The Polytunnel Potager in January/February - 2022

January contents:  Should we throw away old seeds as some experts advise?....  It's NEVER been more important to either grow some organic food, or to support planet friendly organic farming!... Clean air, water and living soil are precious....There's always lots of healthy food in a well-planted polytunnel....  Growing anything well is about care and attention to detail.....  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! 
 
 The selection of winter salads available on New Year's Day is a cheerful sight
The selection of winter salads available on New Year's Day n the polytunnel is a cheerful sight
 
 
Should we throw away old seeds as some 'experts' advise?
 
 
The short answer to that is a very definite NO - especially if they are open-pollinated or heirloom varieties!  Recently I heard that one expert had said we should throw away any seeds older than 2 years old!   I'm sure many such experts, especially those notable ones with links to major seed companies, would disagree with me!   Why?   Well naturally seed companies want us to buy more seed!  But another of the reasons is that our future food security has never been more important - with many smaller independent seed companies being gobbled up with increasing speed by the major agrichemical/seed companies who want the power to control our food supply.  These companies then immediately start to dump older, open-pollinated varieties which may have been popular for years, but which they don't make as much money out of because they don't own the patents for them!  This is naturally why they always say that F1s are "new and 'improved' varieties" - when in fact they are very often not nearly as good or as tasty as the older ones which they may closely resemble!  Looks aren't everything!
 
 
One of the reasons the incredibly tasty and disease-resistant Rosada tomato, which I love so much, was dropped by the major seed companies was because the small breeder would not sell them the patent for the price they were prepared to offer.  So they dropped that wonderful variety, which had been a best seller - coming top of the Royal Horticultural Society trials for several years!  It was Rosada's loss which inspired me to found the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival here in 2012 - to raise awareness of the importance of preserving genetic diversity in all crop plants.  Now I admit that F1 Hybrids do have some advantages, particularly for commercial growers.  They're bred to be more uniform, with their seeds all germinating reliably and predictably at the same time, and with the resultant crops usually all ready to harvest at the same time.  This is obviously  much more convenient for commercial growers who are growing for supermarkets.  However - most home gardeners don't want tons of the same vegetables all ready at exactly the same time, which can be a time-consuming nuisance if they all need to be preserved at the same time to prevent food waste!  Most of us who grow our own food want varieties which will crop over a longer period.   Another increasingly relevant disadvantage is that F1 hybrids have also been bred to give their best performance in a narrow range of predictable climatic conditions - but with the increasingly erratic and unpredictable weather conditions of climate change, that trait of predictability may not be as useful as it once seemed to be.   Another advantage of open-pollinated seed is that gardeners are able to save their own seed, which guarantees that they will have that variety the following year.
 
 
Heirloom, open-pollinated varieties may also have traits like delayed-germination over a longer period, so that all of a plant's seeds don't germinate at the same time.  This is Nature's insurance policy for the plant - as it naturally guards against all of the plants offspring being wiped out at the same time, either by pests or adverse weather conditions.  It therefore increases the chances of the plant reproducing itself - which basically is it's main aim in life - not feeding us!  Clever plants!!  Now perhaps some may suggest I might have some personal 'security' issues - but I really hate throwing away anything which might possibly be useful in future, so I do tend to accumulate quite a lot of 'stuff''which does eventually get recycled!  But as far as seeds go - I have the perfect example of why you shouldn't throw away old seeds
 
 
I've accumulated a lot of seeds over many years of being a former HDRA Heritage Seed library member, trialing new varieties to keep finding better ones for growing for ourselves, and also until very recently writing articles for The Irish Garden gardening magazine (something which I recently gave up to have more time to work on another project which I want to finish).  If seeds are kept in very cool, very dry conditions, they will last many years longer than most people think.  This doesn't mean in a fridge - unless yours is far drier and much tidier than mine!  It would be hard to find space anyway - especially if you have a lot of seeds.  I keep mine sorted into recycled small plastic trays, several for carrots, beets, tomatoes etc., with all my home-saved seed always kept in clearly marked folded paper kitchen towels inside envelopes.  Then all of my seeds are kept in large, flat boxes marked 'roots', 'brassicas' or 'leaves',  which can be stacked neatly, accessed easily, and kept in an unheated but very dry spare room in the house.  These aren't just a useful reference library, as I write on them when I first opened and sowed them and any other relevant comments, but they are also in some cases a very valuable insurance policy - just like those very clever plants!  
 
 
But back to my perfect example of a disappearing variety.  In the mid 1980's I started growing a beetroot cultivar called McGregor's Favourite, which was at the time still being sold by the historic Carters Seeds company.  This had been grown by the Victorians as a dot plant in carpet bedding schemes because of it's attractive, long-lasting and unusually thick 'willow'-shaped, deep burgundy-coloured leaves.  By that time I had already done a lot of research into phytochemicals - a topic which has always interested me, since I believed that organic plants plants must be higher in these important plant-defence nutrients as they were more disease-resistant, and that those phytochemicals would naturally make them healthier for us to eat.  This is something which has since been scientifically proven to be the case.  McGregor's Favourite also makes long edible roots - but its leaves are the reason I grow it, because they provide continuous crops of an attractive and healthy salad ingredient over a very long period - unlike the roots which can only be harvested once.
 
 
Anyway in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I heard that Carters ere being taken over by Dobies, who then later merged with Suttons Seeds, becoming part of the giant international agrochemica/seed conglomerate Groupe Limagraine/Vilmorin - now one of the big four global commercial seed companies.  I was aware through being a member of the HDRA Seed Library that seed companies were rapidly being taken over during the 1970's and that many old varieties were subsequently being lost.  So I went into Mackeys, a terrific old gardening shop in Dublin then, who stocked many different seed companies products, and bought packets of all of the Carters varieties I liked, while they still had them.  It wasn't long afterwards that all of the Carters products disappeared from their shelves!  McGregor's Favourite beetroot was one of those old Carters varieties which could not be obtained from any other seed company and which I was desperate not to lose.  But predictably it was one of those immediately dropped by the new owners as not being commercial enough, because very few gardeners by then were growing for 'carpet bedding' schemes - and unlike me, very few would have been interested in phytochemicals and known of their health benefits!   Recently, I've seen several small seed companies claiming that they have it - but none of them actually do!  They have all confused, or even more sadly cross-pollinated, it with the variety Bull's Blood, which has similar-coloured leaves, but which is otherwise totally different, with much broader, less substantial, more triangular-shaped leaves.  Below are the best photos of each variety which I currently have and shows the difference in the form of their leaves.  This yea I intend to grow them side by side, to more clearly show their differences.  I won;t be allowing 'Bull's Blood' to run up to flower though, as I don't want them to cross-pollinate!
 
McGregor's favourite beet has a much more narrow 'willow' or lance-shaped leaf than Bull's Blood. It's texture is also thicker Bull's Blood beetroot has a much broader leaf than McGregor's Favourite
McGregor's favourite beet has a much more narrow 'willow' or lance-shaped leaf than Bull's Blood. It's texture is also thicker Bull's Blood beetroot has a much broader leaf than McGregor's Favourite
 
 
To cut a long story short - since then I have kept the seed going as a pure strain by not growing other beet family varieties in the same year - as they cross-pollinate very easily.  This was often with difficult between various family commitments and disasters like mice getting into my seeds - but I never threw out any of the older seeds which I had left!   Last year in 2021, due to various other disasters which meant I lost most of the seed I had saved every other year since then - all I had left was seed from 2009!  I prayed so hard when I sowed it, as beet seed is only supposed to last 3-5 years maximum!  But what a good job I didn't listen to those experts and throw out all that old seed!  I multi-sowed the seed, 2-3 seeds into each block of organic peat-free seed compost, and unbelievably they started germinating within 5 days!   Beetroot seeds are 'multi-germ' - meaning that each multi-faceted seed produces several seedlings.  So I ended up with a very unexpected forest of seedlings! Due to its heirloom characteristic of not all its seeds germinating at once - those beet seeds were still germinating 2 months later!   I kept faith with it and waited until the first plants in the blocks were big enough for their roots to reliably hold the blocks together, before potting them on into small pots, to plant out later when the space reserved for them was cleared.  But even then still they kept on germinating - you clearly can't keep a good beet down!  Now I know this may seem a bit far-fetched and fanciful to some - but I wonder of seeds somehow contain a memory of  those who first discovered them, along with their unique and precious conserved genetic characteristics?   Does this variety not want to be lost?  I believe it wants to survive despite the odds - and I will do all I can to keep it going, until I can find a reliable seed company who will take it on and save it for future generations!  
 
 
Who knows - at some time in the future my beloved McGregor's Favourite may even be found to contain some historic genes which no other beet variety has, and which could potentially save the entire beet family from extinction, if it were to be attacked by some pest or disease which could not be dealt with by modern agrochemicals!   The beet family of vegetables generally makes an enormously valuable contribution to healthy diets globally, and it would be an enormous loss. THIS is why I believe that NOT throwing out old seeds is so important, and THIS is what saving genetic diversity is all about.   And THAT is why I'm so passionate about preserving it! 
 
 
 
It's NEVER been more important to grow some organic food, or to support planet-friendly organic farming!
 
 
Now I must wish you all a very happy new growing year - I know that many readers have found my blog through social media, which is a great way to spread positive information on organic gardening and farming which I believe, and many experts say, is the only way forward for a healthy population and a healthy planet. Social media is a good way to share information on healthy eating - a topic which I have researched extensively throughout the over 40 years, since my first child was born with life-threatening allergies.  Many people find healthy eating a very complicated subject -  and I agree it can be very confusing if you're trying to tackle it for the first time - with so much conflicting information everywhere about what we should be eating.  So much of the information is often provided by biased food industry interests who may be funding or influencing scientific studies which promote their particular product - such as low-fat or ultra-processed foods, containing harmful additives, which are now increasingly being shown to be damaging to our health.  But I've always believed that in essence - it's actually very simple!  If we didn't evolve to eat it - then we shouldn't be doing so!  That's the basic premise on which I fed my family, gradually learning about good nutrition and how to grow healthy, synthetic chemical-free, organic food along the way.  As you can see clearly from my blog - I don't promote any products, and my only vested interest is in promoting Nature - because that is the way to promote a healthy future for our children, and for everything else living on this planet - something which I've been saying for many years!
 
 
Social media has many positive aspects but also has its downsides. Recently I've been subjected to a lot of Twitter attacks for my steadfast belief that organic gardening and farming are the only truly sustainable ways to grow food.  This is because organic farming doesn't use any fossil fuel-derived fertilisers and pesticides - which don't just harm our health, but also destroy soil health and biodiversity - and accelerate climate change by harming the vitally important soil microbes which help to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil, thereby mitigating climate change.  Organic is the way Nature has grown food since the beginning of time - and Nature's stakeholders are all the species of life on this planet.  The global agrochemical giants are in the business of making money for their greedy shareholders - and they don't make any money out of promoting Nature!  It's no wonder their attacks can be so personalised and vicious.  I'm well-used to such attacks, so they don't upset me - given that I've been promoting organic farming for well over 40 years, been involved in developing organic standards and setting up both organic certification organisations here in Ireland.  
 
 
During over 40 years of promoting organic farming as the only sustainable and planet-friendly way to grow, experience has taught me that the more the vested interests of the global agriculture and food giants feel threatened, the more they step up their personal attacks.  There is an ongoing disinformation campaign about organic food and farming, and lobbying of global governments by the hugely powerful global agri-chemical giants who want to control our entire food system, even the seeds from which we grow our food as I've mentioned above.  These companies are not philanthropists - even though some purport to be so!  Their aim is not to feed the world - which they declare is their objective -  it's money and power that drives them.  For over a century the agri-chemical giants have been making billions from progressively destroying Nature - but the tide of opinion is beginning to turn against them in favour of supporting Nature - and even the might of such global giants cannot turn back that tide!   It is basically up top us!
 
 
No matter what happens - we can all take back the  power over our food into our own hands, feel more empowered, restore biodiversity and make the planet a lot healthier by either growing our own food from organic seeds, using organic peat-free compost, or by supporting those farmers and growers who are growing food in a way that supports, rather than harms Nature and our health.  That is one of the most positive things we can all do - especially when so many of us are feeling increasingly disempowered by our governments.  Empowering people to grow their own health and to support Nature is exactly why I started this blog 12 years ago.......
 
 
 
December 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of this blog!
 
 
The last twelve years have absolutely flown!  I want to thank those of you who have been with me from the beginning and also to welcome new readers.  I hope you will all find some useful information here to help you to grow some healthy food for yourself and for Nature. Some of you may have noticed that I write this blog in a sightly different way to most bloggers. I write four blog posts for each month, for each section of the garden, repeating some of my advice from year to year, updating it as and when necessary, adding new material from both my own experiments and also from any useful science, but not constantly writing completely new articles, so that you have to search through years of archive stuff to find the information which you need for that month.  I like to write my blog in this different way - because years ago I found that as a beginner gardener - it was the most useful way for me to access relevant and useful information for any particular month.  I used to collect the weekly or monthly 'to-do' pages from Amateur Gardening and Popular Gardening - which were then the most popular weekly gardening mags, although they weren't organic. In fact I used to be horrified at some of the toxic chemicals that they suggested we should use, many of which have been banned now!  The other reason I write my blog like this is that there's no point in re-writing the same advice over and over again just in a different way - because the basic tenets of truly sustainable, chemical-free organic gardening, organic growing on a larger scale, or even organic farming, have never really changed in all of the thousands of years that man has been growing food! 
 
 
 
Whatever the weather - there's always lots of healthy food in a well-planted polytunnel - especially winter salads!  
 
 
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 pictured above with just one example of each ingredient which I can pick right now - 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 salads and other 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 to boost our immune system - so I'll be starting more early sowings of salad leaves in the next week or so (see 'What to Sow Now for 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 speedy 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 is 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 the recipe section of my 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 even if you can get it packaged alone - and when you can find it, it's often three days old and already going slimy!  It's as easy as falling off a log to grow from seed, or from faster 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 Cashel Blue cheese, pear and watercress salad that I did for one of our Tunnel to Table programmes - 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 and only stems are left! So keeping it covered with fine netting in summer will prevent this and also give it a bit more of the shade it appreciates.

 
 
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 often grows meat, eggs and more than two veg - undercover mixed micro-farming if you like!  In the winter 2018/19,  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.  Normally if one keeps backyard poultry, the chicks 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 again a couple of years ago. The supersize duplex dog crates which provided their temporary nursery in the polytunnel, were pretty well-insulated with all the bubble wrap and cardboard which I never throw away as it's so useful - but there was still a very small amount of residual heat on top, which kept 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. They did really well and although a stretching for light or 'etiolated' a little more than usual due to the lowest midwinter light - they grew on really well and none 'damped off' with disease despite being multi-sown so early in modules. I put that down to the wonderful Klassman organic peat-free 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 that 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 seemed to grow even faster than usual and clearly enjoyed the shelter in the polytunnel with all the green food they were fed from day 2.  When they outgrew their nursery run area on one of the raised beds where they learned to forage, finding their first worms and beetles,  they were then ready to go outside for even more adventures!  They grew into wonderful laying hens, and also very tasty chickens - the last of which is still n the freezer, awaiting my daughter's next visit! They really taste so different to normal, even organic chickens - more like game really.  Leaner with longer legs and narrower bodies, but the flavour was indescribable!
 
 
Although at times a self-sufficient life can be time-consuming - it is very rewarding and something I've always done.  We could never get food more local, seasonal or organic than what we grow in my own back yard!  That is 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 diverse cottage or artisan-type kitchen garden, which 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 also an occasional portrait sculptor when I have time - 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 have as wide variety as possible of healthy, chemical-free food and flowers not just for us but also for the vitally important 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, seasonal 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 for 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. 
 
 
In fact it often seems to me that the hardest thing for so many people who are starting to learn about organic gardening or farming is just to just accept 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, no matter how the cold temperature. 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 soil bacteria 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!
 
  
 
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, as mine did. 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 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 parents 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 tubers 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 to cover the ground between slower maturing crops is something I've always done since I first started gardening in a tiny space 45 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 there's no point in leaving ground bare between rows of slower growing things and just hoeing or weeding, if something 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 of some kind - either compost or grass clippings - 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 with 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, flower and seed 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 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 yet 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 more salads, Crimson Flowered broad beans and 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 and so did the New purple potato from Fruit Hill Farm - Blaue Anneliese - so I shall definitely be planting some of those too. All the seeds I sow will be germinated in the house in the warm (room temp.- around 60degF/16degC-ish) - then put out onto the roll-out heated mat on the tunnel staging, which gives a very 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 growingAn example of Nature's perfectly 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 makes 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 polytunnels 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 the last few years when I have grown a lot more tomatoes for the Tomato Festival. In pots they are 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 are always  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 MoonglowI 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 again last year 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 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, before it spreads further! 
 
 
The polytunnel is the only place in the garden in which to be comfortable right now, so 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 in January 2022

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
Carrots sown in loo rolls 21st Jan. - pictured 27th Feb. These will be planted out when first 'true' leaves are showing Parsnip 'White Spear' sown in loo rolls early Feb. on warm bench 27.2.14
Carrots sown in loo rolls 21st Jan. - pictured 27th Feb. These will be planted out when first 'true' leaves are showing Parsnip 'White Spear' sown in loo rolls early Feb. on warm bench 27.2.14


 

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

 
 

It's amazing how even just the smallest amount of increasing light makes me want to 'earth myself' by getting plugged into the soil again!  In early January, it's barely 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 always seem to be singing a bit more loudly and the plants in the polytunnel seem just a little bit perkier 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.  I always like to sow a few parsnips and some Early Nantes carrots in loo roll middles in January.  They don't need much warmth and won't need light until they've germinated.  I keep them in the house until they start to show and then put them out into the polytunnel on the propagating bench, where they'll be quite happy without any heat unless we get prolonged frost - in which case they'll be covered with fleece to protect them and given a little bottom warmth.

 

I believe that sowing seeds is sowing hope - and that's something we all really need right now.  Whatever seeds we sow - whether it's fast growing healthy salad vegetables in case there are shortages in shops in a few weeks time, or flowers for bees and other beneficial insects - I know that it can help make us feel so much more positive and hopeful whatever our problems, and that has benefits for our metal health too.

 

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 they have germinated.  Once they have appeared, 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 while 'pricking out', which may result in damage and 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, because even those sown in another month will catch up and probably be much healthier than any sown now!  Having said that though - I may just chance sowing a few Maskotka bush tomatoes indoors, as it's always my earliest, most good-natured and 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 MUST!

 

For tunnel planting later: - in a temperature of around 50 deg.F/10 deg.C, you could sow now:

Early carrots in long modules like loo roll middles as I'm 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 30 cm apart - probably at the end of next month when they have 2 'true' leaves. 

 

In modules or pots you could also sow: early broccoli (I grow 'Green Magic' a productive early variety), 'Red Ruble', 'Ragged Jack' & 'Cavolo Nero' kales for baby leaves, spring onions, lettuces, broad beans, early and mangetout or sugar peas, green and red 'frills' mustards, mizuna, oriental mixed greens, beetroot, Swiss chards, salad leaves, radishes, and rocket. I will also be sowing celery Tall Green Utah, from The Seed Cooperative, as celery germinates very slowly - taking about 3 weeks to appear, and grows slowly at first - so will not need pricking out for several weeks after that.  I'm experimenting this year to see how early I can get a good polytunnel crop of this indispensable vegetable.

 

At the end of the month you could sow cordon 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 15 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 importing onion white rot, which can be introduced on onion sets.  The varieties I like are 'Red Baron' and 'Golden Bear'  - which is supposed to have some resistance to onion white rot. Onion white rot is also encouraged by low soil temperatures and wet weather - so 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 and laying hens 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 of peat-free potting compost 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 can 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 'micro-green' 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 far 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!

Polytunnel Potager Nov/Dec 2021

Contents:  Polytunnels are the best prescription for the winter blues!.... Thoughts on Polytunnel Purpose and 'Style'.... My Polytunnel years... Getting started with a polytunnel: choosing...  erecting... deciding on layout... improving soil... Other November jobs.
 
Mid-November salads in the polytunnel - 38 different varieties you could be eating now (1)
 Mid-November salads in the polytunnel - 38 different varieties which you could be eating now
 

 

Polytunnels are my prescription for the winter blues!

 

The only place which is dry and where I'm not walking through ankle deep floods right now is in the polytunnel - thanks heavens for them!  It still looks like early autumn inside there!  I'm so grateful that I have them, they seem to cope with whatever the weather throws at us.  If I was trying to grow any food outside in this weather I almost think I would give up -  the constant rain is just so depressing.  I hate thinking about what all the rain is doing to unprotected soil all over the country, and how much pollution is washing out of not just degraded agricultural soils around here- but also many garden soils - where people don't have their ground covered either with crops or a waterproof cover. Local water treatment plants can't cope with the amount of pollutants washing into the reservoirs and rivers from bare and degraded agricultural soils, which no longer contain enough carbon to prevent water just running straight through them.  Well-managed organic soils should contain enough carbon and humus to absorb hold onto a lot of the water like a sponge, largely preventing the run-off of not just water, but also soil - which I was driving through recently on my monthly trip to the local town to go to do some shopping.  Soil needs protection if it is not just to be resilient enough to hold onto the nutrients it needs to grow our food, but also to store carbon and mitigate climate change. That protection doesn't just mean some sort of cover - it also means the integral protection of enough carbon to buffer it against extremes of weather - whether it's floods in winter or droughts in summer. This is something we're all going to have to be far more conscious of in the future.

 

I am so grateful to be able to go out into the polytunnel even in the worst kind of weather and choose from a huge selection of different salad leaves like lettuces, mustards, spinach, kales, chicories, watercress, endive and chards etc It means that I never get bored with my lunch every day - because combined with a selection of dressings and toppings of different fruit and nuts - I hardly ever eat the same meal twice.  At the same time it means that we're getting a wide range of healthy nutrients that are as super-fresh as Nature intended them to be.  I don't rely on imported, nutrient-deficient supermarket produce for my winter food! Homegrown, living food, as fresh as possible is far better for us - and is just what doctors should be prescribing - not pills! 

 

Healthy looking 'Jack Ice' lettuce seedlings to be planted in the next few days 'Jack Ice' lettuce seedlings - in my opinion the best and most crispy green lettuce there is!

 

 


If you go to any supermarket at this time of year you'll be lucky to find anything but tired-looking bags of spinach leaves, or maybe occasionally a mix of rocket and watercress - usually several days old and well on their way to semi-rotting!  Farmers markets are full of imported produce too. This is why I'm always astonished that so many people don't use their polytunnels in winter. I'm still a bit behind with my planting this year and I still have a lot of salad seedlings to plant. Despite the discouraging weather outside though, and the fact that the decreasing light means they'll grow more slowly for the next few weeks, I know that in a little while after the turn of the year, when light starts increasing again, those seedlings will come on surprisingly fast. Then the lettuce and other greens that I'm planting now will provide plenty of salads for us and greens for the hens right up until the end of next April, if well looked after. 

 

 
 

In addition to our food - the flowers in the polytunnels provide vital food for non-hibernating bumblebees and most days the tunnels are also full of robins, wrens and hedge sparrows hunting for insects. With scientists saying how important it is for us to get enough vitamin D - something that we can get from a daily dose of light - it's lovely to be able to be outside in a protected space out of the wind and rain, and to enjoy watching Nature.  I make a point of getting away from the computer and spending at least half an hour in the polytunnels in winter - no matter what the weather.  There always seems to be a few jobs to do to keep warm and I enjoy those precious moments here in my  'Narnia' so much - it's almost like meditation.  My robins keep me company too - I'm never without them now that I have two following my every move when I'm outside. They're always cheerful company!  Even if I'm just sitting in my chair - I think about all of the life still busy underground appreciating the protected space too.  In an increasingly chaotic and angry world, more than ever, this peaceful place is where I want to be. No matter what problems there are in the world - being out here among Nature, growing plentiful organic food for us, and providing food and habitat for all the wildlife that we now have here in our five acres, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I'm making my own positive small difference by "being the change that I want to see".  It's a good feeling. 

 

Even if you don't want to grow anything in the ground over winter - there's no reason why you can't grow something in pots.  Growing in pots in polytunnels has to be the easiest kind of gardening ever!   No bending and no pests like slugs!  Below are examples of winter crops I've sown in modules in Late August and September, and planted after their summer crops have been harvested and the remains cleared. I'm harvesting their delicious leaves now. The peat-free com post in the tubs was simply refreshed with some worm compost and dolomite lime, as the pH would have lowered over a summer of watering with rain water. 

 A great crop of pea shoots in large tub ready to harvest with scissors  Bok Choy or Pak Choi 'Purple Lady' interplanted with garlic in large tub
A great crop of pea shoots in large tub ready to harvest with scissors   Bok Choy or Pak Choi 'Purple Lady' interplanted with garlic in large tub
 Kale Red Ruble and Broccoli Raab interplanted with garlic in large tub  Strikeforce lettuce and endive White Curled in large tub interplanted with grarlic after French beans
 Kale Red Ruble and Broccoli Raab interplanted with garlic in large tub Strikeforce lettuce and endive White Curled in large tub interplanted with grarlic after French beans 

 

When the salads are finally finished - the unknown variety of garlic planted underneath them, and now growing vigorously, will be very early and harvested before the tubs are needed for planting tomatoes again next year.  The reason why I planted that garlic in the tubs is because I wasn't sure if it could be carrying disease - it's always better to be safe than sorry!  I had run out of garlic and bought this organic Spanish variety this spring in a local farmer's market.  It was such a lovely tasty variety that I saved some cloves to plant.  If it stays healthy - then next year I shall plant it in one of the polytunnel beds without worrying..

 
 
Some Thoughts on Polytunnel Purpose and Style
 
 
My polytunnel style is what I call 'Polytunnel Potager' - or in other words - how to produce more delicious food than you ever have thought possible in a more beautiful space than you could imagine. A sort of personal 'Grow your own Paradise'!  Some may think that 'style' and 'polytunnels do not comfortably belong in the same sentence! I must say I can definitely agree with that when I see some examples of forlorn and neglected looking winter polytunnels! Unlike the beautiful Victorian glasshouses -  polytunnels are really rather more practical than decorative structures even if abundantly full of crops. But as I've so often said - if you use a polytunnel well all year round - then you want it to be as nice a place as possible to spend what may be quite a lot of your time. I know from experience that when your eyes are filled with the glorious abundance inside a polytunnel planted in my 'Potager' way - then it's the natural happiness and beauty of all the plants that demands one's attention - not the less than beautiful structure that's protecting them from the elements. The more utilitarian aspects of the polytunnel tend to sink into the background.
 
 
My main polytunnel is really a potager or ornamental kitchen garden in miniature - but sadly it never looks perfectly organised as a show garden would do - with rigidly organised rows of neat vegetables all identical and with bare soil in between rows. Every inch is full of as much colourful, nutrient-packed food as possible all year round, so it can often look a bit of a muddle to some people's eyes, because there are so many different vegetables, fruits and herbs crammed into every possible space!  In addition to that - anywhere there is even a tiny space, flowers are planted - many edible - which liven up our winter salads and also feed any non-hibernating bees or other vital insects that venture out on mild days. 
 
 
Believe it or not - there are good reasons for this seemingly and deceptively uncontrolled lack of 'neatness'!  One is that despite being essentially an artificial indoor environment - it's still a 'real' garden, which grows real food, for a real family all year round! As crops are harvested, something else is always somewhere in the wings in modules or pots waiting to take it's place. The other reason for what can appear to be a 'muddle' is that Nature doesn't grow things in perfectly neat rows of just one kind of plant - it likes to mix things up a bit. I like to copy the way Nature grows things as nearly as possible, as I've found that has always given me the best results, with no pests or diseases and with the soil improving every year. Another reason is that different plants have different root structures and their associated microbial communities which all use the soil differently. The late Lawrence Hills, (who started the HDRA -,now re-named Garden Organic and who I was lucky enough to meet and later sculpt a portrait of) once said that "the soil is like the gut of the plant" and science is proving that to be the case every day. This is something which I have always believed to be true, even before science began to prove this theory to be correct. The latest soil science is now beginning to show that growing plants as diverse and varied communities, rather than in single species rows with bare soil in between, is far better for soil and produces much healthier plants. To me though - that's surely only common sense!  I've always been of the opinion that just as in every other community in Nature - even our gut - there is health and strength in ecological diversity!
 
 
Uncovering celery and watercress in the morning. Some sorrel and vegetable mallow there tooUncovering celery and watercress in the morning. Some sorrel and vegetable mallow there too  
 
 
The one thing I am fairly strict about though is rotations.  Despite what I've heard some gardeners say recently - my 40 plus years of organic gardening experience have taught me that rotations are a vital tool in helping to keep down possible soil-borne pests and diseases, and also regenerating soil. Rotations also stop the build up, or conversely, gradual depletion of particular nutrients - which can unbalance the soil ecology.  In practice - a four-course rotation isn't that complicated - it just means that everything moves around the tunnel so that nothing is grown in the same bed more than once in four years. So if I have certain crops which I find work well together - like celery and watercress - which both like a rich, moist soil. Then those crops move around together every year. It can be harder to ensure this happens in a polytunnel though - and this is why it's vital to do a detailed cropping plan every year. It's all too easy to forget where you grew something three years ago, when one's growing so many things!  If the weather turns exceptionally cold, it's worth covering the slightly more tender crops like celery and watercress at night, and then uncovering them in the mornings. That way they will keep producing delicious crops all winter long and into spring, just harvesting the celery one or two stems at a time, whenever needed.
 
  
This year, just like last year, has been a strange autumn weather-wise alternating from boiling hot to freezing and back again for months!  Perhaps this is what we may expect in the future from climate change? Not all lovely and warm all the time which is what some people perhaps hoped - but more erratic, with wild swings and even hurricanes!  Like all of you I haven't found it easy to cope with growing all our own veg, especially in a vulnerable polytunnel. I've also been coping with my dodgy ankle which couldn't be fixed yet due to Covid and other commitments - so some things were planted a bit later than usual and some still remain to be planted. But these days experience has taught me not to panic - because I know that things will catch up as long as they're well fed and watered if they are still in pots, and I'm happy that we'll still have plenty of our most important winter tunnel crops again. 
 
  
There are few things more rewarding than growing food in a polytunnel at any time of year, but right now it's even more satisfying to see it bursting with good things to eat all winter.  Knowing that there will always be something to eat, come what may, is such a good feeling.  It is doubtless something our ancestors felt too - when they knew they had their winter larders well stocked. Unlike us however - they weren't lucky enough to have polytunnels!  In summer it's relatively easy - stick pretty much anything into the ground and it will grow - almost in spite of you!  At this time of year though - things can be a bit trickier so need a little more care. But any care is more than handsomely repaid by being able to extend the growing season so much at both ends - and by defying the weather outside. I would say polytunnels give you at least another month of growing time at either end of the growing season! And if you get it right - you can pick a huge range of wonderfully healthy fresh salads and many other vegetables such as chards, celery, spinach, more tender kales and calabrese all winter long.  At most times of year there's very little choice in shops compared to what you could grow at home, or perhaps find in a farmer's market. In winter the choice is even more restricted - with almost never any salads other than sad-looking bagged baby spinach, which is already several days old and practically composting! 
 
 
Even the organic produce sold in farmers markets can never be as fresh and vitally alive as something you picked just a few minutes ago in your own garden!  In a polytunnel, even hardy vegetable plants grow far better and are so much more productive and juicily tender than they are outside, due to the shelter they enjoy in there rather than just the occasional higher temperature .  As I said previously - it's actually the shelter from the howling cold winds and often torrential rain that autumn and winter can bring that plants really appreciate. After walking through a miserably cold and wet garden on a grey winter's day - it gives my spirits such a lift to open the tunnel doors and survey all of the deliciousness and beauty growing away quietly inside. To me it's like opening a box full of horticultural delights - with a wide choice of different salads and other vegetables and fruit to harvest every day. 
 
    
The great Victorian designer William Morris once famously said "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". Polytunnels are undoubtedly useful! Although admittedly - they're not the most aesthetically pleasing of structures! I try to make my tunnels as beautiful as possible all year round. As an artist, the shapes and colours of plants are important to me - the bonus is that the more colourful they are often means that they're more delicious and nutritious too. So many food plants are decorative as well as good to eat, that it's hard to choose what to grow. As an organic gardener, I want to attract as many beneficial insects and bees as I can to deal with any pests and to pollinate crops - so the flowers serve that purpose too. Tucking treasures into every corner - mixing flowers and vegetables together and never wasting an inch or leaving soil bare, is in fact exactly what Nature does too. All plants are much happier growing together in a varied community, this is how they evolved to grow, happily co-existing in a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Planting this way is better for soil too, as it encourages a broad natural diversity of microbial life - soil bacteria, fungi and beneficial insects. These are a vital part of the healthy and balanced soil ecology you need to make things work in an organic garden and to give you the most nutrients in your crops. It helps you to achieve an whole ecosystem that's as natural as possible - in an unnatural space - and it works pretty well, given that our intervention by growing crops together from all parts of the world is a bit unnatural in the first place!.
 
  
My polytunnel years - early days
 
 
Before anyone says "Well it's alright for you - you can afford a big tunnel - I can't!" which someone said to me once - I want to tell you something.  I originally started off in a very small garden in the mid 1970's, and after a couple of years as a beginner gardener, just learning to grow my own food, I put up a tiny, cheap 6 x 8 ft polythene greenhouse as they were called then. I think 'Garden Relax'  was the make, if I remember correctly. It was such bliss - I could actually walk into it!!  But before I even had one of those I had already made myself a tall cold frame from skip-reclaimed 2 x 1 inch rough timber & polythene, which was about 8 x 6 x 4ft high. This was placed against a south-facing wall, the side against the wall being open and uncovered, so that when pulled away slightly and raised on bricks - it had good ventilation but also provided a lot of warmth and good shelter. I grew my best aubergines ever in that frame against a south-facing wall!  So please - no 'I can'ts!' from anyone - it's not a phrase I've ever allowed myself to use!  My motto is - 'if I can't do it that way - then maybe there's an alternative'!  When we moved to where we live now and I began growing organic veg commercially in the early 1980's, I bought my first 13ft x 65ft polytunnel.  It was relatively cheap as it had a very light frame. Something I would regret years later when it disappeared over the horizon to visit the next village in Hurricane Charlie!  As I went along - I made sure that every single one of my tunnels paid for itself as my gardening life gradually progressed and expanded. 
          
  
Eventually, I ended up with three 13 x 65 ft tunnels and a much stronger, much higher one which was 18 x 55 ft - and by that time I was growing commercially in a serious way on about a 1/4 acre, supplying the Dublin Food Coop, establishing Dublin's first organic box scheme in the early 1980s and also growing for supermarkets. The biggest polytunnel was a real luxury with far better air circulation and far more head space which allowed me to grow taller crops like French beans and tomatoes - and even grapevines! Each tunnel was only purchased when I had made enough money from my growing activities to fund the next one - both by selling my organic produce commercially and of course saving a lot on the household budget by feeding the family. It was hard work but very worthwhile. Of course growing so many crops and having a lot of livestock back then - sheep, hens for laying, chickens for meat, ducks etc. naturally also meant no holidays!  So that saved money and helped a bit too. 
 
 
Anyway, sitting on a beach doing nothing in summer sun was never my thing!  A couple of days snatched down in Cork, at the ever-wonderful Ballymaloe,  was all we could manage for our annual holidays when the children were small. The wonderful classic French cooking of Ballymaloe founder Myrtle Allen was such a treat for me. Local, fresh and much of it organic - it was pure 'foodie heaven'. I'd grown up eating the very best of food as we had a large kitchen garden and orchards and my parents were great food lovers who enjoyed eating out from time to time at well-known restaurants. Good plain cooking is how I would describe my own efforts!  I had naturally always been interested in the health benefits of food though as I had a severely allergic child who could only safely eat organic food - and as a child I was eating wholefoods like muesli long before anyone else had ever heard of it!  Ballymaloe is actually the only hotel I have ever seen that has properly made Bircher muesli on the breakfast menu. In addition - I save money by not updating to the latest expensive technology every five minutes, have the cheapest and most ancient mobile phone ever, my TV has a 12 inch screen and still plays VHS videos!  I use everything until it wears out, almost never buy new clothes or make up and rarely need to go shopping at all!  Boring? No, not at all - we eat the best food in the world here & enjoy nature!
 
  
But back to the point! Thirteen years ago - I had already been retired from serious commercial growing for some time due to back problems making me increasingly disabled, and also because I wanted to concentrate more on my sculpture.  After 20 years, my old tunnels had been re-covered several times, were now in tatters and the lighter-framed cheaper ones weren't worth covering again. They were also increasingly shaded by the shelter belt I was forced to plant in the late 1980s to protect the garden from the neighbouring farmer's chemical spray drift! Having learned quite a lot about growing in polytunnels over the intervening years, I decided to put up two new ones, with much stronger frames, in a better location than the others - in order to be able to continue growing all our own food for as long as I can. I also wanted raised beds in them which I already had outside, because I've had progressive degenerative back problems since a horse-riding accident which necessitated spinal surgery many years ago. Having the raised beds means that no matter how bad I'm feeling, I can still garden - because it's such a positive thing to do. I can also sit out in the tunnel for a little while every day in winter - getting my much needed daily dose of light and looking at a very satisfying range of crops!
 
 
Back to the future - and a salutary soil lesson. There IS life after starting on a building site!
 
 
Almost 7 years on.  A bit of a difference! I have a humus-rich soil full of active, healthy worms!   There is hope after builders! This is the 'soil' I started off with 7 years ago in my new tunnels!!
13 years on.  A bit of a difference! I now have a humus-rich soil full of active, healthy, happy worms!     There is hope after builders! This lump of stuff is the 'soil' I started off with 13 years ago in my new polytunnels! It is sitting on the soil I have now. The difference in colour is due to the carbon now present.
 
 
Spring and summer are normally the best times to put up a tunnel, because the polythene is more flexible when it's warm and can be stretched across the frame better.  Unfortunately for us though - we chose a bad time to put them up - but 14 years ago the Celtic Tiger was just about still roaring!  The polytunnel suppliers were very busy then. They insisted on coming to put them up in the worst weather possible - during the wettest July days on record! Something like 7 inches of rain fell here in 4 hours, rivers were bursting their banks everywhere and many people's homes were flooded. They also insisted on re-spreading all the lovely topsoil I had carefully piled on one side - saying they couldn't get their levels right otherwise - which was frankly complete rubbish - but they threatened to go home unless I allowed them to do just that!  Well, to cut a very long story short - they got the tunnels up anyway. My lovely topsoil had been all mixed with awful sub-soil and it was like sticky glue! I left it all to dry out which literally took months while I just grew a few things in containers in there! 
 
 
The following New Year I tried to get a spade into the dried out soil and broke the spade! I just sat down and cried!  Not something I'm normally given to - but not long before that I'd dislocated my shoulder!  So I called a builder friend and asked if he could help. He brought along his mini-digger, saying that he'd have all the soil turned over in about 10 minutes. Dream on!  The surface had set just like concrete! Two hours of the digger rearing-up on it's hind legs later - he'd managed to break the surface a bit but it was still in huge concrete clods, most about a foot across - which I couldn't even get a fork into!  More tears!  I called another friend to ask if he knew anyone with a big rotovator - not something I would normally approve of as I am a a mostly no-dig or what I prefer to call 'minimum-dig' gardener. But faced with what amounted to a derelict-looking building site - I had absolutely no choice!  The friend kindly borrowed a commercial one, arrived with it on a trailer and spent all day going up and down inside the tunnel until most of it was as broken up as he could get it - given that the machine was bouncing off the concrete clods very scarily and threatening to go through the side of the tunnel!
 
 
After that - the soil was still so bad that I had to loosen the hard pan underneath with a long fork, excavate pockets where I could, fill them with compost and plant things in them as if they were in pots!  But it's amazing what plants can do! That was almost 15 years ago. Now, after much compost, constant mulching and green manuring -  with worms and nature having time to do their work - the soil is now utterly transformed and wonderful. It's full of life, full of worms and getting better every year. The crops speak volumes about the health of the soil. So don't despair if the same happens to you. An abused soil is never beyond remediation - it can always be retrieved with hope, love, time, compost, and the help of worms and other soil life!  
 
 
I can never express my gratitude enough to those two good friends whose hard work initially enabled the magic to happen! Even if I'd brought in topsoil and just sat it on top in raised beds - crops would never have been as good without loosening the hard pan underneath really well first, so that the vital fungal threads supplying nutrients to plants could spread widely and plants could draw up valuable minerals from low down in the soil profile. 
 
 
Fast forward  a few years - and on 28th October 2014 - I welcomed Irish Times gardening correspondent Fionnuala Fallon and her photographer husband Richard Johnston here to do an article on winter food growing for publication in the Irish Times magazine on Saturday 15th November 2014. Link here
 
 
Fionnuala and Richard had already been here before several times to do various articles over the years - though sadly not all are retrievable from the Irish Times archive - so it's nice to be able to link to this one.  It's always great to swap stories with such knowledgeable and observant gardeners - but also slightly scary too - as you know they'll spot any messy bits!  Being very nice people though and gardeners themselves - of course they pretend not to notice!  All gardens have messy bits - and mine is definitely no exception!  It also produces some delicious food though, as you can see from the photo below which I took on the day. As most gardeners do of course - I wished they'd been here a week or so later!  Gardeners are never happy! Pictured below in the basket from the left clockwise - Lettuce Jack Ice, leaves of home-bred hybrid kale, ruby chard, purple and green pak choi, oakleaf lettuce Navarra, Oriental radish Pink Dragon, endive White Curled, courgette Atena, with claytonia in centre. On table - sweet potato Evangeline, strawberries Gento and Albion, cape gooseberries and 3 different varieties of figs - looking rather sad as it was a foul day with torrential rain and we were dashing between tunnels! - Of course I naturally found far better ones after they were gone!!  
 
 
Many people think that it's the extra warmth in polytunnels that is the important thing and they keep them tightly closed. It isn't though - it's actually the protection from wind and heavy rain which is the reason why plants grow so much better in winter than those outside. I never keep my polytunnels closed. Unless we have a gale blowing here I always open both ends of the polytunnels every day. Air circulation is vitally important to prevent diseases quickly caused by the damp atmosphere in a closed polytunnel - which can be almost sauna-like even in winter on a bright day!    

    

A basket of early November tunnel produce
 A basket of early November tunnel produce 

 

Getting started with a polytunnel?

 
If you're thinking about getting your first polytunnel and you're also an absolute beginner gardener, I would advise perhaps putting up something quite small and cheap to start - so that you can learn to grow things on a small scale first and also make your mistakes small scale too. Taking on too much initially is often the main reason why most people give up, because they find they simply can't cope, particularly with the speed that things happen in a polytunnel. In a tunnel everything grows at least twice as fast - and that also applies to weeds!! The great thing is that you don't need a huge tunnel or greenhouse to grow things - you can even grow quite a useful amount of salads in a couple of containers in a small lean-to structure or cold frame, as I did, or even a well-lit porch. If you're a beginner at organic gardening - this is often the easiest way to learn how to grow things. Smaller mistakes are cheaper! One thing you rarely have much of a problem with in containers is slugs - and that makes things a lot easier for a start! I've done lots of experiments over the years on growing in containers. Many years ago, before we moved here, I grew an entire vegetable garden in a crazy selection of them as we had to be ready to move at a moment's notice! It doesn't matter what they are - as long as they have enough room for the roots, and have drainage holes in the bottom, something will be more than happy to grow in them! 
 
  
What I call my "law of handbags" definitely applies to polytunnels!! Meaning that like handbags and also freezers, the bigger a polytunnel is - the more you want to put in them! Speaking from experience - no matter how big they are they're never big enough for all the things you will want to grow when you really get going!  Bigger tunnels are higher though - which gives you more headroom for tall crops, much better air circulation and more space to grow things like tender fruit trees and vines. I grow peaches at the north end of mine, where they don't shade anything, they take up very little space, and I get an average of over 200 large peaches from both of the trees every year. Those would probably cost you a minimum of 1 euro each, if you could buy them, and you'll never get anything that tastes like they do! In contrast - you'd be lucky to get any peaches outside in Ireland as our climate is too wet, which causes peach leaf curl disease - the main problem in peaches. We have abundant container-grown figs from May until October too - outside you'd be lucky to get a crop in September most years. I grow grapes along the sides of both of the tunnels, with the long branches or rods, as they're called, trained at a height of about 1 metre, so that they don't shade anything. Now I get such huge crops of green seedless grapes that I make my own sultanas in my dehydrator. Their intense flavour is indescribable!
 
  
A few years ago I worked out that if you spend an average of 25 euros a week on organic vegetables that you could be growing yourself - then even a medium-sized polytunnel will pay for itself quite quickly. That means if any size of polytunnel doesn't pay for itself within roughly 2 years in terms of produce & money save on the food budget - then it's not being properly utilised!  Although initially they seem quite an investment - believe me it's an investment you will never regret. Although a good one that will last isn't cheap, you can always divert a few euros from other things such as the gym sub (not needed as you'll get plenty of healthy exercise!), maybe even pass on the holiday for a year or two (not needed - how many other places can you think of where you can sit in the sun all year round in this part of the world, getting your daily dose of sunlight and vit D?), or even give up the therapist if you use one (not needed - as the latest research proves that spending time outdoors doing something satisfying is extremely beneficial for our mental health.)
 
  
I've been strongly of the opinion for many years that a small polytunnel should be available free on prescription to everyone - but I can dream on can't I? The vast improvements in people's diet and health would pay for them very quickly, as it would certainly encourage more people to eat their daily quota of fruit and veg. There's nothing quite like picking your own super fresh organic produce - it tastes totally different!  It's been a strange autumn weather-wise here this year - alternating from boiling hot to freezing cold and back again for the last couple of months! I've also been very busy with a family member having been unwell following an accident and needing a lot of time and care - so some things were planted a bit later than usual and some still remain to be planted - but nevertheless I'm happy that we'll have plenty of our most important winter tunnel crops again - especially plenty of the healthy seasonal green salads which we eat endless variations of at lunchtime every day. This is one of the other things I'm very strict about as they are full of fibre and antioxidant phytonutrients which are vital to our health all year round. The most fantastic aspect of polytunnels for me is that I can work whatever the weather - so they make food growing a lot easier to fit into an often frantic lifestyle!
 
 
So, have I persuaded you yet?  If so - then here's a few points to consider if you think that a polytunnel is a good idea. Just what occurs to me right now from experience - not an exhaustive list. Before you even start looking at makes, types etc. and invest hard-earned cash - first investigate if you need any local planning permissions etc. 
 
 

Choosing your tunnel

 
  
Just a couple of things that occur to me - and that are often not mentioned in books. Buy the biggest tunnel you can possibly afford - as I've already said it will pay for itself very quickly if you use it well. Also get it covered in the strongest frame with the heaviest polythene you can. You won't regret it as it will last years longer. The 'grip-strips' along the base that clamp the polythene on are far better than having to dig up the outside every time it needs re-covering, so they're a good long-term investment. Again they're not cheap - but they're so much easier and a real time and labour-saver. Speaking from experience - it's amazing how hard it is to find help that is of any use when digging up and re-covering a tunnel of the 'buried polythene' type! If it's not done properly and it's left loose - polythene can easily work loose and then all rip to shreds. I feel that cost-wise it's often roundabouts and swings - and that seeming to save money one way can often turn out even more expensive another - especially when a tunnel is full of valuable winter crops!
 
 
Choose a reasonably level site, sloping just gently to the south if you can. This is ideal for air circulation, as the hotter air tends to rise and frost can slip out downhill on very cold nights if the lower door is open.  You need reasonable sheltered from the prevailing winds or strong wind from any direction - but not too over-hung by trees either - which could stop light, or even worse branches could break off and puncture your tunnel!
 
 
Good ventilation is absolutely essential so it's vital to have a door at either end however small your tunnel is - ideally a sliding door as the ventilation can be varied far more easily according to the weather conditions. They're expensive though - often as expensive as a very small tunnel - but worth every cent on my very windy site! The hinge opening doors are fine but have to be fixed wide-open all the time. As we live on a very windy hill with wind often gusting from different directions on the same of subsequent days - this isn't always ideal. We can get vicious side winds that can threaten the structure of the polytunnel - meaning that doors may have to be closed altogether - which is not ideal for ventilation. Roll up doors are a nightmare! That's how I lost my very first tunnel in Hurricane Charley! they can catch in the wind, double back inside and go up through the roof - which is what happened to mine. The tunnel's a total 'gonner' then and very often the frame too!
 
 

Erecting a new Polytunnel 

 
 I would always advise getting the suppliers to erect the tunnel for you themselves and to guarantee their work despite my bad experience! It can often be easier to get a good deal from the makers for them to erect it during the winter when business is generally quieter for them. Don't expect to get a good deal in March or April when everyone suddenly gets keen on growing your own and wants them!  It may cost a bit more but it's well worth it as your tunnel will last years longer before it will need re-covering if it's put up properly in the first place. It's a false economy to try to do it yourself if you've never done it before. It looks simple - but it's not! Years ago I lost a smaller tunnel that had been badly put up by someone recommended by the supplier - it turned out that he'd actually never done it before despite saying that he had!  I lost not just the polythene cover but also the entire tunnel! The frame twisted and distorted so badly that it could not be re-covered again and so was a useless waste of money. So be warned!  The larger tunnels also have much stronger frames and if covered with a good heavy gauge polythene and properly erected by the supplier, they will last for many years before they may need covering again. 
 
 

Next step - decide on the layout

 
 
Deciding how to organise your tunnel can be difficult if you haven't had one before, so here's a couple of suggestions you may find useful. Once you've got your tunnel up it's a good idea to rotavate the soil just this once to open it up, if it's become compacted during the process of putting it up, as I described above happened to mine. Borrow or hire a rotavator as you'll only need to do this once - after this the worms will do all the hard work for you!  You won't want to disturb the soil surface too much by digging once it starts to establish plenty of life in it - as there are fungi which live in the soil and help plant roots to forage further and they don't appreciate too much disturbance!  I would advise making permanent raised beds, four or more, so that you can organise the tunnel easily into a simple four course rotation. This keeps the soil healthy, as you will then only grow any plant family like tomatoes say, brassicas, or onions in the same soil only once every four years or more - thus avoiding a build up of pests and diseases. Next skim off the soil where you want your paths, throwing it up onto the beds. Hey presto - instant raised/deep/no-dig beds!  One metre or 3 - 4ft wide beds are easy to work from the paths on either side and as they are raised - that makes the work even easier as you never walk on the soil again. They're bliss if you suffer from back problems! You can put in boards along the sides to edge the beds neatly and keep the soil in, and then things will really start to look organised.
 
 
Improving your tunnel soil 
 
  
The next thing to do is to check the pH to see how much lime there is in the soil. Don't get hung up on testing for deficiencies of this, that, or the other - it's not necessary. You can do more harm than good by adding unnecessary extras. Just do a soil test to get the pH (acidity/alkalinity) right and after that Nature will gradually do the rest itself. You can test for pH very simply with cheap kit which you can get in any garden centre. Generally speaking, a range of 5.5 - 7.5 is ideal, most vegetables and fruit are happy with this, but do bear in mind that it's always a lot easier to raise the pH than to lower it. Then if necessary, apply something gentle like calcified seaweed, or ground Dolomite limestone, rather than ordinary garden lime. Calcified seaweed raises the pH gently, making the soil less acid. It also supplies minerals and trace elements, and you can use it at any time of year as it doesn't burn roots. Never add ordinary garden lime just as a matter of course each year - doing this can raise the pH far too much and 'lock up' important nutrients in the soil, making them unavailable to plants.
 
 
If you garden organically using a wide variety of composted plant wastes, green manures and mulches, you will be giving plants a varied buffet to choose from. This will gradually increase the fertility of the soil and build up the microscopic life that plants need to keep them healthy. In the world of plants - one size doesn't fit all. Each plant has it's own specific requirements, and can only take exactly what it needs if it has the right ingredients to choose from, and the right soil pH. They know far better than humans what they need! People can do far more harm than good by adding specific supplements and trace elements, such as boron for example, that some some 'expert' suggested might 'do the trick'!  Adding them can seriously unbalance the soil for many years or even be poisonous to soil life as well as plants. If the soil is too acid or too alkaline, or lacking in vital microorganisms, then often these elements aren't easily available to plants. Just get the pH right, add composts etc, and then trust in Nature - it will do the rest! Most people think that the only things that live in soil are worms - but there's a whole world of other microscopic workers in soil just waiting for the right conditions and the right kind of food to encourage them to do the work for you. These vital microorganisms convert plant wastes and animal manures into humus and other foods that plants can use. They are like the probiotics of the soil. Plants need all these good microbes to have a healthy immune system, just as much as humans do. Artificial fertilisers and pesticides like weedkillers damage this soil life. If you use them either in the soil or in seed and potting composts - you will end up with a dead soil and unhealthy plants that are far more susceptible to pests and diseases.
 
 
Don't be tempted to pile tons of manure onto your tunnel soil which some people may advise either.  More is not necessarily better!  This is a huge mistake which many first-time growers make. Adding too much nitrogen-rich manure will unbalance soil nutrients and encourage lots of soft unhealthy growth. It will also encourage manure flies, shore flies, and aphids etc. Taking the time to gradually build up a healthy ecosystem in your new polytunnel, with everything in balance, will pay off in the future. If you have time and can get hold of some really well-rotted organic manure or compost with plenty of worms in it - then you could spread 2-3 inches/10cm of it on the surface and fork it in or just leave it on the surface and cover with something to stop it drying out - the worms will work it in gradually and do a lot of the work for you. Just cover it with something to block out light and prevent weeds growing - then leave it alone for a few weeks.
 
 
When you uncover it again to plant things - it will be utterly transformed. The worms will have worked their magic!  All you will need to do then is give the surface a light scratch over - or if it's badly compacted fork it lightly - and it will be ready to plant. Slugs can often be a big problem in a new tunnel, so the other advantage of this approach is that you can uncover it from time to time and snip any slugs you'll find on the surface with a long sharp pair of scissors. If you're too squeamish for that - then get a couple of ducks and they'll dispose of them with great alacrity!  After a while slugs won't be too much bother if you deal with them regularly. If you want to grow things in the meantime - then put a few containers on top of the light-excluding cover and grow stuff in those. You may still be able to find a few plants of lettuce, herbs, brassicas etc. in garden centres - and even if it's too late to plant them outside they may still produce a crop inside. Even if it's only leaves they're still edible! Or you could try sowing some of the seeds I suggest in my 'What to Sow' list for this month.
 
 

Still no time to relax - here's a few suggestions for other November jobs!

  
As I mentioned last month - at this time of year, watering is something I'm always extremely careful about. If I have to do any, I always water the ground between plants - never directly on or around the necks of plants. If you gave the soil a really good soaking before planting your winter veg in the tunnel earlier in the autumn - it shouldn't really need too much watering now. If you think you may need to water it's always a good idea to scratch under the soil with your finger about 3 cm or an inch down to see if it's dry at root level. If it feels dry then water, but don't saturate roots of plants now, as lettuces in particular can keel over very quickly with the cold nights and shorter days.  I try to water early in the morning on a sunny day if possible, when the top of the soil will have a chance to dry off a bit so that there is as little moisture as possible hanging around in the atmosphere overnight. Winter lettuce is one of the most vulnerable plants - it can go down with botrytis (grey mould) very quickly if it's too damp around the plants.
 
 
Another winter salad that's coming on nicely now but doesn't mind damp soil is watercress - which I've already picked from several times despite only being planted for just over a month. It grows very fast in a tunnel and needs the shoots picking regularly as doing that keeps it productive and stops it from flowering. It also needs to be kept constantly moist to produce it's lush peppery leaves all winter. It appreciates a bit of fleece draped over it on the very coldest nights, being slightly more tender than land cress. It's worth the TLC though - as I think the flavour is far better than land-cress which has a more 'rocket like' flavour. Watercress will go on cropping well for months as long as you keep watering it and it's higher in healthy phytonutrients than any other green vegetable. There are plenty of other salads coming on now too - lamb's lettuce, claytonia, many different oriental leaves and lettuces, sugar loaf chicory, endives, beet leaves, silver and ruby chards, herbs like giant flat leaf parsley and multi-sown 'Ragged Jack' kale for baby leaves - which will eventually grow on in spring to become full size - producing it's delicious, asparagus-like flower buds in early spring, which are far tastier than sprouting broccoli.
 
 
Beet leaves McGregor's favourite, frizzy endive & lettuce Jack Ice - 8th Nov

Beet leaves McGregor's favourite, frizzy endive & lettuce Jack Ice              

 

Watercress - Aqua, sown early Sept, harvesting since late Oct. - 8th Nov

Watercress - sown early Sept, or grown from cuttings


Mild autumn weather can encourage chickweed and other weed seedlings - and these are an ideal damp place for those nasty little grey slugs to hide - the ones that get right into lettuce hearts and destroy them! Chickweed tends to hang on to droplets of moisture too - making the atmosphere around salad plants much more damp and potentially causing disease. For this reason it's vital to keep on top of weeds now. Keep hoeing or hand weeding between plants until the leaves fill their space and block out the light between the plants. In another month growth will also slow up a lot more so weeds won't be so much of a problem then.

 
As I've mentioned - I like to be able to pick a mixed salad for lunch every day - even in the coldest weather. I grow mostly loose-leaf types of lettuce and many other types of leaves for picking individually, so that there's always something to pick every day. At the moment the nasturtiums are still looking very bright and cheerful too, releasing a lovely scent as you walk into the tunnel on sunny days. One doesn't notice the scent quite so much in the summer when so many other things are flowering. Non-hibernating bees are very grateful for them too and the leaves and flowers make a welcome contribution to salads, as frost rarely seems to affect them much in the tunnel. It pays to be organised though and keep the fleeces always at the ready to cover things - just in case the weather turns really cold. If you have Christmas potatoes growing in pots these should be covered with a double layer of fleece at nights if even only a light frost is forecast, as they're particularly vulnerable. 
 
 

Early mornings are the ideal time to catch those nasty little grey slugs in the tunnel. They are a particular problem in new tunnels, but after a while they become less troublesome if you keep weeds down and don't let everything run wild over the winter as so many people do! Put a few pieces of slate or large stones along beds at intervals and they will hide underneath - then you can just scoop them up. If you have time for a five minute scissor foray - on misty grey days they will even stay on the surface for an hour or so after dawn. So that's a good time to catch them. Even better, you don't have to get up so early at this time of year! I try to keep on top of them as they can do an awful lot of damage - particularly to 'hearting' vegetables like Chinese cabbage, Pak Choi or Sugar Loaf chicory if they get right into the hearts. My frogs have disappeared off to their winter quarters now - I haven't seen any for a week or so. All of a sudden I'm seeing just a few more very tiny slugs - encouraged by the damp air and lack of predators. I think it's time to take the fine netting off the doors now too - to let the smaller birds like wrens, robins and dunnocks in. They love to look for insects and small beetles in the tunnel during the winter - it's a valuable source of food for them. I'll leave the large squared pea and bean netting up to keep the pigeons and pheasants out though - and hopefully this year's crop of blackbirds won't try to get in and eat all my worms! They soon learn to fly through the gaps when they can see strawberries inside - but those are almost finished now. The 'Albion' strawberries in large pots are still ripening their very last fruits and they seem less vulnerable to cold than other varieties - they're still tasting really sweet.

  
Only water anything now if absolutely necessary and if the ground seems very dry. Dig around a bit with your finger in the soil if you're not sure. Water well then, preferably in the morning to let the surface of the soil dry out a bit during the day. Over watering, with condensation and damp air hanging around in the tunnel can cause disease. For the same reason, ventilate as much as possible unless it's really too windy. Close the doors well before the sun goes down, or around 3pm at this time of year, in order to retain some warmth. Good housekeeping is essential too - tidiness pays off. Pick off any mildewed, mouldy, yellowing or otherwise dodgy looking leaves immediately - disease can spread like wildfire when plants are growing much more slowly in the damp winter air. Put diseased leaves and other rubbish onto the compost heap or into your worm bin.
 
 
While there's a bit less to do in the garden - it's a good time to sort out your stock of seed trays and pots. A good money-saving tip - cultivate your local garden designer - offer to barter them some veg. next year for giving you all their old pots. They get through masses and often only throw them away. Recycle them!  I have a garden designer friend and we've been bartering pots for years. They last almost forever if you're careful and it's a great way to save money - even half a dozen pots can cost a fortune in garden centres and DIY shops! Particularly the big tree-sized ones! If you don't need that many - then share them with the members of your local gardening club or GIY group. Scrub any pots and trays with hot water that you will need for seed sowing in the spring, and sort into stacks of each size. This will save you a lot of time later in the spring when things really get busy again.
 

Plant a few winter flowers for bees now.  Apart from sowing a few early flowering hardy annuals to bring in pollinators and beneficial insects - you could also bring in some early flowering herbaceous perennials in pots - like Hellebores or primulas. They will flower weeks earlier in the tunnel. I've been growing Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower in my tunnels for years, as it's the most reliable 'flowerer' all through the winter. I was delighted to see a recent survey confirming that bees love my choice! It even flowers most of the winter outside here too. There are often bees around on mild days during the winter - and they are so grateful for any nectar and pollen producing flowers when there's little else around for them. If you're sowing a few broad beans now in the tunnel - (which is the only sensible place in our usually monsoon-like winters) - having other flowers in there in early spring will attract bees in to help pollinate the beans. I'm sowing some Crimson-Flowered broad beans, originally from the HDRA Heritage seed library - which I've been saving seed from for about 38 years. It does well in the tunnel over the winter and is so much more delicious than Aquadulce Claudia - the variety usually recommended for winter sowing. In my opinion, one is so tasteless that it's only fit for feeding cattle!
 
 
It's so worth having a polytunnel just to be able to grow winter flowers for creatures like this beautiful bee!
 
 
It's so worth having a polytunnel just to be able to grow winter flowers for creatures like this beautiful bee! The morning following Halloween last week I went out to open the polytunnels and found a bumblebee that hadn't been able to find it's way out again after I closed up the tunnels in the late afternoon. It always makes me so happy knowing that because I've planted all the flowers - then even if that does happen, they won't starve to death and that there's always plenty of food in the tunnel to help them get up and away and back to their nests in the morning!  I try to provide everything I can for these incredible creatures - because every single one of them is so very precious .......and they do so much for us in return for us making them welcome!  
 
 
 
 
I enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and also complimentary that others find "inspiration" in my work. If you do happen to use it or repeat it in any way - I would appreciate it very much if you mention that it came from me. Thank you for reading my blog.

Veg without limits -- container growing

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

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

Veg Without Limits - Container Growing

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

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

So What Varieties are Good for Growing in Containers?

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

My General advice for Sowing all Seeds:

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

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

Seed Sowing in Modules 

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

The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost 

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

Seed sowing - the basics

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

Sowing early seeds in modules

To make sure I have something to plant as soon as the winter crops are finished both in the tunnel and outside, I always start sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you can sow now are in the 'What to Sow' sections for each month, so I won't repeat them here. Things like onions, leeks, beetroot etc. can be multi-sown in the modules - in 3's or 5's - depending on how many you want in a clump - or how big you want your onions (less in a clump for bigger onions) and they're planted out later without thinning. These will push each other apart as they grow and develop quite normally. You can do the same with summer spinach, chards and 'baby leaf' or salad mixes. Rather than use an expensive propagator at this time of year I germinate everything near the back of my range cooker - which keep things at a steady 65-70 deg F/16-20 deg C. As soon as the first seedlings are showing they need good light, so then I put them out in the polytunnel, on a roll-out heated mat which provides very gentle bottom heat of about 50 degF/10 deg C - or just above during the day - and is very economical to run. This is all most things need to grow on nicely without forcing. In another 2 weeks in the warmer propagator I shall sow my aubergines Bonica F1, (the very best and most reliable one) these develop quite slowly at first and need a long growing season. I'll also be sowing my earliest tomatoes - Maskotka, Latah and John Baer. These are always ripe in the first week or so of June. I can't wait for ripe tomatoes again! Talking of which - there may be some very exciting news soon on the tomato front - but can't reveal it yet!!
 
 

What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?

 
Occasionally there are seedlings that develop they're first seed leaves or cotyledons as they are known - but after that they don't grow any more new leaves.  These are known as blind seedlings. In cases where you may only want one plant per space - like lettuces or hybrid calabrese - it's normal to thin seedlings to one per module, but only do this after they have clearly developed their first 'true' leaves - not the seedling/cotyledon leaves - as 'blind seedlings they will never develop 'true' leaves and grow on. This is quite common with brassicas and if it happens you could waste space on a seedling which will never develop any further - so don't thin them too early! With calabrese seed in particular - which can be expensive - it also wastes seed and money!  I've never seen any of the 'so-called' experts telling you this - they always tell you to thin as soon as you can handle the seedlings! Over 40 years of experience (OMG can't believe it!) does actually teach one a few useful things!
 

Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots

Sprouted broad beans being sown in  500g  yogurt pots -  12.1.12
 Sprouted broad beans sown in 500g yogurt pots              
Sprouted 'Oregon Sugar Pod' mangetout being sown for pea shoots and later pods - 31.1.12
Sprouted mangetouts sown for pea shoots and pods
 

At this time of year - I always soak my broad beans and peas for a couple of hours before then sprouting them on damp kitchen paper on a plate covered with cling film and put in a warmish place. I always get the best germination this way. It saves the seed sitting in cold wet compost for too long and possibly rotting. They sprout in about 2-3 days and then as soon as the 'radicle' or main tap root  appears - I then sow them in large pots as you can see above (I use recycled 500 ml yogurt pots - they're the perfect size!). 3 broad beans to a pot or a small handful of peas (don't count them) per pot. I don't thin the beans or the peas as it's totally unnecessary - I've tried doing it over the years but the plants produce just the same crop per plant - so obviously crop more per sq.ft/m if on a deep, raised bed. Thinning them after germination is not only totally unnecessary, but is also time-consuming and wastes valuable seed. These potfuls will be planted out about 30cm/1ft. apart when big enough. 

I am always amazed at just how much better the germination is with home-saved seed. I got 100% germination of the yummy Crimson Flowered Broad Bean as per usual (good job as we've just finished the last from the freezer!). Beans and peas are the only things I cover with organic peat-free seed compost after sowing - everything else is covered with vermiculite - which promotes good air circulation and drainage around the seedling stem, virtually guaranteeing no 'damping off' disease - as long as you are careful with your watering. After sowing anything - only ever water again from underneath. This is easy to do by sitting the tray or module in a tray of water for a few seconds. And as I've often said before - if you do happen to overdo it by mistake - and we all do it occasionally - don't despair and leave them to rot in cold wet compost!  It's very simple - just sit the tray of seedlings on a newspaper for 1/2 hour or so which acts like a wick to draw out the excess. All seeds need is a good seed compost, a little thought and plenty of TLC to grow - it's not rocket science!

Despite all the years I've been gardening - I never cease to be surprised, thrilled and full of wonder at Nature's miracle of a tiny seed and it's determination to grow. That perfect little pre-programmed parcel of DNA - full of history and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And - best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food!  

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

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

Use Peat-free seed Composts

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

Potting on tomato seedlings 

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

Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key

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

Shading small seedlings is important from now on

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

Keeping Back Garden Hens for Organic Egg Production – the Basics

1.  A colourful small flock of 6 hens enjoying some late winter greens from the polytunnel in early March

A colourful small flock of 6 hens enjoying some late winter greens from the polytunnel in early March

 

There’s very little more rewarding than keeping a few hens in your back garden. A colourful flock of beautifully marked hens look every bit as ornamental as any exotic birds you could keep in an aviary – but unlike purely ornamental birds - if you look after hens correctly, they don’t just look beautiful, but they will provide you with far more delicious and nutritious organic eggs than you could ever buy.  In addition to being amusing, intelligent and very watchable company all year round, keeping your own laying hens also gives you a measure of food security, because you will always have some eggs handy for a quick meal, for baking or can even to make a very welcome gift – far cheaper and healthier than a box of chocolates!

 

An organic egg is probably the fastest, most convenient and nutritionally perfect meal in the world. A simple omelette made with couple of eggs along with a handful of homegrown salad greens, is a nutritionally-balanced meal, containing high quality protein and fats, virtually all of the vitamins and minerals we need, and also choline – recently classified as an essential nutrient - which is vital for many bodily functions including liver function, cholesterol metabolism, and healthy brain and nervous system development. Eggs also supply important antioxidants like Lutein and Zeaxanthin, which are vital for eye health.

 

Producing your own eggs means that you know exactly where they have come from and how the hens were kept. That gives you a great feeling of self-sufficiency and of being more in control over what you’re eating – because you are, quite literally, what your hens eat. The better you feed them – the better their eggs will be. The more organic greens like broccoli, kale and spinach that you feed your hens – the higher the eggs will be in those vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients vital for eye health. In addition to all of that – as if that wasn’t enough - your hens will give you a wonderful free by-product, fertile organic manure which will greatly enrich and boost the vital microbial life in your garden compost, which can then be used to grow your own delicious vegetables and fruit! What a lot of benefits, in return for very little daily trouble, after you have initially set up your domestic egg production unit!

 

Hens are a valuable adjunct to any organic food-producing garden. They convert the leftover bits of green vegetables like kale, broccoli, spinach and chicory, which are not quite good enough for the kitchen, but still too good for the worm bin, into wonderful eggs.  At the same time, they produce very valuable, high nitrogen manure. They are also very happy to help you to get rid of garden pests like gooseberry sawfly larvae, if you let them roam among your fruit bushes during the winter.

 

I’ve kept hens for most of my life but last year I was without them for 3 months in the autumn, and I really missed them. Although we buy organic eggs, they are not nearly as good as our own, because as I’ve often explained before in other blog posts – organic producers are forced by economics of scale to keep the maximum number of hens on their holding that they are allowed to under Irish organic standards (or Soil Association standards in the UK) - otherwise it would not be economically viable due to the cost of producing the eggs in relation to the price they get for them, and they could not survive. However, I won’t go into that here, as I’ve already done so before. Hens love to graze on short, sweeter, newly emerging shoots and grass, and the more hens you keep on any pasture naturally means that they eat any green food like grass and clover faster – so then their eggs will not have such as deep an orange colour to the yolks as hens where fresh green food is always available. When I was producing organic eggs commercially, I used to grow green food especially for them which makes a huge difference – particularly in the winter, when growth outside is slower. My customers really loved our eggs. I often see some of them and they still tell me that they simply can’t buy eggs which are anything like as good as ours were. I can guarantee that once you have tasted your own home-produced eggs – you won’t ever want to go back to buying them from shops!

 

Gerry and I looking at the friendly and fast-growing 8 week-old  pullets and cockerels in net-covered run

Gerry and I looking at the friendly and fast-growing 8 week-old pullets and cockerels in net-covered run

Gerry Kelly came over here recently to see how the day-old chicks which had just arrived when he was last here in early December were doing – and he was amazed to see how grown-up they were already looking, and how friendly they were!  I got a mixed bunch of male and female day-old chicks from the hatchery – somewhat unusual as most people just want females, or pullets, for laying eggs. However, I wanted to prove that it was worth rearing the male chicks too, which are usually discarded, and that’s certainly proving to be the case – but those details are for another blog post I will write soon. Suffice to say here, that the males produced when hatching eggs of laying breeds (roughly 50% of the eggs hatched) are usually discarded, which is not only cruel and unethical - but also incredibly wasteful, when so many people in the world are starving! While I think about it by the way – hens are just purely for laying eggs - while hens and cockerels bred for meat production are collectively called chickens. A fine distinction of nomenclature perhaps – but there is often confusion about the use of those names. I’m talking about keeping hens for egg-laying here.

 

What do you need to think about if you want to keep hens? 

  1. Before you start – the most important thing of all is to consider your lifestyle, and if you have enough time/are prepared to make the commitment to looking after them properly every day. In that way – keeping hens is just like keeping any other animals. Happy, well-kept hens lay the best eggs!
  2. Then will first need to check with your local authority to see if there are any by-laws forbidding the keeping of garden livestock like hens or rabbits. If you are renting your property, then you may also need to check with your landlord. Unless you are keeping a cockerel which will crow loudly, waking up everyone within a mile at 3.30am in summer - it’s unlikely that neighbours will object to some occasional daytime clucking from a hen that’s just laid an egg – especially if you occasionally present them with half a dozen. Obviously hens need to be kept clean as possible to prevent smells, flies attracted to their droppings or vermin like rats attracted by their food.
  3. If you go away occasionally - don’t forget that you will also need to arrange for a ‘hen sitter’ - someone who will look after them every day while you are away – whether just for a night or for longer. It’s important to make sure your hens are properly looked after if you’re away from home, even if it’s only for a day or two. You can’t send hens off to a kennels while you’re away like dogs or cats, as they get used to feeling secure in familiar surroundings. Any sudden drastic change can easily upset them and would definitely stop them laying.

There’s just no substitute for someone looking at livestock every day – whatever sort of livestock it is. While there are some automatic door openers, feeders and drinkers etc – I would never rely on these as they can always go wrong (and Sod’s law says – if it can go wrong it will – and usually when you’re away!) Drinkers can get blocked, hens may get trapped, injured, or have some other misfortune. While it’s alright to leave them if you’re at work during the day, they shouldn’t be left without attention for any longer – as this could lead to disaster and suffering for the hens. It’s also important that eggs are collected every day – because not doing so can result in broken eggs, which can then lead to egg eating. This can be a big problem, because once they get a taste for it – it’s almost impossible to stop. 

 

I’m not trying to put you off – just to make you really think about the responsibilities of keeping them, and whether they will fit into your life. If you do decide to give keeping hens a try – then I can almost guarantee that you will never want to be without them again. Hens are endlessly fascinating to watch, far more intelligent than most people give them credit for and definitely have very individual personalities. They are great company and a really good way of teaching children how to look after animals responsibly, and also of giving them an understanding of where their food comes from. Being outside in nature and having contact with pets is known to be good for boosting children’s microbiome – the community of beneficial microbes living in their gut which is their immune system. Science has recently proven that the more naturally occurring, beneficial microbes children are exposed to from an early age – the better their immune system functions. This means that it is less likely they will suffer from the allergies which the many nature-deprived children, reared in often microbe-phobic, antiseptically-wiped environments, are increasingly suffering from.

 

  1. Then you must decide how many hens you want to keep.

 

If you want to keep hens really happy and healthy, the first thing to remember is that they evolved in Asia to live as jungle fowl, spending their time mostly in jungle clearings – so they are happiest when they have plenty of room, and are warm, dry and scratching around in grass and the leaf litter under shrubs and trees looking for insects and eating the green shoots of plants. They also like having a daily dust bath to keep their feathers in top condition. Hens are very social animals which evolved to live in flocks and are very unhappy if they don’t have the company of others. For this reason, I would never keep less than 3 or 4 hens, because if you only have two, and one dies or has an accident, which can happen occasionally, the one left on its own will pine and suffer. So, given that we can’t supply jungle – we must try to replicate the natural food, shelter, company, places to roost up off the ground as they would in jungle trees, the opportunity to dust bathe, and the freedom and plenty of room to scratch around looking for insects.

 

  1. Next you need to decide how and where you want to keep them

 

You may like the idea of hens romantically roaming free in your garden, but as they like to eat a lot of plants - they will destroy your garden! Bear in mind that 3 or more hens can also make quite a lot of poo and can damage a small patch of ground very quickly - turning a small piece of lawn into a mud patch within a few days, especially in wet weather, which is not good for their health! Also roaming completely free they are far more vulnerable to predators. Urban foxes are becoming an increasing problem often due to takeaway rubbish being discarded, most are not one bit afraid of people and regularly visit urban gardens. To a fox – a hen is naturally just another takeaway opportunity – and you don’t want your beautiful hens to be hurt or to disappear completely! Other predators like mink can be a problem if you have water nearby, and also neighbour’s dogs and cats. While hens undoubtedly look lovely roaming freely around the garden – that’s not the best way to keep them. From a welfare point of view – a roomy safe run is always best.
 

Some housing options: 

 

The so-called 'Hen Hilton' - the re-purposed child's Wendy house where my hens live and even have their own vertical garden!
The so-called 'Hen Hilton' - the re-purposed child's Wendy house where my hens live and even have their own vertical garden!

Wooden hen houses/chicken coops are widely available now and suppliers can be found online. They can be an expensive option though - but admittedly, they often look tidier and nicer than many homemade ones!  A small re-purposed garden shed, making a pop-hole, can also be an option, but it must be heavy enough wood to keep predators out, or lined with wire to stop them eating through it as happened to me once many years ago. You can do a lot to beautify and have a lot of fun re-purposing a plain old garden shed! I was thrilled to find a child’s ‘Wendy house’ on sale 6 years ago in my local DIY store – it was just what I’d been wanting for keeping my few hens for ages. The hens even have their own vertical garden outside it in the summer!

 

I describe my re-purposed Wendy house further on.  It is ideal for our 6 hens, and they provide us with more than enough eggs for our needs now. I prefer wooden houses as wood provides better insulation from heat or cold than some of the funky small plastic ones, which can also have condensation problems. Here are some ideas.

 

 

  1. A moveable house preferably on wheels - with a predator-proof run attached which can also be moved daily. This is what I chose for the few hens which I used to keep after I stopped producing eggs commercially. It was a re-purposed small dog kennel with a sliding door, and a hinged roof for cleaning out and collecting eggs. After I broke my shoulder, unfortunately I was no longer able to move it, so I purchased the Wendy house which they now live in. It is far more plush and attractive – and one of my friends even called it the ‘Hen Hilton’!

 Four hens in a small re-purposed dog kennel house on wheels with movable run attached - in early spring.

Four hens in a small re-purposed dog kennel house on wheels with movable run attached - in early spring.

  1. Permanent fixed housing - with 2 or more permanent runs leading from it so that these can be alternated regularly to keep them fresh and disease-free. This is a good option for anyone with limited space, as even if you only have two alternating runs, you can throw all their green food and anything else which could go on your compost heap into one small run, which they will enjoy scratching through, will give them exercise and keep them amused, while you’re growing a green manure or grass in the other run. Then you can change over sides when this is ready for them, cleaning out the one just vacated onto the compost heap and sowing more grass or green manure into the soil there.

 

  1. Permanent housing - letting the hens have free run of all your garden which some people do.

It may look lovely, but I don’t like this as:

 

  1. - It means you have no fresh ground for them, which is important if you have any disease problems introduced by wild birds.
  2. - They will destroy your garden, eat your vegetables if there are any, and they are far more vulnerable to predators like foxes and mink.
  3. Hens being hens – they much prefer to find hidey holes under bushes to lay their eggs, as they naturally would do in the jungle where they originally came from - rather than lay them in nest boxes for you to conveniently collect! Doing this can attract vermin like magpies which love to eat eggs, and also rats.

 

Perches – Hens and chickens like to roost at night off the ground on a perch. In the wild they would naturally do this in trees. The perch needs to be a minimum of 45cm/18ins off the ground and long enough for each hen to have a bout 30cm/1ft of space. 

 

Nest boxes - Whatever type of housing you decide on – or if you make you own – you will need at least one nest box to every 3 hens. When I’m shopping, I always look for wooden orange boxes which are a real rarity now, as everything tends to come in cardboard. Wooden orange boxes make brilliant nest boxes with one of the sides lowered for easy access. If they have a lid you can leave it on as hens like to lay in a dark place.  If not you can put a board across the top, which also prevents hens roosting on the and dirtying the nest. I always use hay to line them, as I can’t get organic straw, and it’s softer anyway. I make a cosy nest shape in the soft hay for them, and when they’re young pullets I also put a golf ball into each nest so that they get the general idea! I fondly remember the beautifully realistic china eggs my father used when I was growing up, and so wish I had one of them purely for sentimental reasons. The funny thing about hens is that when one decides to lay, usually in the morning – then they all get the urge to lay – often in the same nest. So, if you don’t have enough nest space you may well get smashed eggs! Purpose made hen houses obviously have their own, usually accessed from the outside of the house or coop.

 

If you’re handy at carpentry you could make your own hen house from recycled pallets or other materials, which I have done in the past. Ventilation without draughts, insulation against heat or cold, easy access for cleaning out, and being raised off the ground to prevent vermin must be considered when building it. Or you could buy a small wooden garden shed and re-purpose it as I did as I describe below.

 

My girls have a delightful re-purposed Wendy house which I bought cheaply in a DIY store sale. It has a smart front door and an opening window. The front door allows easy access for cleaning them out once a week. It came in a flat pack, which my son put together, lining the inside with small-mesh chicken wire to keep out predators. He made a pop-hole in one side, which has a sliding door leading out into their roomy scratching pen. I just love it! 

On the floor I have heavy-duty, recycled polythene damp-proof membrane, which is available cheaply from DIY stores and prevents the floor from rotting. This is then covered deeply with wood shavings which are topped up with a few handfuls more daily to keep the air sweet. This is all cleaned out weekly and goes onto the compost heap. 

Hen house with scratching pen attached accessed by the pop hole. Sliding side panels allow access to runs on either side.

Hen house with scratching pen attached accessed by the pop hole. Sliding side panels allow access to runs on either side.

The scratching pen is covered on the top and both long sides with corrugated plastic sheeting a bit like a conservatory, with windbreak material on the far end to allow for good air circulation. The floor of the pen is covered with a mixture of dry soil, bark chips and wood shavings, with a small amount of wood ash from our woodburning stove mixed in. This all gets topped up once a week with fresh shavings to keep it sweet, and it’s cleaned out completely every 6 weeks. It’s warm and dry in all weathers and great for dustbathing - which hens like to do daily to keep their feathers in good condition, and to get rid of any possible mites. The hens can shelter in there when it is raining or very windy - weather which they hate. They love it in there, and in sunny weather relish sunbathing in it – always trying to bag the best spots in the sun! 

The roomy scratching pen is especially important to have for biosecurity reasons, if there is any risk of wild birds bringing in bird flu – which can happen occasionally in winter when birds are migrating from Eastern Europe. Being covered means that it completely prevents any wild bird faeces from infecting the area in which the hens are being kept. It is vitally important to have a big enough covered area for the hens to exercise in the fresh air and to be quite happy for a few weeks if required to keep them shut up by the Department of Agriculture – as happened last year, when there were bird flu cases in the UK and in County Wexford here in Ireland. As the hens are quite used to being in the scratching pen a lot, it just means I feed their green food in there instead of outside in the open run if necessary, and they don’t seem in the least bit bothered by being shut in there. It doesn’t affect their laying at all – which is always the first thing to be affected if hens are at all upset. Many commercial organic and free-range hens were not so lucky however, having to be shut up in their sheds due to the bird-flu outbreak upset them, reduced egg-laying, and upset the customers who were buying those eggs, as they felt they were no longer free-range! 

 

The scratching pen in turn leads to several runs radiating out from it like the spokes of a wheel.  The hens spend about 2 weeks in each run before I change their access to a fresh run, and the corrugated plastic sheeting either side can be slid back or forth, depending on which run I am giving them access to. This arrangement does take up a bit of space, which luckily we have here, and it works extremely well for me, now that I can no longer move a heavy movable hen house since I broke my shoulder badly 5 years ago, and our six hens produce roughly three dozen eggs a week in their first year – with perhaps one egg less a week per hen in their second year and so on. More than enough eggs for us and some lucky friends! 

 

Hens enjoying a fresh run. You can see 4 of their 7 runs radiating clockwise from here, the other 3 are to right of picture

Hens enjoying a fresh run. You can see 4 of their 7 runs radiating clockwise from here, the other 3 are to right of picture

The runs are mown regularly to keep the grass short and sweet and to encourage clover, both of which hens like to eat.  Mowing also prevents larger weeds like docks and thistles, which they don’t like to eat, from taking over. I also keep whichever run the hens are currently in covered with crop protection netting, to stop wild birds from getting in, stealing food which will cost you a fortune and also to prevent them from possibly introducing disease. It also stops the hens flying out if something frightens them - which they may often do when young. This means that I don’t need to clip their wings which I think is very cruel, and it allows them to do their pretend - ‘flapping prior to take off’ routine, which they really enjoy and get very excited about – but without actually getting up into the air too far. I rest the netting on bamboo canes with tennis balls spiked on top, to hold it up, and I secure it to the chicken wire at the sides of the runs with wooden clothes pegs, so that it is easily moved to the next run being used when necessary. Crop protection netting is again easy to obtain from farm supply shops – most of whom are happy to cut off just the amount you need from a huge roll of the stuff.  It is far better quality, more durable and is far cheaper than any you can buy in DIY or garden shops.

 

Overall then - the key thing is to give laying hens and other poultry enough space and fresh air to be happy and stress-free, while being secure from predators. They must have enough room in their house and run not to be overcrowded, as this can cause a lot of stress and aggravation, feather-pecking, fighting or even sickness. Stress also naturally causes the hens to produce more cortisol – which in chickens kept for meat production can affect the quality of the meat. But if you keep poultry happy by giving them everything they need and you feed them well – you’re most unlikely to encounter many problems. 

 FEEDING

Organic feed specifically manufactured to contain complete nutrition for laying hens is available in most agricultural suppliers now – or they can order it in for you. If your hens are only 10-18 weeks old, they will need what is known as “lay chick grower pellets” these are specifically for feeding to young, growing layer replacements. I wouldn’t feed anything but organic - because all normal laying hen rations now contain conventional, chemically-grown wheat, genetically-modified maize and also GMO soy as part of the protein element of the food. These are high in residues of glyphosate, which can damage the hen’s gut health, making them more vulnerable to disease. It’s worth feeding your hens the very best, most naturally healthy food possible, not only to give them the balanced nutrition they need to lay the most eggs – but it’s is also scientifically proven to produce the best eggs from a nutritional point of view. I prefer to feed the hens inside their house, where I keep their feeder topped up all the time, as they will only eat as much as they need and don’t waste food if it’s in a proper feed hopper. They wander in and out of the house as they like whenever they feel like a snack. 

Organic poultry feed is more expensive I grant you - but it’s worth every cent because put quite simply - you get what you pay for! I worked out several years ago that if you have six hens and you sell just a dozen eggs a week at the current organic price - then the rest of the eggs you will get in that week from those hens are free. One or two-year old hens will lay almost every day for most of the year, just slowing up a bit in the winter and for a couple of weeks in June or July when they naturally ‘moult’ or grow new feathers. Good nutrition is extra-important at ‘moulting’ time, when they need plenty of protein to produce their new feathers. 

It’s simple! Put the best food in – and you get the best eggs out! Poor nutrition produces poor eggs, and poor hen health. I don’t feed grain, as grain alone is not a complete feed for laying hens.  They need more protein as well as other nutrients, which they would normally find from insects and grubs if they were on extensive free-range. The other aspect to this is that insects and their grubs are all now becoming far more scarce than they were years ago – something which has recently been very much highlighted in the news. So I prefer to feed the correct poultry ration, and not to affect what remains of the wild food chain - leaving any insects to reproduce in order to feed wild birds and other biodiversity. 

 

Another important reason to use organic feed is that last autumn, it was revealed that for the last 4 years, most non-organic animal rations in the EU contained a contaminated feed supplement - vitamin B2 or riboflavin – produced in China by fermentation using a bacteria which had antibiotic-resistance. There is meant to be no viable trace of the bacteria remaining after processing – but it was found in this case that not only were there live, viable bacteria remaining in the feed supplement, but that these were capable of conferring, or spreading, microbial resistance to antibiotics which are vitally important to human health. More on that here:

https://www.gmwatch.org/en/news/latest-news/18629-gm-bacteria-in-animal-feed-products-are-spreading-resistance-to-antibiotics

Luckily, this feed supplement was not used by any organic feed manufacturers, as they need to be much more careful than conventional feed manufacturers about where they source the required feed additives – even if that source is more expensive. I don’t mind paying a little more for my hen food if it means I can be sure that everything it contains is safe to eat. Frankly - antibiotic-resistant bacteria is the last thing I want to be feeding to my animals – or to potentially be eating in their eggs! 

Hens love the green food they get every day, but I’m careful not to give it to mine until midday or later – in order to make sure they’ve eaten enough layers pellets first. If I didn’t do that, they love green food so much that they would greedily fill up on them and then not eat the correct amount of pellets they should. Feeding greens is something I’ve always done. The more green food hens eat – the deeper the orange colour the yolks will be – indicating a higher vitamin A/beta-carotene content. One not such good thing I discovered though, over 30 years ago, when I fed some leftover red Brussels Sprouts to my flock, was that if I fed them very high sulphur-containing vegetables to them – the eggs developed a strong, unpleasant sulphur smell and taste. As a result many of my customers complained and asked if I was feeding them chemicals! Feeding the rest of the green cabbage family is fine and doesn’t affect the taste of the eggs at all, but too many cucumbers or courgettes seem to make the eggshells thinner, so I’m careful about giving them those, although the hens really love them – especially the yellow ones. 

 

The difference feeding daily green food makes. Compare one of our eggs on the left, with a shop-bought organic egg on right

The difference feeding daily green food makes. Compare one of our eggs on the left, with a shop-bought organic egg on right

Lastly – hens are not an excuse to get rid of all your kitchen rubbish – the worm bin is for that stuff – or pigs if you keep them! Some foods like the nightshade family are toxic to hens when raw, and avocados are also toxic, apparently – although they don’t get wasted here as they’re so expensive to buy! Mouldy food can also cause illness which may be fatal.  It’s much safer to stick to feeding them their organic layers pellets, and those green foods which you know are quite safe for them to eat and which will help them to produce nutritious eggs. Feeding anything else may affect egg production and may possibly even stop them laying. 

 

What breed of hen is best?

If you want to produce as many eggs as possible all year round – then there is no question that the modern high-laying hybrids are the best option, as they will produce the most eggs – usually well over 300 per year per hen for the first couple of years. If fed well and kept healthy, hens will still go on producing enough eggs to pay for the cost of their food and keep until they are 3-4 years old in my experience. Pure breeds look very beautiful and will produce some wonderful eggs – but very often pure breeds will only lay for a couple of months and then go broody – becoming moody and wanting to ‘sit’ on eggs in order to hatch them, even if you don’t keep a cockerel with them! Not what you want unless you have a cockerel and intend to breed more hens! There are several options for attractively-coloured hybrids – you don’t have to get all the same type. Now I only have a few hens – I like to mix 3 or 4 different high egg-laying hybrids, some are grey/blue, some are barred black and white and some are black with a few brown feathers. This gives a very attractively-marked flock which are both interesting and beautiful to look at, as you can see from the picture of some of my small flock at the beginning. There are also all brown, or all white options. Most good poultry suppliers will have websites with pictures you can choose from.

Hatcheries selling day-old chicks usually advertise in farming publications such as The Farmer’s Journal in Ireland, and many will also sell young pullets from 8-10 weeks onwards – when they are well-feathered enough to be outside in good, dry weather. This is the best time to get them if you want the best hens, but don’t want to raise them from day-old chicks as I do, which does need some experience or it can be a disaster. Some hatcheries and producers also sell what are known as ‘point of lay pullets’ – these are normally around 20 weeks of age – but from experience the quality of them can vary a great deal, they will almost certainly not have been fed organic food, they will generally be of poorer quality and may also be a mix of differing ages, raised in different flocks unless they are all the same hybrid type, which can cause quarrelling at first and other problems. Another reason I prefer to get pullets as young as possible is that they will have eaten less of the conventional poultry ration – so they will have less damage to their gut, and as a result to their health, from any pesticide residues which may have been in the feed they were reared on. This also means that the eggs they eventually produce will also contain fewer residues of any feed they have so far eaten, as all the eggs that they will eventually produce will have already developed while growing.

 

If you’re new to keeping hens, then 10 weeks old is probably best in my opinion – then they are old enough to be outside and not to be too delicate, but still young enough to get the benefit of eating organic feed while they are still growing and developing their immunity – which will make them far stronger and healthier hens in the long run. While you may have to wait a bit longer to get your very first eggs – your patience will really pay off, in much healthier hens that will produce eggs for years longer. Another reason for getting hens younger is that the younger and more curious they are – the easier it is to get them to eat green food. Most ‘point of lay pullets’ will have been raised in vast sheds where they have never even seen the outside world – let alone any green food – and they can be very wary of it at first!  Good ‘point of lay pullets’ from a genuine and reliable producer are a possibility if you can find them – but these can be very hard to find and will probably not have been raised on organic feed. For this reason, I would never buy pullets from poultry auctions or from free ad-sites like ‘Done Deal’. If I’m buying older poultry I like to see where and in what conditions they were raised, to ensure that they are perfectly healthy. Some poultry dealers can be a bit like horse dealers and can be a bit cute at times – especially if they’re aware that customers don’t have much experience of keeping hens and may not recognise any dodgy symptoms of illness! 

Ex-battery hens are an option if you really feel that you would like to rescue some – but I see some really miserable sights on social media occasionally – with people who think that they’ve been kind ‘rescuing’ battery hens, only to then ignorantly keep them in filthy, muddy and wet conditions, in cold, concrete back yards or bare sheds with no bedding, no fresh grass or trees, and where they can’t be comfortable or display any of their natural behaviours. The only difference between that and being caged hens is that they’re slightly more free – but keeping them like that is still a miserable prison with no hope of escape! Frankly if I was a hen – I think I’d sooner be dead than live like that – people really should inform themselves better! Unless you are prepared to give them the very best conditions possible – then it would be much kinder not to ‘rescue’ them. 

The other thing to consider about ex-battery hens, is that up to the point when you get them – they will have been fed on conventional, chemically-produced rations, containing GMO soy and maize. This means that the all the immature eggs which they have developed while growing, in other words all of the eggs they will ever produce in their life, may contain GMO proteins originally introduced into those crops to destroy the gut of, and to kill any insects trying to eat them. Some may dispute this I have no doubt - but there is some evidence that GMOs, and the glyphosate used in growing them, can damage the poultry gut and I’ve this is something I’ve discussed at length with my zoologist son. While there is little scientific evidence yet to prove my theory, since no one involved in commercial poultry production is actually looking for it - it is surely only common sense to ‘join up the dots’ and to suppose that anything you feed the hens will go into their eggs – and my theory, on green food at least, has so far already proved to be correct.  

Whatever hens you eventually decide on buying – it’s important to transport them home in as quiet and as stress-free a way as possible. It’s also important that their house is large enough for you to keep them shut in for the first day or so, so that they get the idea that this is home – their safe place where they are happy, warm and comfortable, well-fed and watered. Then when you let them out for the first time, make sure that they can easily find their way back in again, by not letting them roam too far away from the house for the first couple of days. This is another benefit of having an attached scratching pen.

 

What equipment will you need apart from housing?

 

All of these items can be bought from a farm supply shop – which will in most cases be far cheaper than any DIY or pet store.

  1. A feeder – usually plastic (isn’t everything now?) - which you can either put on a raised plinth like a couple of bricks or hang from the hen house roof if you have a suitable fixing point which is strong enough. Normally these feed hoppers have holes to let food out, but a grille-type arrangement which stops the hens from scratching food out, wasting it and attracting vermin.
  2. A purpose-made plastic drinker which prevents flooding, stops bedding getting wet and most importantly – provides a constant supply of clean water, which is vital to both hen and egg health. Plastic drinkers are easier to clean and better than metal ones for medicating the hens with organic cider vinegar or garlic which I do on a regular basis, as it keeps their gut healthy. I keep a stainless-steel herbal tea strainer, containing a couple of partially crushed garlic cloves, in their drinker up until the time when they are laying, after that I use cider vinegar, as the garlic can affect the taste of the eggs. If you’re keeping chickens for meat production though – it very disappointingly doesn’t flavour the meat!

Plastic feed hoppers and drinkers are usually around €10 or less – not too expensive.

You will also need a bin of some type to store your bags of hen food. A dustbin is ideal for this, and again will keep out any vermin which may be around.

You will need a small shovel, a stiff brush and a large tub for cleaning out the hen’s bedding.

It helps if perches are removable for scrubbing occasionally and for scalding with boiling water to remove red mite, which is a very common parasite – but you are less likely to bring that in with your hens if you are buying from a reputable supplier.

You will need to provide a dust bath as described in the section on housing, if you don’t have a covered scratching pen as I do. It needs to be somewhere which is covered so that it is always dry – or it will be mud!

I hope I’ve covered any questions you may have. Good luck - I know that you will enjoy your delightful companions and also those first precious eggs they produce so much!

Freshly-laid organic eggs in one of the snug, recycled orange-box nest boxes. What a treat to look forward to!
Freshly-laid organic eggs in one of the snug, recycled orange-box nest boxes.

Tomato Report 2017

A selection of the 47 fantastically diverse varieties of tomatoes  I grew for the first 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' in 2012 - a feast for the eyes.
 A selection of some the 47 amazingly diverse varieties of tomatoes I grew for Ireland's first 
ever 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' in 2012. A real feast for the eyes - and the taste buds!
 
 
This is my personal take on the best of some of the 100's of varieties I've grown over 42 years of tomato growing!
 
 
I'm adding a couple more tasty varieties to my list this year, after trying a few new varieties for this year's Tomato Festival. That was such a great excuse for a tomatoholic like me!  Every year I try one or two new varieties which sound promising - comparing them to my tried and trusted ones which I've grown for many years. Sometimes I'm delighted to discover a new gem to add to my list - but often I'm disappointed. They have to be easy to grow, disease-resistant, productive and most of all have really great taste, in order to be a good variety in my eyes!  I would never grow those ghastly 'Moneymaker' types which have virtually no taste but produce tons of tomatoes - whatever is the point of putting energy into those when there's so many other great tasting ones out there? Many of the newer F1 varieties are promoted by seed companies who own the plant-breeder's patents and despite the always glowing catalogue descriptions - I've found most of them disappointing. They often have very little taste or anything else to recommend them! Many are bred for a totally different climate - something people often don't factor in when choosing varieties. Rosada was the brilliant exception to that - but sadly it has now been dropped by all the major seed companies in favour of those bred by themselves, as they didn't own the patent! I have enough seed for the next couple of years or so after buying some extra last year - but after that there will be no more here - and I honestly don't know how I will manage without it!.
 
 
Many of the open-pollinated Heritage varieties have a lot more flavour - but not all. That often depends on where they're grown too. Some are very fussy and are far more suited to continental climates like eastern Europe or the USA, where they enjoy much hotter, drier summers and far higher light levels than we do here in Ireland! Many of those 'continental' varieties that I've tried stretch towards the light as if absolutely desperate for it - poor things! Even their shape can be a problem too. Varieties such as Costuloto Fiorentino and Costuloto Genovese admittedly do have a great flavour - but their fascinatingly ribbed and pleated shapes unfortunately attract and hold on to any moisture in the air, which in the humidity of an Irish polytunnel in our average often damp summer automatically results in disease!
 
 
Climate can affect every aspect of tomatoes. Growing conditions here in Ireland are totally different to the much drier and warmer south or east of the UK - where light levels are also generally better and where many seed companies trial grounds are based. Our summer temperatures are always an average of 10 degrees centigrade lower all summer long and we also get a lot more rain - resulting in the kind of high humidity which cucumbers love - but tomatoes really hate!!  Lower levels of light can affect tomatoes more than many other crops too. Although we're quite close to the east coast here - only about 5 miles as the crow flies - we don't get the benefit of the brighter 'reflected light' that many living closer to the sea do. This is because we're also over 400 feet above sea level and even in summer we often get gloomy low cloud and sea mist hanging around for much of the day, which may only clear for 3 or 4 hours around midday, then descends again about 3pm! As a result - tomato growing conditions here can be pretty challenging to say the least!  I believe that any tomato which grows well and and tastes great here will deserve a space in anyone's greenhouse or polytunnel - wherever they may live! 
 
 
Tomatoes are a vitally important crop globally.  For me it would be absolutely impossible to imagine life without them - whether it's just in your humble lunchtime BLT sandwich or salad, on your pizza for supper - or whether you're a Michelin starred chef!  During his highly entertaining talk at the 2016 Totally Terrific Tomato Festival, Dr. Mathew Jebb, Director of our National Botanic Gardens imparted a mind-boggling piece of information - which was that each year the entire human race eats half of it's own weight in tomatoes! That perfectly illustrates just how important tomatoes are in our diet worldwide! I've always loved them - having grown up eating the wonderful sun-warmed produce from my parents greenhouse. That first unmistakable scent of tomato foliage in spring always brings those memories back to me instantly. As a member of the HDRA - (now Garden Organic UK) Heritage Seed Library for many years, I held a tomato day in the National Botanic Gardens here back in the late 1980s, using varieties many which were kindly provided by the HSL.  In early 2012 - seeing the stunningly beautiful new black tomato Indigo Rose sparked ideas again and seeing it's beauty galvanised me into action once more!  This resulted in my idea of a 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' in the hope that it would raise public awareness of the ever-increasing importance of preserving genetic diversity. Indigo Rose was the first ever naturally-bred, high-anthocyanin tomato and it's seed only became available for the first time commercially in early 2012.  It's stunning colour is so breathtakingly beautiful and unusual that I knew it wouldn't fail to catch people's attention. It certainly did that - and two very successful, fun festivals have happened since. 
 
 
After the first two - there was a hiatus for a couple of years as unfortunately I had an accident just after the second Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2013, breaking my right shoulder into several pieces. Having been left with only a half-working arm, I knew that sadly I wasn't going to be able to do that huge amount of organisation and work single-handedly ever again, in addition to still trying to grow our own food here!  I hoped that some other 'tomatophile' would eventually pick up the baton and carry it on. So you can imagine my delight when Jane Powers, the wonderful garden writer and gardening correspondent of The Irish Sunday Times, called me in late 2015 to say that she thought it would be such a pity if we lost it altogether and to ask me if I would mind if she put my idea to Lord and Lady Ardee of the beautiful Killruddery Estate, in County Wicklow. She felt that with their expertise in organising event, their beautiful surroundings and a perfect location easily accessible from everywhere, it could potentially be the perfect place to hold it. The rest, as they say, is history - and due to a lot of hard work, mostly on Jane's part and also by everyone at Killruddery - another highly successful Totally Terrific Tomato Festival was held once again last September. My 'baby' had found a wonderful new home! Many enthusiastic tomato growers from every corner of Ireland generously brought along their special treasures to share with us. There were competitions, talks, stalls selling all sorts of tomato-related products and general convivial 'tomatoness'! It was such a joy to see the 138 varieties of tomatoes in all their incredibly varied, eye-popping diversity, displayed and shown to perfection in the beautiful light surroundings of the Orangery at Killruddery. Seeing the wonder on the visitor's faces - especially the children's was such a joy. And I got to do the bit I love best - talking about tomatoes! 
 
 
People gazing in wonder at an amazing kaleidoscope of tomatoes on one of the tables at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2016
People gazing in wonder at an amazing kaleidoscope of tomatoes on one of the tables at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2016
 
It is vitally important that we preserve our heritage seed varieties - just as so many other tomato lovers before us did, over many centuries. bequeathing them in turn to us. We are the lucky recipients of an irreplaceable and priceless inheritance from those gardeners and food growers of the past and owe owe them a huge debt of gratitude. We are the current custodians of that genetic diversity. It is vital that we care for it and preserve it for the sake of future generations. So much precious genetic diversity in all food crops has already been lost. For me a life without tomatoes would be unthinkable - I don't know about you? 
 
 
Taste is a very subjective thing -  it often depends what sort of diet you have or whether you smoke or drink - which can dull the taste buds.  I reckon our taste buds are pretty unspoiled here having eaten mostly nothing but organic food for over 40 years and very little sugar!  The tomato varieties listed here are mostly on my list because they have fantastic flavour. Some only develop their best flavour when cooked - others are better eaten raw.  Also to be honest - one or two are on the list purely because they look stunning and the artist in me just can't resist them!  How food looks is also important to me. We eat with our eyes - and I always like my food to look as beautiful as possible!  All of them are worth preserving though - because at some time in the future, some desirable aspect of their genes, such as disease or pest-resistance, may possibly be needed in new, natural breeding programmes. We have no idea what as yet unknown challenge may arise with increasing climate change. This year was a really bad one here for tomato growing!  All the information here is reviewed and updated each year. 
 
 
I've been asked so many times over the years which is my all time favourite variety. It's an impossible question for me, trying to narrow it down to just one - they all have their different uses. That's like asking me which is my favourite child!.... I suppose if I were to be allowed one of each type - then it would be a little less difficult - but not much! If I could have only one of each type - then it would have to be Maskotka - bush, Rosada - cherry plum, John Baer - classic medium, Amish paste - cooking plum, and Pantano Romanesco (beefsteak). There - I don't think I can narrow it down any more than that.  But then again - perhaps if I was really put to the sword and told that all others would be lost and what would I save - it would have to be the incredibly versatile and good-natured Rosada!
 
 

Bush varieties

 
I think all bush varieties are much better grown in large containers raised up off the ground, as they tend to sprawl a little and can rot on the ground or get eaten by slugs if grown in greenhouse soil beds. A 10 litre container is fine size-wise. I use recycled coleslaw/mayo buckets from local supermarket deli (they just chuck them out for recycling and I sit those on grow bag trays as these retain any water or feed that drains through). Growing as a bush is actually the natural habit of tomatoes - we've just selected the varieties which are more amenable to growing as a cordon/upright fashion, purely for our convenience. Some refused to be trained however - and I rather admire them for that!  Many are often the better flavoured ones too. Containers also restrict them a bit if they are a bit over-enthusiastic, thereby encouraging slightly earlier fruiting! I put the containers on the grow bag trays on upturned plant crates, barrels, benches, or something similar - where they can drape down decoratively and are much easier to pick without too much bending!
 

Tomato 'Maskotka'

Tomato 'Maskotka'

Maskotka  - My no.1 bush! (This little treasure is available from many companies now) Medium to large cherry sized fruit. Everyone loves the 'more-ish' almost 'tomato sauce' flavour of this one without fail - It's one of the varieties that my 'From Tunnel to Table' co-presenter Gerry Kelly was 'swooning about' (to quote one listener) when we had our chat on LMFM radio the week before the 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' in 2012. I've grown this variety for many years now and I absolutely adore it! A middle-sized, incredibly productive, disease resistant bush - it's always without fail my very earliest variety - and also the last. Always ripe the first week of June from a late Feb/early March sowing - and I've often picked the last few in early December! It just doesn't know when to stop - if you keep picking and feeding it occasionally, it just keeps on flowering and setting fruit!  It's only very slight fault is that if you let it get too over ripe, or water just a bit too much when the skins have 'set' and are ripening fast, it may split. I take that as a fault of the grower though - not the tomato!  I'd forgive it anything!  If it does split - just throw those straight into the freezer without delay - as it tastes even better when cooked - brilliant in a roast ratatouille or a tomato sauce - although it bursts and doesn't hold together like Chiquito! It's the easiest tomato of all to grow - no need to remove side shoots as it's a bush. You could even grow this one in a window box, or under a large cold frame if you haven't got a greenhouse - as it's quite low and spreading rather than tall, or even in a large hanging basket. It's far better than any of the usual varieties recommended for doing that (most of which are pretty tasteless and have very tough skins). 2 years ago I also grew one in a recycled plastic mushroom box on the top tread of my LMFM/Late Lunch Show/'Tips from the Tunnel' stepladder garden, where it fruited all summer long. I promise you - anyone can grow it. I wouldn't be without it!!
 
 
Chiquito
Chiquito

Chiquito F1 - (Simpsons seeds) A smallish, plum shaped cherry type, meaty/firm fleshed, dusky/pinky red. I first grew this one 10 years ago as it was described as having a very good flavour. I quite liked it - it was sweet with quite a good flavour though not that brilliant compared to Rosada which is always my taste yardstick now. Somehow it didn't really have that 'certain something' for me! It also made a very vigorous sprawling bush - not ideal in a greenhouse or tunnel border. Two years ago, however, I decided to give it another chance and try it in containers instead. Boy- am I glad I did! I grew it in my 10 litre containers on grow bag trays again this year, and I can definitely say I've now discovered another gem - not for eating fresh - but actually for cooking! Looking around one day for something to throw in a roast ratatouille - I grabbed a few handfuls of this one, and chucked them in whole half-way through. Cooking utterly transforms them! They stay whole without collapsing - and biting into them is like bursting an incredible flavour bomb! Amazing! I shall be growing more plants next year specifically for cooking - and freezing too, as in my experience those meaty, dense-fleshed small tomatoes freeze very well and are very useful in the winter for stuffing peppers etc. I think it could be good dehydrated too - as that concentrates the sugars in tomatoes and enhances the flavour, as long as they aren't too acid (don't do that with Sungold - it's horrible!). I cook them from frozen, just throwing them into a roast ratatouille half-way through cooking or into a pan of olive oil to use as a side veg.

 
 
Latah
Latah
Latah - (Real Seeds) Again very early, fabulous flavour (see Jane Powers article re 2013 TomFest) - but doesn't go on producing quite as long as Maskotka. It makes a larger, more spreading bush and produces a very large crop of all sizes and shapes - and some would definitely win weirdest shaped tomato! Some with a meaty centre like a mini beefsteak - others more like cherries. Disease resistant middle-sized bush - quite 'twiggy' rather than very leafy. The very first time I grew it, it was so almost 'leafless' that I thought at first it must have something wrong with it! Good air circulation as a result though. Doesn't have as long a season as Maskotka, but you could do two sowings - one early & one later on. One thing though is that the odd shaped fruits with lots of crevices can cling on to moisture a bit which can sometimes set up disease in damp years.
 
 
Incas
Incas
Incas F1 (Organic Gardening Catalogue & other companies) A very productive, great flavoured Italian plum type. Although it's a bush it's disease resistant despite being very vigorous. Two years ago I tried it in containers and it was terrific. Easy, good-natured and incredibly productive. Despite being a 'cooking' type also has quite a good flavour raw. This was the other one I found dehydrated brilliantly and the flavour deepened considerably - almost as good as Rosada for doing this.
 
  
'Greensleeves'
'Greensleeves'



Greensleeves (Plants of Distinction)  Quite a fruity flavour. Tastes better with some salt or basil oil. Cooks well - makes an unusual 'Tarte Tatin'! Hugely productive, impressive looking, very attractive green/yellow striped, sausage-shaped  fruit on vigorous, disease-resistant, middle-sized bush. Crops for a long time. Something for a rather different salad perhaps - possibly worth growing for that alone. Not bad dehydrated. One of the ones I grow from time to time for looks alone - especially if there's a Tomato Festival happening!! Very attractive and unusual.
 
Purple Ukraine & Banana Cream
Purple Ukraine & Banana Cream
Banana Cream (tradewindsfruitstore) Great shape and instantly attractive though not the best flavour! A bit disease prone here too. Grew it 30 years ago from HDRA Heritage Seed Library seed. My opinions haven't changed - a cream coloured, banana shaped, curiosity for exhibition or to wow your pals - that's all! (Pictured here with Purple Ukraine which I wouldn't bother to grow again- very spindly, obviously needing better light!)
 
 

Two unusual bush varieties that may be worth trying if you live somewhere less humid than me! They both have great flavour.

 

Green Grape (tradeswindsfruitstore.com and Simpson's) very sweet small cherry, unusual and pretty olive greeny/yellow colour. Tasty. Very vigorous bush that can be disease prone if you don't limit the foliage a bit. Very productive otherwise but a bit of a pain as it drops it's fruit very easily once just ripe and the minute you touch the bush they drop off - then you have to search underneath the copious foiage! At least you know that they're ripe then - as that's difficult being green! Better in a bucket - I grew it in the ground 30 years ago from HDRA/Heritage Seed Library seed and it took over half of the tunnel!
 
 
Black Sea Man (Plants of Distinction) Beefsteak/bushI won't be growing this one again - it's far too temperamental in our climate! It does have a fabulously distinctive smoky rich flavour to be fair - but to grow it well you probably need to live in the warmer south-east of the UK - not in our cooler, more humid climate - even in a polytunnel!  It's such a prima donna that I won't waste space on it again! (I've found one now that tastes pretty much the same but is far easier - Nyagous below) BSM is a bit like 'Black Krim' but sweeter. Extremely vigorous potato leaved very crowded bush, so air circulation can be a big problem. Gorgeous medium to huge beefsteak fruits that are a reddy/pinky/purpley sort of 'bruise' colour (or as one vegan friend I gave it to complained - it looks just like raw meat!!) so sweet you could almost eat it with sugar and cream, which I don't fancy trying - though oddly there are many sweet Shaker pudding recipes for tomatoes! It's problem is that it gets disease every year even in good weather - just when the first fruits are ripening and it's carrying a hugely promising crop. Not really worth the space or the work in my opinion - so be warned if you're thinking of growing it. This tomato is only worth growing in our climate here in Ireland if you don't mind just having great flavoured tomatoes for just one month at the most - instead of 6!! (I'm greedy!)  And also be warned that rather than speaking from their own experience of actually growing it - I have seen some websites selling this tomato are 'borrowing' their descriptions directly from the catalogues of seed companies who may be in the south east of the UK - where the temperature is always about 10 deg C warmer all summer and a lot sunnier and drier than here. Tomatoes vary hugely in their innate disease resistance and cropping - and you need varieties that are tried and tested to be reliable over several years in our damp climate. I usually try varieties for 3 years before discarding - if they have a good enough flavour. They're dumped after the first year if they don't taste good

 

Cordon (upright) varieties - only bothering to review the very tastiest ones here or I would still be here next Christmas!

 

Cherry and cherry plum varieties

 
 
 
Rosada
Rosada
Rosada F1 - 5 star flavour! AN ABSOLUTE PARAGON OF A TOMATO, NUMBER ONE WITHOUT QUESTION AND THE VERY BEST CHERRY/PLUM! (I got mine in the past from Simpsons - I'm still including it even though I can no longer find it as I'm hoping that public pressure will bring it back! Please ask seed companies for it then they may decide to stock it again.) 
 
As I've just said - if I only grew one tomato it would have to be this! Ab. Fab. flavour - and top of everyone's list who knows it or has tasted it here - the very best flavoured. Came top of the 'Which' taste trials some years ago - but no longer sold by the major seed companies for the reasons stated above. Great balance of sweetness and acidity. Very easy to grow and disease-free as it has well spaced, airy foliage, held well out from the stem. This is the one I ALWAYS recommend even for beginners. Very long trusses often almost 1m long - (I've had over 70 fruits on a single '3 branched' truss of one growing in a 10 litre container!) firm, meaty, small plum-shaped fruits that will last for absolutely ages on the plant so you can really ripen them to maximum sweetness. They may split eventually but only after about 3 weeks of absolute total ripeness and if your watering regime is irregular! (Sungold will split after only 3 days of being ripe!) They also keep for ages once picked, they freeze well and cook beautifully. Cut in half and dipped in hummus they are heavenly - or in fact anyway you like! Slow oven dried and stored in olive oil they are fabulous. 3 years ago I bought a dehydrator mainly for them and they are fantastic semi-dried, frozen and then re-hydrated in basil oil - yummy in festive salads, or 'delish' thrown straight into a roast ratatouille or stuffed sweet peppers! Such a good natured tomato - just as happy growing in buckets or the ground and always eager to please!! Has a tendency to keep on producing side shoots constantly from everywhere - but this is a plus as they easily root in a jar of water and you can pot some up for a later crop - thereby saving money on sowing more seed later. You can then bring potted ones into the house in late autumn to ripen their late fruits. What more can I say? If you only grow one - make sure it's this one if you can find it! You won't be disappointed. Please put pressure on seed companies to stock this variety again - it must not be lost!!
 
 
 
 
Sungold
Sungold - a favourite with children
Sungold F1 - (available everywhere)  Ubiquitous and delicious! Everyone knows it now - wonderful flavour, slightly more acid than Rosada so sadly doesn't dehydrate well as this accentuates their acidity. Best eaten straight off the plant or straight away when you get it to the kitchen. Doesn't keep on or off the plant very long and splits easily at the first opportunity. I also find it runs out of steam generally at about 6 trusses - long before Rosada, which reliably sets 8+, and needs far more feeding to keep it going. One of my customers of over 30 years got her grandchildren to eat tomatoes with this one and Rosada - now they're always asking her for the 'tomato sweeties'!
 
 
Tomato 'Apero' with yacon in foreground.
Tomato 'Apero' with yacon in foreground.
Apero F1 - (Dobies and Simpsons)  A baby cherry plum that has exceptional flavour, although not quite as good as Rosada as not quite enough acidity.  It's sweeter than Rosada but without that slight tartness it needs to balance it for supreme flavour. It's not nearly as productive or disease-resistant as Rosada because it has a slightly more compact, less airy habit. It has quite a tough skin and a really dense meaty texture though and this is the only tomato I know which you can freeze, then defrost, and it can still be sliced in half afterwards! Great for a tomato 'Tarte Tatin' in winter.
 
Blush - a new favourite
Blush - a new favourite
Blush -  I discovered this little beauty for the first time this year - and it will be a permanent fixture from now on!  A very beautiful teardrop-shaped, cherry plum striped in glorious sunset colours - it has the most stunning flavour! A wonderful balance of sweet/tart - the moment you bite into it your mouth instantly water.! My Tunnel to Table co-presenter Gerry Kelly was in raptures about it - and he's a Rosada fan too! 
 
 
Green Envy cherry plum tomato
Green Envy cherry plum tomato
Green Envy - another new one this year. An unusual olive green, pear shaped, cherry-plum variety. At first hard to tell when it's ripe because of it's green colour - but when ripe it takes on a slightly yellowish hue and is just slightly softer with a bit of 'give' when very gently squeezed. Sweet and juicy - now a favourite. Sets skin early, so careful watering needed after that or fruit may split.
 
Classic Medium (Moneymaker size) type
 
 
Tomato 'John Baer' - very early, productive & best flavoured medium classic type
Tomato 'John Baer' - very early, productive & best tasting medium classic type
John Baer - My absolute favourite in this category. non-hybrid (Plants of Distinction)  A brilliant discovery in 2011 which I will definitely never be without again! Variable medium to very large round classic type that's not quite decided if it wants to be a beefsteak or a medium classic-sized tomato! It produces both. Very early and cropping well on into the autumn, it is vigorous and disease-resistant both in the ground and in containers. Such a heavy crop in my recycled mayo buckets that I had a job to stop it falling over! (Set 8 trusses even in buckets when well fed with Osmo organic tomato food) seems totally reliable - outstanding performance and superb flavour in our climate! Solid firm middle with no cavity looking more like a beefsteak. Can split if left on the plant too long. Lovely for salads and great cooked as well. A real favourite now.
 
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
Indigo Rose -  Couldn't leave this one out as the inspiration for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival! (Got this from www.tradewindsfruitstore originally but last year Suttons Seeds had it) I couldn't leave this one out of course, as I was the first person to grow this in Ireland and poss. the British Isles 5 years ago when it was first introduced! The star of the 2012 & 2013 TomatoFests! Really stunning aubergine black - with rich ruby red flesh inside when ripe and the skin develops a 'slatey blue' sheen. Sadly looks aren't everything - even if it is absolutely a stunner! Very average supermarket-type flavour but with a very slight odd hint of liquorice - possibly from the anthocyanins.  Also a slightly odd 'rubbery' texture to the fruit. It was bred from the only wild tomato with high levels of cancer fighting anthocyanins in the fruit, so I.R. is higher in these than any other tomato ever bred. Amazingly - since it was bred in the USA - I've found it a very easy to grow, very healthy, vigorous, short-jointed plants that set fruit easily so very productive and it didn't seem at all bothered by the low light levels we experienced in 2012.  It was even better in 2013. Sets 8 trusses easily on plants only 2m high! Some of the Eastern European varieties I grew in 2012 only set 2 or 3 trusses very badly on 3m high plants!!  It looks absolutely stunning with beefsteak White Queen in a salad, so celeb chefs would love it. It also deepens the colour of a tomato sauce significantly. Don't skin it - that's where the goodies are! Just blitz in a blender before adding to tomato sauces. (I do this with all my tomatoes - life is far too short to skin tomatoes anyway and it's totally unnecessary! Doing so loses valuable nutrients.) It's flavour intensifies on dehydrating and definitely improves although it shrinks quite a lot. A definite candidate for tomato 'sweeties'! 
 
Dr Carolyn Pink - with a fascinating history
Dr Carolyn Pink - with a fascinating history
Dr Carolyn Pink - Lipstick pink, large fruited and with a fascinating history! This is said to be cherry type but generally more a medium/classic sized (another almost beefsteak looking one inside) Luscious, lovely flavour - Irish Times gardening correspondent Fionnuala Fallon said it tasted of summer! It's flavour reminds me very much of the furry skinned Red Peach (which is very rare and far more tricky to grow. I grew Red Peach for several years in the late 80's/90's from HDRA/HSL - and again this year)  Dr. Carolyn sets fruit far better and is far more disease-resistant. After some detective work - Fionnuala Fallon wrote about this tomato in her great article in the Irish Times magazine of 25th August 2012, which you can read here:  http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/2.770/reds-from-russia-with-love-1.543223
 
Nyagous
Nyagous
Nyagous - (Plants of Distinction) I grew this for the first time 4 years ago. Large, egg/baseball shaped blackish plum tomato, great flavour. Fairly disease resistant most years, and very productive even in containers. Definitely a good alternative to Black Sea Man. Another schizophrenic tomato that often produces beefsteak-sized fruits as well as medium sized!
Moonglow
Moonglow cut & uncut, Nyagous & John Baer
Moonglow - (Simpsons) Lovely fruity/sweet flavour - luscious almost apricotty texture. Bears large (beefsteak) to medium sized fruits on same plant. Stunning looking. Vigorous and disease-resistant old heritage variety. Incredibly productive - can tend to overcrop and become very heavy. A real favourite! Gorgeous sliced in a mixed variety Caprese salad. Well worth a place in any greenhouse!
 
 
Beefsteaks
 
 
Pantano Romanesco
Pantano Romanesco

Pantano Romanesco - (I save my own seed but it's available now from Klaus Laitenberger Green Veg. Seeds and T&M's) What more can I say about this wonderful tomato that I haven't already said?  It's the very best flavoured Italian beefsteak in my opinion (certainly for Irish conditions over the last 20 years) and I've grown most of them. Better flavour than any of the the Costulotos or Marmandes and much easier to keep healthy in our climate. Some of those others look very attractive with their convoluted, pleated odd shapes - but that shape attracts and traps damp which can cause disease. Pantano has a smoother skin and better flavour anyway. Michael Viney mentioned in his Irish Times column in August '11 that he had grown it on my recommendation and that it was every bit as good as I had said. He did also say though, that people ought to be warned early on about it's tendency to make side shoots with extreme enthusiasm - to put it mildly! It is very vigorous and can make extensive unnecessary leaf growth, particularly on the ends of flower trusses, so it needs looking at every couple of days and doesn't want too much rich feeding at first. It's one of the varieties I would never want to be without though. Quite possibly, when perfectly ripe, it might be the last tomato I would want to eat if I was about to leave this world! It's that good!  Rich tomato flavour - eat it with some chunks of torn, softly yeilding buffalo mozzarella, a drizzle of good EV olive oil, a fresh grind of black pepper, a scattering of shredded basil leaves and crusty ciabatta and you're instantly transported to the Med.! Or for the very best tomato sandwich ever - a guilty treat with rarely home-made white bread which doesn't mask the heavenly flavour - possibly slightly toasted until 'marshmallowy' and with a slick of home made mayo! (OMG I'm salivating at the thought!) An absolute must for beefsteak lovers! 

 

Ananas Noir - showing it's beautiful heart
Ananas Noir - showing it's beautiful heart
Ananas Noir - (Plants of Distinction) Really delicious, strong growing and generally healthy beefsteak type. Very large fruits - some really huge 350-500g +! Outside an unprepossessing olivey/greeny/yellow colour - the inside so utterly beautiful you almost want to frame it! It's like eating a rainbow or an impressionist painting - all the colours of a Monet or Turner sunset! It can split a bit around top of some fruits near calyx when fully ripe and then may begin to rot from there if not picked immediately, but many of the older heritage and best-tasting beefsteaks tend to do this. Just one of the little foibles that you don't mind in the least once you've tasted it! The biggest one I've ever grown of this variety reached a weight of 856g or 1lb 15oz - so one can be almost a whole delicious meal!
 
Neve's Azorean Red with Sungold to show scale!
Neve's Azorean Red topped with Sungold to show scale!
Neve's Azorean Red - (Plants of Distinction)  A symphony of exquisite 'lipstick' pinkness! Huge beefsteak type fruits some 500g plus. Can also tend to split around stem end when ripening and must be picked straightaway then or it will quickly rot - but soft, yielding and utterly delicious - particularly with basil and garlic oil in a tomato and mozzarella salad. Well worth the trouble.

 

Green Cherokee
Green Cherokee
Green Cherokee - (tradewindsfruitstore) Extremely rare derivative of Cherokee Purple which I've also grown and is almost as tasty (now available Simpsons). Deep emerald green colour inside/yellowy olive green outside. Great flavour. Huge beefsteak fruits 350g+ - very sweet and beautiful colour - makes a fabulous contrast in Caprese salads. (Is healthier and more vigorous than Tasty Evergreen - which I no longer grow as it isn't nearly as tasty despite the name!) 
 
Black from Tula
Black from Tula
Black from Tula. Grew this one for the first time this year. Not the most attractive colour! On the outside - a nondescript mahogany reddy-brown with greenish shoulders - it is a beautiful greeny-black inside. It has the same lovely sweet-smoky taste of Black Sea but is a cordon, so it's far easier to grow.  It's also far heavier cropping and much more disease-resistant. It cropped well this year in container so I shall grow it in the ground in 2017. The easiest and tastiest of any of the darker coloured beefsteaks and I tried several for the first time this year. We loved it!
 
Black beauty tomato - hides it's heart
Black beauty tomato - hides it's heart
Black Beauty. The blackest tomato of all so far! A very unusual and stunning beefsteak with a cherry red heart inside when really ripe, it has the best flavour so far of any of the high anthocyanin tomatoes which I've tried. Not the happiest in a container this year - I shall grow it in 2017 as I think it may be far happier in the ground and is definitely worth trying again.
 
White Queen
White Queen
White Queen - (Also pictured above with Indigo Rose) from Nicky's Nursery seeds. Pleasant, not hugely 'tomatoey' but fruitily sweet and juicy, cream-coloured beefsteak. Interesting and makes an unusual, stunningly beautiful contrast in a mixed tomato salad. Quite healthy and vigorous. RTE gardening expert Dermot O'Neill liked this one a few years ago when he visited my tunnels for RTE Radio's Mooney Show! I grew it first over 25 years ago from HDRA/Heritage Seed Library (now Garden Organic) seed when doing a similar, smaller tomato event I mentioned at the National Botanic Gardens.
 
Large plum/beefsteak type
 
Amish Paste - the best for tomato sauce
Amish Paste - the best for tomato sauce
Amish Paste - (Plants of Distinction) Large plum/beefsteak type. Not for eating fresh in my opinion! A fab cooking tomato - tastes of almost nothing when raw.  It has a strange 'pasty'/meaty texture that changes vastly in cooking and then has a great flavour.  It only tales a couple of fruits to utterly transform a huge vat of sauce made with any kind of tomatoes. Some sort of alchemy happens it's when cooked! Very productive. 

Just in case you're tempted by this one - Sweet Aperitif F1. - (I was given plants of this - so thought I'd just mention it. I tried it 3 years ago as a couple of people had raved about the flavour) The tiny, cherry sized fruit certainly have an intense sweet/acid flavour. I won't be growing it again though, firstly because I found it didn't fit into a mixed tunnel well. It produces huge fan-shaped trusses of tiny flowers (millefiore) which I found attracted botrytis (grey mould) very easily - even in a year which was warmer and drier than usual. The reason possibly is that in the mixed cropping environment of a normal back garden greenhouse or tunnel the atmosphere is usually a bit more humid - because most of us want to grow things like cucumbers etc as well. I think this is a factor often overlooked by seed companies and plant breeders. If you are growing only tomatoes then you could probably keep the atmosphere a lot drier - so perhaps it might not be so much of a problem. Another fault for me was that the fruits had very tough skins which I hate for eating raw - and it also split easily. I personally won't bother growing it again.

I'm sure there are 100's of other varieties that would grow well in our climate that I haven't tried - out of the many 1,000s there are out there. But my criteria are first and foremost taste - then disease resistance, length of cropping time, earliness and ease of growing for back gardeners. They've got to earn their space! I reckon to get 5-6 months of cropping from most of them. I can't think of any other vegetable/fruit that is quite so generous for so long! Some catalogues give information on the number of days the variety takes to start cropping after planting - go for the shortest time as this indicates earliness to ripen - very important in our normal 'summers'! In a poor summer - the ones with the shortest time from planting to cropping should still do better than most others.
 
Beefsteak tomatoes halved - Giant Belgium, Green Cherokee, John Baer, Persimmon, Ananas, White Queen, Neve's Azorean, Black Sea Insalata Caprese - with (from bottom) John Baer, Green Cherokee, Ananas Noir

Beefsteak tomatoes halved - Giant Belgium,
Green Cherokee, John Baer, Persimmon, Ananas, 
White Queen, Neve's Azorean, Black Sea

Insalata Caprese - with (from bottom) John Baer, 
Green Cherokee, Ananas Noir
 
Some of the varieties or other heritage ones may be available from Mads McKeever's Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork - a certified organic seed company. A couple of the varieties I recommend may also be available from Klaus Laitenberger's seed company along with some other interesting varieties of veg. Here's a link - http://greenvegetableseeds.com/shop/
 
My endlessly versatile Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce recipe, that makes the base for literally dozens of different meals, is on the recipe page of the website. Even if you don't have any tomatoes left in the freezer - you can still make this budget friendly recipe with tinned tomatoes and it tastes great! Served with pasta - it makes a cheap, filling and tasty meal for a family of four, for barely a couple of euros! By the way - life is definitely far too short to skin tomatoes! Unless they have a very 'woody' at bit at the stem end (in which case cut out) - then just throw them into a blender - whizz them and add to the sauce as in my recipe - or use them raw, just as they are, with some crushed garlic for a fabulously fresh tasting pasta sauce. Not skinning means you retain all the nutrients which are mostly either in, or just under, the skin, although cooking with oil in the sauce actually releases more of the important tomato phytonutrient lycopene, which has numerous health benefits.
 
 

Urgent message for all fans of Rosada F1Tomato!

 
I'm repeating this plea! Ask for Rosada please even though it's currently not available. Otherwise we will lose it forever!
 
In Jan. 2015  I was speaking to Simpsons Seeds as I was having a slight problem with their website order. During our chat they told me that as from  2016 the scrumptious Rosada F1 cherry/plum tomato would no longer be available! Their supplier >wholesaler>breeder says that not enough of this wonderful little tomato is being sold. That is absolutely tragic! As many of you know, I think that this tomato is without doubt the very best cherry plum ever - and I've been growing tomatoes organically, both in my back garden and then on a larger scale commercially, for over 40 years now.  I've tried literally hundreds of varieties over the years, trying to find better ones each year. There are far too many new patented varieties available at the moment - and very few that I would consider good enough to ever bother with again! 
 
I don't think that any other tomato comes anywhere near either Rosada's fabulous flavour, massive crop (over 70 tomatoes on just one 3 branched lower truss in a 10 litre pot - setting 8 trusses! 23 trusses when grown in my own invention - candelabra-style growing!) it's great disease resistance, good-natured ease of growing, remarkable resistance to splitting, or versatility in the kitchen, whether it's for eating fresh in salads, freezing, dehydrating or cooking. It's the very best tomato for beginners - I always recommended it if asked to suggest just one variety. All children love it too - one customer's grandchildren keep asking when she'll have the 'tomato sweeties' again! (And I just can't stop eating the semi-dehydrated ones straight out of the freezer!) 
 
It's an F1 hybrid (which doesn't mean that it's a GMO - something that could never potentially occur in nature!)  F1 just means that it's a very specific cross between two known parents, done in isolation from other varieties, to ensure that it comes true from seed.That being so you will not be able to save seed from it and get the same result!  Or if you do - you will possibly get seed, but you'll probably end up with a lot of mongrels - many of which may be no good - believe me - I've tried it!  Producing an F1 hybrid is naturally a more expensive process than producing an open pollinated variety - so if it doesn't sell well enough - then the powerful commercial interests that now control most of the global seed industry just won't bother with it. Profit from their patents is their main criteria for selection!
 
In general I favour non-F1 hybrids, as I save a lot of my own seed - but this tomato is an absolutely outstanding exception. 
 
THIS TOMATO REALLY IS WORTH SAVING - PEOPLE POWER COULD DO IT! ASK FOR IT EVEN IF IT'S NOT IN THE CATALOGUES - WE MAY BE ABLE TO GET IT BACK ON SALE IF WE DO!

How to easily make an affordable home wormery

Wonderful, wiggly Dendrobaena worms - busy turningour  kitchen waste into black gold! Black gold - worm compost ready to go.  Superfood for plants!

Do you have worms? That is not a personal question you understand - but I mean actually in your garden? If you don't - then you may possibly have New Zealand Flatworm. 
I normally love worms but that's a worm that I really hate! I've had it in my garden for well about 15 years now. They look disgusting, a bit like an 'ironed-out' strip of liver, pointed at both ends, with a pink 'go faster' stripe along either side. They gobble up every earthworm in sight - with the resulting destruction of the soil drainage - because deep-tunneling earthworms are no longer there to do their vital job.  Believe me - you learn to value your worms then! One of the reasons I make worm compost is to compensate for the fact that I no longer have enough worms working through my garden soil outside any more. They are vital to a healthy soil and their actions make plant foods more available to all the gazillions of soil bacteria, which act just like a digestive system in the 'gut' of the soil, making nutrients readily available for plant roots to absorb. It is a vitally important process. Without worms, their associated bacteria, and all the other billions of soil organisms such as mycorrhizal funghi - plant debris does not break down into what is known as humus. 
 
 
In fact - without worms globally - we would all be literally buried under millions of tons of unrotted plant debris lying around everywhere in a very short time. Without worms working in your garden soil and doing their part in Nature's perfectly balanced ecosystem, if you put any compost or a mulch onto the surface then it will just stay there in exactly the same state, instead of gradually disappearing as it should, as worms gradually pull it down under the surface. 
 
 
Years ago, when I was growing commercially, I used to make tons of worm compost in a huge bin made of pallets which was about 2m x 1m x 1m high. Sadly though, after I unwittingly imported New Zealand flatworms into the garden in some plants from a well-known Rhododendron nursery in the North (I am 100% certain), they then settled in and decided they liked the place - bred like wildfire and very quickly went through my worm bin for a short cut - followed by most of the garden too!  I don't think I'll ever get rid of them entirely now - I've just learned to work around them. Interestingly enough, I had a long chat with the man at Finnis worms who sell worm bins and the  worms to stock them - who said that masses of people all over Ireland are buying the earthworms he now also sells, specifically to replace those eaten by flatworms - interesting as I've only ever heard of one other place in Ireland that actually admits to having them at all!  People seem somehow to be ashamed to admit it!  Almost as if they have some deadly disease or think you can't be properly organic if you have them!  Silly - as it's not your fault if you have them if you've introduced them unwittingly. It probably means that you like unusual plants like me and you can blame the 'globalisation' of the horticulture industry for importing them - and also the fact that we don't have Kiwis or any other Antipodean predators to eat them - even my chickens won't eat them! Yet another reason for avoiding those plants that come with a big carbon footprint!  Flatworms also love organic gardens even more - because there's a lot more worms in them (before they get in there!). The only thing is - unless you get rid of the flatworm before you buy more worms to put outside in your garden - all you're doing is providing fast food take away for them because they're a siting target! Though I'm sure anyone selling earthworms won't tell you that!! I've been doing a lot of research and experiments on how to deal with New Zealand Flatworm. How how to avoid getting them in the first place, how to deal with their serious effects on your soil if you do and eventually restore your worm population, and I'll talk more about in another article.
 
 
I bought one of those small 'high rise', stacking worm compost bins a few years ago and they do actually work very well for making small amounts. As they're really only suitable for small amounts of waste though, and as we try top be self-sufficient here and I needed a lot more worm compost. So I decided to make a slightly bigger, indoor system that I could put in the old stables so that it would be safe from any marauding flatworms. Those stacking bins are rather expensive too - all types being at least around €150 - so I looked around for a larger alternative. I found some big bench-sized storage bins with lids (on offer at the time in B&Q at 28 euros but available generally in most DIY shops). These were ideal, as they also had ventilation holes hidden in the handle wells. First I made drainage holes in the bottom at one end, by cutting off a couple of the extruded feet with a small hacksaw, then put the bin on a base of wood laths on a slight slope - with a small plastic tray under the drainage holes at the lower end to collect any run off - which makes a very good liquid feed. I then covered the base with gravel, covered that with some slotted plastic windbreak but anything similar would do, then put a double layer of ground cover material over that to stop any worms escaping - or broken down compost clogging the drainage. (Worms seem to be like sheep - hell bent on escaping at every possible opportunity - and believe me, all my birds would certainly appreciate them if they did - they wouldn't last too long!)  I then made a dividing mesh fence for the middle, so that I could put food waste into one half until that is full, then swap to using the other side, encouraging the worms to move to the new side by exposing them to light on the worked, 'full' up side. 


After setting the bin up, I made some nice soft bedding for the worms, from leaf mould and shredded damp newspaper, putting about 10cm of this to cover the bottom of the bin both sides - and it was all ready to receive it's new residents - 2 kilos of worms!  When they arrived in the post, I put them gently into the bin, talked to them nicely, and covered them with a duvet of thoroughly damp newspaper to keep them moist. (They seem to like The Guardian best!) I gave them a couple of days to settle in and recover from 'post lag' and then started feeding them with a small amount of food at a time - after a few days they were eagerly racing through all the food. By the way - I couldn't believe at first that the leaflet from Finnis worms even actually recommended keeping the light on at night for a few days at first to help them settle in - I thought that was maybe taking anthropomorphism a little bit too far?!!  But actually this is based on science - as worms naturally move away from the light, they are more likely to stay in the bin and not try to make a run for it and escape to go back home! Once they're happy and decide that they like you they will be too busy all the time chomping away on all the yummy goodies you provide, so they won't want to escape. 
 
 
You can then take out the sweet-smelling, well-processed, worm-free material whenever you wish. It is a ready to go, rich source of soil microbes and plant micro-nutrients that can be added straight to soil when planting, scattered around plants as a tonic or made into an incredibly nutritious 'compost super-tea' in a large bucket or other container, by adding a small amount of the worm compost as a starter, then water and some molasses to feed all the microbes, stirring and fermenting for 24 hours, then watering onto the soil around plants. 
 
 
I took a few pictures as I was setting up the bin which show the simple basic layout:
 
 
Bin showing drainage holes in one end, with 5cm gravel then spread on base. Bin raised on sloping wood blocks - higher at one end.
Rigid plastic windbreak material on top of gravel for drainage Rigid aluminium fence panel  making two compartments
Worms working on fresh kitchen waste A few days later, waste being turned rapidly into nutritious worm casts
   
 

 
 
Worm compost is just like rocket fuel for plants - and the worms really are worth their weight in gold!  My son caught me seemingly talking to myself in the old stable/potting shed some years ago (I do it all the time!) - and I explained I was talking to my new worm best friends - the Dendrobaena - which work through food waste much faster than the more usual red tiger worms. He raised his eyes to heaven and said "OMG Mum - your obituary will be entitled "The Woman Who Talked To Worms"! I replied that there could actually be worse things to talk to - anyway I love my worms - they are doing such a fantastic job and I was just telling them so!!  Hey - I talk to plants, so what's wrong with worms? They react suddenly to loud noises, so why might they not respond to my positive and encouraging dulcet tones?!!  
 
 
 
I've had the Dendrobaena worms for a few years now - they are doing a fantastic job of processing our kitchen waste with relish. I got them mail order from Finnis worms in the North. Dendrobaena are in fact a type of earthworm, but not the 'deep tunnelling' type. They live in the top few centimetres of soil, processing plant wastes, a job at which they are the most efficient of all worms. Most municipal composting systems now use them exclusively. Their favourite food in the whole world is either carrot or sweet potato peelings - as they clearly have a sweet tooth! They're quite partial to a rotting avocado too if you get a bad one. They will even eat mouldy bread and left over pasta if you have any (without sauce!), neither of which you can put onto the compost heap. 
 
 
 
Cooked eggshells being crushed up for worms
Cooked eggshells being crushed up for worms
You must never put meat scraps into the worms - but our lovely rescue dogs enjoy those. They don't like other fats or dairy leftovers either, or citrus rinds either as they're too acid. Apart from that they're not that fussy. I cook all our eggshells in the bottom oven of the range and scrunch them up really small to provide a source of calcium for the worms as they like a pH of about 7 and also use the small grit they provide to grind up their food.  So the only food waste here that can't be recycled and actually goes into the brown recycling bin now are any bones. That's of course after making my famous stock or 'bone-broth' as it is now known - per the current US fashion! I was making it long before most of the current 'food fashionistas' were even born!! I've often wondered if there's a sort of domestic scale grinder out there which would turn them into bonemeal fertiliser? Sadly bones don't break down in the soil - which naturally of course makes my archaeologist son very happy - especially when they're a few thousand years old! Sometimes when I'm digging to plant something, I'm still finding old bones in the garden which my darling old labrador Lara (the children's nanny!) buried in her favourite spots more than thirty years ago! Those and the half-eaten tennis balls I come across from her and various other dogs that have shared our lives over the years bring back so many happy memories!........
 
 
Anyway - REMEMBER - LOVE AND RESPECT YOUR WORMS!  They are your best friends! Don't kill them by using weedkillers, artificial fertilisers and pesticides which are death to all soil life - not only worms! A healthy living soil full of life is vital for our own health and also the health of everything else on the planet. 
 
 
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.

How to Mend Damaged Polytunnels

16th October 2017 - 3pm.
 
 
As I write this I'm listening to Hurricane Ophelia raging over us!  I've decided to update this as it helps to take my mind off my own polytunnels and also stops my eyes from looking out of the windows. Also I thought I'd do it while we still have power, which usually goes off here in even minor storms! There has already been a lot of damage countrywide.  My trees are currently bending double and although we've been through some serious storms here before and we've done everything we can to prepare - this storm is an unknown quantity. Sadly with increasing climate change, I doubt if this will be the last of these storms we will see in our lifetime - but I won't go into that argument here!
 
I sincerely hope that all your tunnels are safe - but if not - I do hope that any damage is minimal and that my suggestions below may be of some help and possibly save the cover of your tunnel.  More gales are forecast for this weekend, so if there is even the slightest of small tears in covers - it's worth strengthening them NOW with tunnel tape. This method will also save greenhouse glass too if there are cracks or even complete panes broken - something which again I've experienced here.
 
 
There were some suggestions on Twitter yesterday evening and this morning that it was better to leave tunnel doors open in rough weather - but from my own experience it is far better to keep them as tightly closed as possible. Winds in such strong storms can be very unpredictable and can change direction very suddenly. If you leave the downwind doors open as one or two people suggested - I know from my own experience that the tunnel can just take off if the wind suddenly gusts from a direction that wasn't predicted. I lost my very first polytunnel in the Great Storm of 1987 because the cheap roll up door blew in and then up through the roof! Then I lost another polytunnel two years later that had been put up by a man who said he was experienced at erecting polytunnels - it turned out that he wasn't! He had tacked the polythene on at one end before he realised there wasn't enough to reach to the other end - he then forced it to stretch too much and pulled it too tight - slightly bending the frame. At the first sign of any wind it just collapsed like a house of cards. I lost not just the polythene but also the frame as well -so it was an expensive lesson. Although he had been recommended by my polytunnel suppliers at the time - I very stupidly didn't ask for other references! 
 
 
So I know how upsetting it is to lose a tunnel completely - I did 30 years ago! If you've been unfortunate enough to lose yours I can sympathise - but all is not completely lost - because even if the frame is weakened, it can still be useful. I now use that old frame as a fruit cage and chicken run instead!
 
 
Since then I've always got the suppliers themselves to erect them as I describe later - then they are responsible if it's not done properly! I also have properly closing doors on both of my new stronger-framed tunnels - one has sliding doors and the other has a hinged-type opening door. I definitely think that the more expensive option of the sliding door is worth every single cent!  It's very easy to vary the width of the opening to allow the doors to be opened in even quite windy weather, depending on direction, which you can't do with the hinged doors.
 
 
Here's a list of what you will need:
 
 
1. A large roll of see-through tunnel tape. You should be able to get this from your local farm supplies shop, they' usually have them in stock as there are so many tunnels around now. Or if your polytunnel supplier is near enough, they're sure to have it. There is a type of Sellotape sold in DIY stores for garden use - but the rolls are smaller and not quite so effective in my experience.
 
2. A large roll of a good absorbent kitchen paper towel.
 
3. A large pair of scissors.
 
4. A stable stepladder that won't wobble if the damage is not within easy reach.
 
5. Someone to help hold the stepladder steady for you - (most important!) and also to hold an umbrella over you if it's raining while you're working outside as the polythene must be kept dry while you're working on it or the tape won't stick!
 
 
To mend a small or middle sized tear: 
 
Mending a hole or tear up to about 4-5ins long that's within reach is pretty easy - but needs to be done immediately to avoid the wind catching it and causing possible further damage. 
 
Get all your equipment ready and keep it dry in a bag or bucket - don't put down on damp ground.
 
Start on outside of the tunnel first if it's within reach.
 
First wipe dry the area all around the tear - to about 4-5inches 10cm or so from damage - with 3-4 large pieces of kitchen towel. Do this twice with two changes of towel to ensure it's as dry as poss.
 
If it's only a small tear or hole just cut off enough tape to mend to about 2ins-3ins either side of the damage and press the tape gently onto the area, working from the middle of the tear out, to avoid air bubbles which will attract moisture and gradually undo the mend. Once you've it stuck to the tunnel, use the rounded handle of the scissors to gently rub all over the area, working along the length of the taped bit, as if you were brass rubbing!  This really seals the tape mend and squeezes out any small air pockets. You will see the area gradually become clearer, which means it's really stuck.
 
Then do exactly the same inside immediately, repeating the process of drying off the area thoroughly etc. again. You may think it's dry enough in the tunnel, but even your breath will create humidity which will affect the area to be mended, and will make the seal less effective.
 
 
To mend a larger hole or tear:
 
Go through the same process again of drying off, starting on the outside.
 
Cut enough of the tape to 'stitch' across the tear to about 4-5ins either side of the damage, start in the middle, pulling it together, then work out from there either side, and literally doing large 'cartoon' stiches across the damage first. If it's really large, having another pair of hands to pull the tear together really helps - but I have often done this on my own.
 
Make sure the damaged/stitched area is still dry enough, if you're not sure then rub with kitchen towel again and then go along the whole of the damage length ways, going further out from the stitches over the whole area with the tape. This is because if you don't - wet can get under the stitches and the whole area may come undone if it gets wet inside.  Again rub over the whole area with handle end of scissors - (or the back of a large tablespoon as a person suggested to me recently who had mended her polytunnel using my advice.
 
If you have someone to help - get them to stay outside while you repeat the process again on the inside, getting them to hold their hands flat over the area, to give you some thing to work against when putting on the tape and ensuring it sticks. You ideally want as few air bubbles as possible under the polytunnel tape when doing this. Don't try to skimp on the tunnel tape when doing this - more is definitely better and is a helluva lot cheaper than having to buy a new polytunnel cover!
 
 
To mend a tear in a tunnel roof where you can't get at the top outside without a cherry picker!
 
 
Make sure you've got someone to hold the ladder - the voice of bitter experience here!
 
Go through the same process as for the larger tear or hole, making sure it's really dry, getting a piece of tape to stitch across the middle of the tear first. It it's large enough to get your hand through to the outside and you can reach, put one hand on the outside and then you can push against it.
 
Once you have done that - the first strip of tape should hold the area steady enough to enable you to get the rest of the tape on, again 'stitching' across larger areas first. Then going along. It will also be strong enough to rub the handle of the scissors over the area as before. It's also often a good idea to reinforce a large area with additional polythene if you have some handy.  Doing this can give you a good seal which will last for years - I promise! Believe me I've mended some really huge holes this way, and they've lasted until the tunnels were due for re-covering several years later.
 
If you're just putting up a new a tunnel - it can be really useful to save all those off-cuts of the polythene that may seem too small to be useful! They can come in really handy later on for mending large, difficult tears. I'm an avid recycler (some would say hoarder!) and I can guarantee that if I throw something out - I'll probably want it a couple of weeks later. 'Sod's Law'! If you don't have any off-cuts - then go to a local bed store like Harvey Norman's and ask them very nicely for a polythene mattress cover (threatening to weep helps if they're mean - but they're usually very nice!). They'll always have these hanging around from new show bed mattresses etc. The polythene is normally strong enough to cope with mending a large hole if well put on - and the're actually also just the right size and really useful for covering areas of my 4ft wide raised beds in spring, to dry them off a bit!!
 
If the tear is too big to attempt to repair in any way at all - even without using a large extra patch of polythene - then sadly the best thing you can do is to literally just cut your losses, get a sharp knife and cut off all the polythene completely. If you leave it flapping around in the wind like a sail - it will gradually distort the frame, weakening it and it will be useless for using as a polytunnel again. Sorry! Not complete despair though - you could still use it as a fruit cage or hen run!
 
 
 
My polytunnel history!
 
 
I put up my very first tiny 6 x 8 polytunnel/plastic 'Garden Relax' brand polythene greenhouse in our very first garden about 39 years ago! That was the beginning of a love affair with these incredibly productive and useful things. When we moved to our current home, I started growing organic veg commercially.  After losing three greenhouses, I decided that polytunnels were the only option here, as they can flex and move just a little, which a greenhouses can't. One crack and a greenhouse is gone in a high wind. I learnt as I went along. The first one that I lost in Hurricane Charlie produced great crops. It was one of those 13ft x 65ft ones, where you could only grow tall crops in the middle and the sides were very low. The only problem was that on our very windy site, the roll-up doors could potentially catch in the wind and blow inside the tunnel, going up through the roof! That was how I lost that one in the hurricane!
 
 
After that I got two more of that size as they were the cheapest option. As I earned enough from all my hard work, I would buy another - ending up with 3 of those smaller ones, and then an 18ft x 54ft much taller one at the bottom of the hill where it was more sheltered. That was luxury indeed! These served me well until I gave up commercial growing in the mid '90's, mainly to look after my late mother who had increasing dementia and also to pursue my dream of becoming a sculptor - which enabled me to be around the house more for my mother. I still grew all my own food in the old larger tunnel, and promised myself that if I ever had the chance - then I would one day buy the very best I could possibly afford, with sturdy real doors - not the 'roll up' ones which so easily catch in the wind. 
 
 
I come from a farming family and used to breed horses as a hobby until very recently. Sadly I haven't been allowed to ride for over 30 years or so now due to increasing spinal problems, but I loved having horses around, and luckily they've always earned their keep! Just in case you might think we're millionaires - I had a bit of good fortune a few years ago. I happened to sell one extremely well, so I finally decided to go for it and realise my long-held dream of a buying two polytunnels that would last as long as me. These will hopefully enable me to still go on gardening - growing food both for us and for nature and bringing me a lot of joy - even if sooner or later I become increasingly disabled as doctors have predicted!  Having learnt so much about polytunnels over the years - I went for the strongest and biggest I could afford, both with a really heavy gauge steel frame, cladding strips to hold the polythene along the sides to make re-covering easier if and when necessary, with the toughest heavy polythene covers and they proper sliding and hinged-opening doors. 
 
 
I bless my good fortune, my lovely old mare (now sadly deceased) and my two polytunnels every day! Even on the very worst of days when the weather is foul or if I can barely bend - I can still sit on a stool and plant or weed, getting my daily dose of light and birdsong!  It's the most wonderfully relaxing therapy as all you gardeners know and is also a reason to keep moving when sometimes it might seem easier not to!  The tunnels are also incredibly productive as you can see from all the pictures elsewhere. They provide most of our food here, as well as raising chicks, rescuing hedgehogs, even drying the washing - you name it - they do it!  I know that greenhouses are more beautiful - but on our very windy hill here they sadly weren't an option, and they are twice the price anyway. I hope you will agree that I've tried to make mine as beautiful as possible. They're also brilliant for bees, butterflies and all other sorts of wildlife who benefit all year round from all the nectar and pollen producing flowers while providing me with nature's free pest control! I just couldn't live without them!
 
 
Whether you have to beg, borrow or steal for a polytunnel - or just pay for it by the sheer sweat of your brow as I did - they are well worth it.  I worked out a few years ago that any size polytunnel should more than easily pay for itself in produce within 3 years. And if it doesn't - then you're not using it properly and really you don't deserve it!!  If you're eating your 5-a-day it should save you at least €25-€35 per week on your household budget for a family of four - multiply that by 12 and that's the price of a small polytunnel over a year!  My polytunnels save me a huge amount on my food bill and everything that they produce is always organic, local, super-fresh and full of all the nutrients that Nature intended and which are often lost in shop-bought fruit and vegetables.
 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)

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