The Polytunnel Potager in February - 2019

 

February Contents Pesticides or Pollinators? - It's OUR choice!........and More Feb topics: The 'Darling Buds' of February..... Early February marks the mid-point of winter.... Fruit trees suitable for polytunnel growing..... Reminder to order seeds now - if you want a tunnel full of healthy veg next winter!...  How to afford the 'luxury' of protected polytunnel cropping?.... Will you have 'Extra early potatoes' for Easter?.... Winter watering.... Waking up our soil friends after winter.....Start sowing early seeds in modules.....What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?.....Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots..... Early spring has already arrived in the tunnel - and I wouldn't garden without one now!

 Bee pollinating peach 2 PTP

 

 

Pesticides or Pollinators? - It's OUR choice!

 

The early buds of early fruit trees are now starting to swell in gardens everywhere. Soon all gardeners will be hoping for plenty of bees and other pollinating insects to pollinate our crops, so that we will have plenty of healthy food to eat later on. This is something which we have all been lucky enough to be able to take for granted since the beginning of human life on earth - but now we cannot take it for granted any longer!  Intensification of agriculture, with it's use of vast amounts of fossil fuel-derived pesticides and fertilisers is destroying insects, habitats and all the vital, inter-connected biodiversity which depends on them. Those chemicals are also increasingly destroying soil health and soil carbon - with the result that soils globally are releasing massive amounts of CO2. 
 
 
THIS is happening while so much of those crops produced by industrial agriculture go to waste! The pro-chemical people constantly promote the idea that organic farming couldn't possibly feed the world's growing population. The reality is that because organic farming both protects and improves soils, and also biodiversity, it is actually far more sustainable in every way. Instead of saying that we can't feed the world without intensive agriculture and pesticides - why don't scientists come up with solutions for preventing the almost 40% of all food produced globally which is wasted throughout the food chain every year? Then tell us that we can't feed the world organically - as Nature has done for billions of years! 
 
 
I read some interesting research recently which said that if we cut out all food waste - then we could feed another billion people tomorrow. But even if we stopped all food waste now - if we continue to destroy our soils and pollinating insects with pesticides, there will be mass starvation anyway!  Firstly there would be be no soil left to grow crops in, and in addition, many of the valuable crops like fruits, nuts and seeds etc. would have no insects to pollinate them. Healthy crops also depend on a microbially-healthy, humus-rich soil in which to grow - otherwise all plants are more susceptible to pests, diseases and the increasing fluctuations of the weather. Few people seem to be warning that plant growth will also naturally be affected by climate change. This is something I have been warning about for well over 30 years - as I could see those climate fluctuations happening before my very eyes, even then!  It was obvious that was what was causing the weather to swing wildly from unseasonably mild, almost spring like weather too early in late winter, back to sudden, seriously damaging weather with bitter, unexpected frosts. One didn't have to be a scientist to see what was happening - but many concerned scientists were warning back then that global warming wasn't going to be lovely Mediterranean-like weather that some were hoping - but the wild and unpredictable weather patterns now happening worldwide. 
 
 
If you're a regular reader you will know much of this already - because I've been banging on about this for years! But if you're a new reader, interested in organic alternatives to the current mess we're in - you are most welcome. Here is the evidence of what I personally, and many other organic farmers have been warning about for decades. 
 
 
Yesterday a very concerning article was published in the Guardian newspaper.  It warned that according to the first ever comprehensive global scientific review, the world's insects are hurtling down a path towards extinction, threatening a "catastrophic collapse of Nature's ecosystems"! The analysis found that more than 40% of insect species are declining - falling by a precipitous 2.5.% each year, with a third now critically endangered. Their rate of extinction is eight times faster that that of mammals, birds and reptiles. A terrifying statistic - since insects are the foundation of life on Earth, and they are essential for the proper functioning of all the Earth's ecosystems. They are the unseen recyclers of nutrients, food for other creatures and also vital pollinators for our food.
 
 
And here is a link to the actual study:  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320718313636 

 

Pesticides are without question the primary cause for the rapidly accelerating decline of bees and other pollinators, along with loss of habitat.  The ubiquitous neonicotinoids and the fungicides they are often combined with are particularly harmful - as they affect the bee's sense of direction and ability to forage. I won't bore you with explanations - there's enough information about them out there now. Neonicotinoids don't just affect bees - but other insects and biodiversity like soil and aquatic life as well, and are so persistent that they remain in the environment, in soils an water for a long time. 


What seems to occur to very few people is that all of these pesticides affect creatures with which we share our most basic, evolutionarily conserved DNA.  In other words - the evolution of life on earth gradually built onto those first, early foundations. But we still retain those genes deep within our DNA, and we are just as affected by pesticides as insects are - except the effects show far more slowly - beginning at a genetic level. The combined effects of eating foods containing all of these toxic pesticides have been tested very little - if at all - but what few studies there have been, show that they are many times more toxic when present in the combinations in which they are routinely used on, and residues found in, the food we eat. Science has virtually no understanding of how those combinations then interact in our bodies, but even individually many are known to be endocrine-disruptors, or in other words - disrupting all the basic metabolic systems of our bodies. And that disruption is, after all, exactly how they kill insects! .


In my opinion all pesticides should gradually be banned completely, worldwide, starting urgently with the most toxic, in order to give farmers time to adjust - and adjust they will have to!  They could easily convert to sustainable and regenerative organic farming within 3 years if they wanted to - after all, organic farmers do!  And organic isn't just applicable to small farmers - there are many examples worldwide of very successful and productive large organic farms! We really have no choice, we need bees and other insects. They are vital to crop pollination and ultimately - not just to mankind's survival, but also the rest of Nature. The multinational chemical companies don't care - they're focused on providing a fat profit for their shareholders. For some years they've been putting millions of dollars into farming bumble bees - what they see as their latest sick business opportunity!  But bumblebees bred for pollinating commercial crops in greenhouses won't save entire ecosystems.   


As I wrote last year - "We are not just poisoning our soils with pesticides, but also our pollinating insects, and every other creature on the planet. They are the canaries which are being sacrificed in this giant 'coalmine' that is our planet's ecosystem. We see the effects of pesticides and other chemicals on insects and smaller elements of biodiversity long before they gradually affect us, because their lives are far shorter and we see the effects on them more quickly - but don't be in any doubt that by poisoning them we are also ultimately poisoning ourselves! Organic gardening and farming restores soils, and helps to preserve natural ecosystems and the health of all biodiversity - as it tries as far as possible to mimic the way that Nature has grown things since the beginning of life on earth." 
 
 
People on social media often scream at me that organic is more expensive - and I know that is the case in many instances, since we buy whatever we can't produce ourselves. But that is a political choice - made by those public representatives who continue to support the huge taxpayer-funded subsidies given to damaging conventional farming. If those who are polluting our environment and damaging public health had to pay the true cost of cleaning up that damage, and the health costs of cancer and other non-infectious diseases, or NCDs - then conventionally, chemically-grown produce would be massively more expensive. In addition, there is the ultimate cost of loss of biodiversity, planetary health and climate change - how do you put a value on those? These are all being caused, or accelerated by our use of fossil fuel-derived chemicals. All to produce, as I have already said, the 40% of food which is wasted, going to landfill and emitting climate-changing greenhouse gases. What are we doing?
 
 
As for the rest of us non-scientists - we cannot just eat non-organic food and then say - "How dreadful it is that our bees and other insects are disappearing" - or - "How awful it is that the climate is changing", when anyone who eats non-organic food by choice, rather than due to unfortunate economic necessity, is knowingly contributing to this catastrophe!  Is it any wonder I am so angry? The facts have been known for many years - but so many people selfishly choose to ignore them!..... And as for those scientists who are defending the use of GMOs and pesticides - and in particular defending their use on social media - if any of them are reading this, which I doubt - then I utterly despise you! You are the lowest of the low and beneath contempt! And as far as I'm concerned - you belong at the very bottom of the toxic chemical cesspits which are of your making!   
 
 
We are now faced with a choice.... And it's up to us to make the right choice - if we want life on earth as we know it to continue, and our children and grandchildren to have a future. That's not being melodramatic - it is the stark, absolute truth which we now face! We can no longer ignore it. Politicians must step up to the plate quite literally, end the age of fossil-fuelled chemical farming, and put organic food back on global plates. To do otherwise is not simply irresponsible and selfish but will, quite simply, destroy life on Earth!
 

 

Peach buds about to burst in the polytunne in late February (1)
Apricot buds just bursting into flower in late February Peach buds about to burst in the polytunnel in late February
 


 

The 'Darling Buds' of February - Attracting bees and other beneficial insects to help pollinate them
 
 
Back to more cheerful matters! Spring is fast approaching to cheer us all up - isn't it exciting? I can already see all of Nature responding to the lengthening days as weed seeds are germinating in the tunnel soil and the buds on the apricots and peaches in the polytunnel are swelling fast as you can see above.  No matter what the problems in the world are - plants still want to grow and seeds want to sprout!  Buds are beginning to move everywhere. Every day more of the early spring bulbs are beginning to peep out of the chilly wet ground and the Robin's loud singing starts at least ten minutes earlier each week. But winter isn't done with us quite yet - so take care - and don't be fooled into thinking that Spring's arrived just yet!  Don't be too impatient to start planting stuff outside though, however tempting it may be on the milder days. There's a lot we can get on with indoors - enjoying the anticipation before the work becomes too urgent! 
 
 
One thing which really helps to ensure indoor fruit pollination is to grow single flowers as early food for insects!  As I mentioned last month - flowers are vital for attracting bees into your garden - as well as many other beneficial insects which help with both pollination and pest control. I've often mentioned the little permanent ,mini gardens, which I grow at the end of the tunnels - in the corners either side of the doors - where space is so often wasted or taken up with junk. I also have flowers planted in the middle at the sides too - and anywhere else I can tuck them in. These little 'mini gardens' have flowers all year round to attract bees etc. and mini pond habitat to attract frogs. They also have piles of large stones - little mini cairns - for ground beetles etc to hide in. Ground beetles are voracious predators of slugs.These little mini ecosystems are vital in helping to achieve a natural ecological balance within the tunnels which ensures that I never have any pest problems. I also allow clumps of nettles to grow here and there - these play host to an early appearing aphid - specific just to nettles - which are the favourite prey of ladybirds that are just waking up in spring. Growing row upon row of green juicy vegetables - without a flower in sight either inside or outside - is not a natural environment. They make your crops a target for every hungry pest in sight!
 
 
Why would any self-respecting pollinating bee or pest controlling hoverfly visit your vegetable garden if there are none of their favourite flowers and food plants there to attract them? They have to go wherever they can find nectar and pollen or they may die. It's only common sense that if you're starving hungry and have to find food for energy within a few hours or die - you'll head for somewhere there's plenty of food on offer - you won't go to the gym or the solicitors will you?!!  If you don't have anything flowering in your tunnel - you can bring some in in pots of flowers - hellebores, perennial wallflowers (like 'Bowles' mauve'), miniature narcissus, crocus, primroses, perennial Iberis or candytuft, etc are all good insect attractants. Feverfew and Hesperis (dames violet) are also flowering now. In fact anything that flowers now is useful - the only requirement is that they must be single flowered -  It's impossible for bees and hoverflies etc. to reach the nectaries and pollen in double flowered plants and at this time of year in particular - they may waste precious energy trying to find food and then may die if they can't. 
 
Orange tip butterfly on Orychophragma in early springOrange tip butterfly on Orychophragma in early spring a few years ago
 
Despite the cold nights things are already starting to put on a surprising amount of growth. Joy Larkcom's beautiful Chinese brassica, Orychophragmus Violaceus (bit of a mouthful!), which the Chinese call the 'February Orchid' (much nicer), is living up to it's name and opening it's first flowers. Seeing it in Joy's County Cork greenhouse a few years ago completely stopped me in my tracks - it was absolutely stunning in early March! I just had to have it - and she was kind enough to give me some seed. It has quite large flowers for a brassica, which are that lovely soft lilac-pink colour of sweet rocket. Sadly no scent though - but nevertheless the bees love it and it's a firm favourite with endangered orange tip butterflies, as this photograph from spring 2011 shows. So it deserves a place in any garden just for that reason. It would certainly be worthy of a place in any flower border.  I've picked lots of leaves over the winter, and they're pleasant tasting in a salad, with a slightly 'cucumbery/cressy' flavour - not very strong and have quite an interesting texture. The flowers are really pretty in a salad too, again they have a slightly 'cress-y' taste but they look so lovely it's almost a shame to eat them. I'll be saving seed again this year as it's very hard to obtain and I find it germinates best from fresh seed - but I do know that currently Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork have them.  
 
 

The beginning of February marks the mid-point of winter - half-way between the shortest day and the spring equinox. 

 

It's also the time when the ancient Celtic calendar marked the Festival of Imbolc - or the 'Feast of Lights' - which celebrated the returning of light to the earth and the beginning of the end of winter.  An important day, this pagan celebration of light - which was seen as being both healing and life-giving. In Celtic times people rejoiced to see the sun returning just as we do today - but they understood how dependent they were on nature - an awareness that many of us seem to have lost now. They knew how vital the sun was to their lives and just how much they depended on those primitive seeds they had harvested so painstakingly the previous autumn and guarded so carefully all winter. They were totally in tune with the rhythm of the seasons and the forces of nature. Those of us today who are gardeners or nature lovers still feel the rise of that age-old visceral thrill of anticipation, and experience the same sense of celebration at the anticipation of longer days and delights to come.  It truly connects us to our roots, both physically and metaphorically. 

  
My two late 'rescue' dogs - Flotsam and Jetsam - were real sun-worshippers! Immediately even the weakest rays of sun showed they would rush outside and arrange themselves to maximum effect against a south facing wall. Just like eager tourists dashing for the sunbeds - in order to catch every available scrap of precious sunlight!  Our two new rescue pups do just the same! They love to be outside all day if the weather's fine - occasionally tearing around playing and then flopping down onto their bale again! I hate to think of all the poor creatures that are left on their own all day, shut in up houses away from sunlight. All creatures have a desperate need for light and an innate sense of just how important the sun is. This particular animal (me!) makes a point of spending some time every day outside in the light, no matter how busy I am in the house. The sun feels surprisingly warm on one's face sitting in the polytunnel even at this time of year. The fast-growing chicks have been enjoying it for the last couple of weeks in the polytunnel, and now since their move to their 'grown-up' quarters they are luxuriating in the frosty sun in their warm scratching pen/conservatory! As for me - I love to sit in it - but I find I can rarely sit for very long as there's always some needy job that catches my eye!
  
 
In the last week or so there's really been an amazing surge in the growth of some of the plants - despite the cold weather!  Plants know what time of year it is from the light just like all of Nature does - and they are ready and primed to start their yearly cycle once again. All the tunnel salads have really responded to even the small amount of increased light! The Oriental salads are positively burgeoning - the watercress in particular - growing at least six inches in a week! It's such a wonderfully reliable salad all year round, just needs regular watering - not running water - contrary to what some say. The only thing that makes it unhappy is being very short of water, which makes it flower. Then it becomes stringy, tough and very peppery - but bees really love the flowers though! If you only grow one salad - then do try growing it!  It grows like a weed, from just a bit of stem stuck in a jar of water, comes top of the list for healthy nutrients and is chock full of immune-boosting, cancer-fighting phytonutrients such as sulforaphane. My watercress, like my kefir, is something I rely on and have kept going for many years. I was so thrilled to be able to gather lots of it's luscious leaves yesterday for a lovely fresh-tasting salad. My hens also really enjoy disposing of any old salads lingering in the fridge. There's never any food waste here!
 
 

Fruit trees suitable for polytunnel growing. 

 

This morning I noticed a tiny hint of movement in the buds on the peach trees planted in the ground in the polytunnel - despite the low temperatures we've had recently. I'm so looking forward to their luscious fruits again and meanwhile carefully eking out the last of the frozen and dehydrated ones. Peaches, along with grapes, strawberries and of course figs are very easy to grow in polytunnels if you have enough space. My two 7 year old peach trees provide masses of fruit every summer now. I love peaches and it's well nigh impossible to get organically grown ones. I always cut up the excess and freeze or dehydrate them for smoothies, sorbets or other treats. I think that peaches are the very best fruit tree to plant in a tunnel if you have space for only one tree - they're usually self-fertile and are easily kept within bounds by correct pruning. If you forget for a year, you can hack the hell out of them and they'll still come back for more - but if you aren't brave enough and don't prune them - they'll quickly outgrow any polytunnel or greenhouse and seriously threaten the roof!  
 
 
The really great thing about growing peaches in a tunnel is they don't get peach leaf curl - so don't have to be sprayed with any nasty fungicides. One of the other great things about peaches is that because of the way they are pruned - you can keep them to what ever height and width you want. So as long as you have roughly 15ft or 3m of width - you've got room for a productive peach tree. It's vital to prune them properly though - and remember that they mostly fruit on the previous year's new green growth, as I described in this January's Fruit Garden Diary. Soon both Lidl and Aldi will have bare root fruit trees on sale again. At around a fiver each - they're fantastic value and in my experience are very good quality. Bare-root planting is always best with any fruit tree and I talked about that last month too. They always establish far better than anything bought in a container. The vital thing to remember is to always leave a minimum of 4 in. or 10 cm between the bulge of the graft union on the stem and the top of the soil. if you don't do that you will lose the dwarfing properties of the root stock.
 
 
Other trees, particularly cherries, can be an absolute disaster, unless  you have a lot of time to fuss over them - particularly in the usually damp-ish atmosphere of the average tunnel here in Ireland. They really only work well grown on very dwarfing root stocks in the specialist fruit tunnels which I've seen in Herefordshire/Welsh border - where many of my family live. Even then they need a lot of regular pruning to keep them under control. Specialised fruit tunnels have sides which can slide up, and tops that open up too - so that you get maximum air circulation and also good pollination when you need it. I'd love a specialist fruit tunnel - but sadly the finances won't stretch that far - so like most people I try to do as much as I can in one! It's so windy here that one might not be successful anyway! Over the last 35 years, I've tried all the latest dwarfing root-stocks for sweet cherries, even the 'minarette' ones, and none of them really work unless you are constantly pruning, snipping and fussing to keep them within bounds - something I really don't have time for. It's also difficult as you can only prune cherries at certain times of year - and this also happens to be the busiest time elsewhere in the garden. So take your eye off the ball at all and you'll find the cherry has lifted the roof off your polytunnel. Believe me - I've tried!. I would never recommend planting one in a tunnel. They seem quite innocuous for a year or so - and you might think - what's she talking about? But believe me - when they think you've taken your eye off them - they can take off like rockets! I've tried them in tubs too - and they're not that happy in those either for very long. On the other hand - Morello cherries, which are pruned in a similar way to peaches - can work fairly well in pots for a few years - but you'll never get huge crops from cherries in pots - and huge crops are what I always aim for! I'm a greedy fruit fanatic and the dark, sour or Morello cherries are also one of the best fruits for anthocyanins which are proven to lower inflammation and ease arthritis.
 
 

A reminder to order seeds now - if you want a tunnel full of healthy veg next winter!

 
 
A neighbour came to look at my tunnel the other day, and was surprised to see how great a variety of things there were to eat at this time of year. He has a small tunnel - and wanted to know how he could do the same next winter. It's really only a matter of remembering to sow seeds at the right time. Late June or July is the best time to sow many of the chicories, chards, oriental veg. etc. otherwise they don't have enough time to grow before the days really begin to shorten - when growth of many things slows dramatically. Summer is not always the most popular time to be anticipating winter though, much nicer to enjoy sunbathing instead! But gardeners must think well ahead if they want to produce food to be as self-sufficient as possible all year round food. So do remember to order seeds now of things like claytonia, chicories, endives, Swiss chards, leaf beets, sugar loaf chicory, Chinese cabbages, lambs lettuce, pak choi, winter radishes, winter lettuces, watercress and landcress (you'll find a delicious soup recipe for these last two on the recipe page). Stupidly - many garden centres tend to take their seeds off sale once summer gets under way. They think that gardeners won't want seeds then - but REAL gardeners, growing real food do! So make sure you have them.
 
 
I am constantly amazed at the number of people who only get round to clearing up the remains of last year's mouldy and disease-ridden old tomato and cucumber stems or other crops now! They could have been eating delicious home-produced salads and other veg all winter......not only are they completely wasting precious and expensive cropping space for at least one third of the year - but they then wonder why their lovely summer crops almost immediately get hit by pests and diseases as soon as they plant out this year's crops.This is because the spores of fungal diseases like botrytis etc will be flying around the minute they go to clear up the mess! Any protected cropping space is so valuable - and often so hugely expensive to put up initially - that every inch of it it should be earning it's keep all year round!
 
 

How to afford what some call the 'luxury' of protected polytunnel cropping?

 
Several people have said to me in the past - "It's all right for you - I don't have a tunnel - I can't afford one - so I don't bother reading the bit about greenhouses and tunnels, because I can't do it!".  - Well do you know what? For a start - you could actually grow many of the lower growing crops in a large polythene cold frame - that's what I did - long before I had my first small polytunnel. If you work out how much you spend all year round on vegetables and fruit - particularly now with food prices rising - and then compare that against the price of a small tunnel - where you could grow a huge amount of it yourself - I think you would be surprised at just how quickly it would pay for itself!  Not to mention the convenience and added health benefits of absolute freshness, or being able to garden in any weather - even at night after work to de-stress!!  Some of the DIY stores sell plastic-covered greenhouse frames very cheaply now - for less than €100. But if you really don't have the space for a greenhouse or polytunnel, or can't afford one, you may have a large glass porch, or you could make a polythene frame easily and very cheaply, sit it on a concrete path and grow in containers if you don't have any soil to grow in - so there's really no reason why you can't grow even a few winter salads at the very least!  In something that size you could also grow bush tomatoes, peppers or aubergines in the summer. I did that very successfully when I first started gardening years ago, making up my own frame from recycled timber and polythene, and I promise you that if I can do it - then anyone can!  DIY is most definitely not my thing!  I grew my best peppers and aubergines ever in that rickety old recycled frame! It lasted several years too - I was very proud of myself! So please don't use the "I can't" excuse - that is, unless you don't even have so much as a path to your front door!  
 
 
Winter salad beds in the tunnel - Endives, land cress, ragged Jack Kale, lettuce etc.Winter salad beds in the tunnel - Endives, land cress, ragged Jack Kale, lettuce etc.
 
 
One thing I can absolutely guarantee, is that when it comes to polytunnels or greenhouses - what I call my 'law of handbags'applies. That is - no matter how big your handbag, greenhouse, or freezer - it will NEVER be big enough for everything you want to put in it, once you've experienced it's delights!! 
 
 
 
 
So always buy the biggest one you can possibly afford - you will bless every inch of it I promise you! I'll be making a new 'grow frame' this year, for hardening-off veg seedlings to be planted outside later. More protected cropping space is always useful here because it's so windy - and in late spring, when the tunnel is literally bursting at the seams, it's a great halfway-house for hardening off plants to grow completely unprotected outside later on.
   
 
Will you have 'Extra early potatoes' for Easter?
 
 
Your extra early potatoes could already be up about an inch or so if you planted them as I described last month in pots. Make sure they're covered every night with fleece - even if you're not expecting frost - just in case. In the middle of this month, they may be about 10cm/4-5in. high, then you can plant them out carefully, keeping the root ball together, into a tunnel bed, covering with a double or even treble layer of fleece if severely cold nights are forecast. Or you can leave them in their pots. You'll be eating these in mid-late April!  You can also plant well sprouted seed potatoes directly into a tunnel bed any time now, again covering if necessary. These should be ready to eat in May, roughly in about 10-12 weeks, depending on the variety. As mentioned in previous diaries -  I've always found 'Lady Christl' to be the very best for really earlies in the tunnel, good flavoured, it's by far the quickest to 'bulk up' - one can often find usable potatoes underneath it after just 8 weeks - if you're impatient like me and do a gentle, exploratory 'finger-dig', leaving the rest to grow on undisturbed!  'Duke of York' or 'Red Duke of York' is next best for earliness (and also the best flavour of the lot), 'Mayan Gold' is only a few days after them - planted at the same time - and of course has an unsurpassed flavour - 'Apache' is a delicious early too and then 'Sharpe's Express' - 'Annabelle' is also not bad. I've tried all of the other earlies - including 'Rocket',Swift and 'Premiere' and quite frankly they were utterly tasteless compared to any of the ones I grow. Flavour is a very subjective thing however - and let's face it - given enough butter almost anything tastes good!! 'Mayan Gold' seems to be generally available now in Ireland (I smuggled mine in via my daughter's backpack years ago)! Try it and I can guarantee you will be as rapturous in singing it's praises as I am!! Never boil it or it falls apart because it's so floury - steam or roast it instead. Mayan Gold is also energy saving as it actually cooks far more quickly than normal varieties - in about half the time!
 
 

Winter watering

 

Water only if absolutely necessary in the tunnel at the moment. Doing it in the morning is best if you can - as this allows any surface moisture to dry off before evening. If you're covering crops with fleece it also helps if the soil surface dries off a bit during the day or fleece tends to absorb more. I watered 3 days ago - for the first time in 3 months! Plants were wilting in the sunshine - which is getting a bit stronger now. Also ventilate as much as you can whenever possible, to keep the air moving and avoid the atmosphere becoming too damp - which encourages fungal diseases. Keep an eye on weather forecasts for very strong winds though - you don't want your polytunnel taking off into the next parish - (a story there - tell you sometime - I'll never forget losing a polytunnel in hurricane 'Charlie' in the mid 80's!). Growth of all plants will suddenly start to increase in the next week or so - thanks to the light - so you can increase watering accordingly when you need to. 

Also it's important now to continue scrupulous housekeeping! Tidy up any yellowing, rotting or diseased leaves etc. and also the remains of finished crops. Don't leave anything hanging around that could cause disease!

 
  
Waking up our soil friends after the winter 
 
 
If there's not much worm activity in your soil generally - then do a pH test. Worms like a pH of about 6.5 - 7 and if your soil Ph is right and worms have plenty of green food to eat - then they should be lively and pink - not sluggish and pale. If you find your soil is a bit too acid then add some calcified seaweed to gently raise the pH. You can't go wrong with this, as it's very gentle and also contains lots of other valuable micro-nutrients and trace elements. Then lightly scratch over the ground, add some nice well-rotted compost and perhaps a few handfuls of seaweed meal which worms also love. If you don't have compost then a handful per square yard of a general organic fertiliser like 'Osmo' will add more nutrients but if you've got time before the next crop planned for a particular space - maybe 6 weeks - then sowing a fast growing green manure is a really good idea. Not only does it help all the biological activity in your soil but it also adds humus which makes soils more resilient and helps them to hold onto moisture like a sponge. Even claytonia - not usually used as a green manure, is brilliant. The worms go mad for it - it's like crack cocaine for them! This will help to kick start all the biological activity in the soil as it warms up - giving the worms, microbes, fungi and soil bacteria some TLC and a welcome gourmet breakfast, just when they're starting to wake up. Interesting fact - did you know that there are more billions of microbes, soil bacteria, fungi etc. in just one teaspoon of soil - than the total number of people who have ever lived on this earth? If it wasn't for them - we wouldn't even exist!! So learn to love your microbes! 
 
 
Organic growing feeds the soil and all the vital microbial life it contains with compost and animal wastes just as nature does. It doesn't directly feed the plants with synthetic chemicals. That's the most important thing to remember - because if you by-pass all the microbes and funghi that evolved to interact with plant roots symbiotically and produce their by-products which keep plants healthy, you will  ultimately produces unhealthy plants. A healthy, vibrant, living soil grows healthy, vibrant, nutritious plants. Healthy plants make healthy food for people. This is particularly important to remember in a polytunnel, where things tend to be magnified, things happen a lot faster, and we are totally responsible for the growing environment.  
 
 

Time to start sowing early seeds in modules

 
To make sure I have something to plant as soon as the winter crops are finished both in the tunnel and outside, I started sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you can sow now are in the 'What to sow in Feb.' section, so I won't repeat them here. Things like onions, leeks, beetroot etc. can be multi sown in the modules - in 3's or 5's - depending on how many you want in a clump - or how big you want your onions (less in a clump for bigger onions) and they're planted out later without thinning. These will push each other apart as they grow and develop quite normally. You can do the same with summer spinach, chards and 'baby leaf' or salad mixes. Rather than use an expensive propagator at this time of year I germinate everything near the back of my range cooker - which keep things at a steady 65-70 deg F/16-20 deg C. As soon as the first seedlings are showing they need good light, so then I put them out in the polytunnel, on a roll-out heated mat which provides very gentle bottom heat of about 50 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, delighted and full of wonder at Nature's miracle of a tiny seed and it's determination to grow. That perfect little pre-programmed parcel of DNA - full of history and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And - best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food!  

 

Do you know someone actually complained to me a few years ago that there's too much information in my blog?? I suppose these days everything is presented in small bites - which often leaves one with not enough information to do things properly - so then you think it's your fault when it doesn't work! Luckily many others disagree and really appreciate it - so for it's for those nice, appreciative people that I write it!  I try to put on new, improved and relevant stuff each year - depending on the latest research. Although there's no substitute for experience - and you never stop learning in gardening - every year is different. I hope you find my experience useful.
 
 
I can remember only too well what it was like many years ago - trying to find out how to grow chemical-free food for my very sick child!  You couldn't even buy organic vegetables and fruits then!  Although there is much more availability of organic produce now - it's not only much cheaper, more satisfying and far fresher if you can grow it yourself even if it's only salads - but you can also have a far wider choice of produce and nutrients by growing your own food. If you want to grow a lot of things then you need all the information to be successful. Very often gardening advice in magazines seems to have been written by people who either haven't actually done what they're talking about - or are complete novices and are just repeating stuff from old gardening books almost verbatim! That won't do any more - our climate is changing and also soil science is moving on and we are better informed than ever. Despite that though - we should never assume that we know it all - Nature doesn't give up her secrets easily!
 
 
Early spring has already arrived in the tunnel - and I couldn't possibly garden without one now!
 
 
As I've been saying ever since I got my very first tiny one - about 38 years ago now - 'If I only had a small garden - I would cover the entire space with a polytunnel' I definitely think there should be government grants for back-gardeners to put them up! Just think of how much they'd save the health service with all that gentle exercise, fresh air, light and healthy chemical-free food! It's just what the doctor ordered!  It's truly wonderful to be able to walk into the tunnel and feel the gentle background warmth and dryness when the sun shines at this time of year - it's so full of hope. Every time I open the door and walk into that other world, I thank the Garden Gods once again for the blessing of such a snug and richly-productive space to grow things in.
 
 
As Fionnuala Fallon so beautifully put it in her Irish Times article about my polytunnel in November 2010 - "....it was a bit like walking into the wardrobe of C S Lewis - not quite Narnia perhaps, but definitely a very different universe....." - Indeed it is! There's a link to her article below: 
 
 
 
 
(Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)

The Vegetable Garden in February - 2019

February Contents:  Food Resilience in uncertain times - thoughts on temporary future proofing of our food supplies before Brexit.... The propagating bench is where all the gardening action is currently.... General advice on Seed Sowing....  Seed Sowing in Modules....The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost....  Details on seed sowing....  Improving Soil for Planting - especially in New Gardens.....General February advice.....My 'Ad-Free' Blog Policy 

Lush, fast-growing mixed Oriental salads in a large potMy 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised bedsLush, fast-growing mixed Oriental salads in a large pot - 
are easily grown in 8 weeks if sown now
My 'stepladder salad garden' and recycled skip bag 'raised beds' fit onto a path or into a small area
 

Food resilience in uncertain times - thoughts on temporary future-proofing of our food supplies before Brexit 

As I write - there are exactly 8 weeks to go before 29th of March when 'Brexit' happens and Britain will be exiting the EU with perhaps many unforeseen consequences. You'd have to be living on another planet not to be aware of that by now!  We live quite close to the border with Ulster here (roughly about 50 miles or 35 minutes drive) and I normally shop up there in Newry about 4 times a year, for organic items which either aren't available, or are far more expensive down here in the South. As a British person who has lived in Ireland for over 40 years, in some ways I have a unique perspective on the whole Brexit situation. Infuriating and perplexing as it is - although I have very strong views on it, I'm not going to comment much on the politics of the mess we all appear about to be landed into very soon, on both sides of the Irish Sea!  I must say though that it's particularly upsetting when one hears such things as the news I've just heard on BBC Northern Ireland - that after Brexit, children with congenital heart disease will no longer be able to travel south to Dublin for life-saving surgery. 

 
Brexit will have REAL effects on REAL people's lives, and in some case those effects could potentially even be tragic - yet how many of those few politicians there clinging onto personal power actually care?  This despite the fact that the majority of those living in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, because they understood as only they can - that it was the safest option and that even though it may not be ideal from every perspective, it's better than the alternative - which could possibly be going back to a Northern Ireland which everyone here thought was gone forever.  We still don't know what kind of Brexit the UK parliament wants, or what form it will take - and neither apparently do they - or so it seems!  But it does seem increasingly likely that many aspects of our lives will be thrown into chaos - even quite possibly endangering the hard-won peace which we've enjoyed here for the last 20 years - since the Good Friday Agreement. Unless one has experienced it - it's very hard for anyone to understand the feeling of dread when encountering border checks - with unknown groups of men on the road carrying weapons, perhaps in the dark on winter evenings - who could be from either a police force or some terrorist group. Even very recently - I still experienced a little of that stomach-churning feeling of dread again, when I got lost trying to find the hatchery in County Armagh, just north of the border, where I was to pick up my day-old chicks. It was getting dark, I was alone in the car, I was lost, one of my front tyres was getting soft, and all of the mobile network was down on that particular day, so I couldn't even call for directions! Familiar place names on almost every signpost I passed leading off the new motorway onto the narrow, unlit country roads are still a grim reminder of well-known, often tragic incidents that took place during 'The Troubles'. Even though I kept telling myself not to be over-imaginative, and keep calm - those names are forever indelibly printed on the minds of anyone who lived through those dangerous times here - let alone those who were personally affected by them. It makes me very angry to think that this whole Brexit thing is happening mostly due to a few self-serving, power-hungry politicians - and some voters who were gullible enough to believe their lies, with promises of everyone having more money and more control over their lives - when it's now becoming increasingly apparent that quite the opposite is true!  
 
 
In respect of food - Brexit will undoubtedly affect every aspect of our lives here in Ireland and in the UK - especially in terms of food availability, but to what extent, we don't yet know.  One of the topics on last Sunday's interesting Food Programme on BBC Radio Four highlighted just how dependent we are on fresh food coming from Europe - both in the UK and Ireland.  This is especially the case with supplies of organic fruit and vegetables, which obviously can't be stockpiled unlike packets of processed foods.  Memories are still fresh here of last year's panic-buying of fresh bread, which disappeared off the shelves completely during the long spell of snow -  and also of the shortage of imported Iceberg lettuce and other salads here and in the UK in early 2017, due to bad weather in Spain and Portugal. Over the last few months I've seen many warnings in the media about fresh produce in particular being short after Brexit finally happens on March 29th, with vendors saying that chaos will ensue in the event of a "no-deal Brexit" - resulting in produce on lorries being backed-up at ports, unable to enter the UK.  
 
 
Much of the fresh organic produce in supermarkets from January until May or June is now imported from southern Europe.  All fresh produce like polytunnel-grown broccoli and spinach (two in particular which come from Spain, Portugal and Italy) - may be in very short supply or even non-existent before the supply chain situation normalises again, or fresh produce grown in the UK is in season once more. In Ireland, it may not be in such short supply after Brexit, as there are alternative routes like Cherbourg, rather than produce travelling through Calais to the UK and then on to Ireland, as most fresh veg deliveries do currently. But it may still take a little longer to reach us by a different route, coming direct from France rather than through the UK, so it won't be quite as fresh even if it is available. But with so many unknowns, and with 40% of all the fresh produce in the UK coming from the EU and a similar amount imported into Ireland, perhaps it makes sense for each of us to consider just how resilient we are individually -, in the event of some fresh foods or other food supplies perhaps being in short supply for a few weeks?  
 
 
My main concern now - like many of you I'm sure - is to be able to continue to feed my family the organic food which we've eaten for over 40 years. We try to be as self-sufficient as possible here in many things, but due to degenerative disc disease - I'm no longer able to do some of the tougher jobs, like handling weighty sheep, which I did years ago. As many of you will know, I now concentrate on rearing poultry, which are lighter and far are easier to manage. If necessary - we could survive on chicken without buying any other meats, as we would also have our own eggs. We only eat meat or fish perhaps 2-3 times a week here anyway, eating vegan or vegetarian the rest of the time - but we do like to eat some red meat - perhaps once every week or so. All the meat we eat here is organic, higher welfare - and it is enjoyed as the very special treat which it is - just as it was when I was growing up. Chicken then was always a home-reared cockerel - or capon - as it was known then - which had spent a wonderful life foraging in our orchards before eventually being a very special and thoroughly appreciated Sunday dinner.  Most chicken consumed nowadays is the cheapest, most taken for granted, most intensively reared meat possible, and probably much of it is probably wasted. This year I'm rearing my own again, as I mentioned last month, and I know that nothing will compare with them. Any meat which I now no longer rear myself - we buy from an organic butcher - Coolanowle Farm Meats in County Carlow - who deliver to farmer's markets in Dublin regularly and do mail order. Organic grass-fed meats generally shouldn't be affected by Brexit - except in those supermarkets buying meat in the UK. When it comes to buying in chicks or other animals from Northern Ireland for rearing however - new regulations may well apply after Brexit - so it might be a good idea to inquire about those if you're thinking of doing so.
 
 
Any organic concentrate feeds needed for poultry and other livestock could also possibly be an issue after Brexit,  again until supply chains have once again normalised.  Most organic feed is milled here, but may include some ingredients coming from the UK - and those will of course have to be re-certified, as current EU equivalence of standards will no longer apply, which will mean a lot of extra paperwork and possible delays for months. I intend to make sure that I will have at least a couple of month's supply of organic hen food as a back up just in case of any delays in the system. This is something I've always done as a matter of course anyway, since my days as a commercial organic producer, as an insurance policy against feed not being available for whatever reason. If you are a commercial certified organic producer - you are not allowed to substitute conventionally-grown livestock feed for organic feed in the event of a shortage. If you had no choice but to do that due to welfare concerns if no organic feed were available for whatever reason - then you would lose organic certification for those animals. I wouldn't want to do that anyway, as I don't want to feed my hens genetically-modified ingredients or Glyphosate - and then by proxy - naturally us! 
 
 
In terms of other fresh meat or dairy products which we don't produce ourselves - butter and milk would be our biggest concern, as we can source good organic cheese here in Ireland from The Little Milk Company - who make a wonderful range of award-winning, organic cheeses. I learned the hard way to always be prepared for any emergencies, as we were snowed in for 3 weeks during our first winter after we moved here 36 years ago. Luckily a very kind neighbour drove through the snow on his tractor to fetch milk from the nearest small town 7 miles away, or we would have had none at all for at least a couple of weeks. Now I always make sure that we have enough milk frozen to be able to survive without a trip to the shop for at least 2 weeks. I think most people not living in the country would find that quite strange, in the age of a convenience store on every corner and in almost every petrol station - but we don't have those out in the country here. Even our local village store, which doesn't sell any organic products, is 2 miles away. Anyway I try to keep our carbon footprint and any shopping trips to a minimum, so we only go about once every 10-14 days to buy organic milk and always have some frozen just in case of emergencies!
  
 
I'm always aware of how lucky we are compared to those who are totally dependent on shops for all their daily food needs - but at the same time, it has taken a lot of hard work to become relatively self-sufficient in some foods over the years.  I'm always so grateful for the hard work of those who produce what we can't.  So many people seem so removed from the reality of where their food comes from now - that I think many would find it impossible to understand the necessity of always being prepared for any contingency. However, having been brought up on a small farm in the UK, by parents who went through World War Two and who experienced rationing, probably made me aware at a much earlier age of just how valuable food resilience is. It was really brought home to me again recently listening to the extremely worried Guy Watson from Riverford - the UK-wide organic veg box scheme, who had recently bought a farm in France specifically to supply his customers during the so-called 'Hungry-Gap' from late winter to spring, when little fresh produce is available in the UK. His business could well go under because of Brexit and the delays in establishing equivalent organic certification etc. which will undoubtedly be the result. I could perfectly understand when he said in Sunday's BBC Food Programme that he is I quote: "Almost too angry to speak - to be told by people who have NO idea how their food is produced that this is Project Fear makes me incandescent with rage"!  Then I was too - after hearing another comment from a British food writer living in Portugal, saying that "if farmers went out of business - then it was a good thing, and their own fault!"... Simply unbelievable ignorance from someone who is, as far as I'm concerned, little better that a parasite living off our food system!  Perhaps some people may have to face the reality of just how precarious food security really is after Brexit?  If so - then it might be no harm - and perhaps might make them appreciate hard-working farmers just a little more, instead of taking for granted the freely available produce which shoppers are always able to 'harvest' so easily from off supermarket shelves? Here endeth the rant!
 
 
Imported store cupboard staples which we don't grow ourselves - such as organic flour - may well also be in short supply here in Ireland after Brexit, as there are only three flour mills in the entire island of Ireland - and two of them are actually in Northern Ireland!  I make bread roughly 3 times a week as a matter of course, so I always need to know that I have enough flour and dried yeast in the cool larder to see me through for at least the next four months. At certain times of year here - spelt flour in particular can be in short supply, especially when it gets close to harvest time in summer, when supplies of the flour milled from the previous year's crop may begin to run short. Only you will know what your staple pantry foods are though - so it's up to you what you wish to store or stockpile just in case of shortages. While I don't think there's really any need to panic buy - all I would say is that it might be sensible to at least have a couple of months supply of things which you feel you can't do without, can't make or can't grow yourself, such as dried pulses, nuts and seeds etc. cereals like wholegrain rice, oats and barley, dried fruit, sea salt and perhaps sauces such as organic soy sauce etc, cider vinegar, herbs and spices imported from the UK and any other such things. Keep all those things dry and cool and as long as they have a decent use by date on them they will be fine. Most things will in fact keep far longer if kept sealed and cool - only perhaps losing a few nutrients at worst, but otherwise perfect.
 
 

As far as fresh veg and fruit goes - having the polytunnels is an absolute boon, because they mean that we always have some sort of seasonal veg available here especially salads, even in winter, and also plenty of fruit and veg like peas and French beans grown the previous year and stored in the freezer. For anyone who eats a lot of fruit and veg which may possibly be in short supply - then perhaps this is might be a good time to try your hand at growing a few salads in containers for the first time? Even if it transpires that salads aren't in short supply, they will still be jolly useful and will save you a lot of money! Being a practical person - I personally ind that doing anything rather than just waiting and worrying about a problem, is always the best course of action, and far better than doing nothing. It works for me - and usually pays off!  That being so, I thought it might be a good idea to make a list of some really easy, fast growing salads and other veg, which anyone could grow - as those will be the first things to be hit, if supplies from Europe are either delayed or non-existent. 

 
 
So,  at the end of this month's 'What to sow in Feb' I thought it might be helpful to write a short piece suggesting some fast-growing things you could sow now, to ensure that you will definitely have some fresh salads and other veg within 8 weeks - just in time for Brexit!  If you scroll down to below the usual list of what to sow, it's entitled - "How to Brexit-proof your veg supply! Easy, fast-growing veg to start now.......  
 
 
All of my suggestions can be grown in greenhouses or polytunnels, and if you don't have on of those - they can also be grown on patios, balconies or on paths in tubs or other containers, or even in window boxes - if they're protected with fleece, if frost threatens. All of my suggestions can be sown inside the house now - and grown on as seedlings either on a windowsill, outside in a polytunnel, or against a south-facing wall in a cold frame again with frost protection - then planting out when they are large enough. You don't have to spend a fortune on containers - anything will do if it has drainage and can hold enough soil or compost - all you need for most veg, especially salads is a depth of about 15 cm or 6 inches of compost for really good growth. Below there's a description of exactly how I sow my seeds and why, which I hope you'll find helpful.

 

 

The propagating bench is where all the gardening action is currently!

 
 

The propagating bench is where all the action is currently!

At the moment, soil is still saturated outside in most places - either having been snow covered or even flooded, that it's impossible to touch any vegetable beds, whether raised or not, without ruining the soil structure, apart from the other reasons below. Nothing likes growing in a compacted soil except the odd weed!  As a consequence - all the gardening action here is taking place on the propagating bench pictured above in the polytunnel - where there's lots of things which were germinated on the back of the range in the kitchen and are now growing on in the frame on the heated mat at about 50degF/10degC, ready to be planted outside or in the tunnel later. 

On the bench pictured above I have two cheap Lidl cold frames sitting on a roll-out heated mat - which is a bit like an electric blanket. It keeps things at a 'just warm enough' 50 degF. 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 very effective!  

 

General advice on Seed Sowing (there will be more details to follow in Polytunnel and Greenhouse diary) 

 
 
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 - 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. 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.
 
 
Sowing most things in modules all year round 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. 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 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. 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 a 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 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 it's this year's freshly delivered batch of compost tooNot 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.
 
 

Details on seed sowing

 
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 - ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.Lettuce - sown 2 per module - 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!
 
 

Improving Soil for Planting - especially in New Gardens

 
I find the two things people get most screwed-up about are making compost perfectly and having perfect soil. Perfection is actually required in neither! If you're starting off on a new patch like many people I've spoken to recently - you'll obviously need something to plant your modules into!  Be realistic!  Soil doesn't need to be a perfect seedbed for just planting into. Also remember that plants want to grow! Given a decent start, they'll often surprise you and grow really well in even the most difficult ground. If you're in despair because your soil is badly compacted and lumpy - perhaps in it's first year or so after builders have left it in a state - then just break it up a bit, and make some 'planting pockets' in it. Put a little potting or garden compost into a planting hole to plant in - just like planting into a pot - but in the ground instead! This makes your compost go much further too! When you've done that, then use organic mulches like grass clippings in between the rows which will gradually break down and be pulled in by worms. Green manures are also useful - they improve soil and keep weeds down as well - killing two birds with one stone. You don't have to pile on tons of manure. It's unnecessary, may be far too high in nitrogen leading to unhealthy growth, can be wasteful of nutrients and could cause pollution, particularly with our current rainfall!  It may also emit nitrous-oxide - a climate-damaging greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than CO2!  Anyway - in the real world - most back gardeners find well-rotted organic manure hard to obtain. Non-organic manure can contain all sorts of nasty things like animal worm treatments (not good for soil life), weedkillers and also straw-shortening chemicals. Non-organic mushroom compost will usually contain the same! These toxic agricultural chemicals can damage your soil, your plants and your health. 
 
 
The very best way to improve soil is always to grow things in it! I know this sounds like a bit of a daft contradiction - but as long as you've just broken the soil up a bit and it will drain reasonably well - you'll be amazed just how quickly even virtual subsoil will respond to some TLC!  I've proved it!  Seaweed meal (ground laminaria seaweed - not calcified seaweed) is really helpful on damaged soil and it works astonishingly fast. You'll find it far more cheaply in agricultural feed merchants than garden centres - 25 euros for a 25 kg. bag. Garden centres charge at least double for it!  It's brilliant for encouraging all the microbial life in the soil to multiply quickly. and also encouraging heavy, sticky clay soil to 'flocculate' (or in other words stick together to you and me)! That helps it to drain better. Seaweed meal is even used now on the sides of new motorways to get soil ready for being planted - and I must say I've seen plenty of new gardens that looked like motorways after the builders have left!!  Where my new polytunnels are looked like that a few years ago!

 
To improve really badly damaged or compacted soil I would use a combination of organic mulches and seaweed meal. Then I would grow potatoes in 1/4 of it, maybe peas and beans which aren't too fussy in another 1/4 - planted in pockets as I've said - and then perhaps cover the rest for now or again plant in pockets - perhaps growing something large like courgettes or pumpkins through black polythene with a nice organic mulch underneath, later in the summer, to encourage the worms to help you!. There you have the beginnings of your four-course rotation! And the soil microbial life and the worms will just gradually do the rest!  Very deep cultivation isn't good for any soil life either - it really doesn't appreciate being turned upside down every year just as it's warmed up and got used to a nice bit of fresh air and sunshine, any more than we would! Leave it near the surface - where it all evolved to be. Each kind of microbe or fungi prefers it's own level - but most live in the top few inches or so. A little bit of light 'scratching around with a fork' doesn't hurt it at all - in fact introducing the extra oxygen can rev all the microbial life up a bit in spring because it does actually need some air. But all that macho, nightmare double-digging stuff just buries it so far down that it takes ages to recover and fight it's way back to the surface again! It also destroys worm burrows which help drainage, and the fungal hyphae (or threads) which break down and recycle carbon, releasing nutrients and helping plants to grow. If you keep doing that every year like some people I know do as a matter of course - your soil will never be truly healthy because you're giving all the soil life a very hard time! Obviously you may need to break up new, possibly compacted soil initially by cultivating the surface or to loosen any possible compaction of the subsoil by sticking a long fork in and just gently lifting a little to help improve drainage - but don't bring subsoil to the surface by double digging. 
 
After that - minimum work for maximum output has always been my preferred method. I like to make life as easy as possible - but I don't call it 'no dig' because it isn't - In reality there is actually no such thing!  It's just an attractive idea that sounds good! Minimal dig is how nature does it - with the occasional scratching or rooting around by birds or large foraging animals - like us - or pigs! 
 
 
You don't need to worry about expensive soil tests for micro-nutrients! In a new garden or allotment though - just do a soil pH test first. That's really all you need to do - there's no need to over-complicate things.  If the pH is right - then plants can help themselves to whatever they need, aided and abetted by their symbiotic microbial friends in the soil!  You can buy a small, easy to use test kit complete with instructions from most garden centres or DIY stores now. A soil pH of 6.5-7 is what most vegetables prefer. If you need to raise the pH of your soil, you can adjust  if necessary by adding either calcified seaweed - which contains calcium as well as valuable trace elements, ground limestone, or Dolomitic limestone - which contains magnesium. All of these have a much gentler action on the soil than hydrated lime. Lime is best added in the autumn to vacant beds after legumes (peas & beans) - where next years brassica (cabbage family) crops are to grow. Never add lime to potato beds before planting - it can cause potato scab. Potatoes prefer a slightly acidic soil. Never add lime at the same time as manure either - as that can cause a reaction which 'locks up' nutrients so that they become unavailable to plants - this shows in a yellowing of the leaves called 'chlorosis'. This can often be a problem in old gardens, which may have been limed routinely every year without doing a pH test to see if it was actually needed. Calcified seaweed is the only kind of pH-raising agent that I would ever use if necessary just before planting a crop. Tomatoes seem to particularly appreciate it. Whatever type of garden you're starting off with - it's always good to get a rough idea of the soil pH anyway. Once that's right - plants will be able to help themselves to the food they need - helped by the worms and all the other vitally important microbial life in the soil which breaks down nutrients into a form that plants can absorb. Worms and vital soil bacteria don't like acid soils - so getting the pH right is also very important for them too. Out of interest - acidity is why spaghnum moss from peat bogs was often used as an antibacterial would dressing during the First World War!

 
Worms and other soil life are also encouraged by growing green manures, by adding organic matter like compost, and by using organic mulches. Don't be tempted in a new garden to use a glyphosate the so-called 'total' weedkiller to get rid of weeds before you start - there is a huge body of evidence that shows glyphosate actually kills aquatic life like frogs and soil microbial life. So if you use it you would be killing off the things that actually help you, by making nutrients available to plants!  It has also been shown to persist in soil and to be taken up by plants growing there afterwards - despite the makers disingenuous claims to the contrary! Quite apart from that - even if you don't care about the environment, or poisoning yourself, your pets, soil and local water supply - glyphosate doesn't actually kill weed seeds! They'll germinate as soon as you cultivate the soil at all!  So not only is it a very dangerous chemical - but it's also a hideous and expensive waste of money! If you've got too much ground to cope with then just cultivate a small bit first - and either mow the rest, keep some chickens or other livestock on it, or cover it with some grass clippings, compost or well-rotted manure and then a light-excluding waterproof mulch. That will get the worms working furiously - which hugely improves the condition of the soil and also prevents and kills weeds by excluding light. When you uncover it in a few months or a year - you will be astonished at the transformation! Roundup (glyphosate) won't do that for you - you'll just end up with a dead, lifeless soil - incapable of growing genuinely healthy plants!  As I'm always saying - let Nature do the work - it's free - and only too willing to help if you encourage it a bit!
 
 

Don't be tempted to use non-organic mushroom compost anywhere you're growing food - it may seem like a nice easy option but it will almost certainly contain very nasty and extremely persistent pesticide residues which I've already mentioned - which can last for many years in the soil. It also has a very high pH - so it can be really bad for low pH plants like Rhododendrons or blueberries causing 'chlorosis', 'locking up' of vital nutrients and stunted yellowing growth.  Use mulches of grass clippings or leaf mould instead. And while on the subject of soil - something else I'm always going on about - but it's worth repeating because I see people doing it all the time - in fact I've seen many pictures of people proudly displaying their so-called 'clean' soil on twitter! It hurts me to see them! Leaving bare soil uncovered may well give you a nice surface 'tilth' to sow into and it may look lovely and organised - but it's incredibly thoughtless and also selfish!

 

I will repeat this again!  - PLEASE - Do not leave bare soil uncovered at this time of year! Doing so causes pollution, loss soil and of valuable nutrients and also emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases! 

 

General February advice

 
If you buy things like rhubarb, asparagus or Seakale roots in those plastic packs in garden centres - pot them up in a nice free draining compost immediately you get them home as they're expensive and may well rot in the packets if you wait until outside conditions are suitable. Then you can plant them out in a few weeks when the soil is warmer.
 
 
Pot grown potatoes 'Mayan Gold' & 'Lady Christl' - mid Feb. in tunnel - almost ready for planting.
'Chit' seed potatoes in a cool, frost free, light place if they're for planting direct outside in March. 'Chitting' means getting them to start sprouting shoots. Some varieties like 'Pink Fir Apple' may be reluctant to do this, so if you find it a problem, you can fool them and get round this by putting them in a slightly warmer place, like under the kitchen table, and covering them so that they're in the dark. They'll start to sprout very quickly this way. Then put them back into a light, cool place again so that the shoots don't get too long and brittle. Short stubby shoots will be stronger than long spindly ones - and less vulnerable to damage when you're planting out later straight into soil as opposed to compost. I start off all mine in pots now so length of shoot doesn't matter, and then I plant them out like herbaceous plants a bit later in spring. This way they start into growth far quicker and I get bigger crops before any blight strikes - which these days is getting earlier. This also means I can grow for the very best flavour - I don't like the taste of any of the so-called blight-resistant ones. We don't eat potatoes every day here, so quality rather than quantity is what I aim for. The pot-grown potatoes 'Mayan Gold' & 'Lady Christl', started off in the warm and pictured here in mid-February a couple of years ago in polytunnel - are almost ready for planting. 
 
 
You can plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers outside now if the soil's not too sticky - or again alternatively into pots to plant out later. They're a really useful winter vegetable that are dead easy to grow anywhere, so they're great for breaking up rough ground like you might have on a new allotment. They're also very nutritious - and extremely good for the immune system as they contain something called Inulin - a prebiotic fibre that can really rev up the good bacteria in the gut - with occasionally somewhat anti-social results! As they're tall they also make a very good windbreak - ironic that!  In a mild autumn they also have very pretty yellow flowers, which are good for picking, being a member of the sunflower family. 'Fuseau' is a good, less knobbly variety, very widely available now. They're delicious as a Dauphinoise, raw in a salad, oven roasted, used almost raw, like water chestnuts in a Chinese stir fry, or made into soup. They're also almost impossible to lose - so be careful where you plant them, you'll have them there forever, unless you have a few pigs to root them up! They love them! 
  
(As an aside I couldn't believe it a couple of years ago when I saw a gardening writer described as 'organic' actually recommending the use of glyphosate to get rid of Jerusalem artichokes! And another very well-known 'organic expert' who had Unwins 'GrowSure' seed which is pre-treated with fungicide among his seed packets - his seed box was pictured in a gardening magazine! I wouldn't dream of using those! No wonder people are confused about what is allowed in organic growing!)
 
As I mentioned in the sowing details - you can also still plant 'spring planting' varieties of garlic too. Or if the soil is too wet - just pop them into some modules to root or pot them up into small pots for future planting.
 
 

My 'Ad-Free' Blog Policy


This isn't a money-making site, I don't have any product to sell and all the information in it is freely given, in the hope that it will be useful to readers.  It's the sort of advice that I would have very much liked to have been able to find, when I was just beginning my gardening 40 years ago. 

 

Also please note - that I don't have/or want any ads. or so-called 'editorial pieces' (just basically ads in another form!) from other sources on my website.  I have been asked many times to take them in return for a fee - even from companies whose ethos I might generally approve of - but I always refuse. This is not meant in any way as a criticism of those people who do accept them. That is their choice and we all have to make a living - but I prefer to have the freedom to speak my mind frankly and to voice my own opinions without the possibility of being influenced by what an advertiser or potential sponsor may think. 

As a result my blog may look a little old-fashioned compared to some - but fancy websites with bells and whistles cost money. Many people have told me that they actually prefer it this way though, and that it comes as a nice change! The only concession I have made to modernity was to join Twitter a couple of years ago, which a lot of people had asked me to do over the last few years - so I finally relented! I have to say it's fascinating - though it can be time-consuming!

If you're a new reader you may have noticed that I can be pretty outspoken at times too - but I do my research!  If I recommend any product then you can be assured that it's always something that I've found useful myself - usually over several years. I don't accept 'freebies' or discounts of any sort in order to promote other people's products either - so please don't send me any - or you'll be disappointed!

Another reason I don't accept ads. is that I personally find them intensely annoying popping up all over the place, often totally unrelated to the content of the site. I also hate to read something that may look interesting and then find out halfway through that actually it's actually promoting a product!  It's impossible to know then whether what you're reading is actually an honest and impartial opinion, so I'm afraid I tend to be a little cynical about that and usually leave those sites immediately!  Perhaps I'm a little old-fashioned - but to me, my integrity is worth far more than money.

I think that useful information garnered from long experience, and truly objective, honest opinion are important. That is what I try to give readers of my blog and I hope you will continue to enjoy it. I want to say a big thank you to all the people who have emailed or tweeted on Twitter to thank me for my advice!  I'm sorry if I don't always have the time to answer you all individually - but it does makes all the work really worthwhile. Your gratitude is so very much appreciated - and is great motivation to do even better! Thank you for paying me the great compliment of reading it!

 

(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. Thank you.)

What to Sow Now - February 2019

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Seeds of hope.  Home-saved non-F1 hybrid Heritage seeds that will provide plenty of food for us, bees & other vital beneficial insects all year                  Seeds of hope. Home-saved non-F1 hybrid Heritage seeds that will provide plenty of food for us, bees & other vital beneficial insects all year
 
 
This month - in a heated propagator - you can sow*:
 
 
For tunnel/greenhouse growing later - Early tomatoes, aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, calabrese/broccoli, celery, celeriac, physalis (Chinese gooseberries) and dwarf French beans (for very early cropping in pots). Also half-hardy annual flowers like nicotiana, which need a long growing season. 
 
 
Early sowing in warmth will gain you a couple of weeks in most cases - but bear in mind that all of these will need warmth for quite some time yet though - After the initial higher temperature germination in a heated propagator, they will then need growing on with a minimum bottom heat of around 50deg.F/10deg.C - in a draught-free space, perhaps on a hotbed or a roll-out heated mat, protecting with fleece if frost is forecast and potting on when necessary to avoid any setbacks, then gradually hardening off and finally planting out in the tunnel as soon as the late winter/early spring crops are cleared from late April/early May onwards. 
 
 
In more gentle warmth 
(At approx 10deg.C - either on a roll out heated mat with adjustable thermostat or in your house, putting out into greenhouse or cold frame after germination when good light will be needed. 
 
(*Bear in mind that most propagators on the market are set to approximately 20 deg.C - or slightly warmer, unless they have adjustable thermostats):
 
 
 
For planting out in the tunnel - or outdoors under cloches later:
 
You can sow brassicas such as early summer cauliflowers, summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts and the new varieties of 'summer purple sprouting' broccoli, lettuces, perennial veg. like Welsh onions, globe artichokes and seakale, spinach, spring onions(scallions), early leeks and bulb onions, shallots, early peas, broad beans, kohl rabi, white turnips, land cress, rocket, salad mixes, watercress. 
 
 
Now is also a good time to sow bee-friendly, fast-growing hardy annuals like limnanthes, calendulas, convulvulus tricolour, borage etc. - to provide early flowers for attracting beneficial insects like hoverflies into the tunnel to help with pest control. Early flowers will also provide a welcome early meal for bees - which are vital for pollination of early flowering polytunnel fruit trees like peaches. Provide the food they need and they'll keep coming back, as bees quickly learn where reliable sources of food are and communicate this knowledge to the rest of their fellow bees, clever things - a mutually beneficial relationship for them and us!
 
 
 
Directly into soil pre-warmed with cloches, or in pots/modules in the tunnel without heat: 
(covering on very cold nights with fleece):
 
 
You can sow more hardy crops like broad beans, carrots, kale 'Ragged Jack', Black Tuscan and other kales for baby leaves, Ruby chard and 'Bull's Blood' or McGregor's favourite beetroot for high anthocyanin beet leaves, pre-sprouted mangetout and early peas, for both pea shoots and podded peas -(pre-sprouting in warmth ensures faster germination which means seeds are less prone to rotting and mouse damage), lettuces, herbs, (not basil yet - it's too cold) mixed leaf salads, oriental mustards and salad mixes, rocket, summer spinach etc. These will all crop before June in the tunnel or greenhouse. 
 
 
Planting half the modules inside and the other half outside under cloches is a good way to spread cropping times. Other hardy crops like beetroot, kales and chards can also be sown in modules now for planting outside under cloches later. Remember - even most hardy seeds won't germinate below a soil temperature of about 45degF or 7degC. 
 
 
Another tip - lettuce and spinach seeds prefer to be fairly cool for the first 24-48 hours, as higher temperature can trigger dormancy- so don't sow these in too much heat. I always sow them in my kitchen at normal house temperature, there I can also keep an eye on them and uncover as soon as they start to germinate. I then transfer them out to the polytunnel so that they have really good light, protecting them at night if frost is forecast. 
 
 
Small seedlings will need protecting from frost with fleece if it's very cold. If you can provide these conditions then almost everything but the most tender crops can be sown in suitable modules in mid-late February for planting out under cloches later - but don't grow them on with too much warmth or they will be too soft and 'leggy' as light levels are still relatively low.
 
 
Keep an eye out for mice which are very partial to pea and bean seeds and will even dig up and eat the seeds when the plants are already a couple of inches high, as I know to my cost!
 
 
All of these things could be germinated anywhere warm and then grown on in very good light on a windowsill if you have room - but do bring them inside the room at night if you close the curtains, or they may get chilled on cold nights. And remember that a south facing window may be too hot even at this time of year. One well known journalist in the west of Ireland told me he puts his tomatoes under his Velux office window in good light after germinating them in the warm - a great idea! I couldn't work out how he'd got them so early when he wrote complaining that my advice on side shooting tomatoes was far too late for his plants -  his Pantano Romanesco had already gone completely bonkers by May!! That particular beefsteak variety needs even more severe discipline than most - but the exceptional flavour makes it well worth the extra trouble!
 
 
It's much too early yet to sow most melons and cucumbers. These are very fast growing - taking only about 12 weeks from sowing to harvest. The only exception is watermelons - the larger types of which need starting off in mid-late Feb. as they need a long growing season to be successful. The small 'Sugar Baby' will still crop well in a warm polytunnel if sown in March. Watermelons are also very tender, susceptible to even the slightest frost and are actually damaged below 50deg.F/10degC. - so unless you have a heated greenhouse, (and who has in these carbon-conscious days?) they'll be far too big before it's warm enough to plant them out in the tunnel or before their allotted tunnel space is vacant. Potting them on into larger pots and placing on a 'roll out' heated mat to provide bottom warmth is a much more energy efficient option. I find it's best to wait until at least mid March for sowing most of the cucurbitaceae family - they can then grow on quickly without any check. Five years ago I tried sowing the delicious yellow courgette 'Atena' very early as an experiment - sown on 23rd Feb. and grown on in gentle warmth, it was planted into large pots in the west tunnel in early April and was given extra protection with fleece on cold nights. It gave a really early crop in early-mid May. I now do this every year - it's definitely well worth doing to get some delicious early courgettes!
 
 
As soon as the ground is in reasonable condition you can plant Jerusalem Artichokes. If it's still too wet you can plant them in 2 litre pots for planting out in a few weeks. 
 
 
You can also plant shallots, onion sets and garlic either in the ground or again in pots if it's too wet - but you must choose varieties of garlic which are labelled as suitable for spring planting - such as 'Christo'. If you plant 'autumn planting' varieties now they will just produce one single bulb rather that splitting into individual cloves which is what you want. 
 
 
If you have well sprouted seed of any variety of potato you can plant some in large pots or directly into the tunnel soil now. These will need protecting from frost at all times. First early varieties are obviously best as these will bulk up quickly - giving a crop in about 10-12 weeks in late April or early May depending on variety - those grown on in pots from planting to harvest will also be slightly earlier than those planted out in the tunnel borders.
 
 
Don't attempt to sow anything outside into cold wet ground yet! If you haven't done so already - get cloches or a polythene cover out onto vegetable beds outside now to dry them out and start them warming it up. If your ground hasn't been covered all winter - it could take weeks to dry out after all the wet weather we've had. Another reason why ground should always be covered in winter - apart from the soil-loss, damage and possible pollution aspect!
 
 
I always use a good, well drained, organic peat-free seed compost for all my seed sowing. If you're not using organic peat-free then make sure you use a seed compost - rather than an multi-purpose compost. These may contain far too much chemical fertiliser if not organic, which can either inhibit germination of seedlings, or even burn and kill emerging roots! 
 
 
*JUST ONE MORE THING - Always open seed packets with clean dry hands - not 'garden muddy' hands! Most seed will last for ages if kept really dry and cool at all times. I find that a dry cool room is usually far better than most domestic refrigerators which can be too damp. (the exception is celery, carrots and parsnips, which tend to have reduced germination when more than 1 year old) Sow seed little and often - preferably in modules if you have room - it's far more time and cost-effective than sowing in rows and transplanting.  It also avoids wasting seeds as it avoids root disturbance and possible damage or setback when 'pricking out' from seed trays - or from slugs eating vulnerable tiny seedlings.
 
 P.S. WHEN SOWING SEED - IGNORE THE SEED PACKET'S ADVICE WHICH TELL YOU TO SOW THE SEEDS ALL AT ONCE IN A ROW OR IN A SEED TRAY as this can waste seed - REMEMBER - THEY WANT YOU TO BUY MORE!
 
Happy seed sowing everyone! May all your seeds be successful!
 
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How to Brexit-proof your veg supply! Easy, fast-growing veg to start now - which guarantee you a Brexit-proof harvest in just 8 weeks! (Here are some of the fastest - there are many other ideas in the general 'What to Sow Now' list for February above, which can be started now to crop later - such as baby carrots, chards, beets and perpetual spinach beet)
 
Loose-leaf lettuce, salad mixes and lettuce mixes. These are widely available in many seed ranges, but are very cheap (often less than half the price) from DIY chains). Good sources of organic loose leaf lettuce seeds are Brown Envelope Seeds here in Ireland, and Real Seeds UK.
Endive and chicories for baby leaves
Broccoli Raab - small broccoli-like flower buds 
Oriental veg or salad mixes - usually available as either spicy or sweet mixes.
Mizuna, Mustards, Tatsoi and Texsel Greens
Kales for baby leaves
Radishes can be sown in modules inside now and planted in pots or sown direct in pots.
Rocket
Peas for pea shoots
Turnips
Spinach 
Scallions or spring onions 
Collards or loose-leaf cabbages
Watercress can be grown very easily by rooting some shoots in water from supermarket salad bags. Just remove the lower leaves, put in a jar of water for a few days an they will grow new roots from the stems. Then pot them up in some organic peat-free compost, keep frost-free anywhere in reasonable light and they'll be producing plenty of lovely new shoots for salads etc. by the middle of March. 
 
(For baby leaf lettuce or cut and come again use - DON'T cut the whole head with scissors as usually recommended. Doing this slows up growth a lot at this time of year as the plant needs it's leaves to photosynthesize - just pick one or two leaves from each plant, as this won't affect growth too much and the plant will repay you by providing a harvest for longer.)
 
 
Other ideas:
 
You could sow all sorts of seeds as microgreens - just as we used to sow mustard and cress as children on damp kitchen towel in small containers - these will be ready to harvest about a week to ten days after sowing. Any veg or herb seeds can be used for growing microgreens and they are often far higher in nutrients than their full-grown counterparts.
 
You can also sprout seeds like sunflower, amaranth, peas, mung beans, alfalfa, fenugreek, mustard, kales etc. - these can be ready from 2-3 days. Soak for a few hours or overnight in jars, cover with muslin held onto the jar with rubber band to avoid losing them down sink when draining, and be sure to rinse and drain them well regularly - twice a day or more, to prevent possible mould or disease.
 
It goes without saying that using organic seed for either sprouting or microgreens is best, as apart from being far more healthy and vigorous - non-organic seed may be pre-treated with pesticides!
 
Buy potted herbs in supermarkets, split them up and grow on in pots (see my How to grow Basil article here: )
 
Some supermarkets sell growing lettuce in compost cubes in their veg departments. These aren't organic, but if you plant them in organic peatfree compost and cut off the tops immediately - then the leaves that grow afterwards will be as good as organic!
 
An excellent, fast-growing, salad potato is Lady Christl, and is the fastest potato to bulk up. Seed tubers can be started now in pots and you could be harvesting new potatoes from these in as little as 8 weeks! 
 
Apples should store for at least 6-8 weeks in a cold place or the salad drawer of your fridge. Granny Smith are the best for this, sweeter apples like Gala or Pink Lady don't store as well.
 
 
Plant buying - if you plan to import any plants from the UK
 
I would advise doing so as soon as possible and certainly before March 29th, as many nurseries may not yet have the right paperwork in place and also the costs of inspections and phytosanitary certificates will undoubtedly increase after then. Currently all plants throughout the EU have plant passports which apply EU-wide - but this will change with regard to UK-grown stock immediately after Brexit. 
 
Dutch growers are also warning that prices are certain to go up after Brexit due to exchange rates, import duties, phytosanitary certificates, increased transport costs and waiting times at ports.  https://www.hortweek.com/leading-dutch-grower-brexit-plea-uk/ornamentals/article/1494892

 

(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.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in January - 2019

 

January contents: A good time to finish winter pruning..... Bare-root benefits.....There's still just time to order bare-root fruit trees, bushes and canes for mail order delivery before March.....Which apple varieties are good in a small garden?....The importance of choosing the right root-stock....Other fruit jobs to do now.....There's always some kind of fruit suitable for growing somewhere in any garden!
 
  
185gm peach, variety unknown 22nd July A good crop of peaches in late July
185 g peach in July - I can't wait for summer to taste these luscious beauties again!  A good crop of peaches in late July
 
Pruning pays off if you want productive peaches!
 
I thought that showing you a picture of some juicy peaches might encourage you to try growing some this year! Happily avoiding the unpredictable weather - I'm hoping to find time to finish pruning my polytunnel peaches in the next week before the fruit buds start to swell - it's so easy to knock them off then and lose fruit as a consequence. I won't be pruning any other stone fruit like plums or cherries outside yet though, even if the weather is dry - as that risks encouraging 'silver leaf' disease. Most stone fruits should always be pruned only if absolutely necessary, if a branch has broken, or for shaping the branch system in their early years - and then only when the sap is rising and growth has started in the spring. But most fruit trees undercover can be pruned at pretty much any time of year in my experience - although peaches and apricots flower early so it's best to do this before the buds start to swell. As the pruning methods in most fruit books apply to greenhouses with lovely walls or to traditional bush shaped trees - I had to invent my own method for growing peaches in a polytunnel! 
 
 
Peach pruned as a rough fan shape, reducing height and leaving productive young growth lower down  - 18.1.14
Like many of the things I do - my method of peach pruning is just a little unorthodox but it works very well for me and I get huge crops! The peach pictured here is pruned as a rough fan/bush shape - which reduces the height, leaving some productive younger green shoots lower down that will fruit this year. It's not a traditional way to prune peaches - but I find it easier and it's not too time-consuming. The shoots don't need 'tying in' to supports as they would if it was strictly wall trained - and in fact it's far more productive than a wall trained tree would be! Being planted about 60cm out from the tunnel wall means there's space for the slightly bushier form while still retaining fairly good air circulation. If your tree hasn't been pruned for a few years and has become a mess of old wood, then you may have to take a lot off now to encourage shoots to form lower down the tree. Peaches will do this quite readily and will often produce lovely young shoots even from the trunk. If you don't take off most of the older wood the tree will put all it's energy into the topmost branches and this just makes the problem even worse - so you have to be brave and harden your heart!
 
  
Nectarines and peaches are pruned slightly differently to plums and cherries. As they always fruit most prolifically on the previous year's (green) wood, they need a certain amount of the older wood pruned out each year to stop them getting too big, particularly in the tunnel, to avoid them bursting out of the polythene top and also to promote younger fruiting growth, leaving enough well-spaced young growth on which they will fruit this year. You also need to be able to reach them! If you don't do this they soon become an unmanageable, crowded and unproductive mess. It's sometimes difficult to take out enough wood in summer though, so I often need to take out more at this time of year, particularly on the older trees. Then I can see exactly what I'm doing because the trees are naked, with no leaves and the young, greener growth formed last summer is much easier to see. They start into growth much sooner inside and already the fatter and rounder fruit buds are easily distinguishable from the growth buds which are slimmer and more pointed. Trees can quite easily put on over a metre of growth during the summer - so controlling them is vital. Pruning the top growth also naturally reduces further root growth correspondingly, which is a good thing as otherwise they can rob nutrients and water from crops growing in the raised beds near to their root area. The roots of any healthy tree will always extend over an area of at least roughly three times the height of the tree.  After looking at them carefully, take out some of the older branches back to a point just abovewhere some new green growth which the tree made last summer appeared - bearing in mind the height you want. Later on in the summer, just after fruiting, prune out some of this year's longer new growths in order to keep them a manageable size and promote good air circulation. 
 
 
My trees are never a pretty sight after pruning - but you have to be both brave and even a little brutal sometimes! The trees look so pretty in early spring, when they're adorned with their pink blossoms, that it's tempting to leave the flowering branches and not cut them off, but I know if I that if I don't prune properly now, then the fruit in the summer will be far smaller, too crowded and not nearly as good, sometimes even dropping off because the tree simply can't cope with developing so many. One has to harden one's heart. And don't be tempted either to leave long branches on trees that you've just planted - as this forces the poor tree to try to support that growth before it has properly developed it's roots - and this may well kill it. A friend of mine did this a few years ago despite my warnings - as they thought they might get fruit quicker. They didn't - it killed the tree!  Prune trees right back after planting, to just two or three lower buds on each branch, pointing in the direction you want them to grow. New green growth will come from those in it's first year. It will fruit on those next year and you will reap the benefits of having a little patience! Each year after fruiting - cut them back again to establish a nice young branch system in whatever shape you like. Then go over them again in winter and just tidy up. Last year, yet again each of my fan/bush trees at the north end of my tunnel produced over two hundred perfect large peaches each, and we've been enjoying the frozen fruit as sorbets, smoothies etc. all winter. There is nothing like sinking your teeth into that first luscious, aromatic fruit!

 

For the last few years, both Aldi and Lidl have had bare-root trees available really cheaply sometime over the next couple of months. That's where I got mine - for a fiver each - one of the best investments I've ever made! Although one was labelled 'Peach' and the other 'Nectarine' - they both turned out to be un-named varieties of peaches. But happily for me - serendipity was at work! One is an early variety and the other is a later one - so they spread the crop very nicely and we have fresh peaches for around two and a half months in summer, with masses to freeze! Named peaches are generally available in garden centres - but they are much more expensive as they will be container grown - often in peat compost, which I hate. Peat is not a natural growing medium for peaches! If you have the room for a peach they're far easier to grow under cover in a tunnel or greenhouse as not only can you always keep them pruned to the size you want but they don't get peach leaf curl disease under cover. This is caused by rain washing the disease spores down into the buds before they break in early spring if theyy;'re outside. My peaches are planted at the north end of my larger tunnel, where they don't shade anything. They are roughly fan-trained over an area of 15 ft/4 metres overall, with a height of about the same, or slightly less. At their feet in a narrow bed about 3ft/1 metre depth I plant perennial herbs like various thymes, alpine strawberries, a few early bulbs and lots of scented single flowers to attract beneficial insects and pollinators. This works well for me.

 

It's a good time to finish winter pruning both in the polytunnel and outside if ground is dry enough to walk on.

  
Having said that - if your ground is wet then you'd be better staying off the ground around any fruit trees, or indeed anywhere else, until it dries up a bit!  If you don't you will compact the soil and cause permanent damage, which then leads to drainage problems. Poor drainage can also then have a 'knock' on' effect' on nutrient uptake - leading to a condition called 'bitter pit' - which is a symptom of poor calcium uptake in apples and other disease problems. All fruit really hates bad drainage. If the weather turns drier over the next couple of weeks and the soil dries up a bit I'll do the pruning of the apples in the new orchard. If you have polytunnel fruit though - this is a great time to prune it as growth will be starting again soon and if trees are pruned properly you can look forward to a summer of luscious fruit!
 

 

Bare-root benefits

 I usually prefer to plant bare-root trees, whatever I'm planting, if I can get the varieties I want with bare roots - I feel that they establish and adjust to your soil far better. Container-grown trees in peat composts can take much longer to establish as their roots as the can be reluctant to explore the world outside their pot - even if you loosen some of the outer roots a little! Peaches aren't that fussy about soil but they do like it well drained, with a pH of about 6.5 to 7. Scatter a couple of handfuls of bonemeal and calcified seaweed over the planting area of about 2 sq. metres, these will supply phosphate, slow release calcium and other trace elements. If your soil is poor and lacking in humus and organic matter, and possibly compacted - that will mean it's also low in biological activity, so it could benefit from adding one of the beneficial micorrhizal granules available in sachets now from garden centres. These form a fungal network which help roots to establish a symbiotic uptake of nutrients quickly, and this will increase over the years. Fork all of these in really well and evenly when preparing the soil and scatter some of the granules over the actual roots as well.  I also fork in a light dressing of good well rotted, crumbly compost before planting - not tons of nitrogen-rich manure which would promote too much soft, sappy growth. If you don't have crumbly old home made compost, a bucket of a good organic peat free potting compost will do the same job. I know that seems extravagant - but just think how much even non-organic peaches cost each - and then you'll see it's worth every penny!  Just a few peaches will repay the cost of the compost at the price they were last year! Last year organic ones - if you could get them- were over a euro each! Just 12 peaches pays for a whole bag of the best organic peat free compost! (I use the peat-free certified organic potting compost from Klasmann which is excellent). Don't use a peat compost as this will not do the same job and is completely sterile, containing no vital microbial life, and eventually clogs the soil too. 

 

The addition of organic compost opens up the structure of the soil, makes it more 'root friendly' and introduces important microbial life, which will adapt itself gradually to the type of tree which is grown there. All types of plants have specific kinds of microbes that like to live symbiotically with the roots of that particular plant - and if you start them off at the right pH, with some compost to feed on at first - they will soon multiply and form a huge living community around the root structure - supplying the plant with the vital nutrients it needs from the soil. A symbiotic relationship is a bit like a 'middle man'/or a sort of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' kind of thing! The plant makes root exudates - sugars which feed the microbes - and then in return all the microbes make the nutrients in the soil available to the plants roots - in a form that they can absorb. Basically it is pretty much the same way as our digestion works - so the soil acts a bit like the plant's stomach if you like - as I've explained before. Every year after planting, a light scattering of compost and a couple of handfuls of seaweed meal (for potash and trace elements) will keep them happy and busy, but not make the tree not too vigorous. 

 

There's still just time to order bare-root fruit trees, bushes and canes for mail order delivery before March

  

The enormous delicious fruits of autumn raspberry Joan J

The sooner you do this the better if you're planning on getting any - you don't want to be right at the back of the queue just getting the dregs of what's left at the end of the planting season. If you're looking for a new raspberry - then I can thoroughly recommend the autumn variety Joan J - pictured here. It's definitely the best tasting variety yet.  I grew it in pots in the polytunnel last year and it fruited from June until almost Christmas. "An autumn raspberry fruiting in June" I hear you say? Yes - if you prune them MY way! Many people recommend pruning them right back after they've finished fruiting in late winter - but I always leave about half of the canes that formed and fruited in the previous autumn un-pruned. These then fruit early the following year - after which I prune them right down to the ground. Those will then form new canes which will fruit slightly later in the autumn than the new canes which grew up from those pruned in winter - thereby spreading their season even more and giving you a continuous crop for much of the summer and autumn. It doesn't harm the plants at all pruning this way, as autumn varieties are very vigorous anyway. I just feed, mulch and water them well. Like so many of the tricks I've learned over the years - I discovered this one literally quite by accident - by not getting round to pruning at the accepted 'right time' - due to an accident!  All autumn raspberries will do this if pruned this way - but if I only grew one raspberry variety - it would be Joan J. It has enormous fruits which aren't just delicious fresh but which also freeze incredibly well. 

 

Which apple varieties are good in a small garden?

 

Someone asked me recently to suggest two apple varieties which would be suitable for a small garden, which would fruit reliably early in the season, are good freshly picked and would then make apple juice for freezing. 'Discovery' is an excellent and productive early season apple that ripens through September, it's crisp, sweet and has very pink-tinted flesh compared to many apples. The internal colour indicates that it's full of healthy antioxidants tooDepending on the season's weather and where it's planted - the apples that are in full sun always colour best. Crisply delicious when just picked, it doesn't keep for more than a couple of weeks or so once it's ripe, but it does make a delicious pale pink apple juice - particularly when combined with the early cooker 'Grenadier' which ripens at the same time -  in early/mid Sept. We don't make juice here any more as juicing discards the flesh of the fruit, wasting many healthy nutrients like antioxidant phytochemicals & vital gut- healthy fibre. This also means that juice is very high in quickly available sugars too - which are not good for us. Eating whole fruit is better for us - so we tend to make 'slushies here now - which are our half-frozen smoothies using whole fruits blitzed in the Nutriblender and diluted with a little spring water. These are delicious and thirst-quenching on a warm early autumn day!

 

Red Devil apple cut in half Jan 19th

As Discovery also flowers at the same time, being from the same pollination group, they make very good partners in a small garden. Grenadier is a terrific early cooking apple with plenty of sweet/acid flavour - good for all sorts of cooking uses in Sept. and Oct. If you store either of these apples after that they tend to lose their flavour and acidity though, becoming 'woolly', which affects their flavour, so the two are ideally matched. Both varieties are widely available and are good, reliable and disease-resistant. If you have room for three trees in your garden and would like a long keeping cooker - then they also make perfect partners for Bramley's Seedling. This apple is what is known as a 'triploid' - meaning that it has no good pollen of it's own, so therefore it needs two good pollination partners which reliably flower at the same time.Discovery and Grenadier partner it perfectly - so it's a productively fruiting 'menage a trois' if you like!

 

If you only have room for one apple, then an offspring of Discovery - a result of a cross with an apple called Kent which was bred more recently in 1975, is a really good apple called Red Devil - (pictured above cut in half). It's disease resistant, incredibly productive and self-fertile, in flowering group 3, so doesn't need a pollinator partner nearby. If you do have other apple trees nearby though, it's also a very good pollinator, and will pollinate trees in flowering groups 2 and 4 - which overlap their flowering times with group 3 trees to a certain extent. A delicious apple, it stays lovely and crisp for 3 months in my apple store, and is very high in polyphenol antioxidants which have many health benefits. Unlike Discovery, it is picked a little later in early October depending on the season - but will keep until Christmas or beyond - which I find more useful in an apple as there are always plenty of September ripening apples around - too many at times - but they become more scarce after October. Last week I chose a couple from my apple store to grate into a smoothie - it was just slightly less crisp - but still juicy and delicious and full of colourful antioxidants as you can see here from the colour of the flesh of one I cut in half to remove the pips! 

 

Ashmead's Kernal in my recycled 'low-tech' apple store! 12.1.17

If you would prefer a long-keeping eating apple and have room for three trees - then I would recommend 'Ashmead's Kernal' pictured here in my 'low-tech' recycled dead freezer apple store in January.  It's a healthy, disease-resistant and very productive apple, which is at it's very best naturally stored from mid-December until April It's not an apple which many people know as it's almost never available to buy in garden centres or nurseries - but it's a very aromatic, crisply mouth-watering and nutty tasting apple, with a good sweet/acid balance which regularly beats the more famous Cox's Orange Pippin in taste tests and is considered to be one of the highest quality late dessert apples. It flowers in pollination group 4 - so it overlaps it's flowering time with Red Devil which provides good pollination for it most years. 

 

Ashmead's Kernal is a late-keeping, russet dessert apple bred 300 years ago by Dr. Ashmead near Gloucester. It's one of my favourite late apples. Although often selected in competitions as even better-tasting than Cox - it's far less well known and unlike Cox is scab-resistant and far more tolerant of damp climates like ours here in Ireland, which encourages scab. Also a triploid - the heavy-cropping Ashmead's also needs 2 other apple trees nearby which will pollinate it - but this isn't usually a problem in urban gardens. It crops really well on the M26 semi-dwarfing root stock, and picked in mid-October - it keeps really well until April in cold storage. Useful for cooking from October - later on in December it matures into a delicious dessert apple with a very distinctive and mouthwatering 'pear-drop' flavour.

 

We're currently eating the stored Ashmead's which we picked in late October last year, and every time I bite into one of them, I thank old Dr. Ashmead of Gloucester who raised it around 1700!  My rather unconventional apple store keeps these really well. It's an old broken freezer which I re-purposed and it has several drawers which I can pull out to inspect the apples daily for any that may be deteriorating. It also has perfect insulation, which keeps out either heat or severe cold, and I can vary the humidity by adjusting the door opening slightly. The apples are kept in a sort of natural suspended animation, so while still alive, they go on just quietly breathing and developing their flavour a lot more more slowly than they would otherwise have done if they'd been left on the tree. This means they will keep for several months, staying crisp and retaining all of their healthy nutrients.

 I often wonder what dear old Dr. Ashmead would think of my apple store? Or if he could possibly have imagined that people in the 21st century might still be enjoying this wonderful apple and writing about how HE was the person who bred it?

My apple store is not just full of deliciously healthy, pure delights - it's also like having a treasure chest full of fascinating stories and rich social history! 

 

The importance of choosing the right root-stock

 
Whatever apples you plant though - make sure that they are on an M26 or MM106 semi-dwarfing root stock, which are by far the healthiest and best for a wide range of soils and climates but do particularly well here in Ireland.  I don't find the more dwarfing ones good here on my heavy clay soil. They need perfect conditions which few of us have - and in addition - with climate change and wetter weather, fruit trees need to be far more resilient to continue to crop well. That's the last thing I would call the dwarfing root stocks!  Also ensure that the graft union (the very swollen knobbly looking bit in the lower bit of the stem) is at least 4 ins or 10 cm above the surface of the compost they are growing in if they are in containers - otherwise the 'scion' (that's the variety of apple that's grafted onto the root stock) could possibly root past the joint and you will lose the dwarfing effect of the root stock.  I see so many trees on sale in garden centres that are badly potted through ignorance - far too deeply! Some garden centres and nurseries still have bare root trees at this time of year though - and they're worth seeking out. You may get one or two apples this year on container grown trees - but in the long run bare root trees planted now will establish much better and be far more productive over time. Make sure that you plant bare root trees with the graft union again roughly 4ins/10cm above the soil surface, and with rainfall increasing due to climate change, planting on a very slight mound with added pea gravel or grit is a good idea. The planting area will always settle and sink a bit as it does so - and you don't want to create a badly drained 'sump'! Remember - a fruit tree is a long term investment for the future - to get a return you need to plant it well!
 
 
When I was talking about fruit varieties a couple of months ago I forgot to mention a truly wonderful plum - 'Belle de Louvain'.  It's a fantastic variety - and is the one that's used to make those gorgeous big fat prunes in Belgium. It's available from a few nurseries - although it may not be on their general list and you may have to ask for it specifically. I got mine from Deacons about 25 years ago - looking it up yesterday I see it's not on their main website but they do have it listed if you do a search for it. A 'dual purpose' plum - it's really delicious and juicy as a desert plum for eating fresh when perfectly ripe (despite what was said on one gardening website! - I wonder if they've actually grown it?) - and for cooking there's absolutely nothing to equal it!  It has a fantastic rich flavour and deep purple/black colour - which indicates how rich it must be in healthy antioxidant polyphenols. 
 
 
The other good thing about 'Belle de Louvain'  is that it's fairly self-pollinating and will set fruit even without another tree close by - but 'Victoria' would be a good partner if you have room to give it some company. It does well on less than ideal soils - hence it's grown very well on my heavy Meath clay. It also freezes incredibly well - just thrown into carrier bags without stoning and freeze them whole. I'm sure it would bottle well too - although I haven't tried - as the fruit stays quite firm when cooked. An absolute paragon of a plum!  The major problem here is the destructive bullfinches eating the flower buds in late winter - something they're particularly fond of doing! Beautiful but very destructive little vandals they are!  I haven't seen too many around this year yet - just one or two so far - I'm hoping they won't do their usual amount of damage. When the fruit is ripening - then badgers and foxes are the main problem!  Anything within  'labrador standing on it's hind legs height'  reach is progressively stolen over a couple of weeks as they gradually ripen!  Beautiful and increasingly rare vandals both - about which I naturally have very ambivalent feelings - plums are one of my favourite fruits - but I don't mind losing a few if I have plenty! This year I'm going to try drying some if I have enough - they'll make nice healthy guilt free snacks! 
Plum 'Belle de Louvain' - nicely defrosting!
 
I have some beautiful photos of 'Belle de Louvain' on the tree which I took a few years ago - but as my scanner's not working - I took some out of the freezer to show you instead. I'll gently stew them in very little water with a small amount of sugar and they'll be eaten when cold with a little creme fraiche or kefir soft 'cheese' - absolute heaven!  I'm looking forward to supper! 
 
 

 

Other fruit jobs to do now

 
 
This week I'll be covering some of my rhubarb crowns with straw and old dustbins - or very large pots - the first fresh fruit of the year is always at it's most delicious when forced and delicately pink. I would dearly love some of those gorgeous terracotta forcing pots but they are so expensive!  Perhaps if I ever win the lottery!  I'm also going to dry more of my seedless grapes this year - I haven't tried the black ones yet. We're still eating a few physalis (Cape gooseberries/golden berries) every day - picked in November and stored in the fridge, only one or two have gone off. They keep for ages in their little paper cases and are rich in Vit C and other nutrients like lutein which we all need at this time of year.

 
If you haven't done so already, then untie and lower all grape rods now to horizontal, in order to ensure that the sap rises evenly to supply each breaking fruit bud along the stem. If you don't do this the buds at the top will get the most sap and some nearer to the base may not develop at all. Grapes in pots or tubs can be laid on their sides for a few weeks for the same reason. And if you haven't pruned them yet - it's too late, as the sap will start to rise rapidly in the next week or so. If you prune them now - it will be just like turning on a tap!  The sap will just pour out of the cuts, weakening or possibly even killing the vine. Don't despair if you haven't pruned - you can rub out any buds you don't want when they start to grow later on without any damage to the plant at all - but it's much better to prune them at the right time, as soon as the leaves fall in Nov/Dec. - well before the beginning of Jan. I'm going to dehydrate even more of my seedless grapes this year - I haven't tried the black ones yet. I do wish that the squirrels, mice etc. didn't eat all my nuts - then I'd have even healthier, more balanced homegrown snacks! 
 
 
Strawberry plants in pots for forcing early need to come into the tunnel now. If you don't have any of last year's runners in pots ready for doing this - you can dig a couple of old plants up with a good root ball and pot them up, giving them a feed when they start to show some new growth. After doing this they will need to be thrown away though - as it will weaken them, but it will be nice to have a few early strawberries. Remember to pot up some fresh runners for doing this later on in the year. Or plant some of the wonderful variety Albion - an ever-bearing variety which fruits in my polytunnel from May until November.
 
  
One thing I must do is to source some more barrels or tubs for collecting rainwater. Fruit and veg are very thirsty - particularly soft fruit - and need plenty of water in the summer. I've been saving rainwater for years as all plants actually prefer it - not just the low pH lovers like blueberries and lemons. No plant evolved to drink chlorinated tap water!  Water is becoming more of a worry for all of us with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. It's always been a problem for us here in the summer anyway as we're on the end of the line coming from a small local reservoir - so we're always the first to go and the last to get our mains water back if there's a shortage. So I always need a back up - particularly for the tunnels. Water is very valuable - many people waste huge amounts because they take it so much for granted - so to be honest I wouldn't have any objection to our water being metered - as long as we're only paying for what we use rather than a flat charge - one size fits all - approach. It would encourage water conservation and far less waste. I don't want to pay for what's wasted by leaks or my neighbours washing cars and watering lawns in the height of summer - then forgetting to turn their taps off!  There's nothing more infuriating than seeing water actually running down the road from neighbours hosepipes when there's nothing coming out of our taps!!  Quite apart from any environmental considerations! 
 
 

There's always some kind of fruit suitable for growing somewhere in any garden!

 
Fresh fruit is always expensive to buy in the shops - particularly soft fruit - and it's really easy to grow yourself with very little trouble. Even in the smallest garden, or on a balcony,  there's room for some somewhere - you can train all sorts of fruit against walls or fences - no matter which way they face - as long as they've got good light. For instance an apple or pear espalier or fan could produce at least 10-12 kg of fruit a year once established and there are many varieties that will grow even on a north facing wall. Any good book or catalogue will tell you which ones are most suitable for difficult places. 
 
 
If you don't have a garden - many fruits will even grow in containers.  For the price of just a couple of punnets of fruit - you could buy plants that will produce delicious and ever increasing crops for years! I Two of the most productive would be perpetual strawberries (of which my favourite is Albion - from Ken Muir's Nursery, and also Cape Gooseberries which you can grow cheaply from seed yourself. Both are happy in containers, easy to grow and full of healthy nutrients. So often the things we're told are good for us are hard work or hugely expensive - but getting some of your five a day is temptingly easy if you can just go and pick it outside the back door! 
 
 
Instead of expensive and soil-fussy blueberries - blackberries are incredibly easy to grow - even in containers, not fussy about soil and are incredibly productive. They just don't have a massively funded 'Blackberry Council' to promote them like blueberries do! Although their antioxidant properties are almost as good - and you can afford to eat far more of them if you grow them yourself. We eat them every day here, they fill in all the air pockets in the freezer nicely in their large bags, thereby save energy too! How's that for super fast - super healthy, climate-friendly takeaway food? Wonderful that something so easy can be so good for us - and much fresher, far more nutritious and far cheaper when it's grown organically in your own garden. Unlike the chemically-grown, plastic wrapped and plastic tasting junk that's mostly available in shops - after travelling countless carbon-guzzling air miles across the globe at this time of year!

 
Why not make this the year you grow some of your own fruit. Or if you already do - then maybe try a new type of fruit you haven't grown before?  - Then you'll be able to look forward to harvesting your own super-fresh, properly ripe, juicy deliciousness - free from any pesticides and fungicides! Just the way that Nature provided them for us to eat!
 
  
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.

The Vegetable Garden in January - 2019

 

January contents: Seed orders are the main priority right now..... Why spend time NOW making a cropping plan?.... Why not try growing Oca this year?..... Another job for now is organising your seed sowing equipment.... Recycling saves money and avoids plastic waste.... A home made cold frame is useful if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel..... Grow some 'extra early' potatoes for Easter?.... Other jobs. 

Sunrise on 1st January - the dawning of a new year and a new growing season!
 
  Sunrise on 1st January - the dawning of a new year, and a new growing season!

 

One of the things I love most about gardening is that with every new year you get another chance to make a really fresh start. Dawn on the 1st of January is always so full of hope and optimism that this will be the best year ever!

 

At the moment - there isn't much that can usefully be done outside - so now's the time to get on with inside jobs while you have the spare time - there won't be too much of that come March!  If you try to do anything that involves walking on your garden soil - you will actually be doing more harm than good by compacting and squashing the air out of it. If you have heavy clay like mine - when it dries out it will turn into concrete! I've often been tempted to make bricks or a cobb house out of it - and I have in fact made small pots just to prove it!  So keep to the paths if you need to do things! If you're growing in the traditional way on the flat - and you have to step onto the soil to harvest things like brassicas (cabbage family) and leeks - then get a wide plank to walk on in order to spread your weight a bit. This will minimize damage to the soil as far as possible. If you grow in raised beds - as I do - they're great because you can always work from the path without compacting soil at all. This is far better for all the soil life that actually needs air too. Raised beds are also a lot easier on the back, which does make life easier at this time of year.

 

The well known rule is - if soil sticks to your boots or if you sink into it - then it's far too wet to work - so stay off it! Get on with some jobs you can do inside in the warm instead, like getting all your seed sowing kit ready, cleaning seed trays and pots, and ordering the last of your seeds if you haven't already done that - this will be a real help when the spring rush of jobs arrives! It's closer than you think - so it's really time to get on the starting blocks and be ready for action!

 

Why spend time NOW making a cropping plan?

 

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

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

Seed orders are the main priority right now

 
 
Colourful Oca tubers
 
If you haven't already done your seed orders - before you order any, just take an hour or so to organise your existing stock. Then you will know exactly what you already have and what you need more of.  I’ve tried several methods over the years - but the one I find best is to put them into a sort of filing system - sorting them into groups: roots, brassicas, peas and beans, spinach, lettuces, salad mixes and oriental leaves, tomatoes and aubergines, squashes and pumpkins, herbs, lettuces, other miscellaneous etc. - in a similar way to how you would plan your rotations. I stand them up in large recycled fruit punnets or deep plastic meat containers, with a large cardboard label at the front of each punnet. This keeps them all together and makes each vegetable group or packet of seeds easy to find quickly.  
 
 
  
 
Why not try growing Oca this year? 
 
Colourful oca tubers like the ones pictured here are available from Real Seeds now - but as they're in short supply - order as soon as possible. They're a deliciously different member of the sorrel family - sort of 'lemony/artichokey' flavoured - and a good occasional potato alternative with fish and no problems other than rather ambitious territorial tendencies. They make a nice clump of the large tubers you can see pictured here. They also form masses of small tubers wherever the stems touch the ground - so just like Jerusalem artichokes - once you have them, believe me you'll always have them! I can't understand why they're apparently so rare, I have to weed them out in my veg garden now! I grew them a few years ago as a 'break crop' in the tunnel rotations and they really enjoyed it in there. I'm now weeding them out all the time in there too - but I can usually dig them up and give them away to grateful recipients!  As they don't really tend to bulk up their tubers in late autumn though - it's best to grow them where they can be easily protected from frost. They're not too fond of containers either - they're much happier in the ground like most things. Although having said that - last year I tried planting them at the bottom of a container and then earthing them up as they grew. As they seem to form their tubers along subsequent stems - this worked well. 
 
 
Oca leaves are pretty in salads but use sparingly
 

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

 

 

When you've organised your seeds - you can then get on with ordering those you need as quickly as possible - many of the new or popular varieties will sell out quickly. Definitely do it by the end of this month if you don't want to be disappointed. Many of the seed companies also give a discounts for ordering early. Having my seeds organised in the way I've described is something I've found really useful over the years as it means I can keep checking my stock of seeds as I'm ordering. This stops me either duplicating or ordering too much. If you're anything like me, the seed catalogues all end up dog eared and marked everywhere with all the things I'd like to try. I then go through what I've already got - and after a major reality check (I don't have three gardeners - only me!) I then probably only order half or less of what I've actually marked in the catalogue. If I don't do this - and order online instead - I end up ordering far too much! Do compare prices too - it's amazing the huge variations for exactly the seeds in different catalogues. It's definitely well worth making the effort in these cost conscious days - and this month you have time to shop around!  Order your seed potatoes too - then you can get them well-sprouted which gives them more of a head start when planting. 

  

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

 

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

Recycling saves money, and avoids plastic waste. 

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

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

 
 
Plan of my home made grow frameSpeaking of recycling reminded me of this. If you don't a cold frame - you can easily make one using 2"x 4" rough timber and clear polythene sheeting obtainable pretty cheaply from builders merchants or DIY shops, or even from skips if you're like me!  A home-made cold-frame can be made a lot higher than those normally available and then it allows you to grow taller summer crops which need protection too - like bush tomatoes and peppers etc. It's amazing the perfectly good stuff you see being chucked out when people are doing up their houses - my car is trained to automatically slow up on sighting a skip! They even wastefully throw away perfectly good windows and patio doors - ideal for sitting on bricks to make extra growing space!  A friend of mine has made a whole greenhouse using old shower doors from people re-vamping apartments in Dublin. As she has a back problem ,ike me - she's also made some raised beds from old bathtubs from the same source. It does help that she has a son who works in the building trade though - and not everyone has that advantage! If you ask nicely and don't cause a mess - most people are often only too happy to give stuff away as it makes more room in the skip! And a nice pot plant or a few veg later in the year doesn't go amiss either!
 
 
I made my very first large 'grow frame' - as I called it - by recycling some timber laths I'd found dumped. It lasted for 5 years until we moved and my 'other half' flatly refused to bring it with us!!  (I suppose it was falling apart a bit - it was made from recycled timber after all - and believe me I'm no carpenter!) And I suppose after moving about three lorry loads of plants - as opposed to only one of furniture - it was probably just about understandable, although I really hate waste!! That scruffy old cold frame made from 'skip-found' bits and pieces allowed me to grow my very first tomatoes, peppers and aubergines (the best ever) against a south-facing wall in my first garden - and I learnt such a lot from growing in it!  Sadly I don't have any photos from those days - I was far too busy raising very lively toddlers to think about such things in the pre-digital age - but I hope the diagram gives you an idea of how it was made! Even with polytunnels now - I still find a cold frame or two a very useful 'halfway-house', for hardening-off plants before they are planted out in the open garden.
  
 

Grow some 'extra early' potatoes for Easter.

 
 
  Well sprouted Annabelle being planted in a 2 litre pot for an extra early potato cropYou could plant some sprouted seed potatoes in pots inside in the next week or so for a 'super early' crop. This is the time when I start off my 'extra earlies' as I call them. They won’t need heat or light yet, as they won’t be up for two or three weeks, so you can start them off anywhere that’s basically frost free - and mouse proof! I usually do some under my large kitchen table! They won't need light until the tops emerge, but when they do - move them into your greenhouse or polytunnel and sit the pots on polythene, not on soil or anything they could root into, as the roots will come out of the bottom surprisingly quickly and root into whatever’s underneath - which will cause root disturbance later on when you lift the pots to plant them. They hate this and will sulk for ages if that happens! For the same reason use a good fibrous, peat-free organic potting compost to pot them in - not soil.  Compost will hold together much better when tipping out of the pot to plan out - whereas soil would probably fall apart. Just put one seed potato in the middle of each 2 litre pot of compost about 2/3rds. of the way down - and cover it with compost up to the top. Do this before the end of this month and first-early varieties should be ready for Easter. They only need roughly 10 weeks growing time to have baby new potatoes ready to eat. Lady Christl is the very best variety for doing this as it's the earliest bulking variety and can produce usable sized potatoes after just 8 weeks! I always save my own seed tubers from the previous year - but Lady Christl is widely available now.
 
 
 
If you don't have any of your own early potatoes saved from last year - then you could look around in veg shops or supermarkets for any suitable first or second early variety which would have stored from last year. Take them out of the packs when you get them home or they'll sweat. Put them somewhere warm and dark (important as they'll start to sprout much quicker that way) like a box under the kitchen table for instance, and then in a week or so they will be well sprouted and you can plant them. Annabelle or Charlotte are very good salad potatoes which are quite happy to be grown this way,. I've seen them all in the shops just recently. When the tops have emerged from the compost, then put them somewhere in good light - like a polytunnel, or if you haven't got one - a cold frame - and cover with lots of fleece whenever it's very cold to prevent frost damage, uncovering if possible during the day if it's mild enough. In case you think this is a lot of faffing around - you'll be so glad you did it, when you proudly serve your very own new potatoes at Easter! 
 
 
Extra Early potatoes 'Lady Christl' & 'Mayan Gold'. Harvested 30th April.Extra Early potatoes 'Lady Christl' & 'Mayan Gold'. Harvested late April.
 
This is usually the month when your stocks of stored main crop potatoes may begin to run low - unless you grew acres of them. If you need some inspiration, then just think of new potatoes, with lashings of butter, in mid-April - yum!  OK - so they're quite high in carbohydrates - but you can reduce their carbs and turn them into what's known as 'resistant starch' by cooking and then chilling them for at least 8 hours in the fridge, then reheating using whatever method you like. Doing this can reduce their carbohydrate content by up to 50% and make them more gut-healthy. But anyway - if you're not living on them all the time they can't do you any harm occasionally! They're also nutritious and the resistant starch encourages the good bacteria in your gut to multiply, which is good for your immune system too. If you're still worried about carbs, then just cut back on them in other areas of your diet so you can enjoy some new potatoes - they're one of life's great pleasures! I'd rather have them than sugar in my tea any day - and we rarely eat cakes or biscuits here, as healthy veg always come first!
 

 

Firm in and stake Brassica plants

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

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

 

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

 
Double digging - as recommended in all the old gardening books is also definitely out - we now know that doing this breaks up important fungal threads and buries all the vital microbial soil life much too deeply - almost like suffocating or drowning them - so it can take years to recover. Soil life needs light and air too - and it's vital for growing healthy crops as it makes the nutrients in the soil available to plants. If you need better drainage - then make raised beds!  For the last 35 years - I've practised what I call  'minimum dig' - or minimum cultivation gardening, in raised beds. I don't call it 'no-dig' - because actually no type of gardening is truly that - you still have to plant things and dig potatoes or other root crops!  But of necessity, now that my back is deteriorating even more - I do as little work possible to get maximum returns - while at the same time protecting the soil's structure and it's whole ecosystem as far as possible. My co-workers are worms - they do most of the work!  A healthy, nutrient-rich and vitally alive soil is the basis of all good organic growing.
 
 

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

 
Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in January - 2019

 

January main contents:  Growing anything well is about care and attention to detail..... There's always lots of healthy food in a well-planted polytunnel.....One of the commonest complaints I hear is "my children won't eat vegetables"!.....Time to plant some 'extra early ' potatoes in pots in mid January.....Use it or lose it! Making use of every inch of soil is what Nature does!.....Rotational thinking.....Don't have empty, uncovered ground now either outside or in the tunnel.....Get your worms working for you! 
 
 Very surprised and pleased with 12th Dec-sown seedlings on top of chicks nursery
Very surprised and pleased with 12th Dec-sown seedlings on top of chicks nursery
 
 
Growing anything well is about care and attention to detail
 
 
Whether you're growing livestock or plants it's no different in that respect. My Polytunnel Potager is currently growing meat, eggs and more than two veg! I hope you'll forgive that dreadful pun - but this winter I decided to raise some of my own chickens and laying hens from day old chicks once again - a bit earlier than normal though, as I usually would do that in the middle of March if I need replacement laying hens, as I mentioned last month - where I also explained the reason why I was rearing both laying hens and chickens for meat together, which is unusual with hybrid hens reared for commercial flocks, but which I decided to try doing for ethical reasons: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/595-the-polytunnel-and-greenhouse-in-december-2018. Normally if one keeps backyard poultry, they are often raised by a mother hen probably from her own fertilised eggs, and would all grow up together naturally. But I can no longer keep poultry unprotected in the yard here due to a problem with foxes - encouraged by rubbish dumped in our roadside ditches from local takeaways! The other problem is that pure breed hens don't lay enough eggs for us all year round either - so hence I decided to rear my own. The supersize duplex dog crates which provides their temporary nursery in the polytunnel, are pretty well-insulated with all the bubble wrap and cardboard which I never throw away as it's so useful - but there is still a very small amount of residual heat on top, which keeps that area just frost-free, so I decided to "kill two birds with one stone" (sorry!) - so to speak and sow some veg a month earlier than usual on the 12th of December to be exact. I'm really delighted with how they've done and the quality of them - and although a stretching for light or 'etiolated' a little more than usual due to the lowest midwinter light - they are growing on really well and none have 'damped off' with disease despite being multi-sown so early in modules. I put that down to the wonderful Klassman organic seed compost which is perfect for seedlings - providing a far more natural growing environment than any peat compost with added chemicals ever possibly could! Providing a dry surrounding atmosphere for seedlings also helps to avoid damping off, something that people often forget when raising them in very humid propagators.
 
 
Growing anything well is all about care and attention to detail - and rearing chickens for eating and hens for laying requires even more than plants - but they are so worth it. They need checking every couple of hours through the day for the first few weeks, especially in the first few days when they are little more than tiny scraps of fluff! If well looked-after though they grow astonishingly fast. This lot really seem to have grown even faster than usual and have clearly enjoyed the shelter in the polytunnel with all the green food they starting to eat now. Now almost 5 weeks old - in another 2 weeks or so they will have outgrown their nursery run area on one of the raised beds where they're learning to forage, finding their first worms and beetles. Soon they'll be really well-feathered and ready to go outside for even more adventures! Although at times a self-sufficient life can be time-consuming - it is very rewarding and something I've always done. I could never get food more local, seasonal or organic than what I grow in my own back yard! That's what a real potager is all about - it's not a purely ornamental garden like a parterre which looks perfectly-groomed all year round, it's really a French name for a decorative, but all mixed up cottage or artisan-type garden that produces food and flowers for the household all year round.
 
 
1. North West beds 2. North East
3. South West 4. South East
 
Above is a New Year's Day picture of my main beds showing the wide range of winter crops available. 
 
 
My polytunnel potager isn't a show garden - it is never 'prepared' to be photographed specially for the website or for a magazine. I like people to see that it's a genuinely REAL garden, weeds  warts and all - gardened by a person who lives a very busy REAL life!  It can often even look quite scruffy - but I really think it can put people off gardening if they think everything always has to be pristine and perfect. Nature doesn't do tidy and pristine - although for me it's always perfect! Apart from growing most of my own food - I'm also a writer and recipe developer - always experimenting and inventing new ways of cooking the real foods which I grow (which my family certainly seem to appreciate!). I'm an occasional portrait sculptor too when I have tim - if I'm asked to do an interesting commission. (That's probably just another slightly different way of getting my hands dirty while working with clay really - something that I've always loved ever since childhood, having been brought up in a garden on heavy clay, where making small pots is one of my earliest memories of working with soil!)  Anyway - as a result of leading a very busy life - one of the best things about having a polytunnel for me is that it allows me to work whenever I have the time.  I'm not restricted by the weather, because the soil is always in exactly the condition that I want it to be and as I also have an electricity supply there - so I could even work in the dark if I really wanted to - but rarely do anything other than dash out to cover something with fleece after dark, if the late weather forecast suddenly changes and predicts frost!! 
 
  
I try to make my polytunnel as near as possible a microcosm of the things that you would naturally find in an outside garden - just undercover - with the same diversity and balanced ecology that you would find in any organic garden.  I try to have as wide variety as possible of healthy, chemical-free food and flowers not just for us but also for the vital diversity of wildlife like bees, butterflies, birds, frogs etc that help to do Nature's work all year round. As a result - it produces plenty of organic, peat-free, REAL food in every month of the year - not just in summer - without using any chemical pesticides whatsoever - even any of the natural ones that may be allowed under some organic certification. Over the last 40 years or so I've always found that observing how Nature grows things and trying to mimic those conditions as far as possible, is the best way to grow food that is healthier for us and the environment. I've never needed to use any sprays at all - even the garlic ones I see so often advised by some gardeners. Nature doesn't spray things with garlic!! It doesn't add anything to soil but plant remains - with occasional accidental fertilisation from animals. Obviously if we take crops from soil we have to replace any nutrients we take away by using compost - but it seems to me that often the hardest thing for so many people who are starting to learn about organic gardening is just accepting that Nature actually knows best - not man! People have been so completely brainwashed into thinking that a spray or a quick fix is needed for everything immediately they see it - that they often don't have the patience to just wait and trust that Nature will deal with pest problems - given a healthy soil and the right conditions for her predatory army! 
 
 
 
The polytunnel helps us to be self-sufficient in a wide variety of not just winter salads but also other crops - such as chards, chicory, calabrese, watercress, kales, spinach and herbs like parsley which can be picked daily, despite the cold temperatures. This is the time of year when a polytunnel really proves it's worth - quite apart from the fabulous summer crops it obviously grows. Looking around the shops at the moment - they are almost completely empty of any decent organic vegetables apart from root crops - not just because it's the New Year but also because of the dreadful weather throughout Europe and further afield, where increasingly, many of the imported organic crops that supermarkets sell are now grown. Although many of the winter crops I grow could in theory be produced outside in our vegetable garden - they are much more reliable in a polytunnel and consistently produce far bigger crops, due to the protection from the elements like storms and very heavy rain. Unfortunately these weather conditions are an increasing problem due to the unpredictable weather patterns that are happening more frequently due to climate change. Why do I insist on growing peat-free compost is something people often ask? Apart from the fact that none of the major vegetable crops we eat actually evolved to grow in peat - using peat destroys peat bogs which are vitally important carbon sinks and host valuable biodiversity. Extracting peat from them releases millions of years of stored carbon - which rapidly accelerates climate change! The rise in peat use originally coincided with the rise in container-grown plants being sold in garden centres and online nurseries etc. because it's much lighter than soil. As it's easier to handle than soil based composts - it facilitates the horticulture industry, who are reluctant to stop using it - despite the huge amount of scientific evidence that doing so is incredible damaging for the environment, causing not just carbon release but also pollution and flooding. The only crops that humans ea, which evolved to grow in the naturally acid conditions of peat bogs, are some fruits like blueberries and cranberries, that like a low soil pH. Being an unnatural medium for most crops - the sterile peat needs chemical fertilisers added to feed the plants. This then of course means that plants are unhealthy, because peat composts don't provide the additional natural soil diversity that plants need in order to produce the compounds which protect them from pests and diseases. This has the predictable result that the nonsensical and biodiversity-damaging chemical merry-go-round continues....with gardeners then using chemical sprays to get rid of the pests and diseases that the poor plants couldn't deal with! 
 
 
Apart from all those very good reasons why I love my organic, very biodiverse polytunnel - it's really also my personal Narnia.  It's a natural space where in winter, when things are a bit more slow and relaxed, I can enjoy just sitting or pottering, observing nature and getting my hands dirty!  Somewhere where I can plug into the soil no matter what the weather and where I'm actually earthing myself - which again science is beginning to prove is so important for our mental health - especially if the soil is full of a healthy diversity of microbes and mycorrhizal fungi (did we really need scientists to tell us that?). It's also often a place where I'm also just peacefully thinking - and so often germinating and planting ideas is something that is just as important as sowing or planting plants!
 
 
 
Our Midwinter From Tunnel to Table was fun as usual!
 
 
 
Gerry Kelly & I enjoyed recording our midwinter Solstice edition of  'From Tunnel to Table' once again!
 
 
Our Christmas special 'From Tunnel to Table' special was great fun as usual! The fairy lights twinkling in the deepening gloom of late afternoon dusk on  the solstice eve, 21st December looked very festive, the reindeer headbands I insisted we wore looked suitably silly and the new recipe was a real winner with everyone - especially Gerry - who is always such an appreciative eater!  If you missed it you can hear the podcast on the 'listen' button. It's only a couple of weeks since then - but already the days seem to have stretched just the tiniest bit, on the couple of lovely bright but frosty days we've had recently. This week was the 10th birthday celebration of The Late Lunch show on LMFM Radio and I can't believe that our From Tunnel to Table feature is 5 years old now! I'd done a couple of interviews with Gerry before that for various reasons - but I must say the last 5 years have been such fun! Gerry has been so patient and all of his crew so kind to a radio 'newbie'! We all enjoyed a lovely party as the show was broadcast live from Bellingham Castle Hotel in Castlebellingham, County Louth - and a great deal of fun was had by all! 
  
 
Whatever the weather - there's always lots of healthy food in a well-planted polytunnel - especially winter salads! 
 
 
 
My New Year's Celebration Salad one example of each ingredient. This shows just how much you can grow even in winter!
 
 
It's so good to be looking forward to another spring - now only just a couple of months away. The more the days lengthen - the more quickly things will start to grow now - especially the salads. My New Year salads with just one example of each ingredient, shows just how much you can grow even in winter in a polytunnel! Despite the really cold weather over the last few weeks - we're able to pick plenty of salad veg from the polytunnel every day - and oddly enough - I seem to crave healthy salads even more in winter!  They do say we should listen to our gut feeling - and mine is telling me that I need salads, especially watercress, every day! We need all the protective antioxidant phytochemicals in raw salad leaves even more at this time of year - so I'll be starting more early sowings of more salad leaves in the next week or so (see 'What to Sow Now - Jan.) 
 
 
 
I look forward to picking a different salad for lunch every day no matter what the time of year. The content varies depending on what I happen feel like - I go out into the tunnel or garden and just sort of 'dowse' instinctively. Watercress is always one of my favourites. It's so versatile and hardy, grows like mad even in winter and takes only two minutes to pick a few of the abundant tender shoot tips for all manner of fast and delicious dishes. Picking the shoot tips along with the first 2 or 3 leaf joints and leaves is the secret of keeping it producing well for months. This prevents it from flowering and keeps it making succulent new side shoots, as long as you keep the soil it's growing in fairly damp too. It gets a really good 'haircut' every so often all around the edges of the bed as it starts to grow out very enthusiastically into the paths. It makes a delicious soup if you have plenty - especially accompanied by some home-made crusty wholemeal spelt bread. (Soup recipe in that section of blog). It's great tossed into just cooked pasta along with blue cheese or anything else you fancy, in my low carb wraps (again in the recipe section) or just as it is in all sorts of salads. It also freezes very well - so you can have it for sauces and soups all year round. It's so expensive to buy in shops if you can get it - and even when you can find it - it's often 3 days old and already going slimy! It's as easy as falling off a log to grow from seed, or cuttings, and is happy all year round in a damp shady spot in the tunnel, or outside under cloches even in winter. That's a spot where very few crops will grow well.
 
 

There's just nothing like those juicy, fresh green shoots of the watercress and all the other salads, urgently pushing up towards the light, to rekindle that eternal gardener's optimism at this time of year. There's also nothing like them to keep winter colds at bay either! Just now I'm looking forward to yet another lunch of the Organic Blue cheese, pear and watercress salad that I did for our Tunnel to Table programme - I just can't get enough of it at the moment and eat it almost every day as it's so delicious and nutritious! The peppery nutrient-rich leaves of watercress combine so well with anything though - and my walnut, avocado oil, cider vinegar and honey dressing is the perfect complement drizzled over it! Watercress is so easy, yummy and chock-full of healthy, cancer-fighting phytochemicals!  Watercress is a truly perennial herb. In the summer when the polytunnel would be too hot for it - I pull up a few roots to grow outside in a shady damp spot - then in the autumn I just take cuttings of those to plant again in a new spot in the polytunnel. Remember if you grow it though - that it's a member of the brassica family and must go in that section of your rotation, wherever you grow it. The only pest that attacks it is the cabbage white butterfly - whose eggs are hard to spot on watercress and one often doesn't notice them until the entire plant has been defoliated! So keeping it covered with netting in summer will prevent this and also give it a bit more of the shade it appreciates.

 

One of the commonest complaints I hear is "my children won't eat vegetables"

 
 
Well in my experience children tend to follow by example - so they will generally eat whatever you eat!  That's why it's really important that they see their parents enjoying a wide variety of vegetables every day! Our meals have always consisted of at least three quarters vegetables and I never had a problem with my kids eating any veg. My daughter had a lot of allergies from birth, so from experience was rightly cautious, if not sometimes downright suspicious, of almost anything new.  If I produced anything she hadn't encountered before - the reaction would most often be an automatic and emphatic "NO".  So I discovered that a bit of reverse psychology worked well there!  To the suspicious "What's THAT?" from her - I would just offhandedly reply - "Oh - that's not for children it's only for the grown-ups!" whereupon she would demand whatever it was immediately or threaten a tantrum!!  One of my oldest friends still recounts with huge amusement the tale of an occasion when she invited my small children to have tea with hers. As she worked full-time, she had gone to enormous trouble to provide some scrumptious goodies from a well known, very upmarket and expensive local French bakery. As usual - my children had been reminded to remember their manners during their visit. When offered a cake - my daughter replied very politely and cautiously - "Oh - no thank you, we don't eat 'bought' cakes"!  Bless her - that still makes us all chuckle - aren't children wonderful!! Getting them involved in growing veg is great too - particularly if they're things like peas and strawberries which they really enjoy and can easily grow for themselves.
 
 
Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' - central head ready for cutting Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making nice side shoots after central head cut
Calabrese 'Green Magic' - main head ready for cutting.  'Green Magic' making juicy side shoots after central head cut
 
 
The calabrese 'Green Magic' (Unwins) that I grow is always a big favourite with children - luckily as it's one of the healthiest things they could eat! It's grown really well again in the tunnel as it does every year - the main heads are late this year as it's been a bit colder. They're ready to cut now though. It will come on very well again after cutting as the light improves and will produce lots of small, but very tasty tender shoots for a couple of months before warmer spring weather makes it run to up to flower. I do an autumn sowing every year, and find this variety very reliable. I always cover it at night with a double layer of fleece to protect it from frost and it will go on for ages producing small shoots after the main crop. I really like the flavour of this very productive variety - and I think that the best way to eat it at this time of year is raw with some hummus or an avocado dip which maximises all it's nutrients. It's so crunchy, sweet and delicious when really fresh - far better for you than 'rubbery', several days old, stuff available in shops. Tired because of travelling from Spain or God knows where! Children really love it's sweet flavour. 
 
 
It's important not to overfeed any winter crops with too much rich manure or other feed when planting them in the autumn. In winter there's not enough light for the plants to photosynthesise well enough to turn all the available nitrates into sugars for growth - with the result that they then taste more bitter and are also more disease prone. I'm convinced that's why so many people really hate Brussels sprouts and other winter brassicas - especially as too much fertiliser use can be a particular problem with chemically-grown crops. Thirty-five years ago when my children were small, their friends would eat my cabbages and spinach etc. quite happily.  Their mothers were always totally astonished - as they wouldn't eat the chemically grown, shop-bought vegetables which hey were offered at home!  In fact that's what got me started on growing organic vegetables commercially. So many of them asked if they could buy my organic produce - which was extremely rare then. I'm convinced that very small children have naturally more discriminating taste buds - perhaps an ancient throwback to when tasting and perhaps spitting out nasty-tasting, potentially poisonous food might have been vital to survival.
 
 
 

Time to plant some 'extra early ' potatoes in pots in mid January

 
 
We really enjoyed the 'Purple Majesty' and 'Violetta' potatoes which I planted in 10lt. pots in early September with our Christmas and New Year meals. They added a lot of colour, phytonutrients and wonderful flavour. Their siblings, along with several other varieties that I saved for planting this Jan and spring are already raring to go - with lovely sprouts on. Several people have told me Purple Majesty seems to be quite difficult to get as seed tubers at the moment.Luckily I always save the most perfect potatoes from my own crops as my own seed for planting the following year. I've been saving them for several years now, originally from potatoes I bought in a supermarket. It's quite legal to do this as long as you don't sell the seed, and it's a great way to pick up new varieties! This avoids possibly bring in diseases and there's also apparently some evidence that they may acclimatise to your particular garden after a couple of years. You should only ever save the very cleanest, most blemish-free seed from the healthiest plants for doing this. I'll be planting some of these and several other earlier cropping varieties in the middle of this month in 2lt. pots, for planting out later in the tunnel. This ensures that I always have some delicious 'extra early potatoes for Easter - whenever that comes in the calendar!
 
 
 
Endives 'Riccia Pancallieri' & 'White Curled' (sown early Sept.)Endives 'Riccia Pancallieri' & 'White Curled' (sown early Sept.)

 

The terrific thing about a tunnel or greenhouse is that it allows you to experiment with many crops that would never do well outside in our climate - and there are also plenty of crops normally grown outdoors here in winter that are so much more productive under cover. Swiss chard and kale are very good examples - and also crops that are never much good outside in average summers here. Melons for example will revel in the tunnel's humid summer warmth and can be really productive. There are far more varieties available now than there were a few years ago. There seem to be a lot more varieties of lettuce suitable for winter growing too - I'm going to trial a few more this year - mostly loose leaf 'picking' varieties as these are the most valuable - giving such a long period of cropping. Although they're as tough as old boots and can recover completely from being frozen to a crisp - endives really enjoy the indoor life too. They're more disease-resistant than most winter lettuce and the slugs don't seem to like them quite as much either - which is useful. I discovered a nice pale leaved one a few years ago called 'White Curled'. It isn't as bitter as the normal types which I normally blanch for a week or so before picking. I pick individual leaves of 'White Curled' all winter long - they're very decorative in a mixed salad - making a nice contrast with their pretty, finely cut leaves of pale lemony-green. I originally got it from Simpson's seeds but as it's what's known as an 'open-pollinated variety - not an 'F1' hybrid - I save my own seed now every couple of years which saves money too. I mark the best plant for later on, then in spring I'll let it flower. The bees absolutely adore it so they pollinate it for me and then it sets seed. That keeps both the bees and me happy - a double whammy! 

 

 Use it or lose it! Making use of every inch of soil is what Nature does!

 

'Inter-cropping' - or growing fast-growing crops between slower maturing crops is something I've always done since I first started gardening in a tiny space 40 years ago. It's the way to make best possible use of every inch of any space. To me it's always seemed common sense that here's no point in leaving ground bare between rows of slower growing things and just hoeing or weeding, if some useful and edible could be growing there!  If there isn't room for something to grow, or it doesn't fit into your rotation - which is very important - then an organic mulch is always a good idea. Soil should never be left bare. If you observe nature you'll see that it always populates ground with something - often what us gardeners tend to think of as weeds!. Bare soil is only natural at times in a desert - but even that isn't really bare - it's full of indigenous plant seeds just waiting for some precious rain so that they can spring to life again. Soil should be covered with something all the time, to prevent erosion, loss of carbon, minerals and nutrients. Covering soil with an organic mulch also feeds soil life like worms and protects the microbial life which makes humus. So my gut feeling was right! 

 
 
Someone who has been reading my blog for a while did a Twitter survey a while ago to see how many people covered their soil in winter. I was astonished to see how many still cling to the old way of leaving soil completely bare over the winter, so that the surface is broken up to a fine tilth (to use the old expression) by frost. Before the advent of soil-damaging chemical fertilisers in the early 20th century - you could get away with doing do this as soil was then still full of humus which literally 'glues' the soil particles together - and which had built up millennia - first by the actions of Nature and later by gardeners adding manure and composts to soils in order to fertilise crops. With climate change bringing more extremes of weather - it's now neither sensible nor environmentally acceptable to do this. Soil MUST be protected - it is a valuable resource and if it's left open to the weather in winter - it can literally just wash away carrying most of it's nutrients. Failing a green manure or existing over-wintering crops to protect it's surface and retain nutrients - a good organic mulch even covered with old cardboard, carpet or polythene is better than nothing and will stop rain washing through it! But NEVER leave compost, or manure-covered ground open to the weather either - that's worse than covering it with nothing. It doesn't just lose valuable nutrients but it causes serious pollution of groundwater too! As I'm always saying - it doesn't matter that the ground may later produce very good crops. That is a selfish point of view and is only proof that far too much was probably put on the ground in the first place - since much of the nutrients would have been completely washed away! Here endeth another manure rant!
 
 
In my garden I often tend to go one step even further than 'inter-cropping' by doing what I call 'continuous layered cropping'. This means constantly overlapping crops - which can get pretty hectic at times!  Maybe it should be called 'extreme inter-cropping' instead! Some people have now named this type of gardening 'polyculture'. A very neat new name for an old practice which many of the old self-sufficient cottage gardeners always did! I started doing this when I only had a tiny garden over 40 years ago  - but even though I now have plenty of space, I still do it because plants seem much happier growing that way, as long as they have enough air circulation to avoid diseases - and to me it has always just seemed a far more natural way to grow. After all - Nature does it all the time. You need to plan well in advance for this type of cropping though. You also to know roughly how long each crop takes to grow and importantly - how much room it will need as it grows. Whether it needs full sun or won't mind a bit of shade. You have to be extremely careful with watering and ventilation with close cropping too, in order to avoid disease, particularly under cover in a polytunnel or cold frame where there's less air circulation. You also need to keep an eye out for any slugs which may be lurking around with all the extra shelter!  If you're not careful with this kind of snug-fit gardening - you can end up with the green 'mess' similar to many 'so-called' permaculture gardens I've seen. Nature loves messy gardens which is good I'll grant you - but they don't produce much in the way of crops and surely that's the point? 
 
 
It's fun sometimes pushing the limits a bit - it's something I've always liked to do with my gardening. You learn a lot by trying different things and every garden is different. I'm constantly experimenting - it's fun. As I've mentioned - planning well really is of the essence. That's why sitting in your polytunnel, having a good look around and making notes can be really valuable at this time of year, when there's not too much urgent work to do. When growth really starts to take off again and you're busy sowing seeds etc - you don't want to waste time wondering exactly where you were going to plant things - or perhaps waste plants because you've got no room to plant them!  Although I must say there's always a queue of grateful recipients for any of my spare plants! There really is no excuse not to have a good range of winter salads in your tunnel or greenhouse, or even under large cloches if you plan well and grow the right things. There's more choice than ever in the catalogues now.
   

 

Landcress growing between celery and McGregor's Favourite beet, a decorative old Victorian variety I grow for it's phytonutrient-rich leaves in saladsLandcress growing between celery and McGregor's Favourite beet
 
 
A tunnel allows you to extend the seasons at both ends if you plan really well - and I'll be sowing some sugar pea 'Delikett' next week.  We'll be eating them at the end of April with our extra-early new potatoes - in what people still call the 'Hungry Gap'. There's never hungry gap here though thanks to polytunnels! In the next couple of weeks I'll also be sowing lettuce, carrots, beetroot, turnips and spinach in modules as well as planting some of those 'extra earlies' in pots. The 2nd early/early maincrops Violetta and Purple Emperor did really well early in the tunnel again last year - so I shall definitely be planting some of those too. All the seeds I sow will be germinated in the house in the warm (at room temp.- around 60degF/16degC-ish) - then put out onto the roll-out heated mat on the tunnel staging, which gives a low bottom warmth - just enough to keep them frost-free and growing. The potatoes will also be started off in the house and then go out into the tunnel when they appear above the compost, as they'll need light then too - but if very cold weather is forecast they'll all be covered with at least a double layer of fleece for extra protection. 
 
 
When it comes to extending the autumn season it obviously works in reverse - things that would normally stop growing in early October outside will go on for weeks or even months longer during a mild winter under cover. A good example is the late crop of self-blanching celery I always sow in May. Planted out between the early sweetcorn - it crops well through most winters - crisp, juicy and delicious. When the sweet corn is finished it's cut down to the base - rather than pulling it up and disturbing the celery - which would make it run up to seed.  Then land cress is planted between the celery. The middle row of celery is cut first - by Christmas - which allows the land cress more light. When it perks up it gives a useful crop from otherwise empty space before the entire bed is cleared.  I sowed some home-saved seed of 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean last night - 3 to a recycled 500ml yogurt pot - and as soon as they're up they'll go out into the tunnel - again covering with fleece if a hard frost is forecast. I don't bother sowing broad beans outside in November any more as I find that those sown now will crop just as soon - and often far better. I've been saving my own seed of this beautiful and tasty variety for over 30 years now, always selecting the tallest, heaviest-cropping plants to save from, as originally it was quite short. Mine reach about 5 feet high now!. I got it originally from the Heritage Seed Library of the HDRA (now Garden Organic). Following on again from those will be brassicas (cabbage) family next autumn/winter - probably late calabrese (Italian broccoli) and kales. They make use of the 'free' atmospheric nitrogen the legumes will have fixed while growing. An example of Nature's wonderfully designed symbiosis at work!
 
 
 
As I've so often said everything is connected - that's how Nature designed it - but we humans so often arrogantly assume that we know better! Current scientific studies - initiated by worries about the decreasing resilience of soils due to the extreme weather effects of climate change - are proving that the more diverse the crops you grow together - then the more diverse the rooting habits of plants are. This in turn also encourages a more diverse soil ecology and so naturally the health of our crops will be better. Chemical farming feeds the soil on 'junk food' - and that makes it just as unhealthy as a diet of junk food does us humans! An organically-fed, carbon and microbially-rich living soil is far healthier and more resilient. It physically insulates and 'cushions' the plant roots against both flooding and drought - and also gives the plants all the things they need to produce the compounds they need to protect themselves against pests and diseases. All successful ancient civilisations knew this, and really understood the value of a healthy soil without the advantages of microscopy that we have now!
 
 
 
Rotational thinking
 
 
Taking that into consideration then - another thing that you need to plan really well is rotations. You may not think so - but a well-planned rotation is just as important undercover as outside - perhaps even more so. If you don't plan proper rotations - soil-borne diseases or pests like eelworm, harmful nematodes and depletion of certain nutrients can very quickly build up. I know it's difficult to stick to a four-course rotation in a polytunnel or greenhouse - but I find it easier by dividing up my large tunnel up so that I grow the 4 main plant families in 8 beds. These are raised by using 7in/18cm.planks which save my back too! 
 
 
A big problem in tunnels is that there are so many of the Solanaceae (tomato family) that we all want to grow. Aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, chillies and potatoes are all the same family - far too many to grow in just the two designated Solanaceae beds in my tunnel in any one year. One of the ways I get round this is to grow quite a few of that family in large containers like 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets - as I've mentioned before. The deli counter at your local shop will have loads which they will be only too happy to give you - as they have to find space to store them until they can be taken off for recycling. They will literally last for years if you store them away from light when you're not using them for growing in - otherwise they become brittle quickly. They will save you a fortune - and really extend the range of things you can grow successfully!  Peppers and aubergines in particular are perfectly happy in these, also some of the smaller bush varieties of tomatoes like 'Maskota' are much better behaved in large pots (and also well away from marauding slugs on the ground). Although the bigger cordon varieties will produce quite a good crop in containers and did very well in 2012, 2013 and 2016 when I was growing a lot for the Tomato Festival. In pots they were actually earlier cropping than those in the ground. They generally prefer a bigger root run though, so they need plenty of TLC and careful watering in pots. Larger pots can also be bought at many farm supply shops who sell commercial horticultural needs - these arealways  far cheaper than in any DIY multiples!
 
 
This year I'll be growing my usual 'Rosada F1', 'John Baer', 'Sungold F1', Maskotka and Pantano Romanesco. I shall also be growing the best of the new ones I've discovered in the last couple of years - like Blush and Moonglow. I won't be growing so many (46+) varieties again for a very long time though - it was a bit too much work - even for a tomatoholic like me!  I did discover some very useful and tasty new varieties though - which I talk about in my 'Tomato Report 2017'  elsewhere. (which by the way I didn't update in 2018 as I had nothing useful to add! - The one tomato, Cupido from Simpsons, which was even approaching the wonderful Rosada is not available either this year - so it would have been pretty pointless!)  As every year is different - varieties can vary quite a bit from year to year in performance - but if they don't have a really good flavour, or seem much more prone to disease than everything else - then they don't even get a second chance! One thing is for sure though - and that is that our summers are becoming far less predictable. The tomatoes pictured below are certainly two that I would never be without, and are definitely still my yardstick for flavour.
 
 
Tomato 'Rosada' 3.8.11

Tomato 'Rosada'

Tomato 'Sungold'  3.8.11.

Tomato 'Sungold'

 
Talking of growing in pots reminds me that it's time to bring in the early strawberries in pots now. Last year I potted runners into 2 litre pots as usual and they've spent the winter outside for a good chill. The variety I grow - 'Christine' - is the best flavoured early for forcing in pots and always fruits by my birthday in mid-May or even earlier which is a real treat (of course I'm a food-loving Taurean - surely you could tell - Taurus is an Earth sign!) Christine is really the most reliable early variety - it's also incredibly vigorous and make loads of runners to give to friends, which are always welcome. I also grew the 'ever-bearing' or remontant variety 'Albion' for the first time in large 10 litre pots a few years ago and it fruited for months, enjoying a feed of my usual 'Osmo' organic tomato feed every couple of weeks. It also has a really terrific flavour and even freezes well without completely collapsing on defrosting.  
 
 

Don't have empty, uncovered ground now either outside or in the tunnel 

 
 
A thick carpet of green manure mustard 'Caliente'

A thick carpet of green manure mustard 'Caliente' 

 
 
If you have empty ground where you've just cleared a crop, then you can get ahead with lightly raking in some nice well-rotted compost so that you have that ground ready for early plantings. You could possibly even sow some quick growing salad or oriental salad mixes in situ if they fit into your rotation.Or you could sow now into modules which would be even quicker- a small pinch into each - and plant them out in a few weeks. That would give you some early salads. If you live in a milder part of the country or we have a mild spell you could be eating baby leaves in as little as 6 - 8 weeks! As the weather warms up they will start to flower and go to seed - March days can be surprisingly warm in a tunnel when the sun is full out - but then you can leave a few to flower for early bees and dig the rest in as a green manure! The worms will love you as they'll just be really waking up then and very hungry!  By the way - if you also leave some of the fast-growing oriental salad mixes to flower - they will attract in grateful early, nectar seeking, beneficial insects like hoverflies and bees.
 
 
 
It might even be worth sowing a quick growing green manure crop like mustard if it fits into your rotation - it will germinate at around 45deg.F/.7deg.C. In late autumn or early March. I usually sow the green manure mustard 'Caliente' in one of the beds where I will be growing tomatoes the following summer. It makes a good bulk to chop up and fork in for the worms to work on before planting the tomatoes in early May. 'Caliente' is a new breed of mustard that acts as a 'biofumugant' - releasing phytochemical gases which clean up any problems in the soil and also encourages good bacteria and beneficial nematodes to multiply. You do need to fork it into the soil as soon as possible after chopping up though - to get the full benefit of it's bio-fumigant properties - or they may evaporate and be lost into the air. Covering the area temporarily with polythene also helps the process by capturing the gases too so that they condense and fall back and also has the effect of warming the soil. Last year it certainly encouraged centipedes - I've never seen so many scampering away when I lifted the cover off the bed to see how things were going - and the worms loved it too!  In my old tunnel down at the far end of the garden the soil had become quite 'tomato sick' after many years of tomato crops, despite careful 4 year rotations - the only option until now was to remove all the old soil and replace it with fresh - which the old kitchen gardeners would do. This year I shall sow some 'Caliente' there in early spring and then not grow any tomato family there for a few years - hoping it will recover. I don't much fancy changing the soil in a large tunnel to a depth of 1/2 a metre - the only other alternative to growing in containers - since I can't move the tunnel! I may rear a few broiler chickens in there after that - as I did years ago. They really love it in the dry and warm environment of a tunnel and enjoy scratching around in there - as long as I can keep out foxes! 
 
 
Get your worms working for you! 
 
 
If you're clever and look after them well - worms will do most of the work for you by breaking down and processing green manures and compost after you add them to your soil, enriching it with their worm casts at the same time! Worm casts are actually many times more nutritious than normal garden compost - they can be up to 10 times higher in potash, phosphorus and many other nutrients, so it's worth having a worm bin as well as a normal compost heap or bin. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say it's more useful than a large compost bin - particularly in small gardens where space is at a premium. Worm compost is the most fantastic tonic - it's like rocket fuel for plants! I have huge respect for worms - many people don't realise just how vital they are - and how hard they're always working 24/7 behind the scenes in our gardens even at night!  
 
 
Contrary to what most people think - worms like green food to eat - not just rotted compost. One evening this was amply demonstrated to me when I was out at dusk in a nearly dark tunnel picking a salad for supper by torchlight. Just as I was bending down to pick some leaves a movement in the furthest corner of my eye caught my attention. For a split second I wondered what it was - then I moved the torch just in time to see a worm disappearing backwards fast down into it's burrow, firmly grasping a piece of partially decayed claytonia leaf, which it pulled underground in record time!  Absolute magic! I've never actually seen that happen in front of my eyes before! One of the wonders of Nature only seen by the very observant few like Darwin - or the very lucky like me!  Even more reason to feel sorry when I cut one in half with the spade - I always apologise!  Funny how doing the same to slugs really doesn't bother me one little bit!
 
 
It's been so grey and damp on many days for the last few weeks that said slugs have cheekily been out quite shamelessly in broad daylight - if you could call it that!  I've been patrolling the tunnel with the scissors whenever I feel like a break from being inside at the computer because I don't want them building up - which they certainly will if left to carry on undisturbed. It's very therapeutic!  As there's also quite a bit of botrytis, or grey mould starting to happen now with all the cold damp weather - diligent housekeeping is vitally necessary. Remove any mouldy or dying leaves immediately! 
 
 
The polytunnel is the only place in the garden in which to be comfortable right now. I try to spend some time in there every day just tidying, sorting pots etc. Putting time into odd jobs in the tunnel now while we can before things get busy again also pays off hugely later! Sometimes I just sit in there to get my daily dose of light. Yesterday as I sat in there quietly for a while I watched the sparrows, wrens and robins hunting insects in there and a thrush and a whole 'charm' of godfinches were singing beautifully up in the hedge just north of the polytunnel. It was absolute bliss! I wouldn't be without my tunnels for anything! January is such a hopeful time of year. Lots of plans to make and new things to look forward to!  I'm so grateful for my polytunnels! In the future they may well be the only way to grow food crops in many parts of the world with increasingly wet conditions cause by climate change.
 
 
Just a reminder - Keep the tunnel tape handy at all times in this wild weather! If you have it - then chances are you probably won't need it. But without it - one small bit of damage to your tunnel can turn into no tunnel in seconds in the sort of gales we're experiencing now! (See my article on 'How To Mend Polytunnels')
 
 
Severe storms have been a huge problem several times over the autumn and winter so far, with me often having to shut the doors after only a couple of hour's ventilation in the mornings. Winds gusting around unpredictably can make life difficult here on top of our hill, as we're quite high up - and as the crow flies only about 5 miles from the sea. A few days ago I went up to close the tunnel doors as it was getting too gusty to be safe, only to discover that an enterprising pheasant had somehow neatly slipped through a gap in the netting at the top end and was just starting to investigate! Caught just in the nick of time!! He naturally panicked as soon as he saw me and started to fly at the sides of the tunnel like a bomb exploding - I was terrified that he would go through the polythene. Luckily, I managed to pin up the net at the top end - I walked around the outside down to the bottom end, going in through that door, so he then ran out of the top end door without any damage. - Major sigh of relief!!  I have to say that I am grateful to him though - because as I replaced the net again - more securely this time - my eye was caught by lots of little holes in the polythene in the arch over the top of the door where insects always tend to get trapped in the summer. Almost as if someone had stubbed cigarettes out in a row - making a perforated line all along the polythene beside the end hoop. Having watched sparrows last summer in the other tunnel launching themselves from the top of the sliding door in order to catch insects, I realised immediately what caused the holes! The little dears! I'm now sitting here praying that the wind does no damage and that I can recruit some less accident-prone help to put some tunnel tape all along the hoops at both ends where they have pecked the holes. Going up a ladder with only one half good arm would not be a good idea for me! Sadly there are now times when even I have to admit that there are some things that I can't do without help!  Particularly since breaking my right shoulder badly two years ago. I think I should be called the one-armed gardener now! The last thing I need is a pheasant gobbling up everything - the tunnel unzipping itself - or me having another accident like the one I had 4 years ago when tripping over a bramble on the way up to feed my hens!! My name should really be Calamity Jane!
 
 
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.

What to Sow Now - January 2019

 

 

1. Recycled loo roll middles make great 'modules' packed together in a recycled mushroom box for early sowing of root crops 2. Carrot seeds sown into the top of loo roll 'modules', covered with a pinch of Vermiculite, then with a polythene bag to keep moisture in

 

First I want to wish you all a Very Happy, Healthy and Productive New Growing Year! 

It's amazing just how even just the smallest little bit of increasing light can make you want to 'earth yourself' by getting plugged into the soil again!  It's only a few days since the winter solstice but already there's a noticeable stretch on the brighter days. It may be my imagination but the birds seem to be singing more loudly and the plants in the polytunnel also seem just a little bit brighter too! Or is it wishful thinking? It's not too long now until the mad spring rush of sowing and planting is here again. For now though - things move at a more leisurely pace - but there are still some things you can sow and do this month if your gardening fingers are itching to get back into compost, like mine are and you want to get ahead just a little bit! It's surprising how many things there are that you can sow now.

 

General advice for seed sowing:

 

There are quite a few things you could sow now or towards the end of January in pots or modules for planting out later in a tunnel, greenhouse or sheltered cold frame. You won't gain a huge amount by sowing too soon though. By leaving it for another couple of weeks the light will be increasing, so seedlings will be sturdier, will get a better start and you'll use less energy. Most seeds will germinate at normal house temperature - and as things take a week or so to appear anyway - you can sow some things inside the house and then put them out into good light in a greenhouse or frame as soon as the seedlings are up. Seedlings like lettuce, spinach and hardier salad plants will be fine then, with just some protection from frost with a couple of layers of fleece. Light governs their development to a great extent - so you can save money and energy by not wasting any heat needed for another couple of weeks yet - no matter how keen you are. Don't forget you can also do your seed sowing inside in comfort on the kitchen table - there's really no need to go outside in the freezing cold unless you're a masochist! 

 

In my over 40 years experience I've found that using a good organic peat-free seed compost is by far the best and most reliable choice for sowing everything - not just from a plant health point of view but also for environmental reasons. Any extra expense is well worth it in terms of valuable seeds and seedlings not lost. After sowing - put your seed trays or modules somewhere in your house at average room temperature - and most seedlings will be up within a few days or a week. I find seeds like lettuce take about 3 days at normal cool room temperature - they don't need a lot of warmth. Make sure to put them somewhere where you will remember to check on them twice a day, as seedlings like lettuce can become leggy very quickly if not given good light immediately.  Once they have germinated, probably in a week or so for most things at this time of year, they will then need the very best light you can give them - which means either a tunnel, greenhouse or perhaps a cold frame against a south facing wall. They also need very good air circulation - so sowing in modules either individually or in 2's or 3's to thin later is the best option - as this avoids handling vulnerable seedlings which may result in possible 'damping-off'.

 

It's too wet, windy and cold for tiny seedlings to be outside completely unprotected at this time of year but if sheltered from the weather most are fine as long as no frost is forecast. If it is - then bring them into the house again on very frosty nights and put them out again first thing in the morning. This may seem a bit of a faff but it's worth it. Sowing too early on windowsills often means unhealthy, leggy and drawn seedlings due to lack of light. If you don't have a greenhouse, polytunnel or frame outside, I would wait another couple of weeks yet - even if like me you can't wait to get started! Although some more tender heat lovers like tomatoes etc would need a warm propagator, I don't waste heat by sowing tomatoes in a propagator yet, as even those sown in another month will catch up and probably be healthier than any sown now! Having said that though - as I already have a source of bottom heat of about 10 deg C on top of the large insulated dog crate in which I'm rearing chicks this year - I may just chance sowing a few Maskotka bush tomatoes, as it's always my earliest and hardiest tomato. Luckily, it's also one of the tastiest - and I'd love to see if I can get it to ripen even earlier than the first week in June, when it's normally reliably ripe!

 

Remember - the suggestions below are for things which you could sow now if you want to - NOT things you HAVE to!!

 

For tunnel planting later: - in a temp. of around 50 deg.F/10 deg.C:

You could sow - early carrots in long modules like loo roll middles as I am doing in the picture above. Sit the modules on 1/2 inch compost in something deep like a recycled plastic mushroom box to keep them upright, (approx. 32 loo roll tubes fit into a mushroom box) - fill them - and the gaps between them - with seed compost - then sow a tiny pinch of seed into each covering with vermiculite. 

Make sure the cardboard rolls don't stick up out of the compost or they will act like wicks - drawing out moisture and drying out too much - which means they could then shrivel and kill tiny roots. These will be ready for planting out in the tunnel in clumps - each about 30cm apart - probably at the end of next month when they have 2 'true' leaves. Also early broccoli (I grow 'Green Magic' a productive early variety), 'Ragged Jack' & 'Cavolo Nero' kales for baby leaves, spring onions, lettuces, broad beans, early and mangetout/sugar peas, green and red 'frills' mustards, mizuna, oriental mixed greens, beetroot, Swiss chards, salad leaves, radishes, and rocket. 

 

At the end of the month you could sow tomatoes if you want an extra early crop - but bear in mind that they will need not just potting on at least once but will also keeping warm for several weeks before eventual planting out. They must also be in very good light - or they will become drawn and 'leggy' - and therefore more vulnerable to disease. (Tip - a well known correspondent with the Irish Times told me that he raises his early ones in the warm under a Velux window in his house which provides excellent top light - a genius tip - wish I had one!) I always grow the bush variety 'Maskotka' (tasty bush cherry type) which is always my earliest ripening tomato - sown in mid-late February it's first ripe fruits are reliably ready to pick on 1st June without fail. The variety 'John Baer' (delicious, very early large fruited) - is also an excellent variety for sowing at the end of this month. You could also sow early aubergines - 'Bonica' is without question the best ever variety for home gardeners to grow from seed - I've grown it for many years now and it's totally reliable. It came out tops in the RHS trials over 10 yrs. ago as being the best for UK and in my experience it's the best variety for Irish conditions too. Remember though that both tomatoes and aubergines need a minimum temp. of about 70deg.F/21degC. for germination, reducing the heat afterwards to approx. 55 deg.F/15 deg.C, or just below, and maintaining that level until final planting out in tunnel beds or in pots eventually. You can achieve this bottom warmth quite economically with a roll-out heated mat. 

 
For bees & beneficial insects - you could sow some single-flowered, nectar producing hardy annuals in modules now. Flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendulas etc. will come into flower early this way and then they'll attract early hoverflies and ladybirds which help to control aphids. Early flowers also attract bumblebees and early honey bees to help pollinate early polytunnel crops like broad beans. Keep beneficial insects supplied with nectar and pollen then they'll be happy and stay with you all year. If there's no flowers for them to feed on - then they'll go somewhere else!  An ecologically balanced organic garden is not just about growing vegetables!
 
 

For planting in polytunnel or outside later:

You could sow alpine strawberries. 'Reugen' is a very productive, large-fruited variety which fruits April to Nov. and will produce fruits this autumn if sown early enough. Also bulb onions, shallots, very early leeks, early spring/summer & non-hearting leafy type cabbages (collards), summer cauliflowers and autumn red cabbage.

 
I now grow all my main-crop onions from seed sown in modules in early March - this avoids the possibility of onion white rot, which can be introduced on onion sets. The varieties I like are 'Red Baron' and 'Golden Bear' (Organic Gardening Catalogue) - which is supposed to have some resistance to onion white rot. Onion white rot is also encouraged by low soil temperatures and wet weather - sowing seeds in modules means they're warmer, have better growing conditions and can then be planted out to make a nice even bed or row with no gaps. Sowing direct in the open ground can waste a lot of expensive seed and small seedlings are far more vulnerable to attacks by slugs, and losses due to poor weather etc.  
 
 
Make sure that any seedlings germinated indoors or in a propagator are protected with fleece on cold nights after putting out into the tunnel - and if very cold weather is forecast also make sure to protect heated propagators with extra bubble wrap or fleece over the top at nights to preserve heat and save energy. I save every scrap of Christmas bubble wrap for this and also for tucking into odd small corners in the propagator to save heat loss! Also make sure that the compost is never too wet - if you think it may be- then draw some of it out by standing the modules on kitchen paper and newspaper for a while. Over-watering seedlings at this time of year will kill them faster than anything!
 
 
An alternative way to provide heat for early sowing for anyone aiming for micro self-sufficiency! 
 
 
If you have enough room you could use my trick of rearing some day-old chicks under an infra-red heat lamp beneath the greenhouse or polytunnel staging!  This is something I used to do every year when rearing organic broiler chickens commercially!  Chicks for egg or meat production need about 6 weeks of warmth gradually decreasing until they have enough feathers to go outside on free range, so that they are weather-proof! The small amount of residual rising heat keeps the greenhouse bench just warm enough to keep out frost if arranged properly - which means you don't need a heated propagator. Killing two birds with one stone in a manner of speaking .....or rather not ..... but raising them!! 
 
Don't try this unless you're already fairly experienced with poultry though, because you can lose small chicks very quickly if they get either too hot or too cold. You also need to keep rats away - they're as bad as foxes! I find that if I get day-old chicks in mid-March - then they will reliably come into lay around the beginning of August and will then lay continuously throughout the following winter without needing any additional light. I used to rear hundreds of chicks for laying and also broiler chickens for eating this way when I was a commercial organic poultry producer - and it works very well.
 
 
 
There's still plenty of time to plant garlic cloves outside for a crop of big bulbs this year
 
Most autumn planting varieties need cold weather for good root development - so in my experience at this time of year, it's really best to plant those varieties suitable for spring planting - as the seasons can be so unreliable now.  We may get an extra mild spell in Jan. which would stop the autumn/winter planting varieties from developing their roots properly. 
 
If the ground is too wet and sticky - you can plant them in small pots or modules and plant them out in a few weeks time. The only garlic I've ever grown really successfully from a spring planting is 'Christo' - which I've always found very reliable. Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from last year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres. 
 
 
Do not plant cloves from supermarket-bought garlic bulbs! These will most likely be unsuitable for our climate and can bring in serious diseases like onion white rot. This can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and also be spread around the garden on your boots! For the same reason I never use onion or shallot sets in the garden. If you want some extra early onions - then grow some sets in pots or containers - starting them off under cover in their containers and then putting them outside later. This way they'll be even earlier than they would be if grown in the ground because their roots are much warmer - and if you're unlucky enough to bring in any diseases with them - you can just throw the compost away into the food/green waste recycling bin rather than spreading it round the garden - which you otherwise would if you put the used compost onto your compost heap!  
 
 
Remember - organic growing is all about understanding your plant's needs and providing the very best growing conditions for them in order to minimise the risk of pest or disease attack as far as possible. This is exactly the same whether they are vegetables or ornamental plants.
 
 
On the kitchen windowsill you can sprout seeds and also sow 'microgreen' salads:
 
Things like like mustard and cress, radish, broccoli, kale etc. are easy to grow in jars or trays.  Sprouting seeds are highly nutritious and can be a valuable addition to winter salads - young seedlings are actually higher in health promoting phytonutrients than older plants. Broccoli sprouts are particularly rich in these. Make sure you rinse them well and very regularly though if they're in jars - at least 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or disease building up. I actually prefer growing them in trays on kitchen paper or compost, much in the same way all school children grow mustard and cress. They will often need watering twice a day even at this time of year in a warm kitchen, particularly as they get a bit bigger. 
 
It's very important to use organic seeds for doing this - as these will not have been treated with potentially harmful pre-emergence fungicides (these seed treatments are forbidden under organic standards).
 
 
As I've already said - there really isn't a great deal to be gained from sowing things too early - there's also a greater risk of losses from disease etc.  It's far better to wait until the end of the month when the light is a lot better and as a result any seedlings will be far sturdier.  Unless you're in a desperate hurry to get ahead if you're busy, anything sown in another 3 or 4 weeks will definitely catch up and often actually overtake any seeds sown now. In the meantime - it's really better to get your compost and seed sowing kit all ready to go and also do some of the other jobs mentioned in the Veg. garden and Polytunnel sections of the diary - many of these will save you time later on in the spring when you will be busy preparing ground etc.(What a lovely thought - I can't wait!)
 
 
It's time to get on the starting blocks!  Spring is only just round the corner! So if you haven't done seed orders yet here's another reminder - ORDER THOSE SEEDS NOW!

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in December - 2018

 

December contents: Whole fruit is good for you!.... If fruit is organic - there's no chance you'll be eating toxic chemicals!.....What Fruit is Available to Pick Now?.....Urgent work that needs doing now.....Finish Winter Pruning - a very quick guide.....Grow your own lemons!.....And The best Christmas Present for a Fruit Gardener is?.....
 
 
Seasonal Treasures
 
 
Court Pendu Plat also perfect now but keeps until April or even May Russet apples Egremont Russet and Ashmead's Kernal are at their best now
Court Pendu Plat - perfect now but keeps until April or May                             Russet apple Ashmead's Kernal is at it's best from now until April
 
 
Whole fruit is good for you! If it's organic - there's no chance you'll be eating toxic chemicals! 
 
 
Researchers have concluded that the 150 year old maxim - "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" is able to match the results of one of the most widespread drugs now used in modern medicine - and is "likely to have fewer side effects". That is the understatement of the century!!  A study published two years ago year in the British Medical Journal said that prescribing an apple a day to all adults aged 50 and over would prevent or delay around 8,500 deaths per year from heart attacks and strokes - in other words similar to giving statins to everyone over 50 who is not already taking them! The big pharmaceutical giants won't like that! Statins are one of their biggest 'cash cows' ever!  They are still making fortunes out of them, despite plenty of evidence now coming to light of side-effects being either under-reported or not actually reported at all. Millions of people have been needlessly medicated with drugs that have serious known side-effects. Here's a link to that study:
 
 
 
Nature packaged all fruits with plenty of healthy fibre and phytochemicals which have many proven health benefits for us - despite the fact that some people call them 'nature's poisons' - which is frankly total nonsense!  Phytochemicals - or phytonutrients as they are otherwise called - evolved to protect plants naturally from pests and diseases or even sun damage and they do exactly the same for us. Well known examples of that are the antioxidant phytochemicals lycopenene and anthocyanin in tomato skins. On the other hand - the added 'free' sugars in many manufactured highly processed foods IS a huge problem for us. Products such as sweet pastries, biscuits, crisps etc are mostly high in added sugars and sugar is even added to 'ready meals', pasta sauces and curries for heaven's sake!  The kind of cheap, industrially processed sugar that is normally used for these is High Fructose CornSyrup - or HFCS - which is made from genetically modified maize and is a form of very refined fructose which is instantly available to the body. Just like drinking a high percentage alcohol it has an immediate effect on the liver. Fruit juices can also be a problem - they raise blood sugar dramatically fast as they've had virtually all their natural fibre removed. I know some people say that we shouldn't be eating fructose and because fruit contains fructose we shouldn't be eating it - but whole, naturally grown fruit is an entirely different thing!
 
 
I really think a little common sense and balance is needed in the fruit debate. We evolved to eat natural, whole fruits with everything they contain - humans have been eating them for millions of years without harm - unlike ready meals, refined flour, HFCS and other more recent sugar-filled nasties! For millions of years fruit has been the perfectly-packaged, seasonal, 'ready meal' of choice for man and many other creatures too. I doubt that our closest relatives chimpanzees get type 2 diabetes - except perhaps those poor creatures confined in zoos with little natural exercise and given over-ripe bananas! Nobody ever became ill from eating whole fruits and vegetables grown naturally without chemicals, because it's almost impossible to over-eat whole foods that contain a lot of natural fibre - although believe me I've tried! The fibre has such a dramatic effect that you actually can't! There is no healthier food on the planet than whole organic fruit so don't let anyone make you feel guilty about eating it in moderation as a healthy treat. Mind you - it can be expensive if you have to buy it - so what better reason could you possibly have to grow your own organic fruit? And remember - you'll get plenty of healthy exercise and enormous satisfaction from growing it too!
 
 
What Fruit is Available to Pick Now?
 
You might think that there's no fresh fruit that you could pick at this time of year - and that you will have to rely on what you've got stored in your freezer or apple store - but if you have a polytunnel you'd be wrong! This year I once again grew Cape Gooseberries (Physalis Peruviana) in my recycled mayo. buckets. I've grown often them in the ground but they tend to take over to put it mildly as they're extremely vigorous! They're much better mannered in the 10 litre buckets - although still about 4ft/1.3m. high and wide! They're earlier too - possibly due to the root-restriction. They started ripening in late August and I'm still picking them - despite the recent low temperatures. I'm still picking plenty off the plants every week. They will also keep for several months in the salad drawer of the fridge if picked carefully, complete with their decorative little paper 'capes' which cover and protect the fruit. That's why they're called 'Cape' - not because they come from there! And they're not related to gooseberries either! They're actually a South American native - like so many of the Solanaceae/nightshade family - and are in fact related to potatoes! That's where the resemblance ends! They are absolutely delicious raw. When just ripe they have a mouthwatering, sherbetty/mangoey/pineappley flavour - after being kept in the fridge for a few weeks they tend to develop a slightly sweeter 'apricotty' flavour as well. You often see them on dessert plates in restaurants - but many people don't try them because they don't know what they are. 
 
 
Semi-dehydrated cape gooseberries Cape gooseberries - welcome fresh fruit in December
Semi-dehydrated cape gooseberries Cape gooseberries - welcome fresh fruit in December
 
They're extremely easy to grow from seed started early in March - and will even grow outside happily in summer - but they do much better in a greenhouse or polytunnel where they will fruit for much longer - then you can have the fresh fruit for Christmas. Unlike tomatoes you don't even have to remove side-shoots because they grow as bushes. Ripening obviously slows up as the weather gets colder - but I'm still picking a few every day now with plenty stored in a bowl in the fridge. They're tender herbaceous perennials, so if you can keep plants over the winter - cutting them back to the base in spring if they haven't completely died back - they will fruit much earlier the next year. I did that with some planted in the tunnel beds years ago and will try to overwinter a few in pots this year - just keeping them barely 'ticking over' with the compost almost dry. They will fruit much earlier next year then. The bees love the flowers too. They freeze really well and dehydrate well too. When dried and concentrated, their flavour is sharply mouth-watering and delicious scattered over winter salads.
 
 
 
Cape gooseberry compared with 1 euro coinCape gooseberry compared with 1 euro coin
 
Cape gooseberries are very high in the phytonutrient Beta-Cryptoxanthin - which is a pro vit. A carotenoid and a very potent anti-cancer and anti-aging antioxidant,  which also effective against arthritis, age-related macular degeneration or ARMD (protecting eyesight), hepatitis, asthma and rheumatism. It has no known side-effects in medicine. Although I do know of a slight one - if you're greedy and eat more than a dozen or so fruit a day - they are far more effective at motivating the gut even than syrup of figs!! - Be warned as they're quite addictive! They're also used in Chinese medicine for treating abscesses, coughs, fevers and sore throats. 
 
 
They are absolutely divine on a Pavlova - particularly with a couple of passion fruit squeezed over them - makes your mouth water just to think of it!  And as they are very high in pectin - they also make jam easily - but I think that's a crying shame unless you've got acres of them. They're so much nicer fresh, and at this time of year fresh fruit is so welcome. Supermarket prices for any fresh 'exotic' fruit are horrendous at this time of year - and these are actually far easier to grow than tomatoes! They are also delicious dipped in melted dark chocolate - but then - aren't most things!?
 
 

Urgent work that needs doing now!

 
 
Prune grapevines, indoors and outside NOW or as soon as possible. This is urgent as doing them now gives them a chance to heal their wounds properly. Yesterday I actually thought I saw some grape buds that were slightly swelling - or maybe that was my imagination! Whatever - if we have a mild spell after Christmas or in early January they can start into growth early - and with the sap rising fast could bleed to death, or be severely weakened. Grapes in containers are the first priority - they always seem to start growing just that little bit earlier than those planted in the ground. Although the upside of that is that you could give them their winter rest against a north facing wall - one of the many tricks that kitchen gardeners of centuries ago used to either bring forward, or hold back plants. 
 
 
I've never found most grapes to be really successful outside here in this part of Ireland - we're much too cold and wet. In parts of the UK where it's drier, there could be some newer varieties of seedless grapes now that might be worth trying - but whether they are seedless or seeded varieties - you need to get an early fruiting variety and grow them on a warm, south-facing wall. I've seen Muscat of Alexandria for sale everywhere here in Ireland - and it's not at all suitable for outside here because it ripens far too late, even if you have an extremely warm spot outside for it. The same goes for Flame - a red seedless grape. They will ripen properly, but still pretty late, in a polytunnel or greenhouse. Outside grapes are always smaller-fruited too unless you thin them. The main problem outside would be any damp weather at the flowering stage hindering pollination - and also when fruiting as damp weather can cause rotting of bunches. Also of course there's the perennial problem of birds and wasps! I grow quite a few varieties in large pots and move them out of the tunnel in the winter as they're actually very hardy - but at flowering time up until fruiting time I bring them back inside - unless I want to delay ripening a particular variety, as I've mentioned before. 
 
 
The grape variety 'Brandt' is delicious and decorative
 
 
One variety of grape that I planted outside years ago - more for just decorative effect - is a small fruited one called 'Brandt'.  It is one of the most reliable outdoor grapes available anywhere in the British Isles and does produce bunches of very small, deep red-brown, very sweet grapes prolifically in two out of three years here, trained over a garden arch - not even a south facing wall. If you just want one for throwing complete with pips into a smoothie - that would be one well worth trying. I took cuttings of it a couple of years ago as I'd read somewhere that it's high in phytochemicals like heart-healthy Resveratrol. I'd never actually tried it inside until last year - and even a young potted vine did well. It has the most stunning autumn colour too - so is worth growing just for it's decorative qualities! I think it may need some serious taming inside though - so it's well-suited to more restricted pot growing! It's fairly widely available online. I have a late couple of bunches of 'Flame' seedless grape which I'm hoping will keep until Christmas and as it's so close now, I think they might manage to make it! Next year with a couple of the later varieties I want to try the old fashioned method of cutting a bunch complete with a bit of stem - and putting the stem in a bottle of water in a darkened room in order to keep the grapes until Christmas -as the incredibly skilled and knowledgeable gardeners in the old walled gardens of great houses used to do.

 
 
 
 
As I mentioned last month - you can also take cuttings of grapes now - they're very easy.  When you're pruning you should have plenty of propagating material. Take a length of stem - preferably ripened and brown - with three buds, cutting just below the bottom one. Then rub off the top and bottom buds - leaving the one in the middle. Pot the cutting up in a gritty, free draining compost with the remaining bud just at soil level - and put it somewhere shady and sheltered - where it won't get frozen - making sure it doesn't dry out - until spring - when it should start to sprout roots and grow. You should have a 90% success rate with this - as long as the cutting doesn't dry out. Layering is another way I've tried with 100% success - but as this takes almost a year - it obviously takes longer to produce a separate plant but is the most reliable method. You literally just bend a long stem down to the ground, cover it with soil and put a large cobble or large heavy stone about the size of a brick on top of that. Just keep it moist over the summer - don't let it dry out and it's virtually guaranteed to root. You can then just cut it off from the parent shoot and pot the rooted bit up. Another thing the old gardeners used to do, which I keep meaning to try, is training a stem of a late ripening variety of grape up through a hole in the bottom of a pot. They then used to cut off the rooted stem below the pot it had rooted into - complete with attached bunches of grapes - and use the potted plant as a centrepiece for a table flower arrangement at dinner. That would be a rather fun way of propagating another plant to bring inside in the autumn - although I think one might need a pretty large table! 
 
 
 
Finish Winter Pruning - a very quick guide
 
 
Blackcurrants. Cut out most of the old fruited dark wood, leaving nicely spaced young (lighter wood) growth from this year. I usually do this in summer, combining my pruning with picking by cutting off fruiting branches, bringing them inside and picking off the fruit in comfort on the kitchen table. That takes care of two jobs at the same time and saves the backache! I would definitely recommend this method. Years ago we were told not to cut all of the branches off - just a third - but friends of mine in Herefordshire, who grow blackcurrants for a well-known cordial, use mechanical harvesting now to save labour costs and cut off all the branches off every year - with no ill effects - the bushes do need to be well fed though - and as this is done in the summer at harvesting time - the bushes have time to make new growth that year on which to fruit in the following year. Blackcurrants in particular love plenty of nitrogen - so if you have hens, putting them in the fruit cage under the blackcurrants in winter is a good idea - not for too long though or they will sour the ground. The hens will also pick up any gooseberry sawfly eggs which may be around - these can decimate your bushes in the spring and summer by stripping off all the leaves and just leaving the skeletons! It's often on any new bushes you might buy - but the hen trick works a treat! Nature's natural pest controllers!
 
 
Red and White currants, Gooseberries. Shorten new (paler wood) leader growths to 15cm/6" and fruiting laterals to about 5cm/2" - Both red and white currants fruit on small fruiting spurs (side shoots) growing off a permanent framework of branches - so in the early days you need to prune to build up that framework - only pruning whole branches out when the bush gets older if it becomes too congested. Recently on TV I saw a so-called 'expert' telling people to cut redcurrants down to the ground each year - I think they'd be a bit disappointed with their crops!! Cuttings of all these should still work if you want to try some of the prunings - just stick them in the ground somewhere out of the way! Layering also works well for them too - but stick a large brick or stone onto the bit of stem you want to root or otherwise they may spring up again out of the soil when half rooted next year!
  
Autumn fruiting raspberry 'Joan J'
Raspberries -  summer fruiting varieties only - you should have cut back all the old (brown and woody) canes which fruited in the summer straight after fruiting to allow the new (green and sappy) ones room to develop. 
 
 
Autumn-fruiting varieties need different pruning though - all the old canes which fruited this autumn would actually carry another crop next June - slightly lower down the stems - even the older varieties like 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' will do this - although theirs would be much smaller and hardly worth having. Those two varieties are also extremely rampant and can become seriously troublesome weeds! They also don't have too much flavour. The newer 'primocane' varieties like 'Joan J' and  'Brice' however, will have delicious fruit in early summer which are just as big as their autumn crop - so leaving at least some of their canes to fruit again is really well worth it. 
 
 
Contrary to conventional advice (just like so many things I do!) - I cut down only about half of the fruited canes each winter, leaving some of those which fruited in the autumn, as they'll carry another crop early the next summer. After that they'll be cut right down too, making new growth then which will also fruit in autumn, but slightly later. Doing this staggers the crop really well, but don't leave all of the old canes un-pruned, as you may exhaust the plants and restrict air circulation to young growth coming up. If you're tight for space - I wouldn't bother growing only the summer fruiting varieties at all. The newer primocane autumn-fruiting varieties will give you a crop lower down on the previous year's canes in June and then again from August onwards on the new canes formed in the spring until the first frosts - so you get double the crop from those canes - and they also seem less prone to problems. These newer varieties are far more worth the space they permanently occupy. I haven't seen either 'Joan J' or 'Brice' available here anywhere - so you will have to get them mail order if you want those varieties. 'Joan J' has been a huge success grown in large pots in the west tunnel this year too - I only picked the last at the end of last week.Unfortunately although there are some green ones still developing on the canes - this damp weather has made them more vulnerable to botrytis (grey mould) so they probably won't ripen fully. I'll split the plants in half and re-pot them all after Christmas. That will be a lovely job for a cold damp day with the prospect of even more delicious fruit next year!
 
 
Blackberries and Loganberries/Tayberries - cut out all of the old fruited canes/branches from last summer. Tie in young growths which will fruit next year, to stop them getting damaged by whipping around in our strong winter winds!
 
 
Don't prune any outside stone fruits like plums peaches and cherries - at this time of year! Doing this could cause silver leaf disease. You should prune them in the spring when the sap is rising. If you have peaches or nectarines standing outside in pots bring them into the tunnel now if you have room - this avoids peach leaf curl, which is caused by rain washing the disease spores down into the buds as they emerge in spring. This is never a problem on peaches grown permanently in the ground in tunnels.

 
Apples and pears. Prune out dead, diseased, crossing and overcrowded branches first. On a young tree - aiming for an open cup shape so you get good air circulation is extremely important in our often damp climate here. Get a good book on fruit pruning if you're interested in training trees into espaliers etc, or even better send for a really good fruit catalogue, they usually have pruning guides in them, and are free! It would take far too long to explain the various intricacies here! Alan Titchmarsh's pruning book is excellent if you want to buy one.

 
Order fruit trees for planting when soil conditions are suitable. Mail order is the only way to get many heritage varieties. There's not much choice in most of the garden centres, they tend to sell Golden Delicious and Granny Smith (only suitable for continental climates!) or Cox's Orange Pippin (only suitable for the dry climate of Kent! Queen Cox or Holstein Cox is better) The garden centres tell me that's because most people only know those names and so they ask for them as they're the ones they see in supermarkets, but they're really not suitable for growing in Ireland, unless you're in a particularly warm dry spot that I haven't yet discovered!  Why don't garden centres tell people that - they don't seem to care if people are disappointed as long as they buy them then! Rather short-sighted as the customer won't come back! Wherever you get them - make sure they've got a really good list - which has plenty of information on root stocks and the flowering, fruiting and ripening/eating times of particular varieties. It's amazing how little information some websites give! There are some good nurseries, but always ask what varieties they have - and on which root stocks. Don't tell them what you want first - before they tell you what they have! Some are like horse dealers - they'll tell you whatever you want to hear!! 35 years ago, when I knew an awful lot less, I was sold a few 'pups'! You learn by experience! But sadly with fruit trees it can take a few years to see what you've got - by which time you've probably got an ailing unproductive tree, have lost 5-6 years and it's often too late!

 
As I grew up on the edge of the Vale of Evesham,(one of the main fruit growing areas of the UK) and we had a 6 acre orchard of lovely old trees, when I planted my orchard here, I wanted to have a good range of varieties. So I planted both historic and new cookers and eaters, to ensure that I could have a good variety of apples all year round, straight from the tree, as well as some that would store through the winter. I planted over 50 trees, and I've planted many more since. I've grown many varieties on various root stocks and believe that the only really suitable root stock for most Irish soils is the M26 or failing that MM106, these give a healthy, not too vigorous tree roughly 15 feet high (can be kept smaller) which fruits well. I've tried M9's which I find weak and very prone to disease in our wet climate on my heavy Meath clay and a few years ago as a trial, I planted some on the newish 'Coronet' dwarfing rootstock in the raised beds. Sadly I think this will probably be similar and only really suitable for well-drained, perfect conditions in tubs and pots as well. I don't think so far that they will ever give a worthwhile crop if you're trying to self-sufficient in your own fruit like us, rather than just having a decorative bit of fun! It will also be a few years before I can truly judge just how disease resistant they are - an important consideration in our often damp climate - particularly growing organically. I would never use any pesticide or fungicide sprays. They don't look too promising though. They're expensive too - about four times the price of any variety on M26 - which will go on producing increasingly abundant and healthy crops for many years!

 
One variety really worth trying, if you like 'Cox's Orange Pippin' - is 'Holstein' (or 'Queen Cox'). It tastes exactly the same as Cox's, is crisp, delicious and four or five times the size!  Picked at the end of Oct., it keeps crisp until Christmas.(stored in an old freezer in carrier bags - far better but naturally not as decorative as those lovely wooden apple shelves with trays) Holstein is also very disease resistant, but needs two other pollinator apples nearby, as it's a triploid variety - meaning that it has no good pollen of it's own. It's also better grown as a bush tree, rather than trained, as triploid varieties are more vigorous (another beginner mistake I made! It keeps trying valiantly to escape and having left it un-pruned for a couple of years because of my broken shoulder - I no have a major job of pruning to do!!  Bramley and Ashmead's Kernal are also triploid varieties and behave the same way. In suburban back gardens there are usually apples of some sort growing nearby which can serve as pollinators. Otherwise James Grieve (early mid-season cooker/eater) and Grenadier (early cooker) are both excellent pollinators for it. Or look for something else which flowers at the same time - any good catalogue will tell you the exact pollination groups of trees. I don't like those 'family trees', they're a nice idea and a novelty but they don't give worthwhile crops, and can be very complicated to prune, even for the experienced fruit grower, who can usually recognise which branch is which!  And if you don't prune, they will quickly degenerate into a disease-ridden, unproductive muddle! They can't just be left to their own devices - so if you want just one tree - then find a good self-pollinating variety with fruit that keeps for a little while.

 

Grow your own lemons! 

 
Lemons beside young plants of climbing French beans and calabrese in springLemons beside young plants of climbing French beans and calabrese in springIf you're looking for something extremely decorative, incredibly perfumed, delicious and great for impressing your gardening friends, there's nothing better!  Imagine home grown lemon sorbet at Christmas - or a home grown slice of lemon in your guests' G&T!  I've always been fascinated by them, and because it was impossible to get organic lemons anywhere 30 years ago, I've been growing them ever since - even though organically grown lemons are available most of the year now. They're much the best of the citrus family for beginners, and do produce a worthwhile crop most years.(They're actually worth growing just for the wonderfully scented flowers alone!) They just need a little understanding and TLC, then they're not difficult if you can bring them inside in the winter, away from hard frost. They're fine outside all summer, sheltered from the wind. They are actually acid loving plants, which means you treat them like Rhododendrons and water with rainwater. ONLY water them when they dry out - nothing will kill them quicker than their roots sitting in water!  You can get a citrus feed (chemical) or I top dress in spring with 'Osmo' organic all purpose granules and feed with Osmo liquid feed, or nettle liquid feed later, as they like a high nitrogen feed, but they hate potash, so don't use tomato feed as I saw one article recommending. Mind you - that 'expert' even got his phosphates and potash mixed up!! 
 
 
 
The main pest of all citrus trees is scale insect, which seems to just appear from nowhere sometimes, but it's easily dealt with using an organic insecticidal fatty acid soap spray. Don't use it when the young very tender shoots are developing in spring - or you'll burn them. And never spray in strong sunshine - it has the same effect. I've had some success with Navel oranges, but not much with grapefruit, which really need more warmth. The easiest lemon varieties are Four Seasons, Ponderosa and Meyer's (an easy to grow, delicious, sherbetty-tasting, old hybrid). Aldi have really good lemon trees in the spring every year, around 20 euros, about half the price of most garden centres. They're quite hardy, but a very hard frost will kill some of the small overwintering fruit and some of the young growth even if they are in the tunnel, although a cover of fleece will usually prevent this. It won't kill the trees though if you keep the compost pretty dry in the very coldest weather - and only start to water again when you see a little new growth starting in spring - often from the trunk. Limequats - a cross between a lime and a kumquat are hardy, easy and delicious too.  I was in Johnstown Garden Centre near Naas in Co. Kildare the other day - and they have a good variety of really nice citrus plants for sale - they would make a super luxury Christmas present for a keen gardener.
 
 
 
I've never been able to resist trying to sow anything from seed, particularly if it's free!  A fun thing to try with any pips from your Christmas clementines and satsumas is to sow them individually in small yogurt pots, in a free draining seed compost. Choose the very fattest pips. They must be sown in separate pots because there is a fairly good chance that a few of the fattest pips may produce more than one seedling! These 'twins' or 'triplets' are then known as 'poly-embryonic' seedlings, meaning that only one will be a true seedling - and any additional plantlets resulting from the pip will be exactly the same as if you had taken a cutting from the parent plant! When these are an inch or so high, in spring, separate them very gently (they carefully pull apart quite easily if in a sandy, well drained compost like the Klassman organic seed compost) and grow them on in an acid well drained compost.
 
 
These 'poly-embryonic' seedlings will eventually grow on and fruit, perhaps in as little as three or four years. You won't know which are the 'true' (like a cutting) or 'mongrel' seedlings until that happens, but the mongrels are often the most vigorous. It's easy, fascinating and fun if you have the time and patience!  In the meantime, they make handsome small evergreen trees for a greenhouse or conservatory. I've had great success with them over the years. I also grew dozens of Kiwi fruit from seed over 25 years ago - very easy, and some of them have now taken over my 'jungle' area in the garden, with their beautiful huge jungly-looking red and green plush leaves just like velvet. Most exotic looking!  They are extremely vigorous though - so need a lot of space! Avocados are worth trying too - they make great indoor foliage plants. Try some of these and you might have some home grown Christmas presents to give away next year - so much nicer than bought ones!
 
 

And The best Christmas Present for a Fruit Gardener is?......

 
Semi Dehydrated peachesSemi-dehydrated peaches
 
 
A really terrific Christmas present for any keen fruit grower is a dehydrator.  I bless the day when I bought mine - I absolutely love it and I use it for so many things!!  You can see some of the delicious results above in the Cape Gooseberry picture - and here are some semi-dehydrated frozen peach pieces which I took a photo of earlier this week. They have the most intensely delicious, peachy flavour that you could possibly imagine, just like chewy peach sweeties. I prefer them only semi-dehydrated to just a pleasantly chewy leather-hardness, when they retain far more of their flavour and also nutrients. Again they are absolutely delicious on salads - but also utterly irresistible whenever I go to the freezer for something - so they don't tend to last too long!! I semi-dry Lakemont Seedless grapes in it too - to make the most heavenly sultanas. I don't like anything dried until it's crisp unless I'm actually making veg crisps - another naughty but very delicious use for the dehydrator! Dehydrating is a great way to use any damaged fruit which might go off before you could use them - so they prevent food waste too. Actually - a good dehydrator is a blessing and it's something that people rarely buy for themselves. That is - unless they're a very greedy fruit geek like me!!
 
 

 I Hope You Have a Very Happy Fruity Christmas Everyone & A Healthy Fruit-full New Year!

 
 
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 it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.

The Vegetable Garden in December - 2018

December contents: A soiled planet?....There is something positive each of us can do right now to restore soil .....  Making compost isn't rocket science!.... Is there much to do outside now? ..... Don't walk on wet soil - or dig it!..... Make a good cropping plan now .....Don't forget to have tunnel-tape at the ready! Winter Poultry Tips.
 
In the picture above taken over 30 years ago, I'm explaining to a group how to re-build soil fertility using organic methods. They were some of my organic box scheme customers from the early 1980s and also members of our local Fingal Green Party - who included our future Green Minister for Horticulture Trevor Sargent - a keen organic gardener with whom I was honoured to be co-founder of the Fingal Greens.  A day full of hope!
 

 

A 'soiled' planet?

 
I hope you'll forgive that pun but our forbears had far more respect for the soil than we have today.  Researching methods of restoring soil to fertility has naturally always been one of my pet subjects as I started here 37 years ago on the most appallingly degraded and lifeless soil, polluted by agrichemicals.  Many people take soil for granted and think of it as just so much 'dirt' - something which simply anchors crops while we pour on the chemicals! But the more chemicals we pollute soil with the less it works as Nature designed it to, and it's now increasingly unable to regulate the climate properly, by absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon - which is one of the jobs it evolved to do. Evolved - some might say? Yes - evolved - because soil is actually a living, breathing community of organisms all working together as they have done since life began. It's not just do much lifeless mineral dust under our feet! Some scientists decided back in the mid 20th century that chemicals were a better and more profitable (for them!) way of growing our food than the way Nature has evolved to over countless millennia! How wrong they were when you look at the amount of ill-health, destruction of biodiversity and climate change which those carbon-releasing farming methods have caused. You can't grow healthy food for humans, farm animals or biodiversity if you don't have a healthy living soil to start with - as I said at the beginning of this month's polytunnel diary. 
 
 
As I'd been invited to talk about soil at the recent launch of the European 'People4Soil' campaign at our National Botanic Gardens - two years ago, *I was looking back through my treasured collection of old Soil Association mags which I was given by some kind friends many years ago. I was looking for some fresh inspiration in order to motivate people to value soil more highly. The collection starts from the very first ones back in the 1930's. So many people all around the world were warning even then of the dire consequences of using synthetic pesticides and other man made chemicals - but they weren't heeded. Of course - there's far more money to be made out of patenting chemicals than there is out of encouraging Nature!  Multinationals can't make massive profits from that! So farmers and gardeners trust in Nature was deliberately undermined and they were encouraged to believe that it wasn't possible to grow crops without them! 
 
The health of the planet's soils has declined just as sharply as the profits of the multinationals have risen - the health of our crops has also declined and there is now the biggest epidemic of NCDs - or non-communicable - or 'lifestyle-disease' diseases - as diabetes, cancer, dementia are known - in human history. The consequences of this greed and blind ignorance are now coming back to haunt us in the shape of antibiotic resistance, an exponential rise in the incidence so called 'modern lifestyle diseases' and also in the global destruction of soils to the point where a great deal of land is no longer capable of growing vital crops, and soils are devoid of any humus and carbon to hold them together, are washing away into rivers and creating 'dead zones' in the seas - where the nutrients running off from farmland eventually make their way to the coast killing off marine life. In some parts of the world, it would take nature many hundreds of years to restore soils to proper fertility again. All this in a world with a rapidly increasing population! Even on our country roads here in Ireland we can see soil pouring out of gateways onto roads after heavy rains - and flooding in winter is now a regular occurrence. There's no humus or carbon left in that soil to hold it together any more or give it any resilience against extremes of climate - and this is something which will be happening more in the future with climate change. That's because over the last 40 or 50 years in particular, farmers have been literally mining all of the carbon and humus that has built up over millennia - pouring chemicals onto it and putting nothing back in the form of composts and manures to hold thw sopil together. The great Sir David Attenborough said "Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad or an economist!" - Or both perhaps?
 
  
People who think that peak oil is the major problem facing us are so wrong. Peak soil is our real problem! We could do without oil - but we can't survive without the soil, despite what some proponents of hydroponics would have you believe. - and neither can the planet!  A healthy, living soil doesn't just grow things - it traps and sequesters huge quantities of carbon - more than anything else on the planet. An unhealthy, dying soil that has been destroyed by chemicals does exactly the opposite, releasing carbon rapidly into the atmosphere as it degrades - adding massively to climate change. Most people don't appreciate the complex biological processes that are going on right under their feet! 
 
 
The health of the soil that feeds us is vital to our own health, as well as the health of the planet. Hydroponics can't grow healthy crops - feeding plants with the chemicals or even organic nutrients that WE think they need can never produce the same healthy plants that nature does. There's an awful lot going on in soil that despite all our modern technology - we still haven't actually discovered yet. We are only just beginning to understand that there is a hugely complex web of billions of organisms in a healthy soil which are all dependent on each other in able to be able to do their job. The plants then in turn depend on this web of life to produce the compounds to keep them healthy - the soil is quite literally their immune system. We need to understand this interdependent food web better fast - if we are to to restore resilience to our soils!  
 
 
 

There is something positive each of us can do right now to restore soil 

 

We can each make a change to our own small little corner of the planet - indeed we each have a responsibility to do so - every one of us.  It's vital to do it now - not in 10 or 20 years time when it affects us personally in richer countries - because by then it will be far too late! Our little bit may not seem much in the greater scheme of things - but it can make a difference if we all do something. One of he ways we can do this is by growing as much of our own food as possible - in a low carbon, non-polluting, peat-free and organic way that enhances - not destroys nature! If we can't grow food ourselves - then we should try to support regenerative organic agriculture as much as we can by buying organic if possible. Organic is the only truly sustainable agriculture - the way that Nature does it!  The soil gave us life - and if we destroy it we no know that there is no hope of our children and their descendants living on a planet which supports life as we now know it - it's that serious! Climate change is like a snowball rolling downhill - the more energy it gathers the faster it goes. The outcome of the recent talks in Poland were almost a one day wonder on social media - then the general focus moved back again to Brexit! I really despair sometimes. Despite the warnings of such respected commentators as Dir David Attenborough, so many people are still not taking it seriously!  Surely anyone who has children must think about their future and worry the mess we're leaving for them to clear up - unless they're entirely selfish?  

 

As the famous quote says - "We do not inherit the earth - we borrow it from our children"............I would say "We borrowed the soil from our children, we were profligate with it's riches and we have squandered their inheritance!" But we can rebuild and restore that inheritance by using organic, soil carbon regenerating methods.

 
 
Using compost, green manures, cover crops, mulching and not digging deeply which disturbs fragile fungal systems are all ways we can rebuild soil. By using compost I don't mean dumping tons of manure or compost and leaving it open to the weather either - that just runs off, pollutes groundwater and emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as I mentioned last month. Biochar is an interesting and increasingly popular way to restore carbon to soil and hold on to fertility too. Biochar is basically charcoal that has been made by burning wood by a method known as pyrolysis - or in other words in the absence of oxygen, just as the woodsmen charcoal makers still do. This was used by some Amazonian Indian civilisations in the past to make their soil more fertile and help it to hold onto nutrients. I've always used shredded woody prunings and wood chips to introduce more carbon and humus into my compost heap, ever since I've been gardening and it's always worked extremely well. Next year I'm going to have a shot at making my own biochar too - from the biomass willows which I planted 25 years ago in the 'wet woodland' habitat at the bottom of the wildlife meadow. I also have some Miscanthus or elephant grass which I'm planting around the hen runs to use up the nitrogen in their nitrogen-rich droppings. It's another of the plants which is recommended for making biochar - but basically any woody prunings will do.
 
   
 Making compost isn't rocket science!  
 
When I'm giving talks, compost is the one thing people seem to get really hung up about - and it's really easy - nature does it without any help from us quite naturally! But just as with everything else - Nature does it more slowly. It's only when us impatient humans intervene and want instant results that problems always seem to happen!  Tidy up any dead or diseased plant material and bury it well in the compost heap. The exception to this is potatoesNever put any 'blighty' potatoes or foliage in there as I saw recommended recently - unless your heap is huge and gets hot enough to fry eggs! The other no-no is any dodgy onion peelings which could possibly carry onion white rot. As always when making compost - make sure there's a good mix of wet and dry, green and brown, soft and fibrous material, cover it to prevent the rain getting in, and you'll be OK. it's mostly common sense, so if you're new to doing it, don't get in a state and think it has to be perfect - just do it! And cover it! Nature will do the rest. If you just throw any plant remains in a heap somewhere eventually they would rot down, but if you organise it a bit better, by putting it in a bin or a neat heap and covering it to keep the weather out - it will happen a lot more quickly and you won't lose all the nutrients out of it. It's a bit like making a cake really - and the results smell almost as delicious! At the Botanic Gardens last year got a lot of laughs when I admitted to being a serial compost sniffer! Seriously though - there are microorganisms in healthy soils and good compost that can actually relieve stress when inhaled - that's one of the reasons why gardening and being in nature are so relaxing. So go ahead and try it - happy sniffing!!
 
 
 
New material being added to the compost heapMaking a new compost bin is a great job for a cold day in winter.  If you've got enough room, pallets secured with posts at each corner are just the job to make a heap about 1m square, or even bigger if possible, which is a good size to get it to heat up really well in order to kill weed seeds etc. It also keeps it relatively tidy too. The bigger the heap, the better it heats - but you do need to get quite a lot of material together to start it. You'll need two or preferably three compartments, one for adding new material to as you have it, which you then turn upside down into the next one to mix in air and continue rotting, and one for made compost which has been turned in there as it is ready for use. In practice though, you can get away with two, taking out the best from the second heap as you turn it. That keeps everything neat and tidy. I grow comfrey plants beside my compost heaps, they take up any nutrients which may leach out into the surrounding soil, I also compost all the dog poo in a separate heap of it's own, away from that area, which is then used to fertilise the comfrey. The comfrey I grow is  Bocking 14, (a high-potash, non-seeding strain developed by the late great Lawrence Hills decades ago) it's used to make a high potash liquid feed, as a weed smothering mulch, minced up as a treat for the worm bin or just put on the compost heap. Nettles also grow there, without any help, as they do!  They are mixed with the comfrey for the liquid feed or cut before they flower to put on the heaps as a great activator, as they are high in nitrogen too. Absolutely nothing should be wasted!
 
 
A very funny incident, when I happened to be spending a few days working in the HDRA advisory department, many years ago, picking out slides for lectures and an organic roadshow that I was setting up at the time. A chap rang up the advisers to ask if he should put his tea leaves on the compost heap. He was extremely worried as he'd heard that they possibly contained traces of aluminium!....The reply was "well you're drinking it aren't you.....?!"!!  After he'd rung off the whole place collapsed into general mirth!!  A little common sense never goes astray!!  They were such a great bunch at the HDRA (now Garden Organic), always helpful, cheerful and encouraging and extremely supportive of our efforts to promote organics here in Ireland in the early days. The late Lawrence Hills came over here in the early 1980's, and made a terrific impression on me and all who met him. He was such a powerhouse of energy, enthusiasm and ideas you could almost have run the National Grid off him! Alan and Jackie Gear were also both tremendously helpful and supportive too - and are greatly missed now on the UK organic scene since their retirement. In some ways I feel the organic gardening scene has run out of steam just a little lately - although there are a great many people trying to do good work.  
 
 

Is there much to do outside now?

 
Although December is a quiet time in terms of sowing and planting there's still plenty of things you can be getting on with which will give you a real head start next year. If you want to warm up and work off some of that Christmas pud. (or other excesses!) turning the compost heap and mixing the contents is great calorie-burning activity!  If it's not very well broken down, you can add in some fresh poultry manure or other high nitrogen additions (certain ones spring to mind when thinking of Christmas excesses that I won't mention here!) this really gets it heating up again, which is just what you want. Make sure compost heaps are securely covered with something waterproof to stop possible leaching and nutrient loss, and adding another insulating layer to help keep any warmth in is also a good idea. When the heaps have started to cool a bit, the worms will begin working slowly in them if they're not too cold.
 
 
Just as in November, don't dig ground and leave it uncovered because of possible nutrient leaching and carbon loss. I'm astonished at the number of  'experts' who still tell you to smother all vacant ground with manure or compost, or dig it in and just leave it open to the elements for the winter!  It appears to me that a lot of their advice is just taken straight out of old fashioned, out of date books!  Never leave empty ground uncovered all winter. A cover crop or green manure cover is best - but if I need a patch early in spring then on my heavy clay I find covering securely with black plastic or something else waterproof and light excluding to stop weed seeds germinating and stop nutrients leaching works well. Then I just uncover it occasionally on fine days to let the birds deal with any pests, slug eggs etc. they can find. The robins in the garden will follow me and watch - flying down the minute I uncover anything, to be first to grab the goodies!  If the bed is for early carrots or other fine seed, then in mid January I replace the cover with a clear plastic cover (usually cut from left over tunnel polythene) this warms up the soil and encourages any lurking weed seeds near the surface to germinate. I then uncover just before sowing in Feb. or March and pass over it lightly with the flame weeder, this kills off any weed seedlings on the surface and creates a clean, so called 'stale' seedbed to sow the carrots into. That gives them a head start without competition and weedy hiding places for slugs! It also barbecues slugs nicely - nasty person!
 
 
Make a good cropping plan 
 
If you haven't done so already (see Nov.) - it helps so much when you're ordering seeds - especially if like me, you tend to get carried away and order far too much!  The catalogues all look so tempting. And as I advised in the 'What to Sow now' section - do get your seeds ordered before the good varieties run out. Stick to varieties you know will do well in your garden, trying one or two new ones each year. If you're new to gardening - ask an experienced gardening neighbour - this is where local GIY or other gardening groups are useful. They may have meetings once a month in many areas where you can meet other local gardeners. This is really helpful as climates and soils differ so much all over Ireland and the UK. When I'm ordering seeds, I like to try one a few new varieties each year, because a lot of research is being carried out into disease resistance etc., which is all good news for organic growing. The one thing many proponents of only growing so-called 'Heritage' varieties seem to forget is - that our climate is changing and we need plant breeding to continue producing suitable varieties for the future - as well as retaining the best from the past - if we want to be self-sufficient in food in the future.

 
Order your seed potatoes as soon as you can if you haven't already. At the end of the month or during January you could plant a few 'extra-earlies' in pots to be ready at Easter if you've got your own sprouted seed saved from your earlies this year. You can still plant garlic in pots, if the soil is wet, to plant out later.


If you're thinking of making raised beds, and you have somewhere dry to work like a garage or shed, then you could be painting the planks for the sides with a good organic wood stain/preservative, to give it time really soak in. I made my beds from 7"x 2" new rough timber, and put on 3 coats of 'Donnos' wood stain/preservative as recommended by Manfred Wandel of Fruit Hill Farm - it looks good and also seems quite water resistant. I used metal brackets on the end corners of the beds. The sides are secured with several 2ft lengths of  1/2" approx steel 'rebars', from my local builders suppliers, driven into the ground until the top is just below the top of the planks to avoid them catching on things. These won't rot and are neater than wood. The total cost worked out at roughly 1 euro per foot, which I think is pretty good. Recycled timber is fine as long as it hasn't been treated with anything nasty, but will still need a few coats of preservative. (Pressure treated decking planks, which I saw one 'expert' recommending recently, are full of toxic chemicals which can leach out into the soil when wet! Nice!!)
 

I then needed a lot of topsoil, which was a major problem. I am gradually replacing all the raised beds in the kitchen garden with a new higher edging, they were originally minimum-dug 'deep beds' 30 years ago, but now need to be a lot higher as my back needs to bend a lot less! I priced topsoil on the internet a few years ago - at anything between 99-150 euros a ton it would have cost around 6,500 euros, added to which, it would most definitely not be organic (although they'd probably tell you anything - a bit like horse dealers!) Then I had a brainwave! I could get my own topsoil by digging out the large wildlife pond I had always wanted, in the wet spot at the bottom of the field which was full of brambles and scrub. In June 2010 - my local builder, who loves to do anything a bit different, came along with his digger and I stood waving a flag (no this way...that way) and feeling very powerful! I then lined it with old polytunnel covers I had been hoarding for years, waiting for an opportunity to recycle them. The whole thing cost roughly 1/6th of what the topsoil alone would have cost, gave me a very neat solution to three different problems - and endless joy!  I've since spent many happy hours watching dragonflies and bats hunting over the pond, and even watched as a female dragonfly laid her eggs on the edge. They moved in incredibly quickly, within 3 days of it filling with rainwater, probably because I have a smaller pond elsewhere in the garden and it seemed a much better and  bigger 'des-res.'!  It's such a peaceful place to sit on a summer evening - listening to the breeze gently rustling the surrounding birch and willow trees.
 

But most importantly - don't forget you can grow in almost anything - as long as it will hold soil or compost deep enough for roots and has some drainage. Don't wait until you have the perfect garden - start in a container or two now. Even a broken bucket could grow a patch of salad leaves - and they're far less likely to be eaten by slugs when up out of reach a bit. So just do it - and worry about any cosmetic issues later! Picking some of your own fresh and healthy food is the important thing - however small your plot or pot! A friend of mine is now partially disabled and her son, who works in the building trade, has collected some old baths that were being thrown out of buildings that were being re-furbished and they make fantastic raised beds in her small garden. Next year she' planning to put low fencing around them and grow flowers in from of them! Where there's a will there's a way as the old saying goes!
 
 

Don't walk on wet soil - or dig it!

 
The ground outside in the vegetable garden is so wet now - that the very short days just don't give it any chance to dry up at all. There's nothing you can usefully do so you're better staying off soil to avoid damaging it's structure.  You can keep busy just tidying up, building compost heaps, sorting pots and maintaining tools. Don't worry - there will be more that enough proper gardening to be done again soon! For now we can read seed catalogues, good books and just dream. I always think that gardening is a lot about looking forward and dreaming of the next year's plans too - and that's so important! Whether it's vegetables, flowers, trees or neatly clipped box you most dream about - they're all beautiful dreams! It's the winter solstice very soon - all around me I can already see early spring flowers like hellebores and primroses in bud and gearing up for next year too! Even the early daffodils are poking their noses above ground. Spring is only just around the corner! Nature's eternal optimism never fails to lift the gardener's spirits.
 
 
It's really exciting when the seed catalogues start dropping through the letterbox again too, with lots of tempting new varieties, and often these days a few more good old ones that are being re-introduced after years of not being available.  There's nothing like a bit of 'HRT' to cheer up a cold day! - Horticultural Retail Therapy that is!  Much more entertaining than watching endless recycled stupid Christmas films!  Seeds are terrific value!  Where else in life can you buy so much hope for the future, a real sense of achievement, good health, pure enjoyment and countless delicious meals for less than the price of a Lottery ticket - with far more reliable returns?! No matter how cold it is - when I'm looking at all those colourful seed catalogues - spring seems only just around the corner, the eternal gardener's optimism returns and everything is possible! Despite the awful weather right now - it's hard to keep a gardener's optimism down!
 
 
We gardeners are always hopeful and optimistic folk - how can we be anything else! We know that the summer will come - we hope for some sun and that the gentle rain will fall. We know that despite the many "slings and arrows" of climate change, we will all still enjoy at least some delicious harvests again next year - an age old certainty. "Blow, blow, thou winter wind...." Shakespeare wrote - he must have been a gardener - as he deeply appreciated and wrote so eloquently about all the seasons. Back in those days people really understood the true meaning of living by the seasons - they had no choice!  And they at least could be sure that the seasons would follow their same predictable pattern every year. These days sadly we can no longer rely on that age old assumption. They also had far more respect for Nature than many in our modern, 'so called' more 'enlightened'(?) society. Man has been disrespectful of Nature - ungrateful and wasteful of her riches so abundantly provided. We have abused Nature to the point where we can no longer rely on her generosity. In our stupidity and arrogance we've destroyed so much of incalculable value. Albert Einstein said that "only two things are infinite - the universe and human stupidity".......I so hope that he was wrong and that people will learn to value soil before it is too late..   
 

Don't forget to have tunnel-tape at the ready!

 
This is something I forgot to put at the end of the polytunnel diary for this month. If you have polytunnels - make sure you have a roll of tunnel tape ready for mending it if the worst happens! I'm always worried about flying branches with polytunnels - and I almost hold my breath until the wind stops!! I've had a lot of sleepless nights over the last couple of months - listening for that unmistakable sound of flapping and ripping polythene - which once you've heard you never forget!  It is possible to mend them if they're not too bad but the best thing to do if your tunnel starts to get badly ripped - unless the weather suddenly calms and you get a chance to fix it - is to just take a knife, cut it all the way round and just let it go. That way you may save the frame - and that's the expensive bit. It takes courage - but I know from experience that if you don't get the chance to do that - then the frame can become so badly distorted that it's beyond repair! Given the wild extremes of weather that we seem to be experiencing more and more with climate change - future self-sufficient food production may depend on polytunnels and raised beds in many locations. I certainly couldn't grow crops on the flat here any more.  
 
 

Winter Poultry tips 

 
If you have any hens - then make sure you keep them as warm and dry as possible at this time of year. Remember - happy hens are healthy hens - and happy, healthy hens lay more eggs - even through the winter!  Take out any droppings every day so that they don't get any respiratory problems which can happen quickly if they're breathing in stale, ammonia-filled air. Also make sure they have fresh shavings or hay in their nest boxes. Don't forget they're in their house for longer when the days are shorter. My system of 'spokes of a wheel' pattern runs which I change around frequently works well despite wet weather. I love to see the girls rush out in the mornings to investigate a new patch! They'll tend to slow up a bit on the egg production now for a few weeks - but in mid Jan. they'll start to get back to normal as long as you've looked after them well. I grow a couple of rows of chard and sugar loaf chicory specifically for them every winter in the tunnel where it's very productive. I give them a bunch of leaves every day as well as any other bits of waste from the garden like outside cabbage leaves etc.- they adore them and clear up every scrap. I think it makes a huge difference to their health - and you can certainly notice it in their eggs too - they have really rich orange yolks. 
 
If you have a little space in your tunnel you could even be really kind and give them a winter 'mini-break' by penning them in there for a couple of weeks if you have a suitable small house for them - mine always love the warmth and dryness in the polytunnel and have a fabulous time dust bathing in the dry soil! The only problem then could be keeping away the foxes which may try to eat through the side of the tunnel trying to get at them - something which actually happened to me many years ago, when rearing broilers in a polytunnel!  I'm currently rearing chicks in one of my polytunnels - and they are very well-protected inside two interlinking, super-size, metal dog cages covered with two layers of small mesh chicken wire. I'm hoping that not even a mouse will be able to get through that to steal food!
 
 
Make sure you have plenty of layers pellets in for them as many farm shops close for several days over the Christmas and New Year holidays - because even if  shops are open - they may run out of stuff. (Remember that organic layers pellets and animal feeds are the ONLY ones that can now be guaranteed not to contain GM soya, or Glyphosate-treated grains, because 'so called free-range' hens are fed on exactly the same feed as battery/cage hens!). By the way - I wouldn't advise feeding red cabbage or sprouts to hens - I did that years ago when I was producing organic eggs commercially and a couple of weeks later many of my egg customers complained that I must be feeding the hens on 'chemical feed' all of a sudden - as the eggs tasted really sulphurous and horrible! That was clearly caused by the sulforaphane in them - which really shows you that what the hens eat really does affect the quality of the eggs they lay - and that anything in the feed, good or bad, is passed directly on to you!  It's just the same with other animals - just as we are what we eat - we are also what they eat, if we ear them! That's one of the reasons I would never feed anything other than organic feed to my hens - I don't want GMO maize and soya, or Glyphosate-treated grain in my boiled eggs!
 
 
The eve of the winter solstice is when I celebrate my New Year's Eve - usually with a few fellow gardener friends, talking about gardening (what else?), with a glass or two of wine and nibbling a bit of good cheese, perhaps making a little music and having a bit of 'craic'. It's what I like to think of as the 'Gardener's New Year's eve! A time when we look back over the closing year and are just on the very brink of the next. 
 
 
Just in case you don't get time to read any more here on the blog before Christmas - (also just in case I don't get time to write it!)..................... I HOPE  MOST SINCERELY THAT YOU WILL ALL HAVE A VERY PEACEFUL, WARM AND HAPPY CHRISTMAS - SURROUNDED BY THOSE YOU LOVE MOST - wherever in the world you are..............X
 
 
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 it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in December - 2018

 

Propagation is starting earlier than usual in my Polytunnel Potager.....

 

I'm growing something new and exciting in the polytunnel this year! Looking south - bed covered with polythene and sown with an assortment of greens
I'm growing something new and exciting in the polytunnel this year! Looking south - bed covered with polythene and sown with an assortment of greens
New arrivals - the chicks at only one day old Chicks only 4 days old but growing so fast - I'll soon have to make their nursery enclosure bigger! The males have a white spot on their head
New arrivals - the chicks at only one day old Chicks only 4 days old but growing so fast - I'll soon have to make their nursery enclosure bigger! The males have a white spot on their head



And right now it's a very different kind of propagation! - 
I'm currently growing baby chickens instead of baby plants!  Over the last few months, since a fox decimated my 6 hens, we've really missed them and the beautiful organic eggs they used to lay. I found it hard to stomach the organic eggs I was buying after that, as even though I knew they had to be fed only organic food, they were still nothing like as good as our own. It was clear just from the colour of the yolks that they weren't on a wide enough range, or being fed the amount of green food which I always fed to mine. It's not the fault of the producers however - they have no choice but to keep the maximum amount of stock on the land which they are allowed to under the organic standards, purely in order to make a living. They're certainly not making vast profits! The problem is that most people think all eggs should be a cheap food. They won't pay a realistic price for organic eggs that properly reflects the high standards of production which I recommended should be adopted over 35 years ago, when I was asked for my input into the organic poultry standards here in Ireland. I was told that my recommendations were far too demanding, and that they couldn't be economically viable. But those high standards which I recommended were the way in which I had always kept my poultry. It was also the standard of livestock husbandry which I had grown up experiencing at home - where all of our animals, including our flock of pure-bred Rhode Island Red hens, were kept to the highest standards and greatly valued by my parents, who had gone through the privations of Second World War rationing. They knew, as I do now, that an egg is a perfect meal, chock-full of healthy nutrients, and it should be valued as such! 

 

That's why I used to organise 'farm walks' here for my customers, back in the mid-1980's, which were a very popular way to show how organic production worked, and how happy all the poultry were.  I knew then, from personal experience, that if customers were educated, and understood the reasons why organic eggs had to be more expensive than conventional eggs, if they knew what went into their production and also the benefits for both our health and for the environment - then they were more than happy to pay a price which more clearly reflected the actual costs and benefits of that kind of production. I simply can't believe that organic egg producers are still only getting the same price for their eggs that I was achieving 30 years ago! How on earth they are making a living at all at that price frankly astonishes me! One of the main reasons I enjoyed selling directly through my box scheme (the first in Dublin) and also at The Dublin Food Coop, was the opportunity to explain to customers exactly why organic food has to cost more - and also how in the long run it works out much less expensive - both for our health and for the planet. Many of those customers are now still good friends, more than 20 years after I retired from organic production, and are all still committed organic consumers, which gives me a lot of satisfaction. Occasionally I even get previous customers phoning to ask me if I have eggs or some other organic product - or where is the best place to buy them if I don't.

 

Anyway to make a long story a bit shorter - this autumn I decided to rear some day-old chicks again. This is something which I hadn't done for years, since I gave up commercial organic egg and chicken production. For the last 15 years or so I'd bought half-grown pullets from time to time - but I wasn't at all comfortable about them having been fed the genetically-modified soya protein, and Glyphosate, or other pesticide-sprayed, ingredients which are in conventional poultry feed while growing, before I got them. Even though after they arrived here, they were fed nothing but organic food, with plenty of greens, and their health visibly transformed surprisingly fast, within a couple of weeks of arriving, I still wasn't truly happy. I knew from past experience though, that rearing them organically from day-old produced far better, stronger hens, which laid eggs for much longer with no problems - even though they were exactly the same breed of hybrid hens used for non-organic commercial egg production. I also knew that the broilers which I used to rear for meat were far healthier, and could be reared to heavy weights of 4kg plus, with none of the joint problems or ill-health which are common in non-organic broiler production. This is because when chickens are organically-reared, they are far healthier due to the nutritious, natural organic feed and a diet which also includes the green food, bugs and worms etc, which they would naturally find when on extensive free-range. They are also much fitter because they have more space to exercise and the freedom to behave as chickens like do, scratching, dust bathing, chasing butterflies etc. - and so are naturally are far less stressed, just like we would be. 

 

However, the more I thought about it - the less happy I was with buying day-old female chicks from the only source of them here in Ireland - a hatchery which although good, was routinely discarding the male chicks, which is normal practice for any hatchery providing female laying hens for the commercial egg-laying sector.  As male chicks are usually approximately 50% of all those hatched, this means that on average, 50% of the chicks are just wasted! That being so, when I called to order them, I asked if it would be possible to have some of the male chicks, which would otherwise have just literally been thrown away! This is something which I've never done before, and I know that there is a distinct possibility that they won't make much of a chicken - but I feel I must try it purely as an experiment!  We've been programmed in recent times to expect a buxom, large-breasted chicken, but whatever they look like, and however skinny they are - they'll still be chicken! As I remarked to my son - whatever kind of chicken they end up looking like - they'll still have skin, liver and bones - upon which he said "Aw..ww.... Mu..m" - having just returned from admiring the seriously cute, day old chicks!... Having reared organic broilers for many years and compared them to the much racier-looking Rhode Island Red cockerels that my father used to rear - I'm realistic and know that these laying hybrids aren't going to look like your average supermarket chicken. But neither will they taste like them either! However little meat they produce - it will taste damn good and will be totally organic - even if it only makes soup! In the far east where chickens originated - they don't look like supermarket chickens either. They race around the jungle doing what chickens naturally do - looking very lean and fit  - but they still provide nutritious meat and bones for the people who raise them! My 'skinny hybrid chickens' will have the happiest, most pampered life here that any chicken could possibly have, and when their time to be useful has come, they will be gently removed from their perch in the middle of the night when they're naturally dozy, and dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible - they won't know a thing about it. Perhaps 'skinny hybrid chicken' could become a fashion statement like 'skinny jeans'? A sort of badge of ethical omnivore-ism - to counteract some of the more vile vegan criticism!  For me - if they can just make enough of something edible to justify the cost of their feed - then I shall be more than happy and will have proved a point.

 

As an ethical omnivore, eating only higher-welfare organic meat - even if only 2-3 days a week - I believe that a system which discards half of all stock bred simply cannot be justified on welfare, environmental, or sustainability grounds. While organic production generally doesn't have to justify it's methods - I believe that ALL meat production, whether for organic or any other system does. Quite apart from the fact that we should constantly strive to improve standards of all organic production - for animal welfare reasons alone this is something which we must take a hard look at and seriously improve. Anyone who eats meat is now under constant attack from some of the militant, more recently 'converted', what I call 'fashion-vegan' elements of society. While I despise some of the more uninformed 'fashion-vegans' - those who openly don't care about the environment or pesticides (which I find astonishing given that all pesticides are routinely and cruelly tested on animals) - I feel that they do actually have a point when it comes to the case of animals which are industrially-bred, but then routinely discarded as they are considered non-viable for commercial production. When I posted a picture of my chicks with my comment about this on Twitter recently - I was thrilled to discover that there is now a firm in the Netherlands who have very recently started rearing both male and female chicks of a new, dual-purpose hybrid chicken which I hadn't heard of, for commercial, state of the art, environmentally sustainable production. They have just done a deal to provide chicken to Lidl - so it must definitely be cost-effective! Although their chickens are not organic, as they are fed on conventional food waste. I think that this really is something that organic production should be emulating. As long as the chickens have plenty of space to do everything they need to in order to be healthy and happy, as they seem to have in this system - even if they can't be moved constantly to fresh ground as I do my small flock - green food could be grown elsewhere to provide that missing element of their feed. Seeing the pictures of it reminded me somewhat of the system I used to use to raise my organic broilers in one of my polytunnels years ago - but much more hi-tech! The chickens loved lazing around in the warm dry sunshine and venturing outside for a snack whenever they felt like it - it was like the chicken equivalent of the Riviera! 

Here's a link to their website so you can see the Dutch system for yourself. It offers plenty of food for thought - if you'll pardon the pun! : https://www.duurzaam-ondernemen.nl/meest-dier-en-milieuvriendelijke-legboerderij-ter-wereld-komt-naar-belgie/

 

Quite apart from anything else - having my new baby chicks has really given me something to look forward to - something which at that at this time of year is badly needed! I was so excited when I was on my way to pick them up in Northern Ireland last week that I almost couldn't bear to go to bed last Thursday night! I was just like a child at Christmas! Everything making up their snug enclosure is recycled. A giant dog cage, which last hosted a rescued hedgehog, lined with the huge sheets of cardboard from the boxes I can't resist saving - (you never now when they might come in handy!)! Bubble wrap which some new furniture for my son's room came wrapped in 4 years ago, and on the top are 2 grow bag trays also helping to keeping the heat in - and they will be filled with some seed trays in the next week or so, to start off some very early seedlings using the small amount of residual heat coming off the top of the cage. 

This is how I used to do all my propagation years ago - by raising chicks underneath the greenhouse staging every spring - with plants on top! The upper end of the top left bed which the cage is sitting on has already been sown with all my leftover lettuce, mustard and edible green manure seeds, and covered with polythene to help germination, so that when the chicks are old enough to start venturing out beyond the warmth of the infra-red lamp for a few minutes - there will be green food there, which will teach them to forage. All that in the lovely wind-proof environment of the polytunnel. In 6-8 weeks, when they are fully feathered and hardy enough to go out, they will go into the 'Hen Hilton' - as a friend described the re-purposed Wendy house that my son turned into a hen house! Lucky chicks or what? 

 

In the meantime, they'll also be manuring the bed which is their 'mini-range' for now, and then that will grow another green manure to recycle their nitrogen-rich droppings and improve the soil more after they go outside. I will love watching my 'Christmas present to me' growing! I could sit watching their antics for hours - especially in the first few days - when like toddlers they try to do all the things that 'grown-up' hens do, like preening their feathers - then wobble and fall over! But most especially - I love knowing that each of the hens will have the best life possible, and provide me with at least 1,000 eggs each during their lifetime of 3 years or more. So our food security is hopefully assured for the next few years! Especially with new reinforced runs and some effectively 'fox-proof', solar-powered electric fencing!

 

Talking of 'that' time of year - the sun is very close now to reaching it's lowest point in our sky and at this time of year us gardeners are eagerly looking forward to the solstice. That's when the year turns the corner and life giving light starts to return to our little corner of the planet, heralding a new gardening year to come. Like most of you - I can't wait! Ancient peoples celebrated the Winter Solstice as the start of a new growing year. They were far more in tune with Nature than us - they had to be for their survival - and as a result they had far more respect for the soil than we do now. They valued it in a way that we seem to have forgotten and knew this only too well......

 

"Human welfare is fundamentally linked with Mother Earth.....not just because the soil is the primary source of most of our food....but because it occupies a key position in the rhythmic cycle of life itself." - Stanley Whitehead.  (from Mother Earth - the Journal of The Soil Association, Winter 1947-48)

 

 My 'soil' 35 years ago  A lump of that soil sitting on my soil now!
 The dead and impoverished 'soil' I inherited 38 years ago                A lump of that original soil sitting on my soil now - full carbon and of life! 

 

There is no healthy life or even a healthy planet without a healthy soil!

The two pictures above show an example of haw any soil can be healed - even one so badly degraded that it is almost devoid of all life! The picture on the left shows the totally exhausted soil which I started off with here 38 years ago - so badly degraded and impoverished by over 20 years of 'industrial farming' and poisoned with glyphosate and other chemicals - that not even weeds wanted to grow! The picture on the right shows a lump of that very same soil, which I had carefully saved an example of, sitting on a bed of the soil which I now have - a vitally alive, healthy, carbon and humus-rich soil full of the vital microbial life that keeps both plants and humans healthy. I knew by the time we moved here - from my own seven years of organic gardening and also by watching how Nature works - that soil can be restored to healthy life gradually by feeding it with natural plant wastes and composts. I'm not superwoman, I'm now partially disabled and don't have any help here. It won't take you 38 years - it can be done! And from the moment you start to heal your soil you will become part of the solution - and not part of the problem. The health of the entire planet - as well as the health of all biodiversity including humans - depends on a healthy soil. Without a healthy soil - we cannot grow healthy crops full of the vital nutrients which we evolved to eat to keep us healthy.

 

Two years ago I had the great honour of being invited by 'The Environmental Pillar' (an advocacy coalition of 28 Irish environmental groups) to give a talk at the Irish launch of the European 'People4Soils' initiative at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, on World Soil Day.  It was with the above quote that I began my presentation. I was asked if I would talk about what practical action gardeners could take to help to restore soils. I was delighted to accept their invitation since soil is a subject very close to my heart and which I am absolutely passionate about having been an organic grower and farmer for over 40 years. Looking back through over 38 years of photographs, to find the best ones which illustrated the points in my presentation, brought back so many memories for me and it was a great pleasure. For the benefit of those who weren't able to attend, I'm repeating my opening and closing few words here. The talk was filmed - and you can watch it here (apologies for the sound quality and background noise!):   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0

 

The enthusiasm and energy from all of the people who attended was infectious.  A wide diversity of environmental groups were represented - not just organic farming organisations.  I sincerely hope that they will all go on and continue to spread the awareness that soil is not just essential to growing healthy food for us - but also that restoring soil carbon, by regenerative organic farming methods, is absolutely key in helping to mitigate climate change. In the last 35 years we have lost approximately 30% of our soils globally, mostly through the destruction caused by intensive chemical agriculture. Felling forests, drainage and destruction of wetlands is also not just adding to this loss of carbon-fixing humus but also causing emissions of even more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. As the living soils in forests and peat bogs are major carbon sinks, this is having a massive effect on accelerating climate change. But there is hope that we can do something and this is what I wanted to get across. We can ALL do something - and we all should act now - without delay!

 

The well-known and highly-esteemed soil scientist Rattan Lal, from Ohio State University estimated a few years ago that just by restoring 2% of global soil carbon - we could mop up ALL of our current greenhouse gas emissions from whatever source....  What a stunning statistic!  Regenerative, sustainable organic farming and growing is the ONLY method of agriculture which can do it. Just putting back some plant wastes into soil but still continuing to use fossil fuel-derived, soil-destroying chemicals can't do that. A combination of the two simply doesn't work, as one will cancel out the other!  Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil life which is vital to making carbon-fixing humus in the soil. In addition - using chemicals literally 'mines' carbon from the soil and also depletes it of many nutrients which are vital to our health and that of all other creatures.

 

In 1963, the late Rachel Carson - author of Silent Spring and heroine of the environmental movement said "I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with Nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature - but of ourselves."  - Sadly too few heeded her timely and much-needed warning. The lure of chemical farming and cheap fossil fuels proved too seductive. We thought had it all - and like irresponsible teenagers we squandered the riches of our Mother Earth to the point were in many places soil can no longer do the job it evolved to do - which is to sustain healthy life on this planet.....But like irresponsible teenagers we now have to grow up, prove our maturity and urgently take responsibility for our actions!

 

In the autumn of 1992 - just after the first Rio Earth Summit - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens which was given by Alan Gear - who was then Chief Executive of HDRA - now called Garden Organic, which the largest organic gardening organisation in Europe. His lecture was entitled - "The Road From Rio".  His warning was again stark - that we ignore the value of soil at our peril! Hearing his motivating talk, many of us were re-energised and went home determined to do whatever we could to help raise awareness of how valuable soil is and what a vitally important contribution organic farming could make to a more sustainable future. Not just for growing healthy food but also in mitigating climate change. 

 

A lot of people talk about climate change now - but actually do nothing to help mitigate it! As a 'doer' and a practical person not a philosopher - I went home from Alan Gear's lecture and planted 300 more trees - many of them biomass willows, oaks, hawthorns, hornbeam and birches. I'm so glad I planted them - and a lot more since. They've been so useful for shelter for animals and plants, for fuel and for making soil-healing compost from the smaller prunings. They're also a wonderful year-round resource - hosting biodiversity of all kinds - bees, insects and other creatures so vitally important in the connected web of life. If you only do a couple of things for our children's future and for the planet - please plant a tree or two, use peat-free compost and try to support organic agriculture if you don't have somewhere to grow your own organic food. Don't put it off until tomorrow - do it now! I know organic produce isn't cheap - but the more people who buy it the cheaper it will become and the more governments globally will sit up and take notice! Consumer power works! 

 

Ultimately - only climate-friendly, carbon-restoring agriculture will be able to help to combat climate change. We cannot go on mining the remaining carbon from soils and replacing it with fossil-fuel derived, climate-destroying chemicals which worsen the problem even more. Intensive farming is costing us the earth - quite literally!  Fast forward over 50 years since Rachel Carson's dire warning....and the words of Rattan Lal give us hope that we CAN do something to avoid total catastrophe - and that the answer to doing that lies in the soil. But only in a healthy, living soil. It's no good us burying our heads in the sand and saying that it's all too depressing, there's nothing we can personally do, so we'll just go on ignoring it as usual! That's a mistake! It's no good either just "talking the talk" without "walking the walk" too!  

The soil that gave us life and nurtured us holds the key to our past - and the evidence of may past civilizations who didn't heed the warning signs of impending disaster........that soil also holds the key to the future of life on this beautiful earth as we know it.......and THAT KEY is now in OUR hands! 

Trying to reduce our carbon footprint can begin at home - because we all have to eatl! We can't turn back the clock - but we CAN ensure a future infinitely better than it otherwise will be if we do nothing. I know that as gardeners or even just as consumers we can all do something. Act globally but think locally is the mantra of the Green Party. As co-founder of our local Fingal Green Party - that has always been my mantra too, and being a practical person - I find it helps to physically do something when I'm stressed-out from worrying about bigger issues which I can't personally control. Organically-managed soils have massive potential to capture and store carbon - and the more we support organic agriculture - the greater the chance is that our children will have a viable future on this planet, which is the only home we have. I believe that if only half the resources had been put into inventing technology to deal with the challenges we face with climate change that have been put into space exploration - we could have halted the steep rise in the greenhouse gases and already have the problem if not fixed - then at least it's rapid progression halted. Instead of that scientists seem increasingly fascinated by childish fantasies of space exploration. (Landing on Mars is a total denial of the problems we face while the world is burning up - quite literally as the disastrous fires in California this year proved).

 

Despite low light levels now - there's still plenty of healthy food to eat in the polytunnel

Red Duke of York - planted in pots in mid-August to give us some delicious new potatoes for christmas
Red Duke of York - planted in pots in mid-August to give us some delicious new potatoes for christmas

So - back to every day practicalities! Last Friday, Gerry Kelly was here to record our Christmas edition of From Tunnel to Table - and we unearthed a couple of pots of the 'new potatoes' which I grow each year for a special Christmas treat! The results are pictured below - and my mouth is watering at the prospect of these smothered with butter, with our Christmas meals! They'll definitely lift the winter gloom!

 

At the moment - some days are so gloomy that they barely seem to get properly light at all. Despite this, as you can see - there are still lots of lovely 'squeaky-fresh' vegetables to pick in the tunnel beds - or even just growing in containers - as you can see from the pictures here.

 

 One of this year's beds of luscious loose-leaf winter lettuce SE main bed. Home bred purple kale hybrids with Sugar Loaf chicory. NW beds in east tunnel. Broccoli in side bed some main heads picked. Lettuce intercropped with spinach in main bed - 4.12.15
One of this year's beds of luscious loose-leaf winter lettuce Home bred purple kale hybrids & Sugar Loaf chicory.
 
NW beds in east tunnel 2015. Broccoli in side bed cropping. Lettuce interplanted with spinach 


 
Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container Salad mix Colour & Spice from Mr Fothergill's planted with red stemmed cutting leaf celery Watercress will give you lots of lush leaves palnted in a large tub
Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container Salad mix Colour & Spice planted with red-stemmed cutting celery Watercress gives lots of nutritious lush leaves even in a large tub

 

 Lovely luscious leaves

 

I don't know why more people don't grow at least a container or two of mixed leaves, even if all they have is a balcony or windowsill. It's so easy if you choose the right varieties - and it needn't be very expensive. Mixed salads or lettuce mixes are always the cheapest seeds - you get far more for your money - and you can grow in almost anything that will hold compost once it's deep enough for the roots! You don't need to fill it right up with expensive peat free compost - save broken polystyrene or plastic plant trays, or even tougher un-rotted plant remains from your compost heap, and fill up the bottom with those. They'll give you good drainage as well. Most salad plants are very happy with just 10 - 12  inches of good compost to put their roots into as long as you keep them sufficiently watered. You can mix some soil into the lower layers as well - which gives the compost more water holding capacity and makes it cheaper again! When you compare it with your outlay - even just one or two meals would easily more than cover the cost of doing it!  Make an early New Year's resolution for 2018 - and if you're only a summer gardener - then vow to make next year the year that you will have salads all through the winter too. Brussels sprouts and parsnips may be delicious comfort food from outside I grant you - but somehow they don't feel quite as vibrantly bursting with health as a salad picked five minutes before you eat it! I look forward to mine every day.

 

Planning ahead and remembering to sow winter veg. in August and September is often difficult to remember while dealing with summer gluts, but it really pays off now. Loose leaf lettuces, chicory, chards, spinach, kales, watercress, lamb's lettuce, Chinese leaves, rocket etc. are all really useful winter salads that I'm cutting now. What isn't quite perfect for the table - the hens get - which keeps them healthy and laying eggs with lovely orange yolks all winter! I would never want to be without my winter tunnel crops - you can really feel the crisp, green lusciousness doing you good! Vegetables that are often taken for granted in summer because they're plentiful, become treasures to be relied on in winter! It's so nice to be able to go out and 'pick & mix' a really varied salad every day - sort of 'dowsing' the salad beds to see what feels just right for you on that particular day! There are only pathetic organic salad or spinach bags in the shops right now and - at the moment it's mostly just baby spinach which is tired, several days old and often already practically composting in the bags! Frankly, I can think of far better ways of spending €3!

Watercress growing happily in tunnel bed with other salads, beet leaves, lettuces and edible winter flowering violasWatercress growing happily in tunnel bed with other salads, beet leaves, lettuces and edible winter flowering violas 
 
Lately my daily salad of choice has always included watercress, - which is full of healthy phytonutrients and goes well with everything. When I walk into the tunnel the watercress seems to just be screaming -  "me...me...I'm the best choose me!" -  it always looks so vigorous and lush. Very few people seem to grow watercress over the winter in the tunnel - although it's easy and incredibly productive. It grows very easily from seed or cuttings, grows very quickly once it gets going and just needs a constantly moist spot to thrive - even in shade. If you can find any really fresh bunches in greengrocers shops or in supermarket bags, then it's well worth trying from cuttings - that way you'll get plants a lot faster. Pinch the lower leaves off, then put the stems into a jar of water on the warm kitchen windowsill for a few days, where they should produce some fine white roots very quickly. You can then pot them up in pots or plant into the ground in your greenhouse or tunnel and keep them well watered - just covering with fleece if hard frost is forecast. Remember that watercress is a member of the brassica (cabbage family) - so take that into account in your rotation plan. As you can see here - it will even grow happily in tubs if well watered! An indispensable plant. Not only fast-growing but also one of the most nutritious salads you can eat!
 
 
Watercress is far higher in important phytonutrients than winter lettuce.  Like all members of the brassica family - it's chock-full of healthy nutrients - iron, Vit C and phytonutrients like sulforaphane (proven to be active against cancer) and incredibly good for your health. It's recorded that the Greek physician Hippocrates even sited his clinic beside a stream in order to take advantage of being able to grow watercress in the water.  He must have known something - as it was he who coined the phrase "Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food" - and I'm a great believer in that. There is a common misconception that you need running water to grow watercress - but you actually don't! Just never let it dry out and it will be very happy. It's also great to grow in the polytunnel in the winter as it doesn't mind the damp atmosphere - which can kill other plants like lettuce. In fact it loves the damp and grows so thickly that it blocks out light too - not allowing any weeds a chance!  Unlike among the wider spaced lettuce where the generally mild autumn here has encouraged determined self sown claytonia seedlings to keep on coming up between the more widely-spaced plants! It's really important to keep on top of weed growth at this time of year because even just a few low patches can really restrict air circulation.  Weeds like chickweed in particular can hang onto moisture and encourage disease in vulnerable plants like lettuce. So keep your winter tunnel salads well weeded.
 
 
 Young watercress plants from cuttings, in recycled buckets on a grow bag tray. Easy to ensure they don't go short of moisture they need to grow well.Young watercress plants grown from cuttings, in recycled buckets on a grow bag tray. Easy to ensure they don't go short of the moisture they need to grow well. 
 
 
Keep ventilating the tunnel every day for at least a couple of hours if you can to avoid moist stagnant air building up - air circulation is really important to avoid diseases. Watercress is the only crop which I make sure is kept really moist at the roots at this time of year. There's barely any other watering to be done now in the tunnel but if you think the soil looks very dry - then just scratch around just under the surface with the tip of your finger - you'll often find that it's moist enough there so needs no water. But if it feels really 'dust' dry - then just dribble a little water between plants like lettuce etc., being very careful not to go close to or splash plants, as this can cause rotting very quickly. I's also a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast and try to water on a day when it's forecast to be milder for a couple of days. Don't drench anything though - as with low light levels and cold temperature at this time of year things are growing very slowly and won't use it. If they're sitting in cold wet soil their roots may rot, or stems may rot at soil level.
 
 
Gloom at 3pm in the polytunnel - looking a bit like a theatre set with the curtains drawn back!Gloom at 3pm in the polytunnel - looking a bit like a theatre set with the curtains drawn back!
 
 
 I suppose to some it may seem like quite a lot of faffing around, uncovering the salad beds in the tunnels in the mornings and hanging up the fleeces on the crop support bars to dry! But when you get into a routine - it only takes about 10 minutes or so and it's well worth doing when temperatures are very low. The fleeces can get very wet on some nights and left on all the time would stop air circulation, encouraging more damp air and possibly causing grey mould and rots. I use a very blunt ended bamboo cane, a bit like a long arm, to help lift the opposite side of the fleece up, wind it up and then to push the ends up and hang them over the crop support bars - as it's impossible for one person to be on both sides of the bed at once!  If it's been a very cold night I wait until the tunnel temperature comes up to about 1 deg C before I take fleeces off. I put the fleeces back on again in the afternoon about 3 pm at the moment - closing the tunnels before temperatures dip and frost sets in. I know it's a bit of trouble but if you're at home anyway and can do it - it really makes a huge difference to what will grow well over the winter, lettuce in particular really appreciates it. Things like lamb's lettuce, claytonia and land cress don't really need it as they're very hardy - but everything grows so much better for that extra bit of TLC!  Such a lovely sight greets me when I uncover the beds - it does my heart good to see so many healthy and colourful things growing so beautifully when it feels like the North Pole outside! It's almost like unwrapping a Christmas present every day - and it definitely is the best present you can give to your health, eating a good mixture of raw green leaves every day! I use old cloche hoops to rest the fleeces on which suspends them slightly over crops. I find doing that gives much better air circulation - and it the weather's really Arctic I can put a double or even triple layer on without weighing the plants down. 
 
 
Delicious calabrese/broccoli 'Green Magic'

Another of my 'old reliables' in winter is Calabrese or summer broccoli. I've been growing the very productive variety 'Green Magic' since it was first on the market. It's the best I've found for winter tunnel production and after the main heads are cut in mid-late November from a late July sowing - it slowly produces deliciously sweet, smaller side shoots all winter long, which are lovely either raw in salads and dips or stir-fried. It's quite happy given some protection with fleece if severe frost is forecast - but otherwise doesn't need any more protection than just being inside in the tunnel. I grow it throughout the year - in mid-late January I'll sow more which will give me an early tunnel crop - and then another sowing in late March or April will see me through the summer nicely. Again it's another crop I wouldn't be without as it's so full of healthy nutrients  

 
 
 
 
Midwinter tunnels
 Midwinter tunnels
 
 
Our weather may soon possibly turn a lot colder - there's possible snow forecast for higher ground the end of the week! It was this week in 2010 that we got the last spell of serious snow - and although there's only light snow forecast for the North in odd places and frost down here at the weekend - it's as well to be prepared! If we do happen to get snow - it's really important to keep gently clearing as much snow as possible off tunnels, because if it's allowed to build up too much and it becomes heavy - the weight of it could split the polythene or even make the tunnel collapse! Remember gently is the watchword - polythene is much more brittle when it's very cold, particularly if it's a couple of years old. Late morning to midday seems to be the best time, because it's the warmest (ha!) time of the day inside the tunnel and it will slide off fairly easily then. I shall be happy if we get just a little snow sometime during this winter - because couple of years ago I discovered it's a very effective way of cleaning algae off the tunnels! As it slips down it scours the algae off - leaving the polythene sparklingly clear! You can encourage it by using a very soft, long handle cobweb brush. It's the only time one gets used in this house! I bought it specifically for clearing tunnel snow! 
 

 

You can start sowing seeds again in late December

 
If you're desperate for a gardening 'fix' and want to try a few giant onions, shallots or leeks for some early crops or whoppers for next autumn's flower shows why not try sowing a few if you have somewhere warm to germinate them? It would be a waste of precious energy to use a propagator now - but they'll only need about 55/60 deg.F or 10/15 deg.C. After germination they'll be quite happy growing on quietly as long as you can give them above 45 deg.F or 7/8 deg.C with good light, protected from frost.  A bright windowsill in the house is fine as long as it's not too cold, remember to turn them every day - so they get an equal amount of light on all sides and also remember to bring them inside the room before you close the curtains at night, so they don't get chilled. Another trick you can use is to fix some tin foil around one side of the pot, using a couple of small canes or barbecue skewers to fix it to so that it reflects the light. Most plants don't need very high temperatures - but they do need the very best light you can give them. If they get 'drawn' and spindly they're much more susceptible to disease. Sow them thinly, spacing them out if possible, and don't over water. In about 4- 6 weeks or so you can prick them out individually into small finger pots or modules, planting out at the end of March when they're growing strongly - or even earlier in the tunnel. Even if you don't want to enter competitions - you'll still have some really early! 
 
 

Good housekeeping keeps down disease - so keep clearing up any rubbish!

 
As I mentioned earlier - this is particularly important at this time of year - keep clearing up any dodgy looking, mouldy, or dead and rotting leaves the minute you see them - to keep diseases at bay. Open the doors and ventilate for a few hours every day if at all possible. Even at this time of year air circulation is really important - it helps to keep the atmosphere inside from being too damp which otherwise would encourage disease. Keep a sharp eye out for those nasty little grey slugs too - there's nothing more disappointing than finding that a perfect looking lettuce is filthy and slug ridden inside! They tend to be braver in winter as the low light fools them into thinking it's dusk!  Putting a few pieces of broken slate at various spots along the beds always traps them as they think they're safe hiding under those! Snip them in half or throw them to your hens if you have them - they really love the extra protein! My hens always inspect everything for slugs first before starting on the 'side' of green veg when I throw them any scraps from the tunnel! Or chuck them outside the tunnel to take their chance instead! - Well it is the season of goodwill after all - but any hungry birds will be quick to spot them too! 

 

Don't forget next winter too - while you're busy thinking about next summer's crops 

 
As I mentioned earlier  - if you planned well back in midsummer -  you should have plenty of salads, chards, kales and celery etc in the tunnel now for the winter. It's very easy to forget that winter veg does grow a lot more slowly, so you need far more of each plant for a continuous crop than you would normally plant in the summer. At least 3 times as much I would say. It's often something one only learns from experience though. When I started my 'organic box scheme' 35 years ago (the first one in Dublin), one of the first things I learnt from experience was that you must plan well - in order to have something available for customers all year round. If you don't they go somewhere else! I know it seems a long time away - but if you leave it until midsummer, you may not be able to get many of the varieties you want even by mail order, and most of the garden centres take out their seed displays in July. So when you're doing your seed orders in the next few weeks, think about next winter's veg too!
 
 

Looking after biodiversity is important - even in a polytunnel! 

 
The tunnel is a lovely sheltered place to sit and relax and get one's recommended daily 20 mins of daylight - even in the very depths of winter. Particularly if all the cheery Christmas crowds and constant 'muzak' get a bit much! Definitely 'in heavenly peace' I can't bear shopping centres at Christmas - or in fact at any other time!  At midday on a frosty but sunny day one can almost believe it's spring - with a few winter pansies, cyclamen, primroses or perennial wallflowers in full bloom, wafting their scent around you - and the birds singing while waiting for their turn on the feeders just outside the doors!  Hellebores in pots are already flowering. I have my chair arranged so that I can watch their antics.  A robin always appears hopefully as soon as I venture inside - he's expecting me to start hoeing! Growing mini-gardens full of wildlife friendly flowers and herbs at the ends and in the corners looks lovely and doesn't cast any shade on crops. It creates a far more natural environment - attracting in all manner of beneficial creatures. A couple of days ago on a still, mild day - there was even a brave bumble bee in there - so I was glad there were some flowers for her.  Adventurous bees are so grateful for any winter flowers. 
 
 
Putting an old upturned clay pot or a pile of stones in various spots, with a shallow dish of water or even a mini-pond will attract frogs too and they will often hibernate in the tunnel. They love shady damp places, and seem to just appear from nowhere! They're great for eating the tiny grey slugs which ruin lettuce hearts.
 
A pile of stones will give cover to ground beetles too - also voracious small slug hunters. I often find Devil's coach horse beetles in my 'mini-cairns' - they are fierce predators too. You'll just be amazed at the amount of beneficial wildlife these mini-gardens attract!  Even in my smallest tunnels I always did that because it really helps to make a huge difference in controlling the pest population.
 
Small birds like Dunnocks, Sparrows, Robins and Wrens often spend hours in winter hunting around the edges of the tunnel - they don't mind me and I love to see them in there being busy too. It's fascinating being able to watch them closely - and it really makes you appreciate them even more.
 
I see the space just inside the doors wasted in so many tunnels. That space should be working for you - just like every other inch! Why not think of planting a grapevine or a kiwi fruit next year to train up and over the door. I love my Lakemont seedless grape arch and it's so productive in space that would otherwise just be empty!  
 
Many people lose interest in the winter and leave their tunnels full of the sad, dead and disease-ridden remains of last summer's crops! Doing this is just storing up trouble for next year! A tunnel or greenhouse is a very expensive investment - every possible inch of it should be used positively and productively all year round! 
 
Lastly - one of the most important items to have in a polytunnel is the comfortable seat in a sunny spot at one end! There, you can sit and make plans for next year - dreaming of all the abundant and delicious riches to come - snug as you like in the winter sun! Who needs a carbon-guzzling expensive winter sun holiday when you can have a sunny and productive polytunnel instead? - Not me!!
 
 
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.

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