional day here in Ireland - which is St. Patrick's day - outside into cold, wet ground, where they'll sit sulking and vulnerable to pests or rotting - particularly after a long spell of cold, wet weather! (This year due to my dodgy ankle - I still haven't planted half of mine yet either - although I have just planted some out into a polytunnel bed which I planted in pots in February).
 
I grow all my potatoes this way now, as it ensure that I always have a fairly good crop underneath them by the time potato blight hits - which can be very early in some seasons here, any time from early June onwards depending on weather. (Doing this means I never have to spray with any organic sprays like copper sulphate which can build up on clay soils, and I wouldn't use.).
 
 
And the same goes for garlic!
 
 
You've also just got time plant some spring planting varieties of garlic early in the month - check the pack to make sure they are varieties suitable for spring planting! Garlic needs cold weather to develop it's roots, or it may produce a large bulb rather than cloves. I find that planting in modules or pots and keeping in a cold spot, such as in the shade against a north wall, until they're well-rooted, is a good way to start late plantings off - then I plant them out as normal. Cristo is the best variety which I've found for spring planting and it has a good strong flavour.
 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in March - 2020

March Contents:  There's never any such thing as having too much fruit!... Advice for new peach tree owners!......Pollinating peach trees is vital if you want fruit......Last chance now for pruning most things.....Autumn Raspberry pruning..... There's still time to plant soft fruits.....Birds help to keep pests down.....Growing grapes and figs in polytunnels.....Cape Gooseberries.....Citrus tree care...
 
 First tree in the new plum orchard planted - Belle de Louvain, with my son mowing in the background
First tree in the new plum orchard planted - Belle de Louvain, with my son mowing in the background
 
There's Never any such thing as Having Too Much Fruit!
 
Yesterday was an historic day here - the start of our new plum orchard! I've often mentioned that the reason why I started planting a new apple orchard on the east side of our property was because of the hormone-weedkiller spray drift from our farmer neighbour, which every year affected the flowers on the trees in the orchard on on the west side of our property.  Hormone weedkillers affect a plant's reproductive system and make them abort their flowers, so they don't make seed and can't reproduce.  His land is south west of us and we are on rising ground slightly above the level of his fields, so we are in the direct path of the prevailing wind and perfectly placed to be the victim of any sprays coming from that direction! This is why I've had no plums here for years, because my neighbour's weedkiller spraying is usually at exactly the same time that my plum trees are flowering - and makes all their flowers drop off. Hence no fruits!
 
 
Plums are one of my favourite fruits, having grown up on a small farm on the edge of the Vale of Evesham in the UK where we had 6 acres of mixed orchards with many varieties of apples, pears and plums, and I really miss them. The Victoria plums the size of duck's eggs, and the richly-flavoured Damsons were pure heaven - and I still dream about the greengage walk that bordered one side of our old kitchen garden.  The scent of them was almost honey-like - pure heaven when they were ripe and starting to crack on the shoulder of the greengage, just around where the stalk joined the fruit.  
 
 
At the time when the wonderful flower-rich ancient pasture land behind us was sold and then ploughed up to grow arable crops, the trees in the old mixed orchard had been planted about 15 years, were well-established and had come into their full potential, starting to produce enormous crops. Every year since then we've had almost no plums a very few apples, and my pleas to my neighbour to be careful not to spray when the wind is in my direction have fallen on completely deaf ears!  So a few years ago I'd just had enough.  I decided to plant some new plum trees on the opposite side of our property and began collecting the specific varieties together which I wanted - not an easy thing to do here in Ireland, unless you ordered them from the UK where I got the trees for my original orchard from.  The last few very wet winters here though have proven that the site I had originally earmarked for them is not well-drained enough for plums - which dislike soil that may occasionally be wet.  So I finally decided to give up my idea of having a few more ornamental trees and decided that as the most well-drained spot on our land is the top paddock above the hen runs - that's where my plums will be planted.
 
 
My last fruits of plum 'Belle de Louvain' from the freezer  being thawed in 2012! (1)
My last fruits of plum 'Belle de Louvain' from the freezer being thawed in 2012!
Luckily just before the Brexit vote finally put a stop to importing any fruit trees from the UK last November - I at last managed to source two trees of the one plum which I have been longing for and missed the fruit of more than any other - the wonderful 'Belle de Louvain'. This is a fabulously rich-tasting dark blue-purple cooking plum, full of healthy polyphenols, with an almost  'almondy' flavour, which also makes a fantastic liqueur, and is the variety which they make prunes from in Belgium.  When it is really ripe, it is also a truly mouthwatering dessert plum - so is a dual purpose variety, and being self-fertile, it is the one I would plant if I only had space for one tree. 
 
 
Altogether I have about a dozen different plum varieties now waiting to be planted, and a few more damsons of various varieties to plant in the hedges around that paddock along with some more nut trees, to provide food for bees and other pollinators, for wildlife and also some fruit for us when there is plenty.  Next year I plan to keep some geese and ducks in that paddock, to graze the grass under the trees so that we don't have to mow as much. They are ideal for this, as hens ranging on newly planted orchards is not a good idea - from experience I find they tend to scratch too much around the bases of newly -planted trees and scratch up the newly formed roots. After a year or so the hens will be allowed in from time to time too.  I'm actually quite tempted to get a couple of goats as well - as we kept Anglo-Nubian goats at home until I was about 6 years old and I adored them.  It is something I've thought about for a few years now, but wasn't sure if my back would stand up to bending to do all the milking now!  However the recession which will undoubtedly follow this Covid-19 crisis may change the family's attitude to sharing the milking! This is the kind of self-sufficient, mixed farming which I grew up with - and which some now call 'Agro-ecology'.  The great thing about this kind of farming is that even on a small scale it gives you a measure of food security, as you are never without at least something to eat. If one crop variety is light or fails due to bad weather at pollination time - then another that flowers at a different time will usually take it's place and fill the gap.  Having been through a couple of serious recessions in my lifetime - I know that security of healthy food is absolutely vital to health, so it is what I have always tried to achieve here on our five acres. My only regret is that we can't keep bees here to produce our own honey, because bees need more than five acres to forage and will travel as widely as 12 miles to find sources of food. Sadly all of the land around us for miles is intensively farmed, heavily sprayed arable crops like oilseed rape and wheat - and Glyphosate is not what I want in my honey!
 
 
Yesterday was another milestone - a step along the way to that important food security, probably the last major step, so it was an historic day here - as the first tree was planted in the new plum orchard.  It was planted with the help of my son - since I am still on the walking frame now that my scheduled reconstructive ankle surgery, necessitated by my fractured ankle last year, has been postponed due to the Corona Virus.  All elective surgery has been cancelled for now, until we don't know when - not easy if you are trying to produce all your own food - but as I say often - at least we're here to complain, as sadly so many now aren't.  One benefit of the pandemic is that my archaeologist son is currently working from home now though, so that means that instead of spending a couple of hours a day driving in and out of Dublin to work on site - he has time to catch up on reports and other paperwork, and also more time to help here.  
 
 
The thick thatch of perfect ground-nesting Bumblebee nesting habitat with grasses and other plants in the paddock where we are planting is like a bouncy mattress now - and are absolute hell to walk across while trying to maneuver the walking frame I can tell you!  However - it was well worth it, as it will be the last major planting here during my lifetime - so I naturally got a bit tired and emotional, thinking that this was going to hopefully provide the family with some food security, and possibly also an additional source of income, no matter what happens well into in the future, improving in productivity every year.  It made me think about the time when I planted my first orchard here over 36 years ago, and all that has happened in our lives since.  When my son saw me welling-up a bit he teasingly said - "Mum, if  you're going to start blubbing every time we plant a tree - then I'm not planting any more!" - That made me laugh and defused what was truly a very emotional moment for me, as I was naturally thinking about the future, and hoping that what I have done over the years will prove to be a worthwhile legacy both for them and for the biodiversity which we try our hardest to encourage and support here.
 
 
 Spring is Bursting out all Over! 
 
 
 
  •  
Buds of early crop on potted blackberry 'Reuben' Buds of pear Beurre d'Alexandre Lucas Fat buds on red-leaved peach  bursting with promise
Figlets - baby figs developing on Nero d'Italia Furry vine leaves  cradling a bunch of delicious seedless black grapes! Masses of flower buds on the potted dwarf Morello cherry
 
 
The Promising fat buds formed last year pictured above - but most are still about 2-3 weeks behind outside 
 
 
Fruit in the polytunnel isn't too far behind. Even after the freezing weather recently - it's surprising just how fast they'll catch up! The frosty but bright and sunny days have warmed the tunnels and it's been feeling very spring-like in there. The fruit in there is almost on cue - but outside in the orchard, things are looking about 2-3 weeks behind - because the temperature of the saturated ground is currently well below normal here for the time of year. That's just as well - as this weekend is forecast to get a lot colder again, and frost can do a lot of damage to plum and pear buds in particular - because they tend to flower earlier than the apples. 
 
 

One of the things I love most about this time of year is the fruit buds - so burstingly full with the promise of all the deliciousness to come later in the year! Nature's wonderful example of hope and energy. At this time of year you can almost see buds everywhere are growing visibly every day - and I would dearly love to have a time-lapse camera! It makes good sense to grow as much organic fruit as we possibly can ourselves and not be too dependent on buying imported produce, whether it's just a few berries, or if it's tree fruits like pears or peaches. Imported organic fruit like peaches and apricots in particular are always scarce and expensive in the shops or markets. Locally grown peaches - especially organic, are simply non-existent here in Ireland!  One or occasionally perhaps two varieties of apples are available but you never see the very best tasting varieties - only those that have been bred to travel well without bruising and produce huge, cosmetically perfect crops for supermarkets! Your own fruit from your back garden or allotment is tastier, fresher, far more full of nutrients and has a much lower carbon footprint than any you could ever buy!  If you're also an organic gardener like me - then it additionally has no nasty toxic chemicals, either in it or sprayed onto it after harvesting in order to preserve it! 

 

Spring is always early in the fruit tunnel

  

At this time of year, when much of the garden outside is still barely waking up - most of the fruit action is happening in the polytunnel. There - everything is already awake and getting ready for another summer's production. What a lovely thought - so much delicious fruit to look forward to!  The pears and plums are always the first to burst open outside - and the pear trees in the 'new' orchard are already swelling huge clusters of fat buds! Pears are one of my favourite fruits - so just looking at those buds makes my mouth water! I must say I've been very impressed with the quality and great value of most of the fruit trees from both Lidl and Aldi. The only problem is that the apple trees rarely indicate what rootstock they are grafted on - which is a vitally important omission because it's not just important to plant the right one for your soil but also it's an indicator of the eventual size that the tree will grow.  Also occasionally other trees like peaches will just say 'Peach' which isn't exactly helpful if you want to plant a couple of different varieties so that you have a long season of fruiting!  This week I'll be getting on with planting more trees in the new apple and plum orchards as things are getting very urgent with all the recently arrived bare-root trees showing signs of swelling their buds! Panic time!! If it rains as it's forecast to do - then I'll just have to pot up the remainder - but I would prefer to plant direct into the ground as I find they always establish far better. 

 

Some Advice for New Peach Tree Owners!

 

For anyone who has bought a peach tree recently - here's a few tips on how to grow them! 

 

 March peach blossom on a young tree in the polytunnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March peach blossom on a young tree in the polytunnel

You won't believe how easy it is to grow peaches in Ireland! And if you grow them undercover in a polytunnel, where they are protected from rain - then they won't get the dreaded 'peach leaf curl' disease. They're not fussy about soil - but like good drainage. Just fork over soil, add a little compost, and a small handful of seaweed meal to provide potash and encourage biological activity, and another small handful of bone meal to provide phosphate for root development, working them into the soil. It's also useful to sprinkle some Root Grow directly onto the roots when they're in the hole, before covering them. This preparation is widely available in garden centres now and it's a mixture of mycorrhizal fungi which develop a network of very fine fungal threads that work symbiotically with the plant's roots - enabling them to be far more effective in taking up nutrients from the soil.

 

Peaches and Nectarines can easily be kept as small as you like by pruning - and this is especially important to do immediately after planting, in order to give the tree time to develop a good root system which will support the tree to fruit well better later in life. Pictured here is a 3 year old 'Fush' - as I call it - a sort of cross between a fan and a bush shape, which keeps the peach tree branches within a fairly restricted space, but allows for much more fruiting than the normally much more restricted 'fan' training would.

 

If you're planting a young tree in spring - you MUST prune every branch back immediately, selecting the best to give your tree a good shape by leaving just 2 or 3 buds on each of the larger growths. Try to imagine the shape your tree will grow. The buds will then grow out vigorously and produce lots of fruit next year. I grow my trees as what I call 'Fushes' - a sort of cross between a fan and a bush. They produce far more fruit than fan -trained trees - but don't take up as much room as a round, 'mop-headed' tree. This also means they don't need laborious 'tying-in' to supports! Don't be tempted not to prune and to leave branches un-pruned the first year - hoping you'll get fruit this year as a friend of mine once did, against my advice! She lost her tree altogether, as although it flowered the first year - it couldn't cope with trying to establish roots and produce fruit at the same time and she killed it!  It's a common mistake many impatient people make sadly! Patience always pays off!

 

Peaches fruit best on the young green growth formed the previous year - not on the brown, older wood. So it's important to prune them every year immediately after fruiting. Pruning like this also means that they're easy to keep within bounds to the size that you want. Even quite old trees will produce new buds out from their trunk - a very useful attribute if they get too big because it means that you can be quite brutal and prune them right down to the trunk!.

 

Pollinating peach trees is vital if you want fruit   

 

Beautiful blossom on the dwarf potted peaches and apricots in the fruit tunnel
Beautiful blossom on the dwarf potted peaches and apricots in the fruit tunnel

This year I've only seen one or two bumblebees around so far - so it looks like I'll have to do a lot more pollinating myself this year if I want a good early crop in July! The early peach growing in the bed at the top of the east tunnel is just starting to flower, and the dwarf peaches in pots in the west tunnel are already in full bloom as they're always earlier. These will have to be protected on the coldest nights - but the dwarf ones are easy to cover with fleece, being only shoulder height. The early peach in the ground is a bit more difficult. The blossom still needs protection on the coldest nights if a very severe frost is forecast, so I use a big sheet of fleece to cover as much as I can of the tree, using a 5 ft long blunt ended bamboo cane to help reach the topmost part of the tree. I use the same cane for 'fleecing' most things this year - it makes a useful extra arm now - since my accident 3 years ago when I smashed my right arm and shoulder, I can't extend my right arm above shoulder height to reach things which is a bit of a nuisance to put it mildly!  But one gets used to it and there's ways around most things with a little initiative. One just has to think laterally, be inventive and learn to do things differently! Determination is really all you need - and I refuse to be beaten by anything!

 

For the last few days, whenever it's sunny and the wind has dropped enough to have the tunnel doors open, there's been a few bumblebees busily helping with the pollination so insects are starting to wake up. That's just one of the reasons I grow so many flowers in there - the insects are attracted to the nectar in them and then I get the benefit of them pollinating the peaches as well!  I re-homed a couple of ladybirds the other day that I'd found crawling up a sunny wall. I put them on the nettles I always leave in the corner of the tunnel, where they should find some early nettle aphids for breakfast and they're safer from the keen-eyed birds. Small birds like Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and Dunnocks always come into the tunnel at every opportunity, as they know there's always insect food in there that they won't find outside just yet. There still aren't that many bees around though, and if you have early peach or apricot trees in the tunnel they'll need pollinating during the middle of the day, while the polytunnel is as warm as possible and the pollen is 'running'. The best time to do this is around midday if you can. The trees will then need protection at night with a light covering of fleece if a very severe frost is forecast, to protect the developing embryo fruit. I know it seems like a lot of fuss and bother - but when you sink your teeth into that very first late June peach - you'll be so glad you did!  I always save the very last of my frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now - just to remind me of how utterly delicious they are, Then all the pollinating doesn't seem quite so much of a chore! Accompanied by a tiny glass of home made peach Schnapps, I just fly along pollinating!

 
  
 
Pale pink unpollinated peach flower
A. It's easy to tell which flowers to pollinate. This pale pink flower has only just opened and is not yet pollinated.
Peach flower with deeper pink staining in centre - clearly indicating pollination has taken place
B. This older flower has deep pink staining in centre - which indicates that pollination has taken place - so no need to brush that flower
Pollinating peach blossom gently with soft paintbrush
C. Pollinating peach blossom gently at midday with a soft paintbrush fixed to a cane so I can reach the top ones!
 
 
 
I'll be pollinating my two fan trained peach trees and the dwarf potted peaches and apricots every day for the next couple of weeks. I don't just rely hopefully on any early bees, because the fruit is far too precious and only available once a year! I work over the trees with a soft paintbrush fixed on the end of a bamboo cane so I can reach right to the top, very gently transferring pollen from one blossom to the next. Midday is generally the driest time in a tunnel when it's been open for a few hours and the humidity lessens, so that's the most effective time because if the pollen is wet it won't work. A day or so after pollination - you'll see some flowers develop a deeper pink staining in the centre of the flower which you can see pictured above. This means they've been pollinated and the fruitlets have set successfully. It's quite easy to see then which ones you've done already - so you don't have to do every single flower again, just the very pale flowers which have only recently fully opened. It's a very fiddly job and being an impatient person it's not one I look forward to - but actually it only takes about 15-20mins to do quite a large fan trained tree - so I just steel myself and think about warm summer peaches. 
 
 
To encourage myself over the last few years, I've got into the habit of leaving the very last of the frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now  - that reminds me of exactly why I'm doing such a fiddly job! They really taste fabulous, especially semi-dehydrated - which concentrates their flavour - and then half frozen to preserve them as although frying them completely would preserve them - it ruins their fabulous taste - which is the absolute essence of summer! Last year I tried to count the fruit on both of my 8ft wide 15ft high fans planted either side of the north door of the large east tunnel - but I gave it up as a bad job at well over 200 fruit on each! The dwarf trees in pots won't produce as many but they'll be a bit earlier, so the peach crop is spread over about 2 months.
 


Last chance now for pruning most things

 
 
Now is absolutely your last chance to finish pruning everything outside except stone fruits like plums and cherries, which are best pruned when they start back into active growth, to avoid silver leaf disease. Pruning can be a very confusing thing, with the result that many people often don't attempt to do it at all - and end up with very little fruit as a consequence. A few years ago I came across a really useful book on pruning, which I can thoroughly recommend. It's in the Alan Titchmarsh 'How to Garden' series from BBC books - entitled 'Pruning and Training'. I have to be honest that years ago, I wasn't that keen on his presenting style compared to the wonderful and very sadly missed late Geoff Hamilton. However, he rose in my estimation considerably when he started gardening organically as Geoff did! Unlike some of the more recent celebrity gardeners - he is also extremely knowledgeable - as he was not self-taught. He trained at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, so he really knows what he's talking about when it comes to pruning not just fruit, but everything else too. I know it's a book I shall refer to often - even though I already have quite a collection of really old fruit pruning and training books. He really IS an expert and the book would be very useful if you're new to gardening in general, or even just to fruit growing in particular. It's really comprehensive - and is also the first book I have ever found that actually explains clearly how to prune a Kiwi fruit! (I learnt by trial and error) It has very concise, clear diagrams - from planting through to maintaining. It's altogether an excellent book for advice on pruning almost everything. 
 
 
Don't forget that when you're reading books written by most 'experts' - that they're often resident in the south of England - where they would normally have a much warmer and drier climate compared to ours here in Ireland! Their advice often doesn't  take into account the fact that there are people who actually live somewhere else! Our climate is normally much wetter here and also a week or two later - so take that into account and adjust for your particular climate when following their advice. So many of these 'experts' either seem to have half of their book written by someone else - or have never actually done what they're telling you to do - a fact which is often obvious if you're someone who has many year's experience of gardening. I've often found that good fruit nursery catalogues can be a far more reliable source of useful information than many books - and they're free!
 
 
After you've pruned your fruit trees and bushes, you need to feed established ones - if you haven't done that already. A few handfuls of seaweed meal (potash to encourage flowering and fruit), and if necessary, a good general feed such as the certified organic Osmo Universal granules which are useful feeds for most things as they are well balanced and encourage the beneficial bacteria vital for proper uptake of nutrients by tree roots. Blackcurrants need a bit more nitrogen as they need energy to make new growth each year - so use some rich compost, chicken or even pigeon manure (both must be well composted to avoid burning roots). I find Osmo granules very useful for everything and they are certified organic. You may have added a long acting fertiliser such as bone meal and seaweed meal to any recently planted fruit at the time of planting, so just give these a good mulch to keep weeds down and keep moisture in. Grass clippings will do for this but remember don't pile them deep too close to the stem, keep a few inches away or they may cause stem rots. This will keep weeds down, keep the roots and cool and encourage good root development and biological activity. 
 
Remember - keep off all soil if it's still very wet. Work from the paths or put down a wide plank or two to walk on in order to spread your weight, to avoid compacting the soil. Compacting soil damages the drainage by squashing air out of the soil. Don't forget that soil life needs air too!

 

Autumn raspberry pruning

 
 
By the way, I'll just repeat again that you do not have to prune down all fruited stems of autumn raspberries now. If you leave some of the stems, maybe 1/3rd - 1/2 of last year's, then they willl fruit again, lower down the stems, in early summer. After that you can cut them right down to their base and the new growth from those will fruit a little bit later. This spreads the crop conveniently and does no harm to the raspberries at all, as long as the clumps are well established and well fed. If you're just buying them then 'Joan J' or 'Brice' are the best two varieties available currently - I grow both of them. The yellow variety Allgold or Fallgold (as it seems to be called more often now is also good). I've grown 'Joan J' in large pots in the fruit tunnel for the last four years now and they have been a great success, producing huge delicious fruits continuously until almost Christmas!
 
 

Still time to plant soft fruits 

 
I did a bit of my favourite sort of retail therapy a few days ago! Not for me handbags and shoes!! Strawberries are the sort of retail therapy that makes me happy!  Ken Muir's Nursery in the UK have a new variety of perpetual strawberry called Finesse! Squeals!! I'm so excited - their wonderful variety Albion has been a great favourite of mine for many years, it's so reliable and delicious that I've given up most other varieties! Being a 'perpetual fruiting' variety - it fruits from early May until November in the tunnel and I think it has the best taste of any strawberry apart from the old variety Gento, which I brought here from the garden I where I grew up. Gento was bred in France in the 1960's and is without doubt the nearest in taste to wild strawberries. It has that meltingly delicious and incomparable flavour. It doesn't travel well though because it bruises easily and starts to deteriorate the minute it's picked, which is probably why it fell out of favour.  It hasn't been available as plants for about 30 years at least, so I really treasure mine - quite apart from the sentimental value. I grew up eating it and so did my children - and I've been propagating from those same original plants for almost 40 years now! Don't believe those who say you shouldn't do that! As long as you only ever propagate from the healthiest and most productive plants and then rotate them around the garden - changing their location every few years to avoid any build up of pests and diseases - then it's perfectly possible!  Gento is actually one of the parents of Mara des Bois - which has inherited much of it's flavour but is smaller and not quite as productive.  Albion is a good alternative - it's very productive, delicious and a great choice if you want a really good strawberry that fruits all summer long. It freezes well too as it's juicy berries are nice and firm. 
 
 
Ken Muir's Nursery are the best fruit nursery I've ever dealt with and their people on the other end of the phone are also by far the nicest.  I've been buying fruit of all kinds from them for about 35 years and they are thoroughly reliable. I can't recommend them highly enough. Many people have asked me where I got Albion and they've always been happy with both their plants and their customer service. (and no - I don't get anything free or even a special price! I just like to give credit where it's due and always try to recommend good retailers to you!)  I'm really looking forward to trying this new strawberry Finesse. In their words it is: 
 
"An outstanding perpetual variety which combines heavy yields with great fruit quality, excellent flavour and good disease resistance. ‘Finesse’ produces bright red, medium to large heart-shaped berries which are both sweet and juicy. Plants are vigorous, producing very few energy-sapping runners, resulting in heavy crops of up to 1.2kg (2.6lb) per plant."
 
So there you have it - straight from the horse's mouth! I can't wait for my new plants to arrive in a few days time - it will be just like Christmas again!!  
 
 
Many of the mail order nurseries in the UK have good offers right now. Prepare the ground well and then water and mulch after planting.  Never mulch dry soil - always water first. A few years ago I was asked to visit a garden to give some advice on pruning raspberries, and discovered that sadly, the person asking had planted autumn and summer ones right next door to each other - with the result that they had all become so mixed up that it was absolutely impossible to tell which was which! 
 
 
Never plant summer and autumn fruiting raspberries close together always keep autumn varieties segregated and under strict 'house arrest'. The summer ones are slightly more genteel, and don't have quite such territorial ambitions! Autumn varieties like Autumn Bliss and Heritage in particular can spread sideways at a very alarming rate once they've settled in, and summer and autumn varieties can easily become muddled up and indistinguishable very quickly if they're planted near each other!  A few year's ago a friend called me to ask if I would show him how to prune his raspberries. When I went to his garden I saw that he'd actually planted them close together and they were a complete muddle, making it impossible to differentiate between the two! Enough said!
 
 
 Birds help to keep fruit pests down - until they become pests themselves!
 
 
Talking of greedy feeders - don't put fruit cage netting back up yet, wait until the fruit is forming. The birds need to be able to get in to the fruit bushes and canes to help clear up any pests like blackcurrant blister aphid or gooseberry sawfly caterpillars (which can completely defoliate a large black or red currant bush literally within hours!) Hang a peanut feeder in there to attract the the birds, and they'll also do a good job 'working over' the bushes while they await their turn!  
 
 
DON'T use nasty detergent-based washing up liquid sprays on them as I saw one gardener on a TV programme doing a few years ago - they unbelievably claimed they were biodynamic gardeners!? Washing-up liquids contain formaldehyde and other nasty chemicals in many cases - but even if they're organic - they're unnecessary and can harm beneficial insects. If you have bantams or chickens, You can use an old fashioned organic method that I remember my father using every winter in the kitchen garden of the home where I grew up. He used to run some of our poultry into the fruit cages throughout most of the winter. Chickens are amazingly efficient pest clearer-uppers and scratching around under bushes for grubs is their natural behaviour since the come from the jungle!  I had a bad case of sawfly many years ago when I first planted some new bushes which were obviously carrying it. The chickens cleared up the pupae that overwinter on the ground very efficiently over the following winter - eating all the grubs before they could crawl up and do any damage to the bushes. I've never had a problem with it since! Poultry also gradually supply a good hit of nitrogen for the following spring and keep weeds down, doing three jobs at once! Don't leave them on ground too long though - always take them out before early spring - or they will 'sour' it with too much nitrogen.

 
Tidy up outdoor strawberry beds by cutting off any old, dead, spotty and yellowing leaves from plants now, scrape off any old straw or bark mulches from beds, letting birds in again, clear any weeds and then feed with seaweed meal, watering it in if dry. Then mulch with good compost if possible, keeping it away from the necks of plants to avoid possibly encouraging rotting. If plants are loose and pull up easily then suspect vine weevil and treat with nematodes.

 
The same applies to strawberry beds under cover, if you haven't dealt with them already. Some of the early varieties are in bud and the alpine strawberries 'Reugen' are already flowering in my tunnel.  Hoverflies love them and a small row somewhere in the tunnel will attract in lots of them, as well as fruiting all summer long, often until November! 'Reugen' (from Chiltern seeds) is easy from seed and is larger than normal alpine varieties, but with that same exquisite, aromatic wild strawberry flavour. Sown now it will fruit later this year - and after that will barely stop cropping in a polytunnel!  Last year we had the first fruit in April!  They tend to hide their fruit among the abundant leaves though - which as a bonus as birds don't find them so easily but that also means that they're hell on the back to pick! One has to bend over for ages to pick a whole row of them - even in a raised bed! 
 
 
Every year I give my 'stepladder garden' a makeover and grow something different. Last year it was the 'Reugen' alpine strawberries and it saved a lot of backache!!
 
 
Early summer fruiting varieties of strawberries, like 'Christine', or even the excellent perpetual fruiting variety Albion, will fruit quite happily in 2 litre pots, as long as you're careful to remember to water and feed them regularly. This means you don't have to make a permanent bed in the tunnel if you don't want to - which can take up a lot of space. You can put them back outside once they've finished fruiting, to produce runners for next year. 'Christine' is the best flavoured early variety and is very reliable - I always have fruit from that in early May, and I find that with the protection of the tunnel - the perpetual varieties follow on quite soon after - often fruiting until November. Those can also be grown in pots but they need larger ones to produce well continuously over the summer and autumn. 'Albion' is the very best perpetual for this way of growing - or in fact any. Mine fruit from May until November in the tunnel - and you can't ask for more than that! They need feeding regularly if they're in pots, with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo. And do keep an eye out for vine weevils - if one or two plants suddenly wilt and the plants become loose, it could mean that little devils are eating the roots! There are nematodes to deal with them which are a good organic option - you can buy them online. Peat composts encourage them - so not using those is better from every point of view - not just for environmental reasons! 

 

Growing grapes in polytunnels or outside

 
Pot-grown, bush trained grapes 'Regent' & 'Muscat of Alexandria' in early August - with my  unconventional clothes horse supporting the massively heavy crop! It works!
Pot-grown, bush trained grapes 'Regent' & 'Muscat of Alexandria' in early August - with my  unconventional clothes horse supporting the massively heavy crop! It works!
You can still plant grapevines from pots, either inside or outside, in the ground or in pots. Prepare the site well because they'll be there for a long time and use a good mycorrhizal fungi product like Rootgrow, to dust the roots before planting. This will expand the reach of the roots and their nutrient catching ability hugely. Grapes like a really well drained warm spot outside. If you want to grow really good desert grapes, then I think that planting them in a polytunnel or greenhouse is best though, unless you live in the sunny south east of either Ireland or the UK. The north side or end  is best - where they won't shade anything else during the day. Training them over the end roof arch, as I do, is also a good utilisation of space that's often wasted, or alternatively you can train them at about 1 metre high along the sides, where again they don't shade anything else because they come into full leaf well after any winter lettuce or other light-hungry crops are finished. 
 
 
 
Although it's normal to prune things after they're planted, you mustn't prune indoor grapes now or they'll bleed!  It's too late now as the sap is rising strongly. It's a mistake you only ever make once believe me! I did it a bit too late once and it was just like turning on a tap - the sap just poured out as soon as they were cut!  Don't worry though - in couple of weeks, when the buds start to swell noticeably and break - you can then pinch out or rub off any soft shoots that you don't want, or are growing in the wrong direction. Those young green shoots won't bleed. 
 
 
 
Growing grapevines in pots or tubs is great fun as they're so flexible and can be trained into a variety of different shapes. Pots of trained grapes were something the Victorians were very fond of using to make centre-pieces at their elaborate dinner parties. You can also grow them as spiral 'bushes' in pots which is fun, tulip shapes or even 'umbrella' standards - allowing several permanent stems about 3-4ft/1m. to develop. When space gets tight you can put them outside for the summer in a sheltered spot, just bringing them in later on to ripen - safely away from the hungry blackbirds and wasps which love them!! This week I'm potting up the last of the grape cuttings I took in December 12 months ago when pruning - they've nearly all rooted well - about 90%. It's a very easy way to increase your vines, as cuttings take very easily. You can even do what some of the old kitchen gardeners did if you only want one plant - you can train a shoot up through a pot from the bottom - the shoot will root gradually over the year, if you keep the pot moist. You can then sever the shoot at the bottom in mid-winter when the shoot is dormant and it can be detached! It's a great way of increasing a grapevine if you've forgotten to take cuttings at the right time in winter, like me this year - so many people have asked me for Muscat Hamburgh - which is the very best seeded black dessert grape. It's even self-thinning! Thinning bunches of seeded grapes really IS something I have absolutely no patience for! The problem is that with some varieties that make very tight bunches, these can attract moisture and therefore disease. I'm sadly removing one very good tasting variety Perlette this year because of this. If I had a gardener or had time myself to thin the bunches it would be fine. It has a really fabulous muscat flavour and always sets dozens of bunches - but I'm afraid it's sadly time to say goodbye now after 20 years of growing it for varieties more suited to organic growing and my lack of time!!
 
 
If you have grapevines in pots - lay them on their side now to ensure that the buds break evenly all along the rods or stems. That's if you haven't done that already. If you don't do this the buds at the top get all the plant's energy when the sap rises, then some of the lower buds can be weakened or may not develop at all. I've just noticed the buds on all my potted grapevines starting to swell now in the tunnel. They're always a bit earlier than those planted in the ground.  It's a very good way to grow some of the later ripening grapes, as being in a pot tends to encourage them into growth just a little bit earlier, so they then ripen earlier. You should already have untied and lowered the rods (or stems) of all grapevines growing in the ground as far as possible for the same reason.

 
At this time of year I take down the smaller netting at the top of the tunnel entrances, just leaving up the big square-meshed pea and bean netting which keeps the hungry pigeons out. If I don't take the small netting down - the bumblebees can't get in, or get stuck trying to!  It must be put back up before the strawberries are ripe though, as my blackbirds have perfected a brilliant rather 'hobby-like' dash method of last minute fast 'wing folding' - flying straight through the larger mesh - I've watched the crafty devils do it!  Greedy little blighters that they are -  especially considering that I grow lots of fruit elsewhere which is left specifically for them - but they still want mine as well!
 
 

Figs in tunnels or greenhouses need feeding and tidying up now

 

Fig 'Rouge de Bordeaux' - this year's small embryo fruits clearly visible
Fig 'Rouge de Bordeaux' - this year's small embryo fruits clearly visible

The tiny embryo fruits will be starting to swell rapidly on indoor fig trees now. At this stage they are large pea sized - these are very easy to distinguish from any small to middle-sized fruit which may have developed late last autumn after the main crop. Although they may have appeared to have survived over the overwinter - those larger figlets, one of which you can see in the picture here, should be taken off now as they won't develop properly and may give off a hormone signal to the plant which stops the smaller others developing - or it may possibly start to rot and spread disease. Either way it won't develop and ripen.  In the picture here you can clearly see the difference between the two. Also take off any 'mummified' and wizened undeveloped fruits or they could spread diseases. Prune back overlong or weak shoots and those not carrying any embryo fruits by about half, to stimulate production of fruit buds. It looks as if I may have a good crop on all my potted bushes again this year - I'm hoping to have enough to dry for the winter - they're one of my favourite fruits. The only problem with them is that they're so delicious fresh that we tend to eat them for breakfast or lucnch every day when they're in season and I never get a chance to dry any!  Weed the tops of tubs or pots now, scratch off a little of their old compost from the top and replace with a fresh compost/earth mix enriched with some added seaweed meal and general organic fertliser. At this stage you may notice some suckers and this is a great way to increase your stock if you want to. Figs grow like weeds and are very easy from these 'Irishman's cuttings'.

 
  

Cape Gooseberries

  
 
Cape gooseberry seedlings germinate well from home-saved seed
Cape gooseberry seedlings germinate well from home-saved seed
There's still just time to sow Cape gooseberries (Physalis Edulis) - which is a tender perennial fruit. They will germinate in about 10 days in a warm propagator. They're now being touted as the next 'superfruit' and called 'Inca berry', Pichu berry or goldenberry - dried ones cost a fortune in health food shops where you can't even find organically grown ones! Those little paper 'lanterns' that seem ubiquitous on every smart dessert plate now? (I've had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that many people don't know what they are - so don't eat them - that restaurants may actually wash & 'recycle' them from plate to plate!) They're very expensive to buy in the shops, but unbelievably easy to grow if you have the space (they grow like weeds and make a 5-6ft wide and high bush eventually). They appreciate the protection of a tunnel.
 
 
If you grow physalis in the ground they can become very vigorous and take over - making far too much leaf, and as they are also tomato family - it's easier to fit them into rotations by growing them in containers too. I grow mine in 10 litre buckets and they're quite happy.  When properly grown and ripened, they're delicious and will last for literally months in their neat little paper cases. A few years ago I experimented with some that I picked in November - to see just how long they would last - and they kept well in the salad drawer of the fridge until the following May! And astonishingly tasted as good as ever!  The best thing is that as they come ready packaged, the birds don't know what they are so don't eat them - and not even the mice have discovered them yet either - a valuable attribute!  Don't get the dwarf variety though - it's a complete waste of time - producing very little fruit. In a mild winter Cape gooseberries will overwinter in pots in a tunnel or in the ground - and those plants will fruit much earlier than ones sown the same year. I've found it difficult to keep them going in pots for more than two years though.
 
 

Citrus tree care in early spring

 

As with figs, again weed, renew the top compost and feed these. If you see any scale insect on trees - then deal with it now before the tender new shoots start to grow. Either use an organic insecticide based on fatty acids, or gently warmed coconut oil painted on with a soft brush. These are greasy and stop them breathing through their skins - they then die and fall off.  Slighty warmed melted coconut oil brushed on is effective. Black unsightly 'sooty mould' is usually a symptom of scale insect - it's a fungus which grows on the 'honeydew' which the scale insects excrete - so if you see this then look closely at the leaves - particularly underneath on the leaf midrib and on the stems. 
 
You can start to feed lemons now with a high-nitrogen feed like Osmo liquid feed or nettle liquid feed, as soon as you can see growth starting. Never use chlorinated hard tap water on citrus trees - they hate it. Treat them as acid-soil lovers like rhododendrons and they'll be happy. If they leaves are looking a bit yellow after the winter, a dose of sequestered iron like 'Sequestrene' (available in most good garden centres) will also help to green them up quickly again, diluted into some rainwater.
  
If you grow even a small amount of your own fruit organically - you can pick and eat it straight from the garden, warmed by the sun, perfectly ripe and at the very height of it's nutritionRecent studies show that organically grown fruits and vegetables are 60-70% higher in phytonutrients! 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you!)

Veg without limits -- container growing

Lush, fast-growing mixed Oriental salads in a large potMy 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds

Salads in a large pot will start to crop in 6-8 weeks if sown now - and my stepladder salad garden and recycled skip-bag raised beds will fit onto a path
 

Veg Without Limits - Container Growing

First - sincere apologies to anyone who was listening to my radio feature yesterday on growing in containers - it was cut a bit short unexpectedly due to the pressure of so many fast-evolving, incoming news items about Covid-19.  I was taken a bit by surprise myself, as we normally do a much longer feature, but with everyone at LMFM Radio working from home, it must be incredibly difficult to co-ordinate everything, and well done to all of them for coping so well right now. Anyway here is what we were going to talk about - some of which I did get time to mention on the show - but all of it now in much more depth than would have been possible on air, even in the time we normally have. If you're growing something for the first time, I hope you will find this blog post useful.  If it seems a bit disjointed or there are repetitions in some places further on - apologies again, because the second part of it was sort of 'stitched together' in a hurry, not just from my programme notes for yesterday, and also from several older blog posts.

 
I think that the Corona-virus pandemic will undoubtedly have an effect on the mental health of all of us - to a greater or lesser degree.  Gardening can be extremely therapeutic, and in these stressful times, growing even a small amount of our own healthy food feels such a positive thing to do. It's not just that for a while it distracts us, while we concentrate mindfully on what we're doing. If we're also gardening outside in the fresh air, using an organic compost or some healthy living soil, then additionally it means that we are breathing in the naturally beneficial soil microbe Mycobacterium vaccae - which has been scientifically proven to help lift our mood, and make us feel more positive, by stimulating our brains to release Serotonin - the 'feel-good' hormone. If gardening can help to alleviate the stress which we're all experiencing right now even slightly - then it's surely got to be a positive thing. Enjoying our first homegrown produce is also an experience like nothing else - but that thrill of achievement and satisfaction never goes away, no matter how long one does it. I hope for some that this blog post may be the start of an absorbing and satisfying habit that could last a lifetime. For other, more experienced gardeners, I hope this may give you some more ideas for getting that little bit more out of your space - and space is something us gardeners never seem to have enough of for everything that we want to grow!  


This year I'm unable to grow as much outside in the garden as usual, with my ankle surgery having been postponed due to hospitals having cancelled all elective surgery in order to make more space for patients with Covid-19.  As a result, I'm prioritising container-growing of certain veg which either I know I wouldn't be able to buy in shops, or those which are eaten fresh and uncooked, like salads. This is not just because homegrown is much fresher, but also to avoid any contamination with the virus, as far as is humanly possible.  I generally prioritise salad growing, as they are all so much better for us when eaten as fresh as possible, and picked just prior to eating - which you can only really do if you grow them yourself. 

 

A couple of weeks ago, while doing extensive research trying to discover how long it was estimated the virus might last on fresh produce, I found a very concerning study which was carried out in 2013, on the SARS and MERS Corona Viruses, which are both related to but slightly less virulent than Covid-19, and which also included the influenza virus. The study showed that they can all survive for up to 10 days on fresh, uncooked produce such as lettuce or strawberries - those fresh foods which we are encouraged to eat the most of for health reasons! The virus can only be killed either by cooking or washing thoroughly, with soap or disinfectant - neither of which you can obviously do with soft produce like lettuce or strawberries, but which you could possibly do with harder produce like apples or peppers. As a result - I feel that erring on the side of caution, and treating any fresh produce you haven't grown yourself as if it may potentially be contaminated, is the most sensible option. It's better to be safe than sorry - especially when so much of the veg in shops is either imported from abroad, or even grown and packed in our own country by people who may not yet be unwell, but who could perhaps be carrying the illness in a mild form as someone as some are, or may be developing it - when it can be spread to others before one is aware that one may even be ill. It is for that reason that I think growing your own fresh salads which you will eat raw has never been more important

 

It's most important to stress here that as far as we know and I can ascertain from extensive research - NONE of these viruses can survive in properly cooked food. But while I don't want to panic anyone - no one currently seems to be highlighting the possible surface contamination of fresh produce as a potential source of infection, as far as I've seen. Evidence also shows that it can be passed on through contaminated faecal matter - so once again it's absolutely vital to stress the importance of repeated and effective hand-washing.   If you're preparing food that will be eaten uncooked, or even after you've prepared any fresh produce that will be cooked - wash your hands thoroughly before you do touch ANYTHING else!  I know we're already probably thoroughly sick of hearing it - but it can't be repeated often enough, if it may save lives.

 

Here is a link to the study I've mentioned:  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12560-013-9114-4 - "Survival of Respiratory Viruses on Fresh Produce"

 

So What can you grow in Containers - if you don't have a Garden? 

This is something which I'm asked about a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is - quite a lot!  Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, or outside in the garden - you can grow in containers - but obviously just on a smaller scale.  You won't be self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and fruit by growing it all in containers - but you'd be surprised at just how much you CAN grow! If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again!  You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two?  Some people live in a flat which may have a balcony - and that can be a very useful space. So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything".  Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a windowsill or  balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be far fresher than anything you could buy, a lot healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy-looking pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill!  If you've got a path with room to walk on - then the good news is that you've got room to grow at least some healthy salad veg in containers. 
 
So What Type of Containers are Suitable?
 
Basically you can use anything which will hold enough depth of soil and has a few holes for drainage.  Plants like lettuce, spinach and many other salads are quite happy with about 6 ins/15cm of compost or soil, because they make a very fine mass of fine roots which spread out - rather than a long single 'tap' root. But the deeper it is the better - then you won't have to water and feed plants as often. I grew my whole veg garden in containers 40 years ago, before we moved here, because I had a severely allergic child who needed chemical-free, organic food. In those days organic veg wasn't available in shops anywhere - so I had no choice!  In the second year as I got better at container gardening - I grew French and runner beans in strong carrier bags and froze 40 pounds of them! Granted I spent a lot of my time feeding and watering - but we were pretty much self sufficient in veg. As I was at home with two toddlers then and not working - I had plenty of time then compared to now.  It's amazing what spaces you can find to grow things in if you're determined - and it's great fun experimenting! Even though I have a large garden now - I still love to find new ways of growing things!
 
For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year!  I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg department of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit onto each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them. 
 
I've tried growing almost everything in the mushroom boxes and some veg do better than others. Most things are happy in them as long as they get enough food and water - even small, stump-rooted varieties of carrots - but veg with long roots that go deep, like parsnips, large cabbages and leeks don't like them, they need deeper containers like old dustbins or skip bags to grow happily. It would cost far too much to fill these up with just compost, but you can fill up to 2/3rds of larger containers with any garden or kitchen waste which you would normally put into a compost heap. Things like twiggy prunings, annual weeds, veg peelings, newspapers and cardboard are suitable, and also grass clippings - as long as they are from a lawn which hasn't been treated with weedkillers. The bonus is - that in a few month's time, all that stuff will have mostly broken down into perfect compost, which you can either add material and then another top layer of potting compost to grow more plants in - or you can tip it all out to use somewhere else in the garden or sieve and use in another container as the top layer.
 
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago.  I also put a couple of large 10 litre buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew!  Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
 

My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - late March. Shows what you can do in a very small space. Lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs. Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?"  route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
 
 
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows! 
 
 
 
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath-Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy! 
 
 
You don't need a polytunnel for container growing - but if you want to grow more tender veg like tomatoes, aubergines or cucumbers, you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets very cheaply. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could even make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store!  They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them! 

If you don't have much space - there's really no point growing things like carrots and potatoes which you will still be able to buy in shops. 

So What Varieties are Good for Growing in Containers?

Lettuce - loose-leaf types like oakleaf and Lollos will give you the longest harvest by picking individual leaves rather than the whole head. Cheap lettuce mixes usually contain these and other varieties.
 
Summer spinach - very fast-growing and can crop in 4 weeks as baby leaves at this time of year.
 
Radishes everyone knows - but not many people know they can be sauteed in butter when they're delicious!
 
Perpetual spinach beet and Swiss chard are some of the most productive and nutritious veg. They need a shady spot and a deep container, but will go on cropping for months if well watered and fed.
 
Courgettes - can be sown now for growing inside or in late April for outside. They like plenty of root room, so a skip bag or dustbin is best for them.
 
Tomatoes - bush varieties Maskotka and Tumbler both have terrific flavour and are easy. There's still just time to sow those for a good crop this summer here. But you could also beg a cutting of a side shoot of any tomato variety from a friend, root it in a jar of water in a few days and grow it on in a large container even in a sunny porch.
 
Broccoli - grows well in bucket-sized containers. Green Magic is a great variety,continually producing sweet side shoots after the main head is harvested, if you keep feeding and watering it.
 
Kales - also grow well this way, are fast-growing and can be harvested as baby leaves.
 
Oriental seed mixes containing veg like mustard, Mizuna, Pak Choi etc are very fast-growing and productive.
 
All herbs are happy in containers and if you don't want to grow them from seed - you can buy herb plants in supermarkets - where they are generally cheaper than in garden centres. You can also split pots of basil and coriander to give yo several plants from one potful. Don't split parsley though - as this can make it bolt or run up to seed.
 
Potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes also grow well in large containers.
 
Watercress - easy to root from the shoots found in salad bags - just pop into water for a few days - they'll sprout roots fast which can be planted into a container. Keep well-watered after that and it will produce harvests literally forever - as it is a perennial plant that can be constantly reproduced from cuttings.
 
There's just a few ideas for you!
 
A word here about sowing seeds generally. It's worth taking a little bit of time and trouble to be really careful with sowing seeds, so as not to waste them. They're as precious as gold dust right now - some small suppliers have already sold out, or can't keep up with the demand for sorting and posting them. Some garden centres or nurseries may still have seed or even small plants of vegetables like tomatoes or lettuces - but some have already closed here in Ireland.  Even if you're growing in containers, to avoid wasting seed it's worth starting them off in modules of a good quality, preferably peat-free, seed compost. For best results, don't use a multi-purpose one which says you can sow seeds in it but which will often give disappointing results, or may possibly even kill some sensitive seeds due to too much artificial nutrient, or even high levels of nitrogen in an organic compost. When potting on or planting in your containers - you can use a compost which says it's specifically a 'potting' compost. This will contain more nutrients which will sustain plants for longer, before they will need further feeding. 
 

Just a warning - I've seen some people online recommending the use of mushroom compost for preparing vegetable beds and planting vegetables. If you are trying to avoid toxic chemicals and grow organically DON'T use it! It will contain very nasty chemicals which are used in the compost to kill fungus flies - the most common pest of mushroom growing. Not only that - but the 'substrate' or growing medium will have been made using non-organic straw which has already been treated many times with seriously toxic pesticides including Glyphosate. While this may not show up as damage to your produce, the various combinations of most of these many chemicals have never been tested to determine their effects on our bodies when we consume them, the only tests which have been done show that just Glyphosate, combined with the adjuvant always used in commercial formulations to make them more effective, makes the Glyphosate itself at least 1,000 times more toxic! Although it may be tempting - long and sometimes bitter experience has taught me that it's false economy to use cheap, DIY chain composts containing peat and artificial fertilisers as they are not a natural medium for plants.  I won't talk about the environmental reasons for not using peat composts here, as I do that elsewhere on this blog.

When you've been growing in any compost for a few weeks, as plants get bigger they will need some extra feeding as the compost in small containers will quickly become exhausted. especially when plants start to crop. I make a very nutrient-rich worm compost which is excellent for that purpose, but if you don't have room - there are several good organic liquid feeds which are suitable. Osmo is the one I always recommend, as I have had great results with it when growing in containers - especially when I grew 48 different varieties of tomatoes for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival which I founded in 2012 - but there are others. Osmo also make an excellent and very convenient granular organic fertiliser, but it comes in very large bags - although you could share these with another gardening friend. I buy my organic peat-free seed compost and potting compost from White's Agri in Lusk, who are also the main Irish distributors for Osmo products. I called them a few days ago to ensure that they are still open to gardeners. They also have a website which takes online orders for delivery. 

 

 

The propagating bench is where all the action is currently!On the bench pictured here I have two cheap Lidl cold frames sitting on a roll-out heated mat - which is a bit like an electric blanket - (from Fruit  Hill Farm). It keeps things at a 'just warm enough' 50/55 degF or 10 degC. The mat sits on a recycled door supported by trestles. To cover then at night I roll out double fleece and a large piece of recycled bubble wrap. So as you can see - it's not very hi-tech but it's actually very effective!  This is a great set-up for growing large amounts of seedlings - but you won't need anything like this for growing in containers.

 The advice below is repeated from earlier blogs I've written - so although I've amended it in places - you may find some repetition, but it remains exactly the same and can't be repeated often enough if you want good results!  In a normal year, from March until about June, most garden centres will have module-raised lettuce and other veg plants, so if you're a beginner you can get used to growing the veg plants first, without the hassle of raising stuff from seed - also good news for any of us who are late starters in the vegetable growing season.  But this year, as I've already said - both plants and seeds are selling out fast because people naturally want to ensure some food security due to the worries generated by the Covid-19 situation - so buy any plants or seeds and get sowing asap! 

My General advice for Sowing all Seeds:

You can raise most plants on windowsills, but contrary to what many people think - sunny windowsills are not the best - as most seeds are quite happy to germinate at a temperature of around 60 degF or 15 deg Celcius.  If you put seed trays on a sunny windowsill, on a warm day even in March the temperature can shoot up dangerously high very quickly and literally cook seeds! Young seedlings are also far better off on a cooler windowsill - perhaps with a backing of tin foil behind them to reflect light so that they don't become too tall, leggy and weak. As soon as the weather is not freezing - everything but tomatoes and other tender seedlings will be fine outside 

 
If you're impatient to get an early start, you can steal a march on spring and sow a few early seeds now if you have a warm light enough windowsill indoors, or much better still a heated propagator in a greenhouse or polytunnel where the light will be better. You can sow your seeds now in pots or modules for planting outside later on - there's a list on the "What you can sow" page. Even if the 'gardening itch' hasn't got to you yet this year and you don't want to start quite this early - then it's a good idea to have everything ready to go when you do. I love sowing seeds - it's such a hopeful and positive thing to do - it's an investment in the future, short or long term, that pays off in abundance. A great many of the things that need to be sown in the next few weeks we'll be eating this time next year.
 
 
This is the start of the most important time of year for seed sowing - and the same advice applies whether you only have a cold frame or just a warm windowsill. At the moment the soil is saturated everywhere outside - far too cold and wet to attempt to sow anything outdoors - and even by the end of the month I doubt if it will be much better unless the weather improves a lot.  So there's no point wasting expensive seed by sowing it into cold wet ground. It's not really until early March that any sun is strong enough to even begin to warm the soil at all for sowing - and when it is you'll begin to see weed seeds germinating, which is always the best guide. If the soil's warm enough for them - then it's plenty warm enough for some of the the hardier crops to germinate. I sow nearly all my crops in modules now though - as that allows me to get ahead whatever the weather, which means I can plan better, and it helps to make the most of valuable growing space. Obviously the most important thing to do is always adapt any guidelines to suit your own local climate and soil. That can vary hugely depending on exactly where in the country you live - and often even in individual gardens in the same area. For instance - early spring can arrive in the very north of Ireland up to three weeks later than in the warmer south - and the same goes for the UK. Even within a few miles it can vary surprisingly. Where I live now - 400 feet above sea level on a south west facing slope in the teeth of the prevailing SW wind - the season is at least ten days later than where I lived 35 years ago - down near the sea only 9 miles away.
 
 
I sow most things in modules all year round now - as it wastes far less seed and I know I can be more sure of the results! The only exception to this would be root crops like parsnips or carrots - which are really much easier to sow direct in the ground, if you can protect them from hungry slugs!. I only sow these into my recycled 'loo roll middle'  modules if I want to make a really early start - or if their allotted space isn't free yet. As I mention later - doing this really makes the best use of your space, as the minute you have a crop cleared - you have another ready and waiting to be planted. By sowing in modules you're not spending time waiting for seed to germinate in ground which early in the year may be far too wet and cold. Carrots and parsnips like quite a warm seedbed and can be very slow and even rot if the ground is too cold. They can also take up to three weeks to appear and with carrots - the tiny early seed leaves are so fine that they're quite difficult to see - so often slugs will have eaten them before you've even noticed they were actually germinating! 
 
 
If you're planning to sow any crops early outside perhaps in March, and their planned space is free at the moment - then it's a good idea to cover it with some black polythene or something else waterproof now (it should be covered anyway if you've been following my advice!) Then you can uncover it every so often and clear up any slugs which are lurking around just underneath and get ahead of them too! You'll be amazed how many you'll find hiding under there - they won't bother going underground if they can hide in the dark somewhere damp and snug and they think they're out of sight! 
 
 
If you leave soil uncovered, as some people advocate - the slugs also just hide underground or around edges of beds. They've evolved to hide from hungry birds and hedgehogs - not hungry gardeners!  So be clever and outsmart them - it's always a good idea to trap and dispose of as many slugs as possible before you actually start the growing season - that gets you well ahead ahead of the game! Please don't be lazy and thoughtlessly use slug pellets - they kill all slug-eating wildlife too and traces of the poisonous metaldehyde they contain are increasingly being found in our drinking water as well! If you have ducks they're the very best slug hunters of the lot - they seem to have slug radar in the tips of their beaks - and they'll even eat the really big Spanish ones like rubber tyres which hens won't eat. But beware - as ducks are also extremely fond of anything edible, luscious and green - so don't let them near any lettuces etc. Also be careful if your soil is a heavy clay as they'll pack it down with their webbed feet - causing compaction, 'souring' and acidification - so don't leave them on any patch of ground for too long. After you've sown crops - a strip of black polythene, or a piece of slate at various points along the bed will give any remaining slugs a place to hide - so that you can then go along every so often, scoop them off and dispose of them - or cut them up with sharp scissors and leave them for wildlife to enjoy! When you've got rid of most of the slugs, then you can put some clear polythene on to the bed. This will allow the soil underneath to warm up so that it's all ready. If you see any weed seeds germinating at this point - a flame weeder can be very useful for burning off any tiny seedlings to make what's known as a 'stale seedbed' - which is perfectly clean on the surface and ideal for carrots and other small seeds.(If you're of a nasty frame of mind - a flame weeder's also great for barbecueing slugs!) Remember - weedkillers aren't just toxic - they don't actually kill weed seeds, so they're pointless poisoning!
 

Seed Sowing in Modules 

(This applies to all vegetables, herbs and flowers, whether they're for planting outside later, or for under cover - whatever the time of year.)
 
 It may seem a bit fiddly sowing things into modules like plug trays, pots, or seed trays, but it's what I call my 'guaranteed one-step method to perfect plants'! This method of sowing means you don't have to handle them again until you actually plant them out. Seed germination is far more reliable in the better conditions. I do most of my sowing into modules all year round now. It means I'm not waiting for a patch to be free before I can sow seeds - and I can have something ready to go straight into the ground the minute any crop is cleared - that way I get loads more veg. out of my space. In essence what I'm doing is continuously overlapping crops. By not taking up ground just waiting for seeds to germinate - over the course of a year I gain several extra weeks of growing time out of my ground space and I can fit in another quick growing crop. I've been doing this for years since I first started off in a small garden and it's an even more valuable way to grow things if you only have a small space. 
 
 
Module sowing also involves far less handling of the seedlings and avoids the risks of 'pricking out' seedlings from large seed trays - the less you handle them, the less chance there is of wasting seed through possible damage, which can cause setbacks, fungal diseases or even death. The only time when I would sow a few seeds into pots or small seed trays might be when seeds need a much higher temperature for germination - things like aubergines or tomatoes. I otherwise wouldn't have enough space for everything in the small heated propagator - because I grow so many. The other really great thing about module sowing is that I can do all my seed sowing inside on the kitchen table - in the warm! I keep all the 'doings' neatly on a grow bag tray under the table - then whenever I have five minutes - I just pull it out and sow something! For me, this also means that things are far more likely to get sown at the right time. I don't have to plan to set aside a whole day to do it all at once - making it much easier to fit into a very busy life! Remember - you can catch up on everything else - but if you don't sow the seeds at the right time - there's no catching up on that. Time waits for no man! (or woman!)
 
 
Carrots sown in loo roll middles - early Feb.Planting out modules when they're ready also means that the plants are already growing strongly, are bigger and as a result better able to withstand the occasional nibble from any slugs or other pests without being completely destroyed. And there's always one or two that escape my early scissor forays!  I often get questions from people who think they bought bad seed and it didn't germinate - but usually the reason seeds don't appear is because either the soil was too cold and wet in early spring so they rotted, or they dried out in summer, or slugs ate them as they came up! Sowing into modules avoids all those problems. Bad seed that doesn't germinate at all is thankfully extremely rare. Whatever pot or module you choose to sow in is up to you, there are masses of things which can be recycled for this purpose, and as usual the choice is only limited by one's imagination!  The important thing is to make sure they're clean, have good drainage holes in the bottom and that the young plants will come out quite easily, without disturbing the root ball if you gently push them up from the bottom - otherwise you lose the whole point of modules - which is to avoid any disturbance which causes setbacks! 
 
  
Just a word on using loo roll middles as pictured above.  I find these brilliant for long rooted things like very early carrots and parsnips because they can be planted out intact as they are - completely avoiding root disturbance - but I don't find them quite as good for other things like lettuce or other leafy crops which have a fine root ball - I think this is because the cardboard rolls are so high in carbon - which needs nitrogen to break down naturally - so it tends to rob this from the surrounding soil or compost as it does so - and also possibly any young plant that is growing in them. 
 
 
The other thing to remember about using cardboard tubes like loo roll middles is that they MUST be planted with the cardboard of the loo roll BELOW soil level - if exposed to the air they will act like a wick, drying out and shrinking - evaporating moisture from around the young plants ans fine roots with possibly disastrous results! The same goes for using paper pots. I get a lot of questions about this from people who have tried i and had disappointing results - but I've never seen anyone mentioning the danger of this happening. I know it does take a little extra compost sowing this way, but sowing into modules also means I don't waste expensive seed - which more than balances out the small cost of the extra compost used. It also means I have larger plants ready to go without losses to slugs. That again also means that I can plan the use of space much better - planting out neat, attractive-looking rows, instead of perhaps having unsightly gaps!  I really love that kind of instant potager gardeningIt's very satisfying to stand back and look at the results!
 

The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost 

It makes sense to use a good proprietary organic peat-free seed compost - NOT a multipurpose compost containing peat! A good peat-free seed compost will have been specially formulated to be suitable for tiny seedlings for their first few weeks when their tiny hair-like roots are very sensitive - and is worth it's weight in gold!  Many seedlings dislike a high nutrient content in composts - so using one specifically for seed sowing is really important - otherwise too high a nutrient content in the compost could inhibit germination, giving disappointing results. I never found those 'seed & potting' multi-purpose peat composts good for that particular reason when I had no choice but to use them many years ago. They also tend to attract root-eating soil pests too - because all composts containing peat do that!  I haven't used them for many years as I only use an organic peat-free compost now.
 
 
Peat is only a natural medium for plants which grow in bogs - and it should stay in the bogs where it belongs!  Using it is a very selfish choice! It supports enormous biodiversity and also acts a very effective carbon sink.  It should not be be dug up for the convenience of thoughtless gardeners who are just looking for the cheapest option - especially when growing your own food actually saves so much money anyway!  In terms of damage to the planet and accelerating climate change - using peat certainly isn't the cheap option eventually!  Any short term financial gain from using cheap, easily available peat is wiped out many times by the loss of important habitat for biodiversity, and also the inevitable flooding caused by reducing the land's water-holding capacity. Bogs act like enormous sponges - capturing rainfall and slowing up huge volumes of water that would otherwise immediately run off the land surface, overwhelming natural drainage systems and flooding not just farmland but also peoples houses and gardens.,
 
 
As I've mentioned previously - I use a really good, peat free, certified organic compost. This is available in Ireland from Fruit Hill Farm - (call them for local stockists - getting one bag by post is expensive!). It's also available from White's Agri, at Ballough, Lusk. The compost is produced by Klassman in Germany, from composted organic green waste. It's utterly brilliant and is the very best compost of any sort that I've found in over 40 years of growing. It's also available in the UK, and it's worth investigating if you live there. There are a quite a few other peat-free organic composts available there now too - but I haven't tried them, so can't recommend them. I would always prefer an organic compost - as those containing artificial fertilisers don't produce the most healthy plants in my experience. They are far more likely to attract aphids and other pests as the plant's immune defence systems aren't as healthy. Once you've used the Klassman - I promise you won't ever use anything else! (I wish I had shares in it!) .It's the best compost of any sort that I've ever used. Whether you're organic or not - believe me - this compost is worth every cent! Plants really thrive in it - I think possibly because it contains a good range of beneficial bacteria, having been made with organically grown green waste, composted specifically for this purpose. But whichever brand you choose, don't use a potting compost for sowing seeds - it will be far too high in nutrients that inhibit germination and burn the roots of the tiny seedlings as soon as they emerge. They may then be sickly, or possibly even keel over and die!  I grow a lot of rare plants - many of which are fussy and the seed expensive. I can't afford to risk wasting seed. These days no one can - so always go for a reliable, good quality seed compost - and choose peat free preferably - if you care about the environment. 
 
 
In addition - make sure that any compost is this year's freshly-delivered batch of compost too! Not old, saturated compost that's been sitting around outside in the garden centre all winter since the previous year!  That would be stale, will have lost many of it's nutrients and may well harbour moulds and diseases. I always make sure that I have a couple of spare bags put by in a dry place so that I have plenty for early sowings the following year. Also don't use garden soil for sowing in pots - it's false economy - especially if you're a beginner gardener.  It will contain weed seeds and perhaps pests too, and the texture is unlikely to be suitable for sowing small seeds in pots or modules. I know good compost isn't cheap - but actually most bags these days cost no more than two or three packets of seeds and you won't need a huge amount. If you're careful a little will go a very long way, and you'll get far better results. You'll avoid wasting expensive seed and precious time too. 
 
 
Another point I'd like to mention here is that although some gardeners in the UK don't like using British produced peat composts - some of them don't seem have a problem using Irish extracted peat. I just don't understand that 'NIMBY' attitude, because it's every bit as damaging to the environment and to biodiversity, and releases just as much climate-changing carbon which affects the whole planet. So please have a re-think if that applies to you! I think it's a bit like thoughtlessly throwing away your rubbish out of the car window and ensuring that it becomes someone else's problem!
 
 
Remember the piece of advice "Whatever else you don't get time for - always sow the seed - you can catch up on everything else except that". - One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given - well worth remembering - and another good reason for sowing in modules so that you're not delayed by the weather or by waiting for another crop to be finished. This is often something that's really hard to remember in the middle of summer, when you're enjoying an abundance of glorious vegetables! If you don't sow many things in June, July and August - you'll have very little to eat in the winter!  Don't spend ages waiting around to get ground perfectly ready either, particularly in a wet year, or you may find it's then too late to sow the seed. Sow the seed first, in modules if necessary, and then catch up with all the other jobs later while your seedlings are growing on nicely somewhere else, until they're big enough for planting.
 

Seed sowing - the basics

It's stating the obvious to repeat that most seed these days is expensive - a little care will make your seed go a lot further and therefore your money too! My apologies to all you 'old timers' out there like me who know all this stuff - but maybe you may actually do it differently - and there's no harm in reassessing the way we do things occasionally is there? Gardening is an occupation where you never stop learning, that's what makes it so interesting.
 
 
1. First fill your modules, pots or whatever with good seed compost, firming it gently but not ramming it down too hard. Then make suitably sized small depressions in the top of each one with the end of a old pencil, pen, or whatever's handy. Seed differs in the depth it prefers to be sown, so consult your seed packet on this one, there isn't enough room here! Generally I find a depression of about 1/2-1 cm is suitable for module sowing of most things depending on the size of the seed. A very rough rule of thumb though is to sow at about twice the depth of the seed. As some really fine seed like celery or Nicotiana prefers to be sown on the surface and not covered at all - If you're going to sow very fine small seed it's a good idea to water the containers before sowing, to avoid washing tiny seed either too deeply into the compost, or alternatively washing it completely out of the compost! Some brands of seed composts can be quite difficult to wet if they've become exceptionally dry - so when sowing anything it's probably a idea good to moisten all composts a bit first - and letting any excess drain away.
 
 
2. Next, after you've prepared your modules, before you even handle the seed packet make sure your hands are absolutely clean and dry!  Don't attempt to open the packet with dirty wet hands from preparing your compost, soil or whatever! Unless you're going to sow all the seed at once, which is unlikely, you need to take care that the atmosphere around the remaining seed in the packet is as dry and clean as possible. Most people with average-sized gardens won't need to sow a whole packet of seed at once - despite what the packet tells you! (obviously they're trying to sell seed!) When you've taken all the seed you need, squeeze as much air out as possible, seal with sellotape, write on the date it was opened, and store somewhere really cool and dry. Most seed except carrot and parsnip will last well for at least a couple of years this way. People always say "but the experts say store them in the fridge" - all I can say is those 'experts' must have nothing else in their fridges - or have dedicated seed fridges!  Since when were most household fridges absolutely bone dry? But then perhaps yours is a bit tidier than mine! Frankly - I'd sooner tidy my polytunnel any day than my fridge!
 
 
3. When you're opening the packet of seed, make sure that all the seed is shaken down to the bottom first. Then slit it open with a sharp knife or with scissors rather than just tearing off the top - this makes it much easier to do up neatly again afterwards. The seed may also be in a 'stay-fresh' foil packet inside the paper packet, so open that carefully too, then when you've finished, re-seal afterwards in the way described. It always says on the packet "Do not re-seal" - pay no attention whatsoever to that!  Seeds will just absorb atmospheric moisture far more easily if you don't re-seal them properly - then you'll have to buy more seed because it won't germinate nearly as well!
 
 
Lettuce - sown 2 per module - now ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.
Lettuce - sown 2 per module - now ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.
4. Tip a very small amount of seed - slightly less than you think you'll need - into the dry palm of your hand or onto a saucer and carefully sow the amount you want into each module. Never put seed back in if you've tipped out too much into your hand, unless your hand is very clean and dry! I sow lettuce, brassicas etc. in two's or three's thinning to the strongest one when the seed leaves (cotyledons) are fully expanded and there's one 'true' leaf just showing, then you can judge which is the strongest, or if any are 'blind'(which can sometimes happen with cabbage family/brassicas in particular) - then pull the others out very gently and carefully. Beetroot or chards can be sown singly - they are multi-seeded - producing several seedlings in a clump from just one lumpy seed, which you don't have to thin too much unless you want to - I never do - I normally leave three chards in a clump! They grow perfectly well as normal - and I'm greedy! Some modern F1 varieties of beetroot are 'mono-seeded' - these are useful if you just want one seed per station and bigger roots eventually - but the seed is usually much more expensive and I don't want massive roots. I prefer medium sized or baby beets to pickle or roast - so I use normal varieties and I leave them in clumps of 3 or 5. They will push each other apart quite happily as they grow and find their own growing space.
  
  
Peas and beans sown in a variety of recycled containers - mid. Feb.
I sow my onions in 3's, 5's or 7's according to what size I want them to grow to. The more you sow into the module, and the closer you grow them on, the smaller the onions will obviously be. Three seeds to a module sown in early to mid March will generally give me onions of around 4-5oz - a medium size which I generally find are the most useful for the kitchen. Red Baron onions I sow in 5's as I like smaller whole red onions for roasting. They're planted out later about 20-30cm apart in late March or early April. They will then push each other apart quite happily as they grow, giving you a much bigger, more reliable crop. Early carrots (a small pinch) and parsnips (in 3's) can be sown into loo roll or 1/2 kitchen roll middles and easily planted out carefully using a long trowel later. Peas and beans can be sown in large yogurt pots - as shown on the polytunnel page and here - also 1/2 milk cartons, fruit punnets etc - all with good drainage holes made in them. You can see how I sow mine in the polytunnel diary as well.  Some people sow into old half drainpipes but I find they're too shallow, they don't have much root room, then if planting out is delayed by bad weather, as it often is at this time of year, plants may get a setback and won't crop as well as they should later on. The roots can often go along instead of down.The RHS recommends shallow drainpipes with holes drilled into them - but again delays can be a problem and the roots may start coming through the drainage holes - making it harder to slide them out easily and possibly tearing roots off when you try to slide them out. The peas and beans pictured above here are growing in a variety of recycled containers in mid-February
 
 
 
5. Cover the smaller vegetable seeds with vermiculite, which is available in all good garden centres now in small packs (if it's too much, split it with a friend - it lasts years as it's sterile and you don't need that much). This promotes really good drainage and air circulation around seedlings which is vital and usually avoids nasty 'damping off' diseases, which can otherwise be a big problem with early seedlings in particular (but never in peat-free composts). Sit the seed tray, pots or modules in a tray of water for a few seconds (new cat litter trays are a good size for standard seed trays, and much cheaper than something similar sold in garden centres!) but don't let the modules or trays get saturated. If by mistake they do - then a good tip is to sit them on a folded up newspaper with a bit of kitchen paper on top, which acts like blotting paper to draw out excess moisture - newspaper on it's own doesn't work quite so well. Don't forget that if things are too wet - even if they're warm - they're far more likely to rot. Bigger seeds like peas and beans can be covered with compost and then watered from above initially. I put my early peas and beans onto damp kitchen paper on a covered plate or tray somewhere warm to germinate them first. Usually the back of my range cooker where I can keep an eye on them. This is particularly good for French beans later on in spring - which can be very prone to rotting if sitting in wet compost for too long. I then put the sprouted seeds into a pot in the usual way and cover them with seed compost. I then water them lightly at first, again making sure I don't saturate!
 
 
6. Cover the seed tray or modules after sowing by putting in a clear polythene bag, under a sheet of clingfilm or glass to keep them moist and stop them drying out, and put them in a suitably warm place. Check the optimum germination temperature on the seed packet - as not everything likes to be too warm. This particularly applies to lettuces and spinach. Then check every day for germination, and as soon as they appear, uncover them immediately and put them into good light - but not strong sunlight as this could burn them and kill them very quickly. If they're in the house on a windowsill, turn them round a bit every day so all the seedlings get equal light to prevent them getting etiolated (or drawn up and spindly), which weakens them and makes them much more prone to disease. You could also make a light reflector of tin foil fixed to a couple of barbecue skewers at the back of the pot as I used to years ago! At night then bring them into the room before you close the curtains otherwise they could be frost damaged. If they're in a cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel outside, shade them lightly from very bright midday sun - which can be surprisingly strong through glass, even at this time of year. Again, do make sure they're protected from frost at night with fleece suspended over them - not resting on them - or newspaper. Wire hoops are useful for this, also recycled old freezer baskets, a propagator lid or cloches etc.
 
 
7. Always water trays of young growing seedlings from underneath when necessary - sitting them in a tray as described above, using clean, ambient temperature water if possible. Watering them from above with a watering can again encourage damping off diseases. I keep clean rainwater in a barrel in the tunnel for watering, which is usually not too cold. Seedlings don't enjoy sitting in a freezing cold bath any more than you do!  And they enjoy rainwater best of all. Like all plants, they didn't evolve to appreciate chlorine, or anything else that may be in tap water!
 
 
8. After germination, grow on seedlings of tender veg. like tomatoes etc. at a slightly lower temperature but still in a warm light place- where they won't get chilled if it's cold at night. A roll-out heat mat which you can put on a greenhouse bench is convenient for this - or if you're good at DIY - you could make a cheaper large area of gentle bottom warmth by using soil warming cables buried in sand.  Be careful that propagators don't overheat, get them set up and going for a few hours before you start sowing your seeds, because just as too little warmth can damage seedlings - so can overheating. It can can seriously damage their cropping potential.  From March onwards all small seedlings will need some shade at midday under glass or in a tunnel - fleece also makes a good temporary sun shield. A small max-min thermometer is well worth buying, they're far more useful in the garden than a soil thermometer, and cheaper. As I've already said - you don't need a soil thermometer out in the garden to tell you when the soil outside is warm enough for sowing - all the weed seeds germinating will reliably tell you that!
 

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 always start sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you can sow now are in the 'What to Sow' sections for each month, 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 degF/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 being sown in  500g  yogurt pots -  12.1.12
 Sprouted broad beans sown in 500g yogurt pots              
Sprouted 'Oregon Sugar Pod' mangetout being sown for pea shoots and later pods - 31.1.12
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!  

This is how I sow my Tomatoes - and other tender crops

 Just inside my main tunnel door, on the left, I have a propagating bench. It's a very busy place at this time of year - so much happening and changing every day. So many reliable old friends appearing once again, kick starting another gardening year, and a few exciting new ones too!  At the moment in the warmest propagator there are sweet peppers, chillies, aubergines, celeriac, tomatoes, etc. physalis (also called golden, Inca or Pichu berry),  These are all just starting to appear above the compost. As soon as they do I immediately remove their individual polythene bag covers which have kept them nice and moist up until then. Having each pot in an individual bag means that they stay nice and moist until the seeds have germinated, which helps the seeds to ease their way up out of the compost. It also stops too much moisture collecting around seedlings that are already up, when they need less moisture but still need to be nice and warm. This stops diseases developing. 
 
 
After germination, they spend a few days in the propagator, moving gradually nearer to the front where the lid is propped open a bit for more air circulation, and then as soon they look ready - they get moved out into the frame on the heated mat, which is at a much lower temperature, only supplying a bottom heat of around 50 deg. F. Things get too 'soft' if they're left in the propagator for too long. The heated mat is a roll-out heated foil mat a bit like an electric blanket. It uses far less electricity than the small warmer propagator. It's just warm enough to keep things moving gently along, and they get covered at night with one or two layers of fleece to keep any possible frost off the tops of the plants. It's a good 'halfway house' for plants raised in heat to progress eventually to the main beds in the tunnel for tunnel hardening off. About 20 yrs or so ago, it was discovered that 'brushing' tomato plants a couple of times a day stimulated a growth hormone call Jasmonic acid, which is supposed to have the effect of making them a bit sturdier. A lot of nurseries had a 'boom' which passed over plants to do this a few times a day. I tried it with a very soft, long wallpaper pasting brush - but frankly, I'm not sure it made that much difference to mine. Not pushing them with too much heat and giving them plenty of light and space will produce nice sturdy plants - and you won't risk possibly causing disease by being a bit 'heavy -handed' and bruising tiny seedlings!
 
 
Tomato seedlings in the propagator - packed tightly together in square pots to be energy efficient  
Tomato seedlings in the propagator - packed tightly together in square pots to be energy efficient  
I'll be sowing the last of my tomatoes this week - I sowed some earlier on to check the germination on home saved seed. It's always good though - so have quite a lot of Pantano Romanesco beefsteaks and various other babies already potted on!  I'm hoping to have some Pantano earlier than ever this year - I can't wait to taste that meltingly delicious Mediterranean flavour again! People who don't eat seasonally miss so much. Nothing imported can ever give that same anticipation of enjoyment. The next week or so is about the right time to sow tomatoes in most average years - because you don't want your plants to get too big, too early - or you won't be able to keep them warm if it's a very cold spring. On the other hand - if you sow very much later than the middle of March - you'll be half way through the summer before you get any ripe tomatoes at all! 
 
 
 
I like to eat my first ripe tomatoes - always the dependable bush variety Maskotka - in the first week of June. Maskotka is already potted on and has four 'true' leaves. It should fruit really early if we have a decent spring. Sown in a warm propagator now - most tomatoes should be just about the right size for planting out in early to mid-May. I sow mine in 85 cm (or 3&1/2 in) square pots of Klassman certified organic peat-free seed compost - but any size pot will do fine as long as you make sure they're clean and you're sowing into a good reliable seed compost. 
 
 
I like to use square pots because they fill up the propagator space nicely, with no gaps for heat to escape.  What small gaps there are I fill up with scraps bubble wrap to ensure absolutely no heat is wasted and that the propagator doesn't overheat. I fill the pot with compost and firm down gently, make a hole with the end of a pencil or biro about 1/2cm deep in 4 or 5 places - one at each corner and one in the middle - put a seed in each hole - cover them with vermiculite, gently water the pot - letting any excess drain away, label them (important) and then cover them with a plastic bag. Most tomatoes take about 4-5 days to germinate and most modern F1 varieties will pretty much all germinate at the same time. Often the non-F1 or old Heritage varieties may stagger their germination over as long as 2-3 weeks. That's a fascinating way that nature ensures their survival, so that some will usually be successful and will keep the species going. So don't give up after a week or so - they can often take longer depending on the variety - anything up to 3 weeks I've found. Tomatoes, like people, are all different! They'll be able to stay in those pots until the roots are almost filling the pots - then you can gently split them up and pot them on singly. If you don't have a heated propagator, you could germinate them in any warm place like an airing cupboard, or the back of your range cooker if you have one, but then bring them immediately out into the light as soon as they are up above the surface of the compost. Then a really light windowsill is OK for them if you don't have any heated space in a greenhouse - but be sure to bring them inside the room at night before you close the curtains, so they don't get chilled - and if the windowsill is south facing you will also need to shade them from strong midday sunshine, or put them on a different windowsill if it's very sunny because they will fry! It is surprising how strong the sun can be at midday in March - and last week I sat in the polytunnel at lunchtime and for the first time I felt the sun actually burning my face. It was a good feeling - but not good for too long! 
 

Use Peat-free seed Composts

I can't stress enough just how important it is to use a really reliable, organic, peat-free SEED compost. Don't use a 'multi-purpose' compost as they may contain far too much fertiliser which may burn the young roots. Many seeds are very sensitive to a high nutrient level in the compost - and seed is expensive so you can't afford to waste it!  Added to that it's especially important that they are peat-free - and if you're a regular reader you will already be familiar with the many environmental reasons why NONE of us should be using peat in ANY form in the garden! I talk about it so often I won't repeat them again here.
 
 
I always try to share my money saving tips here in my blog - but compost is one example where trying to save money is false economy. In my experience - you get what you pay for!  There are a few peat-free composts available now from DIY multiples, but I've tried most of them and they were all dreadful! They weren't organic either! I personally prefer organic as artificial fertilisers discourage soil life - something that organic gardeners always try to encourage.Several garden centres here are now stocking my favourite organic peat-free composts  - made by Klassman, botht the seed and the potting composts. They are by a very long way the very best composts of any sort that I've ever used!  In Ireland, Klassman composts are available by mail order from Fruit Hill Farm -  https://www.fruithillfarm.com/  (the Irish importers) but the postage is quite expensive and will cost you as much as just one bag of the compost!  If your local garden centre doesn't stock it then ask them to! If you're anywhere near north Dublin,  White's Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co Dublin (on the old main Dublin-Belfast road) also stock it now too - http://www.whitesagri.ie/Products/GardenAllot.aspx
 
 
Organic peat-free compost is a bit more expensive than some of the others I'll grant you - but as I've so often said - believe me it's worth every single cent. I wouldn't sow valuable seed into anything else. Seed is so expensive now that you only have to lose a couple of packets and that would have paid for a bag of decent compost!  Being peat-free you can also feel good about not destroying peat bogs and preserving biodiversity too! And before you say that making it miles away in Germany isn't very environmentally friendly - making it in bulk, from organically grown plant material, is actually a carbon-friendly activity - and shipping it in bulk to the UK and Ireland is many times less destructive, less carbon-emitting and so much better than digging up our precious, biodiversity-rich peat bogs!
 
 
I don't need as much of the seed compost as I do the potting compost, generally only getting through 2-3 bags a year even with a big garden and growing all our own food. If you only have a small garden and the bag of seed compost is more than you think you'll use in a year then you can always split it with a friend. Although if kept undercover I find it doesn't go 'off' like other composts, and will last for quite a long time - at least 2 years - as long as you keep it dry and cool.  I've even used 3 year old compost and it gave perfect results. Make sure that wherever you buy the compost, they have also kept it dry and cool. Never ever buy saturated composts that have been sitting out in winter weather without being covered! If the compost hasn't been stored properly - the natural ingredients in it will have changed and plants may either be starved or get diseased. White's Agri are also the Irish agents for my favourite organic plant foods - the 'Osmo' range. The liquid tomato feed is brilliant and thoroughly reliable, as are the other products. 
 

Potting on tomato seedlings 

My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)
My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)
I always move my tomato seedlings out of the warmest propagator (18degC./65deg.F+) and put them onto the more gently heated mat (about 10degC./50degF+) as soon as they have their first 'true' leaves showing - otherwise they can quickly become very 'leggy', (or etiolated) from too much warmth without enough light. After a few days - I separate all the seedlings out of the small square pots they were germinated in as soon as they are big enough to handle, potting them on individually into quite small pots like white plastic cups - which conveniently and vitally can be written on with permanent marker so I know what variety they are. These have a slit for drainage cut into either side across the cup bottom with scissors. I always pot on twice before planting as potting straight into a large volume of compost can lead to rotting, if the roots get too wet. It also means that the smaller pots take up far less valuable space on the heated mat. Warm space is always at a premium at this time of year and I don't like to waste energy. The plastic cup potting is an interim measure before their final potting on into recycled milk cartons - as these are far too big for very small seedlings. I find that milk cartons are deep enough to give them really good root room until planting later on and again are handy as you can write their name on each carton - rather than using a label which could get lost. Growing so many different varieties of tomatoes - in some Tomato Festival years as many as 48 - this is very important for me or they're easily mixed up!  I start saving milk cartons now - the family know that from the beginning of March milk cartons are not to be put in the recycling bin or I scream! While they may not be the most attractive greenhouse feature in the world - they're very effective! 
 
 
I'm constantly shifting things around the heated space at this time of year - a bit like playing musical plants!  I know it seems a lot of bother - but it's very little trouble actually - and a pleasant job that's well worth doing to be able to eat really ripe tomatoes on 1st June!  No plastic-wrapped, carbon-intensive, imported imposter of a tomato can ever possibly compare with the flavour of a sun-warmed, home grown one, picked and eaten straight off the plant! The aubergines will be potted on in the same way. They'll all spend a few weeks inside the light plastic cold frame on the heated mat. This prevents possible cold draughts from the open tunnel doors. I have the top of the frame open - with bubble wrap pegged to canes higher up around the side for the first week or so. Then I remove that - and finally they'll all go out onto the other mat without the frame to make way for the cucumbers and peppers - which appreciate a bit more early warmth. 
 
 
Any bubble wrap you can salvage is really useful - always save it - even tiny amounts. It makes extra insulation for propagators tops at night - and even the smallest bits can be used to tuck in between pots to fill in any spaces between pots inside the propagator or on heated mats to stop heat escaping, thereby saving energy and also stopping it overheating through working too hard to replace any heat lost from gaps. It's amazing how many pictures I see on social media of propagators with a few pots sitting in the middle and with no insulation around them - this means that the propagator is losing heat the whole time. Filling up empty spaces with bubble wrap or some other insulation like fleece will save energy and saves money!
  
 
By the way - if you're using a heated propagator - it's important to wipe the moisture off the inside of the propagator lid every day - where it tends to condense. If you don't do that - it can drop down onto seedlings and possibly cause fungal diseases in the warm, moist atmosphere. Attention to detail is always the key to successful propagation, or in fact at any stage of growth. 
 

Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key

 
Good air circulation is really important in a polytunnel at any time of year, but particularly from now on. Trays and pots of all sorts of other seedlings are already jostling for space in the propagator and on the heated mat. From now on - the hardier ones, like broad beans, peas, lettuces, cabbages, calabrese and cauliflowers have to take their chance just under fleece in the main part of the tunnel at night, without artificial heat, as there are so many others, like celery, tomatoes and onions, and tender bedding plants like nicotiana and french marigolds that still need that extra bit of warmth just to germinate. I stand the trays and pots of the more hardy types of veg. on black polythene on a spare tunnel bed. The black polythene absorbs the rays of the sun during the day (if there are any!), heating up the ground underneath, and this amazingly keeps them about 4 deg C warmer under their double fleece 'duvet', than the ambient temperature in the rest of the tunnel. So far this year - doing this has saved my extra-early potatoes - finger's crossed. During the day I uncover them, normally when the sun gets high enough to start warming the tunnel up a bit.(around 9 or 10 am-ish). If you don't do this, stagnant moist air gets trapped under the fleece, encouraging disease.. Later on, depending on the amount of sun, I open one or both of the doors at either end for more ventilation, as long as it's not too windy. In the evening, around 4.30 or 5pm I then re-cover those crops that are 'fleeced' at night, and close the doors. In the next few days more frosts are forecast - so make sure anything vulnerable is covered at night!  Frost does an awful lot more damage once plants are starting to grow more quickly again - as they are now. 
 

Shading small seedlings is important from now on

Any sunlight is getting much stronger from now on, so I keep some fleece suspended well above the small seedlings on the propagating bench in the tunnel - in order to shade them at midday if the sun suddenly comes out. In the greenhouse it's a lot easier, you can just shade the glass by painting on 'Coolglass' paint - a powder which you mix with water and paint onto the glass. Mix it up in an old measuring jug or similar, put into an old baking tin or paint tray and use a paint roller or soft household sweeping brush to brush it all over the roof and about half way down the sides. Do this in dry weather, then once dried, it won't wash off again in rain. It just cleverly turns clear again when wet - letting more light in. Heavily abrasive hail may damage it, but you can re-apply it, and then in the autumn you can remove it by just brushing it off again on a dry day. Unfortunately the tunnel is too big and difficult to paint unless you have a helicopter! So fleece or shade netting is the only answer there. 
 
 
While on the subject of fleece - another of my money saving tips.  It's a lot cheaper by far to buy a big roll of it from your local agricultural supplies shop. You'll get one for around 20 euros or so, and then you can then split it up with friends. A small packet of fleece from a garden centre or DIY store will cost you almost the same - though in some you can buy it by the metre from a large roll.
 

The Vegetable Garden in March - 2020

March contents:  Growing our own health has never been MORE important!.... Our garden friends are waking up..... 'Seat of the pants' gardening!..... How to get ahead with your veg gardening even if it's too wet outside.....Time to sow leeks......My unconventional method of sowing onions and leeks to cheat the weather!.....Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions......Make sure there's no hiding place for slugs.....How to make an protected propagating area outside if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel.....My easy, slug-proof 'Moat Method' to keep slugs out of propagating areas!.....Improving difficult Soil.....Soil Matters!.....My peculiar method of planting potatoes in pots to transplant for outdoor cropping!
  
My immune-boosting chicken, shiitake mushroom and vegetable stew, with wholegrain barley - packed with polyphenol phytonutrients
My immune-boosting chicken, shiitake mushroom and vegetable stew, with wholegrain barley - packed with polyphenol phytonutrients
 
Growing our own health, by growing some of our own fresh food, has never been MORE important!  And the good news is that even if you've never done it before - it's easy and something you CAN do! It isn't just good for our physical health - but for our mental health too!
 
I'm what I call a 'doer' - I always find it so much more helpful to do something positive and proactive to help to relieve my feelings whatever the situation, rather than just passively watching endless soap re-runs, TV game shows or old Nature documentaries.  Even when I was unable to walk for several months many years ago after a bad fall, after which I contracted viral meningitis with almost 2 years of M.E. or chronic fatigue syndrome afterwards, and again a couple of years later after I had spinal surgery, I spent a lot of that time reading (no internet in the early 1980's!) and researching disabled gardening in raised beds, the best fruit trees to grow in our climate which would pollinate each other, how to encourage Nature, and planning my eventual garden here in minute detail. It's amazing how hopeful and positive it can make one feel, and just how much time it can pass.  And as I've always said - dreams are free - but they can nevertheless be priceless for one's mental health!  I've always found that doing nothing positive and simply reacting to situations makes me feel ten times worse.  These days if I'm really worried about anything - and if it's something I can't do anything about - then I always make soup or do some weeding! This amuses the family who always recognise the symptoms without fail!  But both occupations are incredibly therapeutic, have benefits for our physical and mental health, and seem to empty the mind of worries - even if only temporarily.  I made the soup (or stew) above last night - it was packed with tons of healthy polyphenol antioxidants from all of the vegetables and the wholegrain barley it contained, and.anti-viral compounds from the long-simmered chicken bones and pieces leftover from the Sunday roast. .....Even if some might say that 'Jewish chicken soup' isn't proven to be anti-viral - it's still one of the most comforting things on the planet to eat - and it's what I always crave when I feel I need an immune boost. And you know what they say about listening to your gut!
 
 
Apart from the benefits of growing our own food - lots of people now will possibly be wary of buying fresh salads now because of the possibility of them carrying COVID19 or 'Corona Virus'.  I would also be personally, as I did some research into this and a 2013 study showed that SARS could survive for 10 days on fresh produce, and that appears to be a less serious form of Corona Virus than the current new virus COVID 19 -
 
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12560-013-9114-4    -   'Survival of Respiratory Viruses on Fresh Produce' - here's an extract from that study.....  "Nevertheless, these respiratory viruses were able to survive for at least several days on produce. There is therefore the potential for transfer to the hands and subsequently to the mucosa via rubbing the eyes or nose. In addition, some respiratory coronaviruses (e.g., severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus) and adenoviruses are also capable of replication in the gut and there is thus some potential for acquisition through the consumption of contaminated produce"
 
Although it may be possible to scrub many vegetables with mildly soapy water if they're not going to be cooked (soap is proven to destroy the protective surface of the virus) - you can't do that with tender salad veg like lettuce, spinach, rocket or mustards!  Some people may also be self-isolating at the moment, or even afraid to go out too much in case they or their family may catch it.  in that case you could be a really good friend and drop them some fast-growing salad seeds and a small bag of organic peat-free compost at their door, if they don't already have some. 
 
I saw a scientist saying recently on Twitter that all of a sudden everyone had become a 'health expert' and that they should keep their opinions and dangerous 'quack cures' to themselves!  I certainly agree about the 'dangerous quack cures'!  I don't profess to be a health expert but my opinion for what it's worth, as a mother of healthy, grown-up children who have both faced serious immune challenges and accidents - is that eating a nutritious organic diet and looking after our gut health are vitally important for our overall health and immune system - but that loading up on specific vitamins or so-called individual 'superfoods' won't prevent or cure Corona Virus. There is some evidence that extra vitamin C and zinc can possibly help to prevent or shorten the duration of a virus, alongside eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and not eating loads of processed junk, however deliciously tempting it may be! - But added to fresh produce - fresh air, exercise and managing stress can also help us stay healthy, and may prevent a virus from becoming more severe. Not surprising that growing our own organic food provides all those in abundance.  After all  - it's the food that Nature has been providing for all life on earth for 3.5 billion years, including us!  That's something that many highly qualified, so-called 'health experts' appear to have forgotten!

What if you don't have a polytunnel - or even a garden - can you grow anything? 

This is something which I'm asked a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is YES - quite a lot!  Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, or outside, you can grow in containers - but obviously just on a smaller scale.  You may not become self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and fruit by growing in containers - but you'd be surprised at just how much you CAN grow! If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again!  You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two?  So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything".  Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a windowsill or  balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be far fresher than anything you could buy, a lot healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill! 
 
 
If you've got a path with room to walk on it, then the good news is that you've got room for at least some veg in containers. For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year!  I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg department of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit on each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them. 
 
 
The other good news is that from March until about June - most garden centres will have module-raised lettuce and other veg plants, so if you're a beginner you can get used to growing veg plants first, without the hassle of raising stuff from seed. It's also good news for any of us who are late starters in the vegetable growing season - for whatever reason!
 
 
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago.  I also put a couple of large 10 litre buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew!  Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
 

My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - late March. Shows what you can do in a very small space. Lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs. Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?"  route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
 
 
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows! 
 
 
 
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath-Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy! 
 
 
You don't need a tunnel for container growing - but you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets for upwards of £20 or €25. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store!  They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them! 

Our Garden Friends are Waking up - and They're Such a Welcome Sight

 
Three days ago, while tidying up in the polytunnel, I saw my very first hoverflies and ladybirds of 2020, joining the bumblebees which have already been leaving their nests to forage in there whenever there was a mild day over the last few weeks, despite the wet weather. They are always such a welcome sight and sound - especially now that we are aware that insects are declining so much throughout the world due to pesticide use.  We simply can't produce food without them - and as they also provide food for other creatures like birds higher up the food chain - the rest of biodiversity can't survive without them either. They are vitally important - not just to us but to all of that biodiversity which we are only one small part of. Everything is connected - a fact some seem to forget!  
 
 
All of the what us gardeners call 'beneficial insects' were no doubt venturing out into the relatively warm midday sun to see if there might be any early aphids for a spring brunch or some nectar from all the tunnel flowers. Their appearance reminded me that there are still many more of the organic gardeners' good friends hiding from the weather and from hungry birds among the dry leaves - so it's a mistake to try to tidy up too much just yet. I stopped my housekeeping immediately and left them alone, because tidying too much and disturbing them exposes them to the wrens and robins that are always busily foraging around the tunnel all year round. There is already a robin nesting under the staging which comes out to take a few organic hen food pellets from my hand whenever I'm in there - so I keep a tiny pill bottle of hen food in my coat pocket just for feeding it. It always makes me feel so incredibly privileged to be trusted by such a tiny and vulnerable scrap of nature. The scent of wallflowers, narcissi and primroses wafting up from underneath the blossoming  peach trees, the grapevines swelling their buds and birds sweetly singing, lifts the spirits and gladdens the heart - and it begins to feel like spring has finally arrived at last. But the gales raging outside reminding us to bide our time for a while yet!  But there is plenty we can get on with inside to be ready for when the ground is in a more suitable condition outside
.
 

'Seat of the Pants' Gardening!

 
The last couple of weeks storms seem to have continued "February fill-dyke" in March!  That old saying shows us how mostly much more predictable the weather was decades ago. Sadly the wetter and increasingly erratic weather we're now experiencing is one of the symptoms of climate change that we're clearly going to have to become accustomed to - my scientist son says it's something to do with the jet stream moving.  But whatever it is - it's becoming increasingly obvious that we can no longer rely on the weather progressing as it has done in spring for many centuries. Erratic will become the norm - and February record high temperatures may often be followed by freezing weather and snow in March as we had in 2018! That means that flexiblity, or what I call my - 'seat of the pants gardening' - will have to be the norm from now on if we want to get good food crops. Those gardeners who still go by rules that I see so often repeated from old gardening books will be caught out time and again now by the unpredictable weather. The key thing from now on will be to be flexible, experiment and to see what works best for you in your particular micro-climate. That's what I've been doing all the time for over the last 305 years since I first really began to notice climate change happening.
 
 
One of the things that is an absolute no no, is leaving ANY soil uncovered now in this weather - and yet I'm still seeing so many gardeners on social media proudly displaying their pristinely bare, weed-free plots - even if they don't use weedkillers!  Bare soil is absolute anathema to Nature, it's bad for soil life and is one of the things contributing to climate change. Some may think that their small garden or allotment plot can't make that much difference - but think about it. All of those small plots add up to a huge expanse countrywide - especially when combined with the ugly, yellow, Roundup/glyphosate-treated farmland I see everywhere throughout the country!  A large, bare expanse that is not just polluting groundwater, but also emitting nitrous-oxide from the bare soil - especially where manure or compost is piled onto the soil to prevent weeds germinating and create a nice 'tilth' as it's called - or crumbly soft surface. We should NOT be doing that any more!  If you want to get ahead by getting compost or manure out onto beds - then for heaven's sake cover it afterwards!  We should be doing ALL we possibly can to minimise greenhouse gas emissions like Nitric Oxide, and ground water pollution from excess compost and fertilisers (even if organic), and to preserve precious soil life - as I've been saying for years! Every bit we can do does make a difference, when it's all added up. 
 
 
Anyway - there's nothing that can be done outside yet, and even walking on wet paths damages drainage. The soil here is still so saturated that in many well-trodden places, I'm squelching around in gloupy mud up to my ankles! The route that I use up to feed the hens and collect eggs every day is really treacherous at the moment with all the mud!  It's currently impossible to do anything useful in the kitchen garden even in the raised beds as they are just islands surrounded by water. As a result - all my efforts for the next week or so will be concentrated on sowing more seeds into modules, so that I have nice, big slug-proof plants hardened off and ready to go when things dry up enough to finally start planting. 
 
 
Although, like you,  I'm keen to get out and feel my fingers in the soil, it's still very early days yet, and anything in modules that needs planting will now be potted on before being planted outside. There's no point planting anything just to have it blown out of the ground by gales - it will be safer potted on and growing on quietly in the polytunnel or a cold frame.  Not only is the soil far too wet to do anything - but the soil temperature is colder than normal. It would be a complete waste of both time and seed trying to sow anything into it even in the raised beds! A couple of weeks of being covered with clear polythene now will work wonders though in the places where I need to do any early sowings of carrots etc. so I'm not panicking.  Over the years I've learnt that it's always a mistake to sow too early - as it often results in seeds just sitting miserably there doing nothing and even perhaps rotting. Any gardening - here at least - will have to be restricted to the polytunnels at the moment - but there's plenty to do in there! After the winter storms over the UK and Ireland - I suspect it's the same for most people!
 
 
I already have 4 dozen pots of potatoes planted out in the polytunnel which are growing nicely, and as I always do now - I shall be starting all my potatoes for outside in pots too - which I talk about below. Planting them on the traditional day of St Patrick's Day here would mean them sitting in the now icy-cold, saturated ground for quite a long time before they even venture to put their snouts above the ground! I always try to 'think like a plant' when growing anything - and frankly if I was a tender plant like a potato I think I'd sulk for ages planted like that after all the snow we've had!  Anyway - mine will be ready at least a month ahead of any tubers direct planted. OK it's a bit more trouble - but I believe it's well worth the small amount of trouble to do this, as it means I reliably get good crops earlier and without ever spraying for blight.
 

My peculiar method of planting potatoes in pots to transplant for outdoor cropping!

You could plant well chitted early varieties of potatoes in well-drained soil later this month (is there any after this winter?)!! That's if you've had covers on the soil to warm it up. Remember - even the early ones will take at least 10-12 weeks from planting to cropping but you may have to cover with fleece once they're above ground, if frost is forecast.

I now grow all my outdoor potatoes by starting them off in pots, as it guarantees that I will miss early blight and it's really useful if the ground is still too wet and cold. It's well worth it, as we've had early blight here at the end of May once or twice over the last few years. Some of the potatoes I grow are extremely rare and hard to replace varieties, so doing this guarantees that I won't lose them.  OK - so it may be a bit of a 'faff' starting them off in pots and then planting them out - but no more so than planting out bedding plants - and few people have a problem with that! It just requires a change of mindset that's all! They may occasionally have to be covered with fleece if frost is forecast - but doing this it means that I never have to spray with anything - not even copper based organic fungicides.  My soil is heavy clay and copper can build up in soil creating imbalances and causing other problems. 

I also live in an area which grows a lot of horticultural crops including potatoes - and these are often left in the ground and sometimes not even lifted if it's not financially worth it - with the result that there is more and more early blight around here now. There are also more aggressive new 'super-strains' of potato blight emerging due precisely to this bad practice I believe, which are more resistant to chemical fungicides (as always happens eventually with most chemicals) - so planting early before the weather warms up enough for blight is the only way to avoid it, and absolutely guarantees a crop. As regular readers may know - I'm not keen of the 'Sarpo' varieties, as in my experience here in my local climate, they're really not much more blight-resistant than many of the other varieties I grow. I also happen to think that the Sarpo's are not that tasty either really - so really what's the point? We don't eat tons of potatoes every day as they're very high in carbs -we probably only eat them about twice a week. So despite being able to lower their carb content by about 50% by retrogradation - I would still sooner go to the extra trouble of just starting off my favourite potato varieties in pots just a bit earlier.  I grow about 20 different varieties of great-flavoured potatoes each year, some very rare - especially the purple ones.  I'll be starting all of them off in pots over the next week or so.

People often think that the difference between the earlies, second earlies and maincrops is the time that you plant them - it isn't. The name is what tells you how long it will take them to crop. Early and second early potatoes are the fastest growing and need the shortest time to produce a useful crop, but most will keep just as well as the maincrop varieties. Many become floury and mash well too - particularly Red Duke of York. I also start my maincrops off now too - because they take longer to produce a decent harvest. 

The old traditional way of planting potatoes straight into cold ground on St. Patrick's day no longer works unless you are prepared to use toxic, expensive and often completely useless sprays against potato blight. That method may have worked many years ago - but our climate and weather have changed and become unpredictable -  and so have the fast-evolving new strains of blight. Also if ground is saturated it means planting isn't delayed because you're waiting for it to dry out. Using my method - it's unnecessary to use any sprays, organic or otherwise, so it's much cheaper and healthier too! 

So whatever the weather - there is plenty we can do though, to prepare for when the weather changes. March is the serious start of major production in the garden - up to now anything sown indoors has just been the rehearsal!  Anything we can do to get ahead now, despite the weather, will save a lot of time and hassle later - and lay the foundations for good crops. Otherwise work starts to pile up - and if it does gardening can become a bit of a stressful chore, if you're trying to grow all your own food like we try to do here. It's meant to be enjoyable as well as productive!  The birds are already gearing up for the breeding season though. The sparrows are all chasing each other round and arguing over nesting sites as usual and it's almost impossible to concentrate on any writing, because the starlings are performing their noisy morning ablutions in the gutter just above the back door, accompanied by much splashing, cat calling and 'wolf-whistles'! I can see them from my kitchen table 'desk' beside the kitchen window and they are so entertaining! 

 
How to get ahead with your veg gardening even if it's too wet outside
 
If you're impatient to start sowing seeds - then do it in modules inside and wait another couple of weeks or so before risking any expensive seed outside. The ground is still far too wet even in the raised beds, which drain far better that vegetable beds on the flat. In the meantime if you haven't got ground covered, then cover it immediately with clear polythene - this will warm the ground up and start it drying out.  If you've had ground covered for a few weeks with clear polythene or cloches to warm it up and you live in a warm area - you could start to sow some of the hardier veg. like peas and broad beans outside in a week so - but only if the weather gets milder. Seeds will germinate far more reliably, you'll lose far less and they'll crop much earlier if you sow them in pots or modules indoors now, then you'll be able to plant them out in a few weeks. That way you won't waste any expensive seed and you'll actually fit more crops into the growing year because you're not wasting 'ground time' waiting for something to warm up enough to grow. 
 
 
At this time of year you can often be waiting 3 weeks for something to germinate outside in cold wet soil and all the while they're sitting there in the ground, they're vulnerable to slugs and rotting because of the wet conditions.  Sowing them in modules on a warm windowsill indoors,or in a sunny cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel now means you can get a head start. They'll germinate quickly, be far healthier and be way ahead of anything sown outside. I actually find it much easier and more reliable to sow most of my veg. in modules now anyway, it saves so much on expensive seed, avoids unnecessary waste from thinning between plants, ensures that plants don't get a check when transplanting and that I don't have any gaps caused by slug damage. In the meantime your plants will be growing away beautifully - in a snug, slug-free environment!  The plants will be big enough to withstand the odd slug nibble without being totally wiped out if they're bigger when they're planted. Then when soil conditions allow, you'll be able to plant up beautifully organised, gap-free rows in your veg beds! I love this kind of instant planting - it's so satisfying. 
 
 
Module seed sowing is a also a great method for beginner gardeners. Firstly, one of the great things about planting things out you've raised in modules is that you don't have to spend hours of back-breaking work trying to get the perfect seedbed that some gardening magazines and books recommend! After which either heavy rain can often compact and 'cap'  the soil, or more heartbreaking - slugs may eat them overnight before you even noticed they'd germinated! Another reason module sowing is a great method for beginners, is that you can learn to easily recognise clearly each type of seedling. This is much more difficult to do in the open ground - when you've got lots of other weeds etc. germinating. It's also easier to get the right sowing depth, often critical for good germination. And best of all - there's no slugs!! More on that topic later!
 

Time to Sow Leeks 

Leeks sown in modules of peat-free compost last yearLeeks sown in modules of peat-free compost 
 
I'm going to sow my favourite leek Bandit later on today - just as I'm using some of the last of them in the delicious smelling chicken stock (or bone broth as some now call it) that's bubbling away aromatically on the range right now.  I was a bit too late sowing them last year - I didn't sow them until the beginning of April and they weren't quite as large as usual. It's surprising the difference three or four weeks makes even this early in the year. Above Bandit is pictured growing in one of the raised beds a couple of years ago, with sugar loaf chicory in background. In the foreground the bed is covered with clear polythene to dry it out and warm it up, as I mentioned earlier. Seed of Bandit is available from several suppliers now. It is a wonderful late variety that's very healthy and disease-resistant, very reliable and great for organic growing. It's also one of the best tasting leeks in my opinion and a really valuable late vegetable when supplies are starting to run short. I usually multi sow it 3-4 seeds per module and then plant them out later, just as they are, if only 3 germinate. At roughly 1ft/30cm spacing - they make a good bunch of 3 which I find a really convenient size to dig up for most meals. If four come up then I carefully detach one and plant them singly for even bigger leeks. I sow them in exactly the same way as I sow my onions - in module trays of peat-free compost - as I describe in the polytunnel section of this month's diary.
 
 
If you still have leeks in the garden but need to get on with preparing the space they're occupying for different crop - they are very good-natured about being gently lifted with roots as intact as possible and 'heeled-in' - to use the old-fashioned phrase - somewhere else. A shady spot is good as they will then last much longer before starting to produce flower buds later on - so you don't have to use them in too much of a hurry! Just dig a small trench not too deep and put all the leeks together in a short row. No need to space them out too much. Then back-fill the trench with some good soil, water them and they'll be happy there for ages. Be careful not to damage the tops too much when doing this - as they're actually the most nutritious part of the leek - with loads of vitamin A. I can never understand why people cut off the most nutritious and I think delicious bit! I suppose that because they see it done on the ones for sale in supermarkets and other shops - but that's because the tops get so easily damaged and would look very tatty if left on when they're being sold! I think it's really criminal to cut off half the leek and waste it though!
 

My unconventional method of multi-sowing onions and leeks to cheat the weather!

Onions from seed are always crop far more successfully than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in onion white rot disease which sets may sometimes do. That can be even more likely in a wet year - and as it can survive for up to 20 years in the soil, destroying all your onion crops - you really don't want it!. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them, if you get a move on and sow them now! I've been multi-sowing my onions and leeks for about 35 years now. It saves pricking out and gives me exactly the size onions I want for various different kitchen uses.
 
 
I have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when anything sensitive needs planting out from modules. After sowing them in module trays, as soon as the roots start to show through the bottom of the modules - I then sit the module tray into a larger tray of peat-free potting compost. This means that instead of wrapping around and around inside the modules - the roots will immediately start to explore a bit further. I find that despite this involving lifting them gently later in order to plant - I get far fewer 'bolters' this way. I also grow on my leek seedlings leeks this way too.
 
  Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting in a larger tray of peat-free compostOnion seedlings in a module tray, sitting in a larger tray of peat-free compost
 
 
I first thought of this particular trick when I was behind with my work in the garden for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time. This meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and is far more likely to cause bolting. What I do is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and then just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily completely unawares and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - take each plug of multi-sown plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success a few years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as usual as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long. 
 
 
  
Experience is always the best teacher - and like many of the odd things I do, while it may not be not the most conventional way of doing things - it works!  Being 'conventional' has never bothered me very much though!  I've always felt that 'conventional' was there to be challenged - particularly if it didn't suit my hectic lifestyle, with so many other things to do! Given that we now also have to cope with unpredictable and erratic weather patterns brought on by climate change - it means that we can often be delayed and unable to do jobs when we would like to! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience. I would otherwise often have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on to avoid plants getting a check - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often as important as saving money for me! If you don't do this, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. As a result - they will then be far less efficient, the plants will get a check and won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and may be more likely to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they will start to root into the matting - the roots then get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a severe shock that many of them will definitely 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing the nice firm, ripe, long-keeping bulbs that you want.  I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always did - and we are all so busy! 
 
 
Although leeks aren't quite as sensitive to being moved as onions - this is still a very useful trick that works really well for them too - especially if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way. If you have time beforehand you could row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed if they are large enough instead of doing this and plant them out as usual later - but if they're still small that's risky as they're far more vulnerable to slugs!  This way success is guaranteed!
 
 
Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals just because that's how it was always done is rather outdated now. Our climate is definitely changing and we'd better learn to be adaptable and think laterally. That's why I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
 
 

Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions

If you've had a lot of slug problems in the past - then putting some black polythene cover, cardboard or anything else which blocks light on beds is a useful thing to do right now, if you haven't done that already. As the beds start to warm up a bit slugs will collect just under the surface rather than going deeper underground. The dark fools them into thinking they're safely out of sight and you can just peel back the polythene and dispose of them in whatever way you like - but just make sure they're truly dead! 
 
 
What you do after collecting slugs is up to you. My favourite way is to snip them in half with some long sharp scissors - or feed them to my hens who love them - although some people are squeamish about that. It really freaks them out - but don't forget slugs are food for many birds and other wildlife who are now absolutely desperate for food - so steel yourself and just think about them! 
 
 
Odd how people can be so squeamish about doing something which is a far kinder death and far less likely to kill something else than using poisonous slug pellets! Out of sight out of mind I suppose! If slugs and snails are just snipped in half without being poisoned - it means that hungry wildlife can still eat them with absolutely no danger of being poisoned.  And of course chopping them up makes a much more convenient mouthful for a hungry blackbird or thrush! I find it also helps to think about the crops you may lose if you don't do that! Then you'll find that using the scissors becomes much easier!
 
 
Birds don't seem to like the really huge slugs - they prefer them once I've cut them in half with my sharp scissors (dainty appetites obviously!) - and I don't mind obliging in the least!  Either that or I give them to the hens who have great fun with the really big ones - playing a sort of 'slug tag' - running around with a big one dangling  in their beaks while being chased by all the others before finally gulping it down! (more protein for the eggs!!) Cutting them up is not only probably kinder to them - a fast decapitation rather than a slow death from poisoning - but it's also much the most wildlife friendly and environmentally sound way of dealing with slugs.
 
 
I know some people area a bit squeamish about slug snipping - but believe me - it 's a lot easier after you've lost a few expensive rows of carrots or lettuces to the little blighters! They say committing murder is always easier after the first time! Please don't be tempted to use poisonous slug pellets - even organic ones can poison some creatures - especially some greedy pets. Slug pellets don't just potentially poison wildlife, they also pollute our groundwater - so I'm delighted to hear they will be banned soon outdoors!
 

Make sure there's no Hiding Place for slugs!

 
Hiding a lettuce leaf under a slate is a good way to trap unwary slugs!Hiding a lettuce leaf under a slate is a good way to trap unwary slugs!
 
I tend to use a combination of different approaches for dealing with slugs and it works well for me. As the garden warms up, the weeds start to grow,  and keeping them down in and around vegetable beds will prevent slugs from hiding there and coming out at night to wipe out your crops.
 
 
Keeping any grass paths next to veg beds mown really tight is key too, as it also allows birds to see slugs and snails more easily and pick them off and it stops the paths being a convenient hiding place! Occasionally I might use beer traps, but they don't always work. They can be useful if you have a big problem, which you will do if you allow your plot to become weedy and overgrown, or may have if you're starting on a new plot. I find if you get rid of slugs my way, there's generally very few left after that. Pieces of slate or well-anchored small bits of black polythene placed along rows and at the edges is very good too - especially along rows or in between vulnerable plants. Slugs will hide under the slates thinking they're safe! Not so! You can just have a quick look underneath and scrape them off into a container every so often. Ducks are very partial to slugs too. I used to keep a lot of Khaki Campbells and rare breed ducks like Silver Appleyards here many years ago, before the fox problem became too bad around here. Ducks hate being shut up and they used to patrol happily around the vegetable garden hunting for slugs - which wasn't a problem as long as juicy duck treats like lettuces were well covered! If you moved a bit of black polythene in the vegetable garden back in those days - you'd nearly be killed in the rush - with quacking ducks all piling in from all directions with great gusto, to be the first to grab them and greedily guzzle them up! They were such sociable, intelligent creatures and used to come if I called their names - I do miss them!
 
 

How to make a protected propagating area outside if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel

 
With ground far too wet to do anything in veg. beds - organising a small propagating area outside is a good job for a sunny day. Even if you have a tunnel or greenhouse - it's always useful when things get busy to have an extra area where you can stand things that are 'hardening off'. It needs to be in a well lit, sheltered but not shady area - where it won't be too sunny later on.  As a bench - you could use an old table or a even couple of planks resting on some blocks, so that your seed trays are off the ground. This prevents slugs from reaching them. If you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel this is a really good slug proof way to raise seedlings outside - which you can further improve by the addition of a cheap cold frame, cloche or home-made polythene frame to give seedlings a little extra warmth and also protection from heavy rain and wind. It's also a great place to 'harden off' safely any seedlings raised indoors in modules. 
 
 
Module sowing at home is also a great way to get your plants going if you have an allotment, which may not be near enough to pop down to every so often to check on slugs etc. It's obviously much easier to keep an eye on seedlings if they're just outside your back door - and a few modules or seed trays really don't really take up that much room. As I've said many times before - it's not just easier to protect them from slugs if your propagation area is raised - it also means that they're at a reasonable height to tend, which is great relief for a bad back! Then you'll have nice big plants ready to plant out that are big enough to withstand the odd nibble from a slug or two without losing them altogether.
 
 

My easy slug-proof 'Moat Method' to keep slugs out of propagation areas!

Over 40 years ago, before I had a tunnel or greenhouse,  I came up with a brilliant way to prevent slugs and snails from getting into my seedlings! I had a home-made cold frame placed on an old metal legged table and after much thought I invented what I called my 'Moat Method'! This involved putting each table leg sitting in a big metal can of water - that way, there was absolutely no way for the slugs to even be able to climb up there! If your table is wooden - then just cut off the bottoms of four plastic bottles and sit the table legs in those so that they stay dry while sitting in the water and won't rot! Simple! 
 
 
Slugs can do a lot things - but the one thing they can't do is swim!! (They do try bungee-jumping though! Occasionally dangerously suspending themselves on a long thread of mucous from the roof of the tunnel - not nice when you walk into them unsuspectingly!) Just make sure your table, seed trays pots etc. are completely slug-free to start with and then you won't have a problem! A favourite place for them to hide is between the inside of seed trays and the module inserts, or under pots. Keep an eye out for their 'give away' silver slime trails, even really tiny slugs can decimate a tray of precious seedlings like lettuce or carrots very quickly, so check under seed trays etc. from time to time. It's also a good idea to cover brassica or carrot seedlings with something like Enviromesh to keep cabbage root fly and carrot fly out from now on as the weather warms up, and old freezer baskets or chicken wire are useful for keeping sparrows and some other small birds out - who sometimes seem to enjoy scratching up tiny seedlings just for the sheer hell of it! If you have a pigeon or pheasant problem having netting over them prevents them getting into them too. Mouse traps are also essential here too - I lose more to mice than anything since I don't have an effective cat! They've all my broad beans this year even though they were already 2 inches high!
 
 
My 'moat method' works perfectly for vine weevils too if you have something really precious you don't want to lose like auriculas which are very prone to vine weevil damage. After ensuring that there are no vine weevil grubs in their compost - just sit their pots on something raised above a saucer of water. The female vine weevil bugs won't be able to crawl up into the plant pot as they usually would - because they can't swim either! Propagating in modules in this way means you can deal with any slug or pest problems in your vegetable beds at the same time as raising your plants elsewhere. This gives you the absolute peace of mind of knowing that you'll have really nice strong plants to plant out in a few weeks time with no losses to slugs, even if you haven't managed to get every last one by then! 
 
 
I sometimes feel the garden is under siege from all sides - but there's always a clever organic way of defeating everything with a little thought and effort - and it's so much more satisfying using your wit, rather than harmful chemicals!  I really love what I call 'instant gratification' of module raised plants too - there's nothing as satisfying as looking at really well-grown plants, planted neatly spaced out, in rows without gaps in a well prepared bed. That is except eating them - naturally!  Neatly ordered, well-grown veg. are every bit as beautiful as any herbaceous border!  I've already covered my particular method of sowing seeds into modules in February's veg. garden and polytunnel diaries - and you can find details of all the veg. that it's possible to sow now in my 'What to sow now' section for March.
 

Over the next week or so - whenever it's dry - I'll be uncovering the empty beds in my kitchen garden and, letting the air in to dry them out even more - if it's not raining! Doing that also lets the birds clear pests like millipedes, wood lice etc. They'll be grateful for anything they can find as food is very scarce right now. Cover the beds up again before any rain is forecast - and if the cover excludes light - like black polythene - this will also help to stop weeds seeds germinating. So no need to panic if the soil's too wet to work. If you can see plenty of weed seeds germinating, when the soil outside has dried up a bit - that will show the soil should be warm enough to sow the hardier things outside - no need for expensive soil thermometers - Nature shows you exactly when the soil's warmed up enough for growth.
 

Improving difficult soil 

I'm often asked what is the best way to improve soil - and I always say - grow things in it! I know that sounds a bit like a daft or clever reply - but no one starts off with the perfect soil (if there is such a thing - except from an individual plant's perspective). That is unless they've inherited an old garden that's been worked organically for countless years. I think you can turn even a 'builder-ruined' soil into something reasonable within about three years - I've done it! The proof of the pudding is good, healthy crops. Just keep adding compost, well rotted manure, mulching (which also excludes light between rows and keeps weeds down) and using green manures. You will be amazed how quickly you'll achieve a really good soil structure.  Calcified seaweed and seaweed meal also help too, as they really get the biological activity going in poor, very compacted soil - encouraging all the micro-life including worms, which also help to break it down and aerate it. This is the reason why 'double digging' is so bad for soil - because there's a vast army of little workers beavering away permanently just underneath the surface of the soil - and each one has it's own designated level. They don't want to be buried so deep that it takes them years to fight their way back to the surface where they can do the specific job Nature evolved them to do, in those particular top few centimetres!  It would be the human equivalent of a serious earthquake to us! These microorganisms have developed over billions of years to live together symbiotically and do their specific job just in the very top few centimetres of soil - so don't make life even harder for them. And remember - the better you make life for them, the more efficient they are, and the harder they'll work for you! Good organic gardening grows the soil - and the living population in the soil which is what really grows the plants!
 
 
 
There is hope after builders! Sitting on top of my soil now is the 'soil' I started off with 8 years ago in my new polytunnels!  It makes a good contrast with what the soil looks like now!Even if your soil is really rubbish and full of concrete-like clods - as it often is in the so-called 'garden' of a newly built house -  there is hope after builders! Pictured here on top of my soil now is a lump of the 'soil' I started off with 8 years ago in my new polytunnels! It makes a stark contrast with what the soil looks like now! If your soil looks like that - you can raise your plants in modules, then plant them out and they'll be fine. If it's seriously bad the first year, you may have to even make little pockets of compost in the soil to plant into as I mentioned last month - but after that the plants will grow on afterwards quite happily, the roots finding their own way around the clods or even breaking them up, as long as you keep the soil moist. Plants want to grow - as anyone who has ever left a forgotten few spuds at the back of an untidy veg cupboard will know!  I'm sure you probably tidy yours out more often than I do mine, so perhaps you haven't experienced that interesting phenomenon!!  I'm afraid once it gets to this time of year, any thoughts of 'spring cleaning' inside the house completely disappear off my agenda (if they were ever on it in the first place)! That's after I've cleared out any odd packets of nuts etc. that escaped my notice at the back of the cupboard and fed them to the hungry birds!!
 
 
 
Chemical additives or gimmicky 'quick fixes' may seem an attractive idea and possibly produce impressive results for a very short time - but they don't feed all the soil life that works together to ultimately produce the humus that builds a healthy, carbon-fixing soil. They may not produce healthy food with a properly balanced range of nutrients for us to eat either. There is a growing body of strong scientific evidence showing that by emphasizing one particular nutrient in soil - you can seriously unbalance others, and this can even mean that our bodies absorb the nutrients from that particular crop less well than Nature intended. It may be an unpopular thing to say - but Nature still knows best when it comes to growing food - and it is extremely arrogant of humans to assume anything else! There is still so much we don't know about how everything in the soil works symbiotically - and yet in many parts of the world we have already virtually destroyed it completely! 
 
  

The best way to improve any soil and encourage worms to help you too is to mulch, mulch and mulch again! You can't go wrong with that.  Mulching with whatever you have to exclude light also helps to keep weeds down and keeps moisture in - especially important if we get a long drought as we did in the summer of 2018. Grass clippings from untreated lawns are great between potato rows, and the potatoes also enjoy the acidifying effect, which discourages potato scab, often caused by excess lime, or chlorosis (mineral unavailability). This is something which can happen on high pH (limey) soils - especially encouraged by gardeners following the 'rule-books' and adding lime annually to soils!  In the past I used grass clippings on top of layers of damp newspaper, but the birds just loved scratching them all aside to find worms, and the garden started to resemble the local tip!  Now I just use the grass clippings on their own, keeping them a little away from the stems as the nitrogen in them when they're freshly cut can burn soft young growth. Watering any mulches immediately, as soon as you you've put them down prevents this happening. I also use comfrey leaves in the same way, as well as compost. If you're mulching with anything, always make sure that ground is damp first. Not usually a problem in our spring weather! Even a black polythene mulch is better than nothing, but tends to harbour slugs. Although then it's easier to lift it and pick them off from where they're hiding underneath! 

Soil Matters!

A few years ago - I was asked to give a talk for gardeners about how to restore soil, at the launch of the 'European People4Soil' initiative at our National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin. In it I showed some slides of my garden - explaining how it evolved from a totally degraded, virtual moonscape, to the vibrant and productive place which it is today.  I didn't know at the time that it was being filmed for showing on You Tube! Unfortunately I had a static microphone which didn't move when I did, so the odd word escaped here and there, and I was also rushing a bit due to the time alowed for my talk being cut slightly.  But if you haven't seen it before though - you may enjoy watching it! (Sorry about the squeaky door noises and the mobile phones!!) 

Here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0&feature=youtu.be

 

For those of you who may be new readers - this blog isn't just about ways to garden organically. It's also about sharing with you many practical tips for making food healthier and also cheaper, which I've learnt over the 40 plus years that I've been growing for my family! I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you!

The Polytunnel Potager in March 2020

 

March contents: The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival is happening again!...  So why IS genetic diversity in tomatoes important?.... It's time to start sowing as it's officially Spring!...  How I sow my Tomatoes - and other tender crops....  Use Peat-free Seed Composts...... Potting on Tomato Seedlings....  Purple Potatoes... Other crops etc..........

The latest 'must have' accessory in any organic polytunnel potager - a Robin singing in your peach tree. A Star is born!

The latest 'must have' accessory in any organic polytunnel potager - a Robin singing in your peach tree. A Star is born!

 

A Star is Born! 

The latest 'must have accessory in a polytunnel potager is'..... a Robin!!  Little did I think last year when I  was clearing the rapidly developing jungle of brambles and weeds beside my polytunnel that the baby Robin who found all this activity of great interest would become a bit of a Twitter sensation!  The jungle had sprung up in a rather neglected bit where I'd put a lot of pot plants and cuttings for shelter over a while before they found a home - as you do - and I hadn't got round to tidying it.  Then I broke my ankle last March, couldn't do a thing for three months, and with the mostly mild wet winters of the last few of years, the brambles and general mess was growing at an exponential rate! I was utterly charmed by a dear baby Robin, who appeared as soon as I started on it, and got under my feet the entire time I was clearing it. He must have been hatched in a nest somewhere in the 'jungle' there, and he spent several days grabbing every woodlouse and beetle he could spot!  But the best thing was that HE had clearly spotted a very useful pet human, an alternative 'Mum' - who would not only provide him with regular easy meals, a sheltered spot to groom himself or to hunt for insects in wet and windy weather - but also somewhere safe to hide quickly from the Sparrowhawks and Buzzards which are constantly hunting over here due to all the biodiversity - the birds and small mammals - which our organic land attracts.  

 

Robin and I having a working lunch in the polytunnel Assistant Robin scrupulously checking for woodlice and other pests Robin posing in the afternoon sunshine and singing sweetly after work


Robin's antics since have proved without doubt (if there ever was any!) that polytunnels aren't just good for our physical and mental health, as I'm always saying, but they also provide constant entertainment as well - in the form of all the wonderful biodiversity (Robin included) which they can attract if we plant them as I do - with flowers and herbs as well as food for us!  Every day that Robin's antics make me smile or laugh - and he's clearly done that for many other people too.  I'm really thrilled that he has, because right now we all really need something to cheer us up - especially me, having lost a couple of dear friends recently.  There also seems to be so much depressing news almost every day about climate change, plastic pollution of our oceans, pesticides in food, or the dreaded Corona Virus - which is such a worryingly unknown quantity. Perhaps he's also helped to make many people appreciate, all the more, the wonderful biodiversity which we share this planet with - making them even more determined, as I am, to do everything we can to save it. That Robin may be only a tiny fragment of feather, bone and intelligence - but is a big Hero - especially to me! 

 

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival will be happening again this year we hope - so get set sowing those tomatoes! 

 
  
I am delighted that 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' will be taking place at the National Botanic Gardens again this year! -  (Corona Virus allowing) Once again there will be talks and definitely the most fantastically diverse display of tomatoes that you will ever see anywhere in the world! 
It was wonderful to see them all displayed again so beautifully there on the upturned terracotta pots last year - as you can see in the pictures of both sides of the display in the Teak House. The joint effort established a new World Record of 256 varieties - mainly due to the hard work and generosity of The National Botanic Gardens and also of many great tomato enthusiasts. The news of this year's Festival is something else that we need to cheer us up in the miserably cold and wet un-spring-like weather that we're currently experiencing - and at this time of year it will surely re-energise even the most hardened of gardening enthusiasts!
 
 
Everyone is very welcome to take part - so start sowing those tomatoes now!  It would be lovely to get schools involved too - because children are the future growers and consumers of our food, and sadly they increasingly seem to be losing touch not just with where their food comes from and how to grow it - but also how to cook it - instead of opening a pizza packet! So if anyone's connected to any school gardens please get involved - I shall propose that if we could get enough schools interested in taking part, then I will personally present a prize to each one participating - perhaps a gift voucher for seeds - because I think it's so important. There'll be more news on competitions etc over the coming months here on my blog, on Twitter, Facebook Totally Terrific Tomato Festival page and on The National Botanic Gardens events page. Below is the wonderful array of tomatoes which were displayed in the Teak House at the gardens last year. I felt quite emotional leaving it for the last time at the end of the Tomato Festival - because for me it was the realisation of a long-held dream first initiated in the early 1990's - to demonstrate the importance of preserving genetic diversity to the general public, in an appealing and practical way. I couldn't possibly have chosen a better, more appropriate or more beautiful venue for it, and I am very hopeful for it's long term future now. I'm happy to say that Matthew Jebb tells me preparations are already well under way for this year's Festival, as the wonderful staff at the Gardens have been busy propagating over 200 varieties of tomatoes for this year's display - so we might even beat last year's record! To that end - I'd better get on with sowing the rest of mine this afternoon! 
 
 
 
Dr. Matthew Jebb & I, with the wonderful array of tomatoes he carefully transported from the 2017 Tomato Festival to display in the beautiful glasshouse at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin

Dr. Matthew Jebb & I, with the 2017 display of tomatoes displayed in the beautiful glasshouse at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. The 2018 and 2019 record-breaking displays were bigger and even better - taking up the whole Teak House as you can see at the beginning of this blog post.

 

So why IS genetic diversity in tomatoes important? - Whether we grow them or not, most of us eat them!

 
The importance of genetic diversity in food crops is something that I've been trying to make people more aware of for over 35 years now, by running various events - tomato, pumpkin and potato festivals - and also by giving talks at various venues like the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, the Dublin Food Co-op, various farm walks and open days etc.  I had great support in the 1980s and early '90s from the HDRA in this - now Garden Organic - and was given seed of many unusual varieties by their Heritage Seed Library to help in this effort. Potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes are such colourful, attractive and easy subjects to grow for festivals. They're so well-known and almost everyone grows them. People can also easily understand how important they are to our diet - as everyone eats them. But genetic diversity is important in other food crops too and it's really vital to grow the old, so-called Heritage varieties, always being careful to keep them true to type. We don't know when we made need any of the qualities in them, like frost or heat resistance, what changes and challenges climate change may bring about in our weather patterns - and what new pests or diseases changing weather patterns may bring. Everything has evolved to grow somewhere - so there will always be some varieties of staple food crops that are suitable to grow somewhere, just as long as we make sure we preserve all their precious genes in case we may need them in the future. Not only that, they are part of our social history too. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of the growers and gardeners down through the generations before us, who saved the seeds to pass them on down to us. We have an obligation to them to keep their precious legacy going and growing for our children and for future generations to come.
 
 
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
 
 
The fact that we all eat some plant foods means that genetic diversity - not just in tomatoes but all food crops is a hugely important issue that potentially affects all of us. It's daily becoming even more vitally important - with climate change, soil loss, destruction of habitats with subsequent loss of wild crop relatives. It's a subject which I've always cared passionately about. Tomatoes are a wonderfully colourful and joyous celebration of nature's abundance - in fact they're a really 'Terrific' (!) way to illustrate genetic diversity in all it's surprising and eye-popping abundance, to a public who often only know the plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting imposters that pass for tomatoes on today's supermarket shelves! 
 
 
 
To the best of my knowledge - the variety Indigo Rose, pictured here, was grown and also seen for the very first time in the British Isles at the 2012 Tomato Festival! I was browsing the internet looking for tomato seeds in early 2012 - as you do - and came across this stunning new variety. I had run a smaller version of the Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens back in the early 1990's - it was called a Tomato Day which a few enthusiasts attended. But that was really just a tiny seed of the idea - which waited in the background and germinated instantly when I saw Indigo Rose. That sowed the idea of the newer version of the TomFest as a brilliant way to show the wider public the importance of genetic diversity! Indigo Rose was originally bred by Oregon State University, while seeking to breed tomatoes with naturally higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants and it was released in the US for the very first time in 2012.  It's not a Genetically Modified or engineered variety (or GMO) produced in a laboratory. It was naturally bred from a wild tomato growing in the Andes which had very high levels of the purple-coloured anthocyanin phytochemicals in it's leaves and fruit, and it is now the forerunner of many other black tomatoes that have been naturally bred since then. 
 
 
Anthocyanin antioxidants help to give plants protection against many diseases and also protect their skins from sun damage. They do exactly the same for us when we eat them! Anthocyanin phytonutrients are found in many purple vegetables and fruits - and as I often mention - these are scientifically proven to boost our circulation and our immune system. This is why it's so important to include plenty of them in our diets. They are clearly very effective because it's definitely one of the healthiest tomatoes I've ever grown - so I can forgive it's slightly 'less than fabulous'  flavour!  In all we had almost 100 varieties at that first Festival. People were amazed by the unusual look of the Indigo Rose tomatoes and even asked if they were giant blackcurrants! It looks stunning contrasted here with the beefsteak White Queen. Celebrity chefs eat your hearts out!  I must say I found it irresistible when I saw it - it was what gave me the initial idea for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. I would be the first to admit that it's not the most tasty tomato - but what it lacks in flavour it more than makes up for in looks! It does improve on dehydrating though, which concentrates the flavour! But of course it's main attribute is that it is naturally so high in healthy anthocyanins.
 
 
It's always such fun showing people the amazing genetic diversity that there is to choose from - and watching the wonder on their faces when they realise that what they're looking at are actually tomatoes! It's also vital to convey how important it is for our future food security that we preserve the genetic heritage in all of our food crops. If we only grow the commercial varieties that we see in supermarkets - before very long we could be in serious trouble - if they were struck by some incurable disease. There are many genes in wild or naturally-bred tomatoes which could be vital for use in future natural breeding programmes. They could possibly even be the saviour of all tomatoes or other crops, if they were to be threatened in the future by some as yet unknown disease, possibly brought about by climate change.
 
 
Who could possibly imagine a future without tomatoes? Impossible isn't it? I simply couldn't imagine my summer without eating them fresh - or my winter without delicious and healthy tomato sauces or semi-dried tomatoes to use in all sorts of treats! Journalist Fionnuala Fallon asked me a few years ago to name my absolute favourite variety for an article that she was writing for the Irish Times magazine. But as I said to her - it's a bit like asking someone to name their favourite child - impossible, as they all have their different qualities and I love them all!  I definitely get an uncontrollable urge to hit all the 'buy' buttons whenever I look at websites selling unusual varieties I haven't tried! Anyway - someone did say once that my epitaph should be "She never did anything by halves"!  Hmm.... They may have a point there!  I think there could be a happy medium somewhere! I really am a hopeless case! But being a tomatoholic/tomatophile isn't really such a bad thing is it? Given that there's about 12,000 varieties of tomatoes out there - I'll definitely never run out of new ones to try!
 
 
Despite the flooding again and hard frosts - it's time to start sowing as it's officially spring!  
 
Some premature tomato babies for TTTomFest18 enjoying their first taste of sunshine! Looking bit stretched but they'll soon strengthen up.
Never have the benefits of polytunnels been shown more clearly than over the last week! Despite the cold and very wet weather, I've still been picking lots of salads and other veg like broccoli and chards from the polytunnel.  It's beautifully sunny this morning - but it still feels more like winter! We were without electricity to the polytunnels at one point during the recent storm, so after my horror at discovering they had unknown to me spent a night at 0 deg C - I had to hastily bring all my tiny newly emerged tomato seedlings into the house for a few days, until I sorted out an alternative source by running an extension from the outhouse where the freezers live!  As a result - they're looking a little bit stretched to say the least - but they'll soon straighten-up and grow stronger in a few days, now they're getting some proper light again. I still have lots more to sow - so I hope the weather will improve.
 

March is always such an exciting month in the polytunnel - it's my horticultural Narnia and a very 'alternative' world to the one prevailing outside!  In there it's a very different story, spring is already everywhere.
  Primulas, narcissi, violas, feverfew and wallflowers flowering at both ends, and in the little gardens planted around the foot of the grapevines halfway along the sides.There were even a couple of bumblebees in there over the last couple of weeks - anytime there was a rare mild day and the sun warmed the tunnel!  I'm so glad that as always, I'd planted some early flowers in there to attract them in - the scent of primulas and wallflowers is wonderful when I open the door. The peach buds are already swelling and In three or four weeks they will be in full flower. Encouraging bees to visit the tunnel to do some of the pollination by growing flowers for them will mean plenty of juicily delicious peaches again come July - although that seems a long way away right now! 
 
 
The soil temperature outside in the open garden is still very low, and it's so saturated now after all the rain, that there's very little you can usefully do outside at the moment - but to get ahead you can start lots of things off in modules and pots inside for planting out in the garden later. Even if you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel and are only dreaming about one at the moment - there's still a lot of things you could sow on your windowsill that could go out into a cold frame or in a protected propagating area outside, once they've germinated in a week or two. I describe how to organise one made from an old table in this month's Vegetable Garden Diary. That's how I used to do all my seed sowing before I had my first tiny polytunnel - a 6ft x 8ft. Yes - I've been there too - and it encourages you to use your space very efficiently and inventively - something I've never forgotten! I still don't waste an inch in my polytunnel. You can't afford to - they're not cheap items!  I worked out a few years ago that any polytunnel, if it's well organised and properly cultivated all year round, should easily pay for itself within 3 years! Even if you only saved yourself £20 or 25 euros a week on fruit and veg. - within a year you'd have saved enough for quite a decent tunnel. Think about that!
 
 

This is how I sow my Tomatoes - and other tender crops

 

 
Just inside my main tunnel door, on the left, I have a propagating bench. It's a very busy place at this time of year - so much happening and changing every day. So many reliable old friends appearing once again, kick starting another gardening year, and a few exciting new ones too!  At the moment in the warmest propagator there are sweet peppers, chillies, aubergines, celeriac, tomatoes, etc. physalis (also called golden, Inca or Pichu berry),  These are all just starting to appear above the compost. As soon as they do I immediately remove their individual polythene bag covers which have kept them nice and moist up until then. Having each pot in an individual bag means that they stay nice and moist until the seeds have germinated, which helps the seeds to ease their way up out of the compost. It also stops too much moisture collecting around seedlings that are already up, when they need less moisture but still need to be nice and warm. This stops diseases developing. 
 
 
After germination, they spend a few days in the propagator, moving gradually nearer to the front where the lid is propped open a bit for more air circulation, and then as soon they look ready - they get moved out into the frame on the heated mat, which is at a much lower temperature, only supplying a bottom heat of around 50 deg. F. Things get too 'soft' if they're left in the propagator for too long. The heated mat is a roll-out heated foil mat a bit like an electric blanket. It uses far less electricity than the small warmer propagator. It's just warm enough to keep things moving gently along, and they get covered at night with one or two layers of fleece to keep any possible frost off the tops of the plants. It's a good 'halfway house' for plants raised in heat to progress eventually to the main beds in the tunnel for tunnel hardening off. About 20 yrs or so ago, it was discovered that 'brushing' tomato plants a couple of times a day stimulated a growth hormone call Jasmonic acid, which is supposed to have the effect of making them a bit sturdier. A lot of nurseries had a 'boom' which passed over plants to do this a few times a day. I tried it with a very soft, long wallpaper pasting brush - but frankly, I'm not sure it made that much difference to mine. Not pushing them with too much heat and giving them plenty of light and space will produce nice sturdy plants - and you won't risk possibly causing disease by being a bit 'heavy -handed' and bruising tiny seedlings!
 
 
 Tomato seedlings in the propagator - packed tightly together in square pots to be energy efficientTomato seedlings in the propagator - packed tightly together in square pots to be energy efficient
 
 
I'll be sowing the last of my tomatoes this week - I sowed some earlier on to check the germination on home saved seed. It's always good though - so have quite a lot of Pantano Romanesco beefsteaks and various other babies already potted on!  I'm hoping to have some Pantano earlier than ever this year - I can't wait to taste that meltingly delicious Mediterranean flavour again! People who don't eat seasonally miss so much. Nothing imported can ever give that same anticipation of enjoyment. The next week or so is about the right time to sow tomatoes in most average years - because you don't want your plants to get too big, too early - or you won't be able to keep them warm if it's a very cold spring. On the other hand - if you sow very much later than the middle of March - you'll be half way through the summer before you get any ripe tomatoes at all! 
 
 
 
I like to eat my first ripe tomatoes - always the dependable bush variety Maskotka - in the first week of June. Maskotka is already potted on and has four 'true' leaves. It should fruit really early if we have a decent spring. Sown in a warm propagator now - most tomatoes should be just about the right size for planting out in early to mid-May. I sow mine in 85 cm (or 3&1/2 in) square pots of Klassman certified organic peat-free seed compost - but any size pot will do fine as long as you make sure they're clean and you're sowing into a good reliable seed compost. 
 
 
I like to use square pots because they fill up the propagator space nicely, with no gaps for heat to escape.  What small gaps there are I fill up with scraps bubble wrap to ensure absolutely no heat is wasted and that the propagator doesn't overheat. I fill the pot with compost and firm down gently, make a hole with the end of a pencil or biro about 1/2cm deep in 4 or 5 places - one at each corner and one in the middle - put a seed in each hole - cover them with vermiculite, gently water the pot - letting any excess drain away, label them (important) and then cover them with a plastic bag. Most tomatoes take about 4-5 days to germinate and most modern F1 varieties will pretty much all germinate at the same time. Often the non-F1 or old Heritage varieties may stagger their germination over as long as 2-3 weeks. That's a fascinating way that nature ensures their survival, so that some will usually be successful and will keep the species going. So don't give up after a week or so - they can often take longer depending on the variety - anything up to 3 weeks I've found. Tomatoes, like people, are all different! They'll be able to stay in those pots until the roots are almost filling the pots - then you can gently split them up and pot them on singly. If you don't have a heated propagator, you could germinate them in any warm place like an airing cupboard, or the back of your range cooker if you have one, but then bring them immediately out into the light as soon as they are up above the surface of the compost. Then a really light windowsill is OK for them if you don't have any heated space in a greenhouse - but be sure to bring them inside the room at night before you close the curtains, so they don't get chilled - and if the windowsill is south facing you will also need to shade them from strong midday sunshine, or put them on a different windowsill if it's very sunny because they will fry! It is surprising how strong the sun can be at midday in March - and last week I sat in the polytunnel at lunchtime and for the first time I felt the sun actually burning my face. It was a good feeling - but not good for too long! 
 

 

Use Peat-free seed Composts

 
I can't stress enough just how important it is to use a really reliable, organic, peat-free SEED compost. Don't use a 'multi-purpose' compost as they may contain far too much fertiliser which may burn the young roots. Many seeds are very sensitive to a high nutrient level in the compost - and seed is expensive so you can't afford to waste it!  Added to that it's especially important that they are peat-free - and if you're a regular reader you will already be familiar with the many environmental reasons why NONE of us should be using peat in ANY form in the garden! I talk about it so often I won't repeat them again here.
 
 
I always try to share my money saving tips here in my blog - but compost is one example where trying to save money is false economy. In my experience - you get what you pay for!  There are a few peat-free composts available now from DIY multiples, but I've tried most of them and they were all dreadful! They weren't organic either! I personally prefer organic as artificial fertilisers discourage soil life - something that organic gardeners always try to encourage.Several garden centres here are now stocking my favourite organic peat-free composts  - made by Klassman, botht the seed and the potting composts. They are by a very long way the very best composts of any sort that I've ever used!  In Ireland, Klassman composts are available by mail order from Fruit Hill Farm -  https://www.fruithillfarm.com/  (the Irish importers) but the postage is quite expensive and will cost you as much as just one bag of the compost!  If your local garden centre doesn't stock it then ask them to! If you're anywhere near north Dublin,  White's Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co Dublin (on the old main Dublin-Belfast road) also stock it now too - http://www.whitesagri.ie/Products/GardenAllot.aspx
 
 
Organic peat-free compost is a bit more expensive than some of the others I'll grant you - but as I've so often said - believe me it's worth every single cent. I wouldn't sow valuable seed into anything else. Seed is so expensive now that you only have to lose a couple of packets and that would have paid for a bag of decent compost!  Being peat-free you can also feel good about not destroying peat bogs and preserving biodiversity too! And before you say that making it miles away in Germany isn't very environmentally friendly - making it in bulk, from organically grown plant material, is actually a carbon-friendly activity - and shipping it in bulk to the UK and Ireland is many times less destructive, less carbon-emitting and so much better than digging up our precious, biodiversity-rich peat bogs!
 
 
I don't need as much of the seed compost as I do the potting compost, generally only getting through 2-3 bags a year even with a big garden and growing all our own food. If you only have a small garden and the bag of seed compost is more than you think you'll use in a year then you can always split it with a friend. Although if kept undercover I find it doesn't go 'off' like other composts, and will last for quite a long time - at least 2 years - as long as you keep it dry and cool.  I've even used 3 year old compost and it gave perfect results. Make sure that wherever you buy the compost, they have also kept it dry and cool. Never ever buy saturated composts that have been sitting out in winter weather without being covered! If the compost hasn't been stored properly - the natural ingredients in it will have changed and plants may either be starved or get diseased. White's Agri are also the Irish agents for my favourite organic plant foods - the 'Osmo' range. The liquid tomato feed is brilliant and thoroughly reliable, as are the other products. 
 
 

Potting on tomato seedlings 

 
 My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)
 
I always move my tomato seedlings out of the warmest propagator (18degC./65deg.F+) and put them onto the more gently heated mat (about 10degC./50degF+) as soon as they have their first 'true' leaves showing - otherwise they can quickly become very 'leggy', (or etiolated) from too much warmth without enough light. After a few days - I separate all the seedlings out of the small square pots they were germinated in as soon as they are big enough to handle, potting them on individually into quite small pots like white plastic cups - which conveniently and vitally can be written on with permanent marker so I know what variety they are. These have a slit for drainage cut into either side across the cup bottom with scissors. I always pot on twice before planting as potting straight into a large volume of compost can lead to rotting, if the roots get too wet. It also means that the smaller pots take up far less valuable space on the heated mat. Warm space is always at a premium at this time of year and I don't like to waste energy. The plastic cup potting is an interim measure before their final potting on into recycled milk cartons - as these are far too big for very small seedlings. I find that milk cartons are deep enough to give them really good root room until planting later on and again are handy as you can write their name on each carton - rather than using a label which could get lost. Growing so many different varieties of tomatoes - in some Tomato Festival years as many as 48 - this is very important for me or they're easily mixed up!  I start saving milk cartons now - the family know that from the beginning of March milk cartons are not to be put in the recycling bin or I scream! While they may not be the most attractive greenhouse feature in the world - they're very effective! 
 
 
 
I'm constantly shifting things around the heated space at this time of year - a bit like playing musical plants!  I know it seems a lot of bother - but it's very little trouble actually - and a pleasant job that's well worth doing to be able to eat really ripe tomatoes on 1st June!  No plastic-wrapped, carbon-intensive, imported imposter of a tomato can ever possibly compare with the flavour of a sun-warmed, home grown one, picked and eaten straight off the plant! The aubergines will be potted on in the same way. They'll all spend a few weeks inside the light plastic cold frame on the heated mat. This prevents possible cold draughts from the open tunnel doors. I have the top of the frame open - with bubble wrap pegged to canes higher up around the side for the first week or so. Then I remove that - and finally they'll all go out onto the other mat without the frame to make way for the cucumbers and peppers - which appreciate a bit more early warmth. 
 
 
Any bubble wrap you can salvage is really useful - always save it - even tiny amounts. It makes extra insulation for propagators tops at night - and even the smallest bits can be used to tuck in between pots to fill in any spaces between pots inside the propagator or on heated mats to stop heat escaping, thereby saving energy and also stopping it overheating through working too hard to replace any heat lost from gaps. It's amazing how many pictures I see on social media of propagators with a few pots sitting in the middle and with no insulation around them - this means that the propagator is losing heat the whole time. Filling up empty spaces with bubble wrap or some other insulation like fleece will save energy and saves money!
  
 
By the way - if you're using a heated propagator - it's important to wipe the moisture off the inside of the propagator lid every day - where it tends to condense. If you don't do that - it can drop down onto seedlings and possibly cause fungal diseases in the warm, moist atmosphere. Attention to detail is always the key to successful propagation, or in fact at any stage of growth. 
 
 

Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key

 
 
Good air circulation is really important in a polytunnel at any time of year, but particularly from now on. Trays and pots of all sorts of other seedlings are already jostling for space in the propagator and on the heated mat. From now on - the hardier ones, like broad beans, peas, lettuces, cabbages, calabrese and cauliflowers have to take their chance just under fleece in the main part of the tunnel at night, without artificial heat, as there are so many others, like celery, tomatoes and onions, and tender bedding plants like nicotiana and french marigolds that still need that extra bit of warmth just to germinate. I stand the trays and pots of the more hardy types of veg. on black polythene on a spare tunnel bed. The black polythene absorbs the rays of the sun during the day (if there are any!), heating up the ground underneath, and this amazingly keeps them about 4 deg C warmer under their double fleece 'duvet', than the ambient temperature in the rest of the tunnel. So far this year - doing this has saved my extra-early potatoes - finger's crossed. During the day I uncover them, normally when the sun gets high enough to start warming the tunnel up a bit.(around 9 or 10 am-ish). If you don't do this, stagnant moist air gets trapped under the fleece, encouraging disease.. Later on, depending on the amount of sun, I open one or both of the doors at either end for more ventilation, as long as it's not too windy. In the evening, around 4.30 or 5pm I then re-cover those crops that are 'fleeced' at night, and close the doors. In the next few days more frosts are forecast - so make sure anything vulnerable is covered at night!  Frost does an awful lot more damage once plants are starting to grow more quickly again - as they are now. 
 
 

Shading small seedlings is important from now on

 
 
Any sunlight is getting much stronger from now on, so I keep some fleece suspended well above the small seedlings on the propagating bench in the tunnel - in order to shade them at midday if the sun suddenly comes out. In the greenhouse it's a lot easier, you can just shade the glass by painting on 'Coolglass' paint - a powder which you mix with water and paint onto the glass. Mix it up in an old measuring jug or similar, put into an old baking tin or paint tray and use a paint roller or soft household sweeping brush to brush it all over the roof and about half way down the sides. Do this in dry weather, then once dried, it won't wash off again in rain. It just cleverly turns clear again when wet - letting more light in. Heavily abrasive hail may damage it, but you can re-apply it, and then in the autumn you can remove it by just brushing it off again on a dry day. Unfortunately the tunnel is too big and difficult to paint unless you have a helicopter! So fleece or shade netting is the only answer there. 
 
 
While on the subject of fleece - another of my money saving tips.  It's a lot cheaper by far to buy a big roll of it from your local agricultural supplies shop. You'll get one for around 20 euros or so, and then you can then split it up with friends. A small packet of fleece from a garden centre or DIY store will cost you almost the same - though in some you can buy it by the metre from a large roll.
 
 
 

Keep a careful eye out for slugs or other pests in propagating areas

 
 
Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year!Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year! 
 
 
One other thing to look out for in propagation areas are those nasty little grey slugs which can sneak in, clinging to the bottom of seed trays or climb up the sides of the tunnel. I discovered one morning that one had snuck in and mown 1/3rd of my loo roll sown 'Purple Sun' carrot seedlings, which had all germinated beautifully. Good job you couldn't hear the fairly choice language ***** more appropriate for the stable I can tell you!! Probably my own fault for putting a potted plant on the heated mat to get it growing encouraged by the bottom heat. It was a plant of the beautiful silver foliage plant Plectranthus Argentatus. I was in a hurry the day I moved it and don't remember tipping it out of it's pot to check for any pests before putting it on the propagating mat. One learns far more by mistakes sadly!! Aren't I always saying that?
 
 
 
 
Purple Potatoes
 
I recently had a query about the purple potato Purple Majesty - someone asked me if the Sarpo Blue Danube potato also had purple flesh- because they couldn't get Purple Majesty. It doesn't - it has bright white flesh with a purple skin - so you definitely won't get electric blue mashed potatoes from that one! I grew it a few years ago when it first became available - it's one of the 'Sarpo' supposedly blight-resistant ones. Not only did it not have much flavour - but I didn't find it very blight resistant either!  In my opinion - there's no point in growing any potato unless it has a fantastic flavour - even if it has some blight resistance. This year I'm growing a new purple or blue variety - Blue Annaliese - from Fruit Hill Farm, which sounds very promising.
 
 
I've always grown for flavour rather than bulk because I like eating tasty spuds and we don't eat them more than a couple of times a week at the most because of their high carbohydrate content.  I always lower that though, by about 50%, by using a process known as 'retrogradation' - where I cook them all one day, chill them overnight in the fridge and reheat them for eating whenever I need them! This doesn't just save time and energy - but also turns the starch in them into something known as resistant starch - which our gut bacteria love - so doing this is great for our gut health too, as I mentioned on Gerry Kelly's Late Lunch Show lately! It's also a great time-saving tip if you're busy during the week!  I know some who may disagree with me - but taste can be a very subjective and personal thing - often perhaps linked to the perception that 'newer' is better. Not always the case in my experience! Something to do with plant breeders rights means that unfortunately you can't get Purple Majesty seed here in Ireland - so I've always saved my own seed tubers. It has a fantastic 'old baked potato' flavour - despite being a new introduction only a few years ago. It's much the best-flavoured purple fleshed potato too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years - having always been interested in the plant phytocyhemicals they contain.
 
 
There are other purple potatoes I like too. A very old variety - Truffe de Chine - is a salad type with a similar same shape to 'Pink Fir Apple'. It's almost black and has a lovely flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket veg shops. I found mine well over 30 years ago in Harrods food hall - always worth investigating for interesting things to grow if you're in London! It's amazing what you find in there. Vitelotte is another delicious purple-fleshed one which is more blight-resistant than many and good for organic growing - some say this is actually Truffe de Chine - but I've found them to be slightly different. 3 years ago I grew Violetta for the first time - another deep purple one. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some non-organically grown Violetta I tried from a well-known Dublin shop - but growing them without chemicals made a huge difference to the taste - I really loved the ones I grew here! Now a lot more people are growing the purple or blue varieties. Salad Blue is another tasty, easily available variety. A few years ago the renowned potato expert Dave Langford, who lives in Co Mayo, gave me a few lovely old varieties, including a variety he bred himself - called Dave's All Blue 2011, which makes a very tasty mash although it's a bit blight-prone. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots though - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using my method, and I never need to spray, even with copper sulphate.
 
 
 Other Crops  

Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut

  • Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut 
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  •  
  • The overwintered calabrese 'Green Magic' (from Unwins) has yet again come up trumps (sorry!) and it's done really well despite a much colder winter than last year. On the very worst nights it was covered with a several layers of fleece. It's such a sweet variety and not just good for lightly steaming but also really good raw for dipping individual florets into hummus or any avocado dip. It's a terrific variety, thoroughly reliable and long- cropping all year round both in the tunnel and outside. It's the only one I b other to grow now in the tunnel. I sowed two dozen last month in the propagator - one dozen will be planted when big enough into the tunnel, and will crop by May. The other dozen will be hardened off and planted outside, which will make them crop about 3 weeks to a month later in a normal year. This is a good way to spread the cropping time of any crop.Endive 'Riccia Pancallieri' - (blanched on right)


    I like to be able to pick an interesting and varied salad every day all year round so I'm really grateful for luxury of a polytunnel.
     There are still plenty of lettuce, endives and other leaves of various sorts - mostly loose leaf varieties that have cropped really well all winter. 'Lattughino' is one of my favourites - with crispy bronze-tinged leaves. Jack Ice is another - rather like an Iceberg but a loose-leaf type that you can pick all winter and then allow to form quite a nice heart from March onwards. 'Veneziana' an unusual sword shape Cos type and delicious, 'Belize' is another good one - an oak leaf that will also form fat hearts now. Fristina is another excellent crispy loose-leaf type. Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is great for some reliable red colour - and also the Cos varieties 'Marshall' and 'Nymans' - one's really spoilt for choice these days with so many new lettuce varieties every year - but you don't have to go for expensive F1 hybrids - some of the 'value' mixes - like B&Q's are fantastically cheap - 60 cents for 1200 seeds!  Great if you're watching the pennies - costing almost nothing per lettuce! The value mixes mostly contain older varieties that are easy, colourful and reliable for all year round growing - either sown thickly for baby leaves or as individual whole lettuces. The endive pictured here - an old Italian variety 'Riccia Pancallieri' is very bitter when green - which I don't like - but if you blanch it by covering it for 2-3 weeks under a large pot as the old Victorian gardeners did - it is beautiful and really delicious in a late winter salad - with a nice fruity/sweet dressing like my walnut oil/cider vinegar/honey & orange dressing which goes with everything and is full of healthy omega 3 oils. The photo above of the blanched and un-blanched endive side by side really shows what a difference blanching makes!
 
 
Three years ago, on this weekend - after all the fuss about the lack of imported lettuces and other salad vegetables in shops due to the bad weather in Southern Europe, I decided to see exactly how many I could pick from my polytunnel.  Pictured below are 27 varieties which surprised even me - and when picking them to arrange this delicious display - I actually even forgot a couple like lamb's lettuce and Chinese chives! Here's the list which many people asked me for - in no particular order:
 
 
Watercress, Chinese cabbage Scarlette, Giant Italian flat leaf parsley, Cos lettuce Nymans, Red leaf radish, Sorrel, red oak leaf lettuce, ruby chard Vulcan, green Mizuna, frilly leaf mustard, rocket, red-veined sorrel, endive White Curled, red cos lettuce Rosedale, chicory Sugar Loaf, bronze stemmed chard, mustard Yellow Frills, spinach, mustard Giant Red, lettuces Lattughino, Little Gem & Jack Ice, red Mizuna, claytonia, kale Ragged Jack, mustard Red Frills, beetroot leaves McGregor's Favourite.
 
27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
 27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
 

This is one of the most difficult times of year for ventilating greenhouses and tunnels.

 
 
Temperatures can fluctuate wildly now. From freezing at night - to rising alarmingly during the day when the sun comes out, and quickly becoming dangerous for small tender seedlings, even 'cooking' them if one isn't careful!  But at the same time, a vicious March wind can get up seemingly from nowhere, often before a sudden shower, and things can then be a bit draughty to put it mildly!  One also has to be careful that small seedlings aren't sitting in a draught. I'm on a very windy site here, about 400ft above sea level, not far from the coast in one direction, with a lot of open flat land for miles in the other - and until the trees I planted originally grew big enough (including the dreaded Leylandii and eucalyptus) I lost greenhouses on three occasions and a polytunnel!  Without the Leylandii in particular, I wouldn't have a garden here at all. So I appreciate mine. (The starlings always roost in them too - another reason to like them - although my neighbour blames them for harbouring pigeons!) I don't know why some people are so snobby about them. I think it's because they're usually planted in a totally unsuitable place and 'tortured' into being a hedge. As an individual tree, they actually make a very nice specimen if allowed the room to develop properly. - And they need a lot - they are completely unsuitable for small gardens. 
 
 
But I digress........Always watch the weather forecasts and keep an eye on wind direction in particular - a sudden severe gust of wind can rip off tunnel doors - or burst out and scatter panes from greenhouses as if they were confetti. I know that from bitter experience!  Get to know your local weather and prevailing wind direction, always make sure tunnel doors are fastened securely - whether open or shut - and always keep plenty of tunnel mending tape handy!  Apropos of that - I was really sorry to hear that a few local allotment holders had lost tunnels over the winter. I know how heartbreaking that is. But speaking from experience - never, ever, try to re-use hoops from the lighter types of tunnels - they will collapse again far more easily if you do. Recycle them as fruit cages or perhaps to make lower large cloches over veg beds - and save up for a much stronger replacement. As I've said before, a good strong tunnel should pay for itself easily within 2-3 years - even if you save only 20-25 euros a week on fruit and veg! After that you're quids in! If I had to choose between a really good strong polytunnel and an annual holiday in the sun - the polytunnel would win every time. After all - you can sit in there and enjoy the sun all year round and save lots of money at the same time. What holiday does that?
 
 
 

Watering is one of those things you must take a bit of care with too

 
 
A little trouble can save a lot of heartache! I keep a big black barrel full of rain water in the tunnel, so that it's the same ambient temperature as inside the tunnel, rather than bringing in freezing cold water from outside or using the hose. This barrel water I use for watering plants in pots and also seedlings in trays - always watering from underneath. I have a large tray, about 4-5in. deep, and fill that with the water from the barreI, sitting the seed trays in there for a minute or two, until they've taken up just enough water. I prefer to all water seedlings in modules or seed trays from underneath, so that they don't become completely saturated, that way they stay slightly less damp around the stems, which is where 'damping off' disease can quickly attack in seedlings if they're too wet. That's another reason I use vermiculite for covering seed when sowing. Vermiculite is a completely sterile, open medium, which promotes really good air circulation around the stems. When I'm watering crops in the ground, I always water the ground between the plants, rather than directly onto their roots. They don't like a sudden cold shower any more than we do, when they're just beginning to be encouraged into growth by the spring sunshine. Even in the height of summer, I always water between plants - and if at all possible - early in the morning, so that any surface dampness has a chance to dry off before the evening when the tunnel is closed and the air isn't moving - doing this discourages fungal diseases and avoids plant losses.
 
 
Keep on top of weeds now, mulching, hoeing or carefully hand weeding if necessary between crops. Give overwintered leafy crops like chard, spinach and salads a light dressing of a fast-acting organic feed such as worm compost, or if you don't have any compost, Osmo Complete granules. Scatter around the base of the plants, not on the foliage and water it well in. There should still be quite a lot of cropping potential in many things before they finally run to seed, as long as you keep them well-watered as the tunnel warms up and they start to grow more and need more water. Be careful to water in the mornings if possible to allow the surface to dry off before night time though - you don't want a lot of condensation hanging around to create a damp atmosphere and possibly cause disease. Keep up the good housekeeping - removing any dead, diseased or damaged leaves, to avoid disease spreading. Keep slug hunting, it's amazing how much damage one tiny grey slug can do to a nice head of lettuce. They do eventually become less of a problem after a couple of years - however bad they are in a new tunnel at first. Look around when you're tidying dead leaves etc.- that's where they love to hide. Don't use slug pellets - you'll be killing helpful frogs, soil life and birds etc.!
 
 
Cut down and incorporate into the surface, or leave as a surface mulch any previously sown green manures. Worms are getting active in the tunnel now as the soil warms up, and will appreciate a nice hearty breakfast - they'll do a lot of your work for you if you feed them well. Green food is what they like best - not already rotted manure. If you have vacant ground, where you won't be planting until May it's still worth sowing a quick growing 'soft' green manure, like fenugreek, lupins, mustard, red clover, borage and phacelia. Or even early peas that you can use for some pea shoots and then dig in - a double whammy - nitrogen fixing too!  Make sure the varieties fit into your rotations though - and don't follow them with a member of the same family. 
 
 
Bring some pots of early single flowers into the tunnel now to attract early hoverflies, bees and ladybirds, and maybe even a pot of stinging nettles! Yes, you read it right, nettles in a pot! They are one of the most important plants in the garden for feeding early, just emerging ladybirds, which voraciously feed on nettle aphids. These aphids are actually specific to nettles, so don't be worried that they may migrate to other plants - they won't. A few years ago on 1st. April, I was giving a talk to our local Green Party - which I was one of the founders of over 30 years ago with our former Green Minister for Horticulture Trevor Sargent. I took a pot of nettles along  - and it was highly amusing for the first twenty minutes or so- there were some very puzzled faces - until I explained exactly how important they were. I think most of them thought that it was either an April 1st. joke - or I'd completely lost the plot (always a possibility!!)  Don't forget that old classic excuse too - that wildlife loves untidy gardens. That covers a multitude - including nettles - (beneficial companion plants naturally - if nosy neighbours ask!) I've seen masses of overwintering ladybirds in the tunnel so far this year - so I hope the robins and wrens that are currently busy hunting in there don't find them!
 
 

Don't forget that a polytunnel isn't just full of vegetables and seedlings for growing healthy food at this time of year though - it's also full of hope too. That priceless thing we all need plenty of right now!  

 
 
There's always something good to look forward to in a well-planned and well-tended polytunnel.  Most importantly of all - there's always something good to eat too - whatever the weather, as you can see from the salads pictured above. I really couldn't garden without such a valuable space now, particularly after injuring my right shoulder badly over 4 yrs ago. It's always possible to have the soil in perfect condition whatever the weather's doing outside - that makes it so much easier to sow or plant into it. I can even garden when it's dark if I want to - with a light on! The thing one must remember at all times though - is that YOU have complete control and also of course, you have total responsibility. If you really take the trouble to look after things properly though - you will get great results. 
 
I always say that a tunnel is like life - you only get out what you put inAnd like life - with just a little bit of thought and effort you will be more than handsomely repaid!
 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you!)
 
 
 
 

What to sow in March - 2020

Bumblebee on French marigold flower Hoverflies also love single French marigolds Moth on a single marigold
 
       *While we're sowing some food for ourselves - it's more important than ever to sow food for pollinators too! 
 
 
What you can sow now In a heated propagator, for growing in the polytunnel or greenhouse
 
(for growing on later in the polytunnel or greenhouse) 
 
Aubergines - (as early as possible in the month to get the best crops). Bonica F1 is best - this top of RHS trials & AGM about 15 years ago - I don't bother to grow any other now as it's by far the most reliable, alpine strawberries (Reugen a large-fruited var.), globe artichokes, (if sown early in the month, they'll crop outside in autumn this year), dwarf French beans for cropping in pots or in tunnel beds later (choose a fast-growing, disease-resistant variety suitable for early sowing), asparagus, celery, celeriac (early in month) tomatoes, chilli and other peppers, physalis (Cape gooseberries). From mid-March onwards you can sow early courgettes for tunnel growing, and then later in the month melons and cucumbers for warm tunnel cropping. Don't forget melons and cucumbers need to be grown on in consistently warmer conditions than tomatoes to be really successful - they grow very fast and hate to be checked (this applies to pumpkins & squashes too - so wait until next month to sow them in pots if they're for growing outside). 
 
 
*Also sow some single-flowered tender annuals now like Tagetes, single French marigolds (Tall Citrus Mixed' is a good variety), etc.- lots of vital beneficial insects like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths really love these. Remember that by growing single flowers organically you won't just be helping to preserve them - but they will also help you, by helping with your pest control and pollination
 
 
Note - It's vitally important that they are SINGLE flowered, as bees, hoverflies and other insects can't access the nectaries of double flowers in order to feed - so those flowers are completely useless to them! They then have to fly elsewhere to find food. When their energy supplies are low, wasting time trying to get nectar from useless flowers can make the difference between life and death for many small insects including bees!
 
 
In pots or modules in the polytunnel without heat, or direct in tunnel soil as soon as you feel it's warm enough:
 
(If weed seeds are germinating - then the soil is warm enough for most things that don't need very high temperatures for germination) 
 
 
Beetroot, broad beans and peas, spring and summer cabbage, calabrese, carrots, white turnips and radishes (in the soil for an early tunnel crop), onions, chives, Welsh (perennial salad) onions, scallions, leeks, lettuces and salad mixes early in the month, kales, rocket, spinach and coloured Swiss chards etc for baby leaves, fennel and 'soft herbs' like borage, parsley, dill, Greek oregano, salad burnet and coriander. 
 
 
Other single flowered annuals like limnanthes, convulvulus tricolour and calendula (pot marigold) can also be sown direct into the soil in polytunnel beds now. Keep an eye out for hungry mice - they love pea and bean seeds - it's a good idea to put down a trap - but cover to avoid trapping small birds like wrens and robins.
 
 
 
If you have space now in the tunnel or greenhouse where you'll be planting tomatoes in May - then you just have time to sow a green manure:
 
'Caliente' mustard (generally available now, or from Marshalls and Unwins seeds - one packet will easily sow a bed about 20ft x 4ft.) This mustard is a very useful green manure because it acts as a natural 'biofumigant' by releasing a plant phytochemical in the form of a gas - called isothiocyanate. This suppresses a range of soil-borne diseases and harmful nematodes - it also encourages beneficial bacteria and soil micro-organisms, adds nutrients and really encourages worm activity. It's particularly helpful where the soil has previously grown tomatoes. A couple of weeks before planting the tomatoes, cut it down - chopping it up as finely as possible in order to release all it's beneficial compounds - and then incorporate it into the soil surface immediately - before the resulting gases escape. Then cover it with black polythene to seal the gases in. (see this month's polytunnel section).  As it's a member of the brassica (or cabbage) family - make sure that it fits into your minimum 4-course rotation even though it will only be there for a short time.
 
Phacelia is another fast-growing 'soft' green manure well-worth sowing now if you have space - this can also be dug in after just one months growth, will break down quickly and it isn't rotation sensitive, so it can be used anywhere. Leaving one or two plants to produce their pretty scented blue flowers later on will also really attract in the beneficial insects too! 
 
Red clover is also useful, because being a leguminous plant, it fixes 'free' atmospheric nitrogen which it concentrates in nodules on it's roots, made by beneficial microbes. This is then released for the following crop (leave a few to flower for bees - they adore them!). Studies also show that growing a legume crop between tomato plants boosts their disease-resistance, bu encouraging beneficial bacteria..
 
Borage also makes a good very fast-growing green manure, with a long tap root which draws up valuable minerals such as magnesium from lower down in the soil profile. It breaks down easily when dug in and encourages good worm activity, as does claytonia (or winter purslane). Both Borage and Claytonia are useful in salads too.
 
 
What you can sow outside, if you have ground covered with cloches - or undercover now for planting outside later:
 
In modules under cover without heat, in a cold frame, or under cloches - or when the soil is dry enough and has warmed up later in the month - unprotected in the open (covering with fleece on frosty nights) you can sow: 
 
 
Beetroot, broad beans, carrots, mangetout and early peas, parsnips, late spring and summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccoli, onions (plant onion sets in pots for an early crop), leeks, spring onions, lettuces, kohl rabi, Ragged Jack and Cavolo Nero kales for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, white turnips, American land cress, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, 'soft' herbs like borage, parsley, dill, fennel, Greek oregano and coriander. There's a lot of nonsense talked about germinating parsley, but it just likes to be warm and usually takes about 3 weeks to germinate at anytime of year - it always finally appears just when you think it's not going to! 
 
 
It's also worth sowing some single, early flowering annuals in the open ground or in modules for planting out later - such as limnanthes (poached egg plant), calendula, cerinthe, convulvulus tricolor, borage, red clover and phacelia. They'll attract beneficial insects to help with pest control, encourage bees into the garden for pollination and also look beautiful - which is very important too.
 
  
There's still just time to plant garlic early in the month. Only plant varieties clearly labelled as 'suitable for spring planting'now - such as 'Christo' or Solent Wight. 
 
 
Plant Jerusalem artichokes, and also early potatoes in warm, well drained soils - protecting from frost with fleece later (see veg. garden section). These will crop early enough to completely avoid blight. Alternatively - if your ground conditions aren't suitable - you could start them off in pots now for an earlier crop which will avoid blight - I do this with all of mine now. You can also start off Yacon, Oca, Mashua and Ulluco tubers inside in pots of well-drained peat-free compost now for planting in the polytunnel or outside later - protect these carefully from frost when they start to produce shoots!
 
 
PS. Don't forget that these are just suggestions for what you could sow now - not what you must!  I found a checklist/reminder like this invaluable when I was just starting off many years ago - and I actually still do! With so much to do at this time of year it's easy to forget something and then it can be too late! Do you know, someone actually once complained that I gave far too much information!!  So I thought I'd make it quite clear that you don't have to sow everything on the list! ..........   You just can't please everyone - and all the information here is free!
 
 
AND REMEMBER MY ADVICE. - IF YOU'RE SHORT OF TIME - JUST GET YOUR SEEDS SOWN! YOU CAN CATCH UP WITH EVERYTHING ELSE LATER, BUT NOT THAT! ....... TIME WAITS FOR NO MAN! (Or woman!) 
 
Funny how we spend our time wishing away winter - then wishing everything would happen more slowly in spring.  Gardeners are never happy!
                                  
Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. - Thank you.

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