May topics: Golden rule number one in life - always be flexible!.... It pays to be flexible at a moment's notice in the garden now too!.... The many advantages of 'raised', 'deep' or 'lazy' beds. Protecting early potatoes and other crops with fleece. Feeding your compost heap! Planting out tender crops in late May. Other jobs for May.
Broccoli Nine Star Perennial is delicious but looks almost too beautiful to eat!
Golden rule number one in life - always be flexible!
My May veg blog is a little later than usual this year - as I'm a bit behind with the work again here due to breaking my ankle badly on 16th March, so nothing has been done outside in the kitchen garden this spring! I've spent a lot of time in the last few weeks travelling to and from hospitals and doctors, but things are slowly beginning to mend so I hope to be back outside in the kitchen garden again before too long! My daughter has been over here helping me - but she's been concentrating mostly on the polytunnels, as I will find those much easier to manage when I'm able to resume doing a little bit of gentle gardening again. She and my son have also been looking after all the animals including the poultry, as they're the most important. I'm thinking of sowing some green manures on the raised beds in a couple of week's time - when I'm hopefully able to venture into the garden again. That will be very beneficial for the soil, and I may then later plant something fast growing things like pumpkins and squashed on one or two of the beds through the 'cover-crop' of green manure. At least that way I will have something to store through the winter, as it's too late to plant potatoes now. Then later on in early August I shall plant a late crop of potatoes to have at Christmas. Thinking sideways, adapting to circumstances and flexibility are definitely things one needs to be able to do when life throws challenges in the way!
As you know - I usually just stick to blogging about gardening - not about more personal stuff as many people do - but I'm sure that some of you know by now that I'm partially slightly disabled due to progressive degenerative disc disease, and also having from two arms that only half work due to various accidents over the years. Sometimes I think perhaps it's a good thing to show people that I'm not Superwoman, much as I would like to be - because too often people say - oh it's alright for you - but I couldn't because of X, Y, or Z reasons! So many times I hear things like - "I have a bad back/depression/am unfit/don't have space/time etc etc"... Believe me - just like anyone else - I can often feel like just sitting on the sofa and reading a good book (in my case recipe books!). But I know that if I can drag myself up and make the effort - even if at times it's even painful - I will feel so much better for it.
I like proving that if you really want to grow your own food, no matter what the problems - you can always find some way to overcome them if you really want to! That's as long as you can at least sit or stand upright! A great friend of mine was recently diagnosed with MS and can barely walk - but loves growing her own food - so her son has collected a few bathtubs that were about to be thrown out off building sites and made her a very idiosyncratic container garden! As at the moment standing upright holding onto a walking frame is just about all I can do until my ankle is better - I've decided to experiment with a bit more disabled gardening. So I got my daughter to carry my stepladder out from the polytunnel where is usually lives, to beside our front step, so that I can do some more experimenting with gardening in small spaces or with physical difficulties. This is something which I did a lot years ago after spinal surgery, and when living in a house with a tiny garden - so it's nothing new to me - although I now have lots of new ideas with more experience. It really keeps my spirits up to be able to pick even a small amount of healthy salad or other veg that I've grown myself.
I see so many people complaining on social media about feeling depressed and wish I could show them all that it's far better to focus on what you CAN do - not what you CAN'T! I also see many folk saying that they need cake or wine to cheer themselves up. Frankly - both are the last thing they need - and I speak from experience! Cake is full of sugar which gives you an instant high but then makes you feel even more depressed, not long after you've eaten it - and wine does exactly the same if you're drinking much it on a regular basis! Both are nice occasionally - but not as a regular salve for one's moods. Gardening is one of the best ways to cure depression - with many positive benefits for mental and physical health - so it's far better than trying to give your mood a temporary lift with junk food of alcohol. Even if you don't have a garden - or don't want to try gardening just going for a walk in the countryside, breathing fresh air and also inhaling the magic Mycobacterium vaccae in the air is proven to stimulate serotonin production in the brain and lift mood....then try having a glass of kefir which is full of 'good mood'-making, probiotic microbes! It works every time - I guarantee it!
More than ever this year in particular - I feel so blessed that I have my garden. I simply couldn't live without it. Not just because it grows so much wonderful produce which I couldn't buy in shops even if I wanted to - butIt's also my therapy and my sanctuary from the world and solace for any troubles. Although I have to admit there have been many days in the past when I really had to push myself to get out of the house and do something in the polytunnel - even if some days it was just sitting and planning, because I was in too much pain to do anything else. Even when when the weather is bad I can gently work in my polytunnel, but if I don't feel like it - then I can just sit feeling the blessing of the gentle early morning sun on my face and listen to the bumblebees buzzing happily while they enjoy the flowers and the birds singing their hearts out! Over the years I have had a couple of occasions when I stared possible paralysis, or even death, in the face - believe me it's so good to be alive, upright and out in the garden on a spring day! I always feel so much better after being out there doing something positive - no matter how small a thing it is.
It's truly wonderful to get your hands into the warm, vitally alive earth - to literally 'plug-into' the earths energy. I believe that it's a primal human need in all of us to have even a small patch of earth to connect with, to cultivate and to grow some food. It's a basic instinct which man has had since time immemorial - and despite our seeming 'modernity' - the effects of thousands of years of evolution can't be erased in what is relatively just a few decades. There is no doubt that humans are much healthier both mentally and physically if they have close contact with the earth and can eat food which is naturally-grown in it. Healthy food doesn't grow without a healthy soil. Growing food for our families is one of the most basic and satisfying things we can do - and no matter what happens I will go on gardening! I hope you will too.
It pays to be flexible at a moment's notice in the garden now too!
Once we thought that gardening rules would always be the same for ever - but our seasons are less reliable and predictable now. It pays to make sure that you've got plenty of fleeces available to cover vulnerable tender plants when necessary.Take care over the next few days - as frosts can still occur unexpectedly when the skies clear late at night. Temperatures have been plummeting here at night to -8 deg C on some nights. The potatoes in pots will have to be fleeced every night now as they're up about 12 inches or more in some cases and it's not worth taking the risk of losing them now. May weather can often see-saw back and forth between baking hot summer-like days and freezing cold wintry nights - so it's not a good time for a gardener to be away from the garden for very long if you grow all your own food!! I'm constantly obsessing about the weather in May and ready to run out with fleece at the slightest hint of a frost! But it really does pay off taking that extra bit of care - even if some evenings it's the last thing you feel like doing, after a long hard day! I console myself with the thought of all the delicious crops to come - many of which will see us all through next winter. Most of the crops that I grow I could never buy in the shops even if I wanted to - especially grown organically - and I wouldn't dream of eating anything else but organic!
If you're already panicking and feeling a bit behind with the work - then don't worry - so am I But there's still plenty of time to catch up this month. Pretty much everything can still be sown, especially things like French beans, pumpkins and squashes - which develop very fast and hate to be held up and get pot bound. I often find my May sowings actually do far better than earlier ones specifically for that reason. Don't forget though that if you use fleeces - take them off during the day and dry them out if possible - because wet fleece is worse than no fleece and offers no protection at all. The weight of it can do a lot of damage too - especially if it gets frozen to the plants. A good way to prevent this and also stop pigeons eating stuff is to suspend netting over the plants first, and then that will support the fleece too - which can be pegged to it with clothes pegs - especially worth doing if you live somewhere windy like I do! A lot of trouble some may think? But when I taste the wonderful early veg that I can't buy anywhere then believe me it's well-worth every bit of effort!
In the past, before climate change began, our weather seemed to be a little more predictable - but just as in other areas of life - there's no point thinking about the past except to learn from it and to be prepared for anything! We have to deal with the here and now - gardeners now have to think 'on the hoof' and be practical. We're going to have to be a lot more flexible with our gardening in the future, be adaptable and find new ways of doing many things - responding and adapting to the unreliable and fickle weather from week to week. You can pretty much throw the all old gardening advice books out of the window - that is when it comes to advice about exactly when and precisely how to do things. Flexibility is the key from now on. I've never slavishly followed the rule books anyway, being something of a rebel! I always asked 'why'? I read all the basic advice I could in my early days of gardening and then adapted it to my organic way of doing things and also to my particular local climate. That flexibility is vital, is something I've learnt from many years of practical experience in various changing gardening situations and locations. I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
Basic requirements like the need for proper rotations will never change though - in fact they will become even more necessary and relevant to how we can best utilise our precious soils in the future. I find that so many of the new 'experts' these days are giving advice obviously taken directly from often outdated books and not gained from their own practical experience - if they indeed have any! In so many cases that's just not relevant any more.Everything is changing now - and so must we - if we want to keep producing enough good, healthy food for ourselves.This year - with unexpected droughts, violent storms and floods happening once again all over the entire planet - it is predicted that food prices will rise even more. And that's apart from the undoubted effects which Brexit will have on food prices! So it's never been more important to grow our own food - and to do it organically - which is sustainable and helps to mitigate climate change, rather than accelerating it as conventional chemical farming does!
After a very dry spring here again - later on in the year we may well have to cope with even worse drought again like last year - but organic soils are much more resistant to the stresses of extreme weather conditions due to their high humus content, so they tend to cope much better. The humus organic soils contain acts as a buffer almost like a sponge - absorbing water and cushioning plant roots against extremes of both floods and drought. Humus also fixes carbon in the soil which helps to offset climate change. In areas where soils have been degraded and topsoil lost through many years of chemical farming, rainfall just runs off the compacted dead mineral dust that passes for soil - causing flooding - instead of soaking into the humus-rich, moisture retentive sponge that a good organic soil should be. All plants grow far more healthily, withstand stress far better and are more naturally disease-resistant in a living, well-nurtured and properly structured, organic soil.
The many advantages of 'raised', 'deep' or 'lazy' (aka no-dig) beds
Potatoes mulched with grass clippings in one of the newer raised beds
Every spring I am so grateful for my raised beds. I've grown in raised or 'deep' beds for over 38 years now. That's the basis on which I originally planned the whole vegetable garden here - as I lay in my hospital bed after spinal surgery and later for a few months at home, unable to walk after a bad fall from a horse. I already knew then that gardening in the conventional way, on the flat was going to be completely out of the question for me in the future.
On re-reading my treasured collection of old Soil Association 'Mother Earth' magazines going back to the late 1930s, I found that there were some very interesting results from so-called 'no-dig' growing then - especially on lighter soils. Others were growing in 'raised' or 'deep beds' or even 'lazy beds' as they are called here in Ireland. So I decided to combine all three methods of growing to suit my capabilities - by making 'raised/no-dig/lazy beds'! Planning the garden gave me hope and kept me going at what was one of the very lowest times in my life. I've never regretted the work of making them. Originally they were just made by simply throwing the soil up from the paths to give more depth and drainage and afterwards mulched - just as the old 'lazy beds' were made for growing potatoes, in pre-famine days, in the West of Ireland. Luckily I had some help do that hard job in those days - and until my relative fitness returned, all I had to do was to mulch and plant! The beds weren't made by lashing on tons of bought in non-organic manure or mushroom compost, their fertility evolved gradually and naturally over time.
After over 30 years of mulching, green manuring and adding as much home-made compost as possible - they've become so raised that they're more than double the height they were when I started. It's only rarely now that I have to do any gardening on the flat - when planting trees for instance - and when I do I am so thankful for my raised beds and so is my back!! The beds are so much easier to work, and are an absolute godsend now that I'm partially disabled with one half-working arm since I broke my right shoulder very badly over 3 years ago. When I was growing commercially, I used to have 12 un-dug, raised or 'deep' beds, roughly 10m/30 feet long and 1.3 m/4 feet wide. I made the raised deep (or no dig) beds about 4 ft/1.3 m or less wide so that I could reach comfortably to the middle from both sides. On a 4 ft bed I can just plant 3 rows of potatoes across - then space them out a bit more along the length of the bed - about 2 ft/60 cm apart down the bed or 90 cm/3 ft for main crops. That works very well for me. Now I've cut down and am planning to have only the 6 closest to the house. I'm gradually raising all of these even higher using planks, so that I shall always be able to grow my own veg - even if I have to just sit on a chair. I have no intention of ever giving up veg growing! The other half of the old deep beds will gradually be planted with even more fruit so hopefully will be far less labour-intensive - but still very productive. That will still give us plenty of room for vegetable growing along with the tunnels, which I find much easier to manage. The tunnels are always workable no matter what the weather conditions outside, in our often very wet climate. I also have to take into account that the family around the table is often smaller at times now too - so I don't need quite as much.
My new, higher level raised beds were made with planks treated with an organic wood preservative (very important where you're growing food) and filled with soil dug from the wildlife pond which I created a few years ago at the bottom of the wildlife meadow. Although unfortunately I couldn't persuade the chap who dug the pond to separate and sort the soil into topsoil and subsoil, I've found over the years that by using compost, green manures, organic mulches, cover crops and proper rotations to create humus and encourage beneficial microbial life, it only takes about 3 or 4 years to convert even the very worst of soil into a really nice medium to grow plants in. It never has to be dug. At the very most it's lightly forked if necessary to remove crops. I can use my fingers to plant small modules and a small trowel to plant bigger modules things like cabbage plants. You don't need tons of compost or manure, it's like junk food for plants and very little better than force-feeding with chemical fertilisers! It's far better to encourage and work with nature and to do things gradually, allowing all the microbes and soil life to develop in nature's own time, if you want to grow really healthy and nutritious crops. If you pile on the tons of nitrogen-rich manure advocated by some - firstly there's potential for massive run-off and pollution of groundwater in our increasingly wet climate. Secondly, any excess nutrients that don't run off are taken up by plants, promoting soft sappy growth that is far more vulnerable to pests and diseases in exactly the same way as artificially-fed crops.
Overfed plants are just like overfed people - unhealthy! In addition, quite apart from that it's virtually impossible to find an organic farmer with manure for sale - and any non-organic you buy will contain many pesticides, weedkillers and antibiotic residues which are extremely damaging to all soil life. I'm planning to gradually convert all my old deep beds in my now downsized vegetable garden into these higher level beds over the next couple of years, using my sub/topsoil mix and proper organic methods of gradual soil improvement the way Nature does it. No 'quick-fix' methods for me - that's not Nature's way!
If you haven't yet seen it - here's the video of the talk I gave in December 2016 at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, for the Irish Launch of the 'European People for Soil' campaign. It was entitled 'There is life after soil abuse'. In my talk I showed how I gradually restored the natural health of my badly degraded soil here using organic methods: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0&feature=youtu.be
Protecting early potatoes and other crops with fleece
The most vulnerablethings that really need to be looked after outside now are the sappy new shoots of potato plants - they can't stand even the slightest whiff of frost or they'll turn to black mush, so they must be covered with fleece if frost threatens. They are too big now to earth up, as I get them going early. Some of the early varieties already have flower buds this year as they've been so delayed, but I don't worry about that, as long as they're watered and fed if necessary they'll be fine. I planted out about 2/3rd of my pot-raised potatoes only last week due to the late cold season. Last year - 2017 - I had already planted them out 3 weeks ago. Some are still sitting in pots outside on the polythene covering their designated raised bed. That's where they sit for a couple of weeks to 'harden-off' and acclimatise to outside after being started in the polytunnel - and I covered them at night with cloches and fleece for protection. They'll be ready after the tunnel potatoes are finished which were started off in pots in January. I start all of my potatoes off in pots these days, in order to both get far earlier crops and to avoid blight and spraying - even with organic sprays such as copper. I am astonished about how inflexible some people are - they are amazed that I would go to such trouble for potatoes - which have always been planted a certain way! Yet they would think absolutely nothing of starting off half-hardy plants or bulbs that way! And you can't even eat those!! We live in a particularly blight-prone area here - with farmers often not bothering to lift blighted crops - just ploughing them back into the ground, which means that we can often get blight very early.
I always make sure I have at least two lots of fleece to cover each of my beds, just to be on the safe side. The fleece comes very cheaply on a big roll so I can conveniently cut off exactly what I need to cover everything securely. I get a huge roll every few years from our local farm supply shop - it's massively cheaper to buy it that way than in small pieces from garden centres and DIY stores! If it's windy I also cover the fleece with Enviromesh or netting to hold it down, or use cloche hoops. I fix the fleece to them with wooden clothes pegs which are needed as it's very windy here, and what can often happen is that fleece will tear and blow away in the sudden gusts we get just before a rainstorm - then the wind drops after midnight and there's a frost! As I'm lucky to have a big enough garden at home to grow my veg., it's easy to run out and put fleeces on in the evening after watching the weather forecast! It takes me about half an hour to cover everything that needs it, including anything in the tunnel. Then I take off the fleeces again in the morning, which only takes about five minutes, in order to dry them and have them ready for the next cold night. As I've said before - wet fleece is worse than none at all! And several layers are far more effective - 2 or 3 layers of dry light fleece will trap air just as layers of clothing do for us - and protect even quite soft things from anything but the very hardest of spring frosts.
If you have an allotment it's obviously a bit more difficult -as obviously you're not there all the time. In that case I think I would make up a frame or hoops to drape the fleece over, perhaps then securing it with netting as it can blow off very easily being so light. Or you could make your own cheap polythene covered frames as I described a couple of months ago, maybe even putting fleece underneath them, where it will stay dry, as double insurance. It's amazing how much water fleece will collect on a cold night, it offers less frost protection if it's actually resting on plants, particularly if it's wet, and it's also then surprisingly heavy. You may think all this is an awful fiddle - and at 8 pm in the evening, trying to cover a bed on my own with an aching back and fleece that insists on blowing off in even the slightest breath of air - I'd be inclined to agree! However, I know I'll get my reward in many different varieties - some extremely rare - of wonderful tasting, completely chemical-free, un-sprayed organic potatoes for most of the year! I also grow some potatoes in large pots too, if I'm trying new varieties or growing rare ones. I normally grow around 12-16 different varieties - and if you think that's barmy - Dave Langford, the potato expert who lives in Leitrim, and who often came to the potato day at Sonairte, grows around 150 varieties every year! As someone remarked, I do use a lot of 2 litre pots for starting them off, which could be expensive, but as one of my best friends is a garden designer, I can always get plenty of free pots in whatever size I need. They would otherwise just be dumped, probably not recycled, and I've been re-using most of them for at least 20 years now! Make friends with your local landscaper or nursery - offer them some free veg. in return for pots which they don't want anyway and they may be glad to get rid of them cluttering up the place!
Potato Mayan Gold flowers are pretty enough for any herbaceous border!
Most of the varieties I grow are early or second early cultivars, whichneed a shorter growing season than maincrops, so tend to bulk up faster. This means that they're early enough to have a really good crop underneath them before blight strikes here - often in late June in most years. There are quite enough different variety for anyone's needs. Some are waxy, some floury, some salad potatoes or unusually-coloured ones. I like to use different types for different culinary purposes, enjoying the variety. I'd get bored with the same one for everything - variety is the spice....etc.
If I were really forced to choose just one single variety for taste however,it would probably be the Mayan Goldwhich is a second early/early maincrop. It is very versatile, being waxy if lightly cooked, or very floury if cooked for longer. It looks every bit as beautiful as it tastes, is very ornamental with quite unusual foliage and gorgeous deep purple flowers. It also fascinatingly folds up it's leaves at night, a bit like a Maranta (the prayer plant). I've grown it for many years since it first became available, both in the tunnel and outside, and I've seen it recover quite well from late frosts, and even blight - growing on again healthily when the weather became drier. It's fantastic for every use in the kitchen, and the top chefs in London go mad for it to make saute potatoes. It's only problem is that it soaks up an awful lot of melted butter!! A deep gold, almost sweet potato-like colour - it even increases in vitamin A during storage! Although it's actually quite a difficult potato to store, as it starts to sprout like mad in November, but I discovered why, on reading Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix's great vegetable book again.
Apparently the Phureja potatoes, from which Mayan Gold is descended, do not have a proper dormant period, being more adapted to growing conditions in the Caribbean! Which definitely explains why dear old MG enjoys itself thoroughly in the tunnel. It's just flowering now - and it always looks so beautiful! The other advantage of not being day-length sensitive is that it's quite happy to grow at any time of year - so I often use it for growing Christmas new potatoes, planting it at the end of August or beginning of September. It's one I wouldn't want to be without!.......But then......there's so many others too - like the deliciously healthy, purple-fleshed, high-anthocyanin varieties. I've got several different varieties of those now - the first of which - Truffe de Chine I obtained in Harrods Food Hall in Knightstbridge well over 30 years ago and which started an undending passion for them! I can just never resist anything different - so it's absolutely impossible to just pick just one favourite!!
The potatoes in pots which I start off at the conventional time of mid-March are planted out when they're about 6ins. high. I water them in after planting and then mulch them thickly with grass clippings, keeping the mulch 3 or 4 inches or 10cm away from the base of the stems to avoid rotting. Then I water again immediately, otherwise the strong vapour given off by the nitrogen in the freshly cut grass clippings can burn the stems and leaves. This is really important whatever crop you are using a grass mulch on. Always water immediately - even if the ground was already moist beforehand. A lot of 'experts' forget to tell you this - then you wonder why your plants turn yellow and the leaves curl up - voice of experience! Doing this also 'seals' the grass mulch into a mat quite nicely, sort of knitting it together, which helps to keep moisture in, cutting down on watering, and also keeps the weeds down. After a few days it goes brown and looks very neat and tidy. It's also a very handy take-away nest material for blackbirds - yesterday I surprised a blackbird in a potato bed - it flew off with a huge beak full of mulch - at a distance it looked as if it was carrying a small hedgehog almost as big as itself - then I realised it was helping itself to ready chopped, nicely dried grass bedding! Delighted to be of service in return for the pest control and the lovely music! The gratitude won't extend to free raspberries however!! There's plenty of berries planted exclusively for them down in the woodland!
By the way - if you're thinking of saving a few of your own early potato tubers for seedtubersfor next spring - then make sure that youmark one or two of the very best, most healthy-looking plants, as soon as the foliage has fully emerged. Those must have perfectly green, really healthy-looking leaves with absolutely no yellow blotches, no twisting or odd-looking crinkling - as these could possibly be carrying viruses. Again many 'experts' tell you only to save sound looking tubers - but they don't tell you to look at the plants when they're growing - which is what you should actually be doing! Tubers which are in fact carrying a virus can look perfectly sound and OK, - and it's only when they grow foliage that you can see if they are unhealthy and virused, by which time it's too late. Check their health again when lifting - more on that in a couple of months. As I've mentioned before - Lady Christl is the very fastest if you want to produce extra-earlies in the way that I do (planting in Jan.), Duke of York (which has a slightly better flavour) is the next fastest - only about a couple of weeks behind and Apache has now been a great success for the last few years. Mayan Gold is also definitely worth trying, though it's about another week or so after them until it has a worthwhile crop. Sharpe's Express and Annabelle are also good for 'extra-earlies'.
Other jobs for May
Brassicas safely tucked up under Enviromesh
Planting out brassica plants such as cabbages and calabrese - these must be protected with brassica collars fitted snugly around the stem against cabbage root fly. Seedlings must also be protected from now on too - as the fly is becoming active. As you obviously can't yet use brassica collars on them because they're too small, it's best to completely cover them with fleece or 'Enviromesh'. I prefer 'Enviromesh' as it gives better air circulation and light transmission. This will stop cabbage white butterfly too, and I saw several of those in the tunnel a month ago!
If you're starting off in a new allotment, where previously grass has been growing, there may be plenty of wire-worms, cutworms and leather-jackets (daddy long legs larvae) in the soil. It's a good idea to turn over the soil a few times before planting and let the eager birds scratch them up. Starlings are particularly good at this! These can otherwise devastate newly planted out lettuces, cabbages, etc., slicing neatly through the stem, causing the plants to collapse, by which time it's too late. If you see that happening to one, then dig around the base of the others - you may find the grey-brown caterpillar-like grubs there before they kill other plants. Destroy! Chickens are also brilliant for putting onto newly cultivated ground for a while specifically for this purpose - nothing escapes their searching sharp eyes and eager beaks!
For the fourth year running, we're enjoying again what was a new brassica crop to me until 2 years ago, although it's something that I'd meant to try for many years. The luscious broccoli Nine Star Perennial which you can see above - so good with a little butter or Hollandaise sauce (or in my case - rather a lot!) It does take up a lot of room though and it's hard to fit in everything - even into a large garden - especially when there's only one gardener - just me! With only very occasional help mowing etc. from other members of the family! I don't ever remember less slug damage to the lush new shoots of plants fast emerging in the borders - that just proves one of the many benefits of having the a very hungry population of birds and other wildlife that I encourage in the garden!
Carrots also need covering completely now with Enviromesh. It's better to sow them in a row, rather than broadcast in a wide band - as I saw someone recommending recently, unless you've got an extremely weed-free soil, otherwise they'll just get smothered by weeds. It's much easier to see where a distinct row is. You really don't want to weed unless you absolutely have to, as the smell of bruised carrot foliage will attract every carrot fly for 10 miles! In a row you can see exactly where the carrots are much more easily, then you can just hoe either side of the row and leave the few weeds in the middle without bruising the foliage and causing the release of scent. Do this very early in the morning - carrot flies only become active around 8 am-ish as the day warms up - so the earlier you can do this the better. Then water the row and cover securely again - carrot flies will get through even the slightest gap. I find that this way I get great crops with no damage. I mostly grow the larger Nantes type carrot all year round now as I think they have by far the best flavour.
Feed your compost heap!
Remember - making compost isn't rocket science - so don't get in a state about it! Many people think it has to be absolutely perfect - it doesn't. Nature does it gradually all on it's own! Weeds can grow incredibly fast at this time of year but all annual weeds can go into the compost heap, so there'll be plenty of material around to make it now! Just make sure you have a good varied mix of soft green material and more fibrous brown and stemmy stuff. If it's going a bit slimy, perhaps because you've added too much cut grass or sappy green stuff, then turn it and mix in more carbon. Material like well shredded newspapers, un-sprayed straw, hay or dried up plant stems and chipped woody prunings will all balance the wet stuff and introduce some air, so that the heap will work better. A shredder is really useful in a large garden, it conveniently chops up things like woody prunings and brassica stems into an ideal size for mixing into the compost heap. Put all your perennial weeds like docks and nettles into a barrel of water - many are deep rooting and bring up very valuable minerals from lower down in the soil profile. Rotted in water they'll make a really good liquid feed combined perhaps with comfrey or nettles. Then when they're totally rotted in a few months - they can then be added to the compost heap along with everything else. I put anything which might attract rodents, like fruit and vegetable scraps, into one of those municipal grey tumbler bins, along with some shredded newspaper and chicken bedding of manure and shavings, to start their decomposing - they can then go onto the heap or the garden if they're well enough rotted. I put a deep tray underneath to catch the drips - there's a surprising amount. I bottle the fluid which runs off, and after storing for a while it makes a good liquid feed diluted to the colour of weak tea. Alternatively you can also add those things to your worm bin if you have one, although worms aren't that keen on tomatoes and really hate citrus fruit skins as they're too acid!
New material is added to the compost heap before it's re-covered to retain heat
Unless you cover compost heaps - then mostly all you're making is a soil conditioner - and all the valuable nutrients will be lost! It will also be emitting greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide. So don't forget to keep compost heaps covered with something waterproof - whatever the time of year. This argument also applies to my deep mulching with manure comments earlier! Covering it also helps to keep the heat in, which makes the heap rot much faster, keeping in the steaming fumes, which then condense back into the heap, stopping possible nitrogen loss into the air. There's no point going to all the trouble to make lovely compost if you then leave it open to all the weather, so that the rain pours through it and washes out all the valuable nutrients, which leach out, run off and are lost, also polluting groundwater. In order to catch any possible run off from heaps it's a good idea to plant comfrey beds beside them, or let nettles grow there - which usually plant themselves! These will capture any nutrients which run off and will then recycle them into a liquid feed or onto the heap again when their leaves are cut.
If you've just started gardening and you don't have enough good compost available yet, or want to 'top up' nutrients for hungry crops, then Osmo Organic Universal granular fertiliser, fish, blood and bonemeal, and seaweed meal are all useful. There are more and more good compound organic fertilisers available now, so don't let fast growing crops go hungry, as if starved they may run quickly to seed. Don't let them be thirsty either - keep them well watered - mulching with things like grass clippings from lawns not treated with chemicals (I hope you wouldn't!) to conserve water wherever possible. Plants can't make use of food without water. Don't just rely on these alone however - you also need the humus that soil microbes make from decomposing plant remains and carbon, found in manures, compost or mulches, in order to protect the structure of the soil and to feed worms and all the billions of microorganisms which live there and make nutrients available to plants, in what's known as a symbiotic relationship - mutually beneficial in other words.
Even if you can get well rotted organic manure - it shouldn't be lashed on. As I said previously - too much can be just as damaging to beneficial soil life as chemical fertilisers. Moderation is the key. You can make up for a shortage of humus by mulching with grass clippings and other plant wastes, making worm compost, growing green manures or cover crops to incorporate into the soil surface and making as much garden compost as you can. Everything helps - the more varied the better. Mushroom compost is highly undesirable though, as if it's non-organic it will almost certainly contain very persistent toxic chemicals which kill vital soil life and may contaminate crops - and apart from that it also has a very high pH, which can again unbalance soil nutrient availability - causing chlorosis and yellowing of leaves. With no large livestock now, I only have hen manure and with only 6 hens there is little enough of that - so I tend to use a lot of mulches and green manures - which are more that way that nature does things anyway!
Planting out tender crops in late May
At the end of the month, or the beginning of June, depending on where you live, you can start to plant out more tender crops like celeriac, celery, sweet corn, courgettes, French and runner beans etc. after properly 'hardening off' (see April). I don't like to put up a fixed structure for beans, as I find individual 8 ft canes work much better on my sometimes extremely windy site. They can then move individually in the wind and when fully-grown don't present a 'fixed wall' or wigwam of beans - which may well all blow over completely, as has happened several times over the years! We often have very strong winds here in our summers! If only one cane blows over, the plants suffer less damage and are far less likely to break,. It's also more easily pick up and supported again than trying to resurrect a whole row! I sow two beans to a 500 ml plastic yogurt pot - I find those an ideal size. Each pot full is then tipped out and planted beside it's own cane. There's still time to sow things like French and runner Beans, sweet corn and squashes. Squashes courgettes and pumpkins in particular grow really fast!
My pumpkin display photographed by Joy Larkcom in 1991
If pumpkins and summer squashes are developing fast, and the weather is not warm enough to plant them out - don't risk planting them too early. If the roots are filling the pots - feed them - pot them on into bigger pots and wait until the weather is warmer. They hate being checked and never crop as well if you allow them to become pot-bound. When you're ready to plant them out - plant them into a nicely prepared, really fertile, sunny spot and stand well back! They grow very quickly, and are wonderful winter food. If ripened properly they will keep for months - in fact I'm usually using the last of my stored ones when I'm sowing the next year's! I've still got some of last year's that are perfect!
When the wonderful garden writer Joy Larkcom was staying here in 1991, she took this terrific photo of some of my squashes on the table in my hall. I love to see them all arranged there in the autumn. They keep really well there for ages as it's dry but quite cool. I almost can't bear to use them as they look so sculptural and decorative! Greed always manages to win over art in the end though! My pumpkin and basil soup is one of the best midwinter 'cheerer-uppers' I know - real comfort food. My kids used to call it 'sunshine soup' - it really reminds one of all the colour and warmth of high summer in the middle of winter. The ones best for storing are not the watery easily carved, over-sized 'Halloween' ones though. You want the really hard, deep orange fleshed, high dry matter varieties like Blue Hubbard, Crown Prince, Marina di Chioggia, Queensland Blue, Hokkaido, Golden Hubbard, Pink Banana and Buttercup. These will store for at least six months if ripened well and are another vegetable which ripens more and increases in Vitamin A with storage. The ones that start off blue all turn pink as they ripen more with age. They can be used in exactly the same way as 'butternut' squashes, but are much tastier! These are all available from The Organic Catalogue, Suttons, Simpsons, Real Seeds, Mr. Fothergill's etc. and grow so quickly that you've still got time to sow them even in June in pots, when their germination will be more reliable and slug proof than outside! My tips on sowing all the cucurbit family are in this month's polytunnel diary.
In early May there's so much to look forward to!
Now at last winter is over - but we haven't quite said goodbye to Spring. Don't be in too much of a hurry to plant out tender crops yet or to sow into soil that may still be cold and wet. Despite the gloriously sunny weather of last weekend's Bank Holiday - we're not quite into summer yet - so it's back to jeans and wellies - it's definitely not shorts weather! This morning there's a freezing south-easterly gale blowing in from the Irish Sea with blossom and leaves lying everywhere! The garden looks a bit like the aftermath of a wedding! We're in that sort of halfway time now - the ante-room for real summer. This morning's gales will do a lot of damage to the blossom in the orchard and to any outside crops. There won't be too many bees flying today either!
Every day now there's something new, fresh and green to enjoy in the garden and fruit bursting into promisingly beautiful flower.Luckily, despite some cold nights over the last couple of weeks, there are now plenty of insects around for birds to eat and many beneficial ones like hoverflies that will deal with any aphids.Despite the cold nights we've had some lovely warm sunny days too. Suddenly everything is lush and burstingly green and you can almost hear things growing! It's so good to feel that urgent sense of regeneration and hope in Nature again, after months of winter.
Don't worry about the stuff you haven't done - if like me you're behind either because of the difficult weather, or for some other reason - life getting in the way as it does, be realistic - it doesn't have to be perfect! Remember that the most important thing of all to do in your garden is to enjoy it! Even the smallest bit of home grown produce is a real achievement - so celebrate it!
Happy gardening.....and Happy Eating! We've got an exciting summer of delicious produce to look forward to - aren't we so lucky!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
May contents:The Joy of Seasonal Eating.... Make more Wonderful Watercress.....There's a Growing Excitement again about Tomatoes!.....There's a lot more to Polytunnels than just growing Tomatoes!.....Cucumbers, Melons and Courgettes - the Cucurbitaceae family - propagating and planting.....Planting Aubergines and Sweet Peppers.....Climbing French Beans, early Broad Beans and Peas.....Sweetcorn - inter-cropping or cover cropping, with late Celery or Squashes.....Sweet Potatoes, Oca, Yacon and Mashua.....Other crops - Figs, Grapes and Strawberries.
My Polytunnel Potager on May day 2018 - Couldn't get up there to take one this year with my broken ankle, but it's always summer in here no matter how grey the day!
Goodbye Summer (at Easter) and hello again Winter! Did anyone happen to see where Spring went?
Some people dance around Maypoles on May Day - I usually dance for joy around my Polytunnel Potager - except this year I couldn't even walk up to sit in there with my broken ankle! It's always such a privilege to be in there working and listening to happily buzzing, busy bees and all the birds singing for joy.The polytunnel is an indispensable aid to producing our own food all year round - especially in what has so far been a really erratic year weather-wise outside. The soil even in the raised beds is still far too wet to work as for most of the winter they've been looking more like floating islands! This bank holiday weekend has so far been freezing - unlike the record high Easter temperatures only a couple of weeks ago!
After the winter weather - which seemed to keep coming back for another bite, just when we thought it was gone and summer had arrived - the seasons seemed to have been condensed somehow- getting all mixed up!Many of the winter vegetables like lettuces, chicories and chards have hung on much later than usual as you can see from the photo above which I took on May Day. Lovely to still have all these lush crops available in what is traditionally known as the 'Hungry Gap' - but it means that that they're still taking up space in the tunnel, when in theory they should be gone. I should now be getting beds ready for planting summer crops like tomatoes, French beans and early courgettes. The winter leaf crops are only just starting to bolt and run up to flower now, and will still be tender and usable for at least another couple of weeks yet, if well-watered, so it would be a sin to take them out - especially since outside crops are non-existent now after the bitter winter!
Jack Ice - finally starting to bolt after cropping since last October!
The bolting lettuce will also be used up to make one of my favourite early summer soups - lettuce and lovage - an annual treat that uses up fast-bolting tunnel lettuce in May.Many people would just throw it onto the compost heap at this stage - but it's still perfectly edible - even if a little stronger tasting. I have three large lovage plants growing in large pots for bringing into the polytunnel early, specifically for making this divine soup. It starts growing too late outside and would otherwise be too late for the bolting tunnel lettuce. So every March I bring them into the tunnel early to force them into growth in time to make the soup - plants growing outside would be far too late for the bolting tunnel lettuce. I really look forward to this soup every year. Oddly enough - I never make it at any other time of year - probably because the rest of the year there's just so much else to eat! My soup (recipe below) is great for using up the last of the stronger-flavoured, bolting overwintered lettuce that is no longer nice in salads, and it avoids wasting precious healthy nutrients at a time of year when any fresh veg are welcome! Green lettuce is best for this soup I think - the red ones tend to look a bit of an unattractive 'mud'-colour! The last of the spinach is mostly frozen - making handy 'ready-prepared' veg for super-fast meals and also for throwing into soups and smoothies. I just wash it if necessary, dry it in the salad spinner to get rid of any excess water and then freeze it as fast as possible! The bolting chicory is enjoyed by the hens and I always transplant a few chicories outside into the bee and butterfly border for the
beautiful blue flowers that bees and other insects love - and then later on the plants produce seeds which birds like Goldfinches enjoy. Nothing is ever wasted here!
We try to be as self-sufficient in both veg and fruit as possible here and rarely buy anything - I can't bear to waste any part of nutritious vegetables - so I try to make a point of using everything - even bolting veg which many people would just throw onto their compost heap. It's a sin to waste anything when it's still so full of healthy nutrients. If I can't use things immediately I usually freeze them for quick meals later. Recently I've been busy until late at night in the kitchen dealing with the spinach and chard mountain by washing and freezing it as fast as I can! Spinach is such a useful veg to have in the freezer as a standby for quick meals and can be thrown straight into the saucepan from frozen to make a great soup or side veg.
Eating seasonally is what humans always did until relatively recently and I believe that we don't need summer vegetables in winter - otherwise what on earth is there to look forward to? Recently in Dublin I was appalled to see 200g bags of baby spinach, imported from Italy, in a supermarket for €3 - when wilted down that would be about a tablespoon after cooking - barely a portion! That is a shocking price for something that's so easy to grow here all year round even without any additional heat. Imports of such crops are driven by supermarkets looking for the lowest price possible from suppliers all year round! That is a practise which really needs to stop if we are genuine about reducing our carbon footprint, and trying to tackle climate change in a meaningful way! The only difference in terms of carbon footprint, between that spinach grown in Italy and spinach grown here is the distance it has to travel, from where it is grown to where it is consumed. The other important difference is that it is actually not as nutritious - having not just travelled further, but from a different time zone, which will have upset it's circadian rhythm. Yes - plants obey circadian rhythms just like we do - and they can get jet lag too, believe it or not! That means that the phytonutrients in that plant will have been affected, and they are linked to flavour.
That imported, out of season, cosmetically perfect produce often looks as tempting and attractive as 'Snow White's' poisonous apple! But that apple is almost always a huge disappointment in terms of flavour - often with bitter, tough, inedible skin and over-sweet flesh. It's the same story with so much other produce that's imported. It's a pointless waste of money - usually full of chemicals if not organic, and often grown with chemicals which are banned in the EU!. Again it will have a massive carbon footprint in terms of travel air miles alone!. Even when it''s organic - imported shop-bought, or even locally-grown organic food can never compare with the flavour, freshness or nutritional content of your very own fresh-picked, home-grown organic produce! The often poorer nutritional content of produce imported from the other side of the world, or even from closer to us in Southern Europe is something I talk about in this blog post here:
Is there ever anything to compare with the very first taste of anything, each year? How boring would our annual food supply be f it was hardly ever punctuated by the season's first of anything - but instead we just had the same continuous diet of what the supermarkets want to sell us all year round? Year-round availability of the most common fruits and vegetables, out of their normal season here, imported from God-knows-where, has actually ruined the seasonal anticipation of crops. That anticipation and then childlike enjoyment of the very first, mouthwatering burst of each new flavour in each season is so exciting! That first furry peach, aromatic melon - or the first asparagus! People who are limited to the range of what is now available now in supermarkets don't know what they're missing. No wonder so many children will only eat frozen peas, carrots and broccoli - when most of the time that's all that is available in supermarkets! Children need to get used to a wide range of different tastes at an early age - or they may remain 'picky', perhaps refusing to eat only the veg they know - or none at all - all their lives. This can have serious consequences for their health later on in life. Even farmers markets are often little better in the UK or Ireland - although to be fair, many of the organic growers are more adventurous, as most of the growers would be alternative thinkers in the first place! H
ow lucky we are as gardeners - that we are able to have so many 'first taste this year' of so many treats at so many different times, during every single year?
There is no doubt that buying something which is tired and already several days old from your supermarket can never rival the enormous sense of achievement and satisfaction you can get from enjoying the well-earned fruits of your own labours - especially if the produce been grown in an organic, sustainable and nature-friendly way. There is simply nothing like the satisfying crunchy sweetness of that first mangetout, the first May strawberry or the first apple of autumn. There are so many mouthfuls of summer delights we have to look forward to at this time of year. The first of the cherry tomatoes in June, a sun-warmed juicy peach in July, or that August morning when you open the tunnel door and the scent of a ripe warm melon hits you - and you cradle it in your hand, the fruit slightly cracking where it joins the stem in readiness to drop off the vine. It doesn't get the chance here - the pruning knife slices into a juicy ripe melon in a very satisfying way! Simply nectar for the Gods - and the ultimate in take-away breakfasts! I have to admit that the very first of anything in this garden very rarely reaches the kitchen - that's the gardener's extra special reward!!
Make more Wonderful Watercress
Thinking seasonally - one of my other winter standby veg that needs attention right now is watercress. Although watercress is a perennial plant - it needs renewing each year or it becomes tough, peppery and not nice to eat! It's just starting to flower now after a few hot sunny days in the polytunnel - so now is the time that I take 'Irishman's cuttings'. That term means with a few roots attached - for further rooting in a jar of water, and then planting in a damp, shady spot outside for the summer. It will continue to provide lush crops there throughout the summer and then in August I will take more cuttings which will provide a polytunnel crop throughout next winter. Contrary to what many people say - it doesn't need running water or even a pond to grow. It just needs a constantly moist soil that doesn't dry out. In fact growing it at home is far safer than watercress growing beside or in streams - as that can provide habitat for a nasty little snail that carries the dangerous liver fluke pest - especially if there are sheep or cattle grazing nearby or upstream. So it's far safer to grow it in garden soil! I will leave the old plants in the tunnel for as long as I can, until I need that spot for another crop - because the bees adore the flowers.
If you don't have plants already - there's no need to sow watercress from seed. You can easily root it in just a few days in a jar of water, if you buy some watercress salad leaves in a bag - or find some in a bag of mixed salad leaves. Just pinch off any yellowing leaves at the bottom ends of the shoots and put them in a jar of water. When they have formed roots in 3-4 days - either plant them in garden soil or in pots of organic peat-free compost and keep them moist in a shady place where they won't dry out. In August you can then take more new shoots from those plants to root for planting in early September. Those plants will crop really well throughout the winter. I've kept the same plants going for about 12 years now by taking new cuttings twice a year. It's as easy as falling off a log! The only pests of watercress are slugs and cabbage white butterflies - whose caterpillars can decimate plants entirely almost overnight - because they're very difficult to see until it's too late! So keep an eye out for them!
(My easy recipe for the cream of spinach soup shown below - or any other greens such as watercress or lettuce can be found here:
Cream of spring spinach, lettuce or watercress soup - so delicious and easy
There's so much to do in the tunnel in this season that the pace of work is really hectic - but there's also much to look forward to! My mouth's already watering at the prospect of that first fabulous tasting tomato - will it be Maskotka, Sungold, Chiquito or John Baer? This year they're a bit later due to the cold weather. but some of their first flowers are already open while they're still in small pots! I'm growing a couple of new varieties this year which are supposedly very early but I expect it will probably be the wonderful Maskotka first as usual, particularly since it already has tiny green fruit on it the size of small marbles. But John Baer won't be far behind - and they both have wonderful flavour. After those earliest tomatoes, in a few weeks the beefsteaks will start to crop - and there truly is nothing like the taste of that first Caprese salad of buffalo mozzarella and a good beefsteak like Pantano Romanesco with an aromatic basil dressing, accompanied by some home-baked crispy warm ciabatta bread! Mmm - I can almost taste and smell it just thinking abut it!
At this time of year, I've usually had at least two of my five-a-day before I even have 'proper' breakfast! Unless there's a howling gale - then breakfast or brunch in the tunnel accompanied by birdsong is a must. Even on a dull day at this time of year the tunnel is warm. Most normal people put decking outside in their gardens - but I have some inside one of my tunnels so that I can sit in there at a table whatever the weather! Even when I was growing commercially, I always had a small table and chair to sit in one of my tunnels. It's a great place to plan and think. Pre-breakfast snacks at this time of year and for the rest of the summer mostly consist of 'grazing' my way around the tunnels on whatever happens to be good at the time and within arm's reach as I do my morning watering! I'm really missing being able to get up to the tunnels at the moment due to my broken ankle - but luckily my son and daughter between them have managed to keep everything alive in relays, and in another couple of weeks I may be able to hobble up there and potter!
There's a growing excitement about tomatoes again!
Exciting new tomato 'Indigo Rose'- naturally high in cancer- fighting plant phytochemicals
The lure of finding a good new tomato variety is always totally irresistible for me. I'm growing a few new varieties again this year for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2019 - which is again being held at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, in August this year! (For more info see my Polytunnel & Greenhouse diary for March). The best news for me of course is that once again - it's not me who is organising it!! So I have all the excuse I needed to try a few exciting new varieties (new to me anyway) - and to get all the fun and flavour, but without the hassle! The reason I came up with the idea of holding the very first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012 was to demonstrate and celebrate the remarkable beauty and genetic diversity of tomatoes - and to make people aware of just how vitally important it is that we preserve all of their valuable genes. Not to mention the wonderfully healthy nutrients they contain - and also the fact that they're one of the most versatile fruits or vegetables there is! Just imagine if some deadly disease were to strike tomatoes, that there was no organic, or even (God forbid!) chemical way of dealing with - so no more tomatoes? Can you imagine a life without tomatoes and all the wonderful things we can do with them? If that were to happen - there could just be one tomato hidden away somewhere, that might possibly hold the only genetic key to resisting that disease. Plant breeders could then use it's genes to produce new strains of tomatoes resistant to the disease. This is true of so many other food crops too. Preserving all genetic diversity is vitally important. Tomatoes were just a really great way to show that to people. Plant breeders are busy now using wild and Heritage varieties to produce new strains which are even more full of healthy nutrients too.
The tomato pictured here - Indigo Rose - was one of the first of a new breed of naturally-bred tomatoes that are high in the healthy plant phytochemicals called anthocyanins.These nutrients are brilliant for our health - boosting our immune and circulatory systems and protecting us from a number of major diseases. Seed of Indigo Rose was first released to gardeners in the USA in early 2012 - it's stunning looks were what gave me the idea of holding the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival. I first held a tomato day back in the late 80's - but sadly Indigo Rose wasn't around then. Diversity isn't just about saving old heritage varieties - although that's vitally important. It's also about preserving good, modern, naturally-bred varieties too. If you grow tomatoes at all - do come along to the Festival, bring your tomatoes to show off too and join in the fun!
There's a lot more to Polytunnels than just growing Tomatoes!
Me in the big polytunnel behind what I call the 'Emperor's New Clothes Plant' - Yacon. The latest fashionable 'must-have' plant!
Cucumbers, Melons and Courgettes - the Cucurbitaceae family
7 cucumbers ready to pick on this Burpless Tasty Green plant in large tub!
I think the next most common tunnel or greenhouse crop to tomatoes that people grow is probably cucumbers - because you really can't beat the taste of homegrown ones - especially the older varieties which I personally think have more flavour. I've been growing Burpless Tasty green for around 35 years now - and I still think it can't be beaten for easiness of growing, flavour or productivity for home gardeners. Seed of BTG is also incredibly cheap compared to the more 'prima donna-ish' newer hybrids - you'll get about 20 seeds for the price of just one seed of those expensive F1 varieties! I always plant cucumber and melon plants on a slight mound, watering them in carefully with tepid water -never cold. After that I NEVER water very close to their stems again, as they can be very prone to root rots just where the stem meets the soil. I always use tunnel temperature water to water them around their outer root area - using water from the water butt kept in the tunnel specifically for that purpose. I never use cold water from a hose! I tend to give them a slightly richer soil than I would give tomatoes, again preparing the soil in the same way a few days beforehand but also forking in a nice bucketful of good compost or well-rotted manure per planting spot. I then water the prospective planting site thoroughly and leave it for a couple of days for the soil to settle and warm up. If I'm growing more than one plant I plant them roughly 3ft/1m apart. I plant my early tunnel courgettes in exactly the same way. Doing this ensures that I never have any root problems.
For those of you who are buying plants from garden centres rather than using plants you have grown from seed - make sure you inspect them very carefully! If there's any sign of browning, cracking or other damage on on the stem anywhere, particularly where it meets the compost at the top of the root ball - then DON'T BUY THE PLANT! That's always the first sign of root rots setting in. Very often these plants reach the nursery or garden centre from the suppliers perfectly fine - then they might get watered with a cold spray from a garden centre hose, very often by someone untrained, who wouldn't know a cucumber from a cabbage. That means that plants can be well on the way to root rots before you even buy them - but you won't know that, and think when they wilt and collapse a week or two later that it was your fault! Another tell-tale sign of this is wilting - even though the compost feels damp. That is always an indicator of root problems. A mistake many beginners often make is that because they see something wilting - they think the plants need more water (I can't tell you how many plants I lost that way when I first started growing things!) but it almost always means that there is a problem with the roots and the last thing they need is even more water, which will make things even worse! That's why it's generally safer to grow them from seed yourself, in a good, free-draining, peat-free compost, and once they have started growing well and need water - always water them from the bottom by sitting them in tepid water for a couple of minutes, so they can drink what they need, rather than giving them too much.
The other thing which may affect cucumbers is Sciarid fly maggots in the compost - these flies are attracted to peat composts, and their tiny larvae or maggots will eat away at fine roots. So that's another reason why we shouldn't be using peat composts (apart from the fact that using them is destroying bogs and adding hugely to climate change)! Once those flies are in the compost - you won't get rid of them, so you're better off taking them right out of your greenhouse or propagating frame, so they can't migrate to any other plants, and dumping them! Luckily cucumbers and courgettes are very fast-growing plants, so unless it's very late in the summer - you can always sow some more. When I have sown my cucumber seed, I always top the peat-free compost with vermiculite or sharp sand, and never over water them. If you follow this rule - you won';t have problems with Sciarid flies laying eggs into the compost.
There's still plenty of time to sow them now for a mid - late summer (or even an autumn crop with the small gherkin types). It's best not to start them off too early anyway, as it can be difficult to give them enough warmth at the roots early on to keep them growing on really well, because another thing that all the cucurbit family hates is being pot-bound and getting checked. Pumpkins in particular really hate this as they make huge root systems - and if they get 'pot-bound' before planting out they never really do as well afterwards. Some years ago I was sent some half-sized grafted cucumbers for trialling. To be honest I wasn't that impressed with them compared to my usual varieties and they also brought in red spider mite - which didn't please me, as I then had to go to the expense of buying a biological control! A very good half-sized cucumber, ideal if the larger ones go off before you use all of them is Restina - the seed of which I got from Lidl of all places! It's a gherkin type which is useful for pickling or grows to make a very nice half-sized tasty cucumber too - and it's incredibly productive, as many of the gherkin types are.
While I'm on the subject of peat use - I'm always trying to think of ways that I can lower my personal carbon footprint, and not using peat in our gardens can make a huge difference to carbon emissions. No gardener who is concerned about climate change and loss of Nature should be using it. Not using peat is something which all gardeners can do now that there are plenty of excellent peat-free alternatives available. Peatlands form only 3% of the planet's land surface - but they are massive 'carbon sinks' - storing twice as much carbon as all currently standing forests. That's a pretty mind-boggling statistic! We must stop digging them up now! In their natural wet, un-drained state - peatlands also sequester huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere through all the native plants which grow in them, especially Spaghnum mosses - trapping it underground as carbon. Their capacity for regulating climate is actually far greater than that of forests.
Pumpkins and Squashes
The sword in the stone! Attacking an 8 month-stored 2.8kg (6lb 3ozs) Queensland Blue in late April.
Pumpkins and squashes are one of my most important staple crops,which I start off from seed in late April to mid-May in the propagator. If ripened properly, they store incredibly well through the winter, and I always expect any I have left to keep well until I am sowing the next year's ones. I grow the really dense fleshed ones - and these actually increase in beta-carotene, as they ripen even more while they are stored over the winter. You don't think of vegetable crops as being alive after they have been harvested - but they actually are. After they've been harvested a lot is still going on inside the cells of the plant - whatever type of plant it is! It always fascinates me how a pumpkin that starts off with a turquoise blue skin at harvesting time in late autumn can gradually change over the winter to an even more beautiful deep orange pink, like the Queensland Blue pictured here, which is a fantastic keeper.
I usually grow at least six varieties of long-keeping squashes or pumpkins - and they are all so beautiful to look at, that being an artist I hate to cut them up for cooking! But the really good varieties also taste fantastic too, just like sweet potatoes but much firmer - so I get over it! The giant pumpkins sold for Halloween are totally useless for storing - and also cooking - they are utterly tasteless and watery compared to the ones I grow. Some of the best varieties to grow are Golden Hubbard, Blue Hubbard, Invincible, Crown Prince, Hokkaido, Giant Pink Banana, Buttercup, Marina di Chioggia and Queensland Blue. Cutting up a well-ripened Queensland Blue is a bit like breaking and entering! You need a really stout knife or hatchet to safely cut into those babies! We roast wedges in the oven with garlic and a little butter and oil - and they are absolutely delicious! They're also fantastic for the best ever pumpkin pies and soups (recipe elsewhere) and you can even use their flesh in cakes and smoothies too. A friend who was here yesterday said she made the most fabulous curry with one I gave her a couple of weeks ago - I must get that recipe!
Advice for propagating and planting all the cucumber family
I propagate all my cucurbitaceae family (courgettes, pumpkins, melons etc..) in exactly the same way. I sow them in 3 inch pots singly, on their sides, edge of the seed up, about 1/2 in deep, covering with vermiculite, and water in with tepid water. After this, I cover the pot with a polythene bag and germinate them in a propagator at approx 20 deg C plus/68degF. After this - I never water from the top again - always from underneath by sitting them in water for a couple of minutes. I keep them steadily growing well, even potting on if necessary, before it's warm enough to plant in the soil either in the tunnel or outside.
Cucumbers in particular need night time temperatures of at least 20 deg.C to grow on really well after planting out. Unlike tomatoes, cucumbers and melons love sauna-like conditions - humidity and warmth, so the place to grow them is in the middle of your tunnel or greenhouse where they won't be in a draught and it will be a bit more humid. Or if you have more than one tunnel - then give them a tunnel to themselves. I must say I miss the four tunnels I used to have when I was growing commercially - my rotations were just so much easier. After planting, always water at the base of the mound they're planted on - not against the stem - and with tunnel temperature water, as I said previously. You shouldn't have a problem with rot if you do this. Don't over water, but never let them dry out either, or you may encourage powdery mildew to develop on the leaves, which is caused by dryness at the roots combined with high humidity. This is a particular problem in the autumn as cooler nights encourage it. Then a good moisture-retaining mulch of grass clippings or compost after planting (again kept well away - about 10 cm or 4 inches away from the stem) will help to keep mildew at bay by keeping the outer roots moist. With cucumbers - stop (pinch out) the main stem once it reaches the top of whatever support you're training it up, then stop any lateral (side) shoots at the fourth leaf joint and any sub-laterals (side shoots from the side shoots!) at the second leaf joint beyond the first good fruit. If you're growing an 'all female' variety of cucumber, take out any male flowers immediately if any appear - this sometime happens if the plant is stressed in some way. Female flowers have a tiny cucumber behind the flower, male ones just have a plain stem behind the flower. I let my pumpkins and squashes trail along the beds, stopping the main shoot at 4-6 leaf joints, and then stopping any side shoots that develop fruits 3-4 leaves beyond the fruits. Doin this stops them becoming too rampant, and concentrates their energy into developing their fruits.
I plant my melons on a mound in exactly the same way, but I prefer to grow them trailing on the ground, rather than climbing, using a side bed, rather than training them up a string or net, which I basically don't have time for as it's so fiddly. Again, I pinch out the main stem when five leaves have developed. The plant should then develop four or five side shoots, which will bear the fruits. Pinch these out when they reach the extent of their space, or at five leaves - these will then develop the lateral shoots which will bear more fruits. Bees will often pollinate these for you if there are lots around, but to ensure pollination, you can pick a male flower and push it gently into a female flower when they develop. The best time to do this is around midday when it's warm enough for the pollen to develop and the atmosphere isn't too humid. Careful watering of these in the same way as cucumbers is again absolutely key. When the fruits have formed - put each developing fruit on something like a piece of wood, slate or an upturned pot to stop any chance of them rotting where they're in contact with the soil and where there's less likelihood of slugs nibbling them. This also attracts warmth which helps to ripen them. (This is something I was asked about at a talk last year in respect of pumpkins - this is a good way stop them rotting outside in the garden too) You'll know when melons are starting to ripen by keeping an eye on the stem - when a crack start to develop just around where the stalk joins the fruit - and you also get that unmistakable scent - you can be sure they're ripe. I promise you that when you taste your first home grown, perfectly ripe, sweet and aromatic melon - you will be totally hooked!
Ridiculously productive Atena courgette in late May
There's still plenty of time to sow pumpkins, courgettes etc. for planting outside, or better still in the polytunnel if you have space. You are guaranteed a really good crop in the tunnel in our often unreliable wet summers! My courgettes always crop until November in the tunnel, making them really worth the space - those outside give up much earlier. I don't bother with green courgettes much now - maybe one or two plants - I grow the yellow one 'Atena Polka', a firm, deliciously sweet variety, not at all 'cabbagey tasting' like most yellow ones - and also far more productive than any of the other yellow ones I've ever tried. Everyone loves it's sweet flavour. It's very like the variety 'Eldorado' that Suttons sold in the early 1990's. I saved seed for several years, but then sadly lost it. It was quite variable though, as it had originally been an F1 hybrid. I prefer to sow all my courgettes in pots too. Although in theory all the books say you can sow courgettes etc. outside from the beginning of June, in my experience those sown inside now (or inside anytime for that matter) will still be miles ahead, far less likely to be eaten by slugs or other pests, and will crop far more quickly than any sown directly outside. I often think that most seed sowing instructions are written by companies mostly located in the south or west of the UK. In our part of Ireland or the north of the UK, and the growing season is considerably colder and shorter than other places, so use every aid possible to speed things up! Sow them in exactly the same way as the pumpkins etc.above. I usually grow a couple of Atena in large tubs in the fruit tunnel for some early courgettes, then pull these out as soon as those outside, or planted in the ground in the other tunnel are cropping. After a while in tubs they tend to get mildew aa they hate the root restriction, but they provide a really useful early crop this way.
Planting Aubergines and Sweet Peppers
Aubergine 'Bonica' in July You can plant out Aubergines and sweet peppers towards the middle/end of the month too if it's warm enough - these like a really warm soil. If you have too many Solanacae (tomato family) to fit in with your rotations these will grow well in large pots on grow bags trays or sitting on plastic. I grow them in 10lt. pots, 3 pots to each grow bag tray. This means I can water into the tray rather than the pots, when plants are bigger and need more watering or feeding. I like to plant both aubergines and peppers on slight mounds - with the soil sloping away from the stem - towards the sides of the pot, as this prevents root rotting - to which they are both particularly susceptible. Don't let the plants root through the bottom of the pots into the tunnel soil, or it will mess up your rotation plan in just the same way as if they were in the ground! They require the same careful watering as most other things, never against the base of the stem - always around the outside of the pot if necessary. Be careful never to over water in case the weather then turns cold.
Aubergines are the only one of this family that I would be inclined to mist over - but only if the weather is very hot and the atmosphere very dry in your greenhouse or tunnel, as they can be very susceptible to red spider mite. By the way - if you can actually see tiny very fast moving red spiders, these are usually the predatory mite - Phytoseilius Persimilis. This means you are lucky, as this is what you would normally have to buy to control red spider. Many people confuse it with spider mite but it is very fast moving and visibly red. I often see them in the tunnel and the conservatory. The red spider mite pest you actually can't actually see without a hand lens, it shows itself by a sort of dusty, dry, silvering of the leaves, and if it is a very bad infestation, by dusty fine webs on young shoots as well. Red spider hates humidity, so misting over any affected plants a couple of times a day with a fine mister spray is a good idea. If you get a bad infestation you will have to buy the predatory Phytoseilius. It is very effective - but as it costs around 40 euros for a decent sized greenhouse - you obviously want to avoid it if you can!
Climbing French Beans, early Broad Beans and Peas
Climbing French beansare a fantastically productive tunnel crop. You can always be sure of a good crop inside - even in a miserable summer. I grow the variety 'Cobra' (very cheap seed in B&Q) it's a round-podded stringless bean - actually an improved form of 'Blue Lake' and is fantastically reliable - both indoors and outside in the garden. I always grow a lot as it also freezes exceptionally well and it's nice to have a bit of a change from cabbages, leeks and chard in the winter! I sow two or three seeds (pre-sprouted on damp kitchen paper) into a recycled 500ml plastic yogurt pot or milk cartons, gently pulling out the weakest if three germinate, leaving two, planting them out when they have a good root-ball but just before they get too friendly and start winding round each other! Again, always watering from underneath by sitting the whole tray of seedlings in water for a few minutes rather than pouring water into their tops. They are also extremely susceptible to root rots at soil level. Milk cartons unzip very conveniently along the join in the carton and then I plant the whole pot out about a foot/30cm apart on a very slight mound made by making a depression between each set of plants. After that I always water between plants - again never against the base of the stem. Follow these instructions and I can promise you that you will not only fill your freezer but be giving away beans! The flat podded French beans don't freeze as well as the round ones, but have a very good flavour fresh and are very productive. I don't bother with dwarf beans in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same ground space but don't crop anything like as well. What I term 'high-rise' crops are much better value for the space they take up in a tunnel, cropping skywards as they do - just as long as you stop them at the top of their canes or supports, leaving enough room for air to circulate well.
The flat-podded mangetout pea Oregon Sugar Pod will be cropping in about four weeks. The mangetout 'Delikett' won't be far behind those. Delikett is a deliciously sweet sugar snap (round podded) variety which never gets stringy, and goes on cropping for ages. When it gets really huge it can also be podded and the peas used separately. It crops really well in the tunnel from an early February sowing, as does Shiraz. I sow these quite thickly in large recycled plastic fruit punnets, I never bother spacing them out too well. about 8-10 punnets gives me a 10 foot row from a whole packet of seed. That works well, as I usually then give the 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean - pictured here - the other half of the row.
Originally from the HDRA seed library - now known as the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library - I've been re-selecting and saving seed of this fabulous flavoured one for well over 30 years now. Re-selecting for traits like taller, heavier cropping plants. At one time it was extremely rare and one couldn't buy it - but several seed companies are selling it now - although I don't think they are as good as my selection which is quite improved from the one I originally got. It's not the biggest cropper, only four or five seeds to a pod, but it does produce a lot of pods on the now taller plants and has an incredible flavour - the best of any broad bean. The small undeveloped pods are nice too if picked early and cooked whole - they have the same flavour as the broad bean seeds. It's also extremely decorative and worth growing just for the flowers and perfume alone, which really hits you when you walk into the tunnel in the evenings. The best thing for me though - is that when it's flowering it's full of deliriously happy bees all day long! They love it just as much as I do!
Sweetcorn - inter-cropping (or cover cropping) with late celery or squashes
If you've got a large tunnel and have room for a small block or row of sweetcorn plants, they're much more reliable in the tunnel than outdoors in our wet summers, as a dry atmosphere at pollination time is vital. In Ireland we often get a wet spell just when the outside ones are producing their pollen - resulting either in very disappointing cobs or none at all! Although they do take up a lot of space, I often sow late self blanching celery now or in mid June - to plant between the sweetcorn plants for a late autumn/Christmas crop. Celery appreciates the shade of the sweetcorn as long as you don't let the soil dry out and will crop well all winter if you just snap off one or two stalks at a time rather than cutting the whole head. Celery is one of the things I can't do without in the kitchen, so I like to have my own available for as long as I can. Sweet corn can also be sown now in a deep pot, again removing the weakest to leave two in the pot, then planting them out into the tunnel bed when they're about 6-8in/15cm high, about 18in - 2ft./45-60cm each way, that leaves room for the celery. Sweetcorn hates root disturbance so be careful not to break up the root ball when planting. They're a great crop to follow on after my extra early potatoes, the bed should have been well composted or manured for the potatoes, so both the sweet corn and the celery will be very happy with just a light dressing of a general organic fertiliser such as 'Osmo Universal' certified organic fertiliser granules. The celery is slower growing, and after the sweet corn has cropped, I just chop the stems off at the base with secateurs and let the celery grow on into the autumn. It should keep well until at least Christmas, and you can always leave some of the bare sweet corn stems cut at about 2ft/40cm if you like - to act as support for the fleece which you may need to cover the celery with in late autumn! By the way - when the sweetcorn is pollinating - make sure to go along the row and shake some of them - around midday if possible, to spread the pollen, as they're normally wind pollinated. This way you are guaranteed great crops.
You could alternatively grow pumpkins or squashes with your sweetcorn as long as they can trail outside the rows to get plenty of light - thus again ensuring two crops that need dry weather - in case we get another awful summer! In my experience, the famous '3 sisters' Native American way of combining them both with climbing beans as well, doesn't work here in Ireland! Amusingly trendy right now, and a great talking point for those who want to try - but frankly not a productive way to grow them here, either inside or outside. We don't have the same hot, dry summers and intense continental light that they have in the USA. Low cloud and warm grey mist can often be the best part of our summers here. At the end of the day - productivity is the whole point for me - as we aim to be as self-sufficient as possible and don't have space or energy to waste on unproductive crops just to be trendy and talk about!
Sweet Potatoes, Oca, Yacon and Mashua
Another great crop which makes a good break in the tunnel rotation is sweet potatoes. These aren't related to anything else so make a really good 'break' in the tunnel rotation and can be very productive if you know how to grow them. Some of the 'so-called experts' obviously don't however - as they tell you to plant them in very fertile soil! If you do that - all you'll get is a great crop of enormous leaves!! Ignore their advice and plant them in a deep, well-drained soil used by a previous crop - and only add a light dusting of seaweed meal before planting - then mulch with grass clippings or comfrey to keep any weeds down and water just to keep the soil moist after that. Never over-water or they can start to rot. I plant mine about 2 ft/60 cm apart and just leave them to ramble along the ground. They are quite happy there - forming extra roots along the stems which you can use for 'slips' - or cuttings later on. I've seen people train them up trellises - but those seem far too lusciously leafy to me to be very productive tuber-wise! I've tried them in large pots before but they weren't very happy - but a few years ago I tried them in my new 'skip bag' raised beds. They were incredibly happy - I think they loved the great depth of soil. I planted them following on from some 'extra-early' normal potatoes that I'd grown in the skip bag. Again planting them and adding only a little seaweed meal until starting to feed in August in the same way as those planted in the ground. They produced a huge crop and it's something I do every year now.
Now for my top sweet potato tip! In early August I start to feed the plants with a high potash tomato feed like Osmo liquid Tomato feed whenever I need to water them. This is because it's only after then that they start to develop their tubers, triggered by the shortening days, as they are 'day length sensitive' sub-tropical plants. They will they go on developing the tubers until the soil begins to cool or there is frost, so usually early November here. Outside in most areas of the UK and Ireland they would be pretty much a waste of time as it's usually far too cold and wet in the autumn and they stop growing too soon to give a really worthwhile crop. A few years ago, I successfully overwintered late autumn 'slips' in well drained, barely watered pots in the house. Last year I thought I would try to overwinter some in very well drained soil in the cold tunnel but lost the lot. They seem to be very prone to rotting under about 50degF/10degC. and won't even keep after harvesting unless I keep them in the house somewhere over that temperature. Some of the garden centres and multiples may have plants of 'Beauregarde' fairly soon - which is a good variety to grow. It has delicious deep orange flesh and is the most reliable for home gardeners. Johnstown Garden Centre had one called Bonita for the last two years, a white-fleshed variety which did very well and produced even bigger tubers than Beauregarde, and also one called Murusaki which was similar. Orleans is an improved form of Beauregarde - giving bigger tubers but less of them. Two years ago I tried a purple one which I don't know the name of sadly - I bought tubers from organic grower friend Denis Healy's farmers market stall and managed to root cuttings of it. I thought they were worth trying as I love the purple ones - they were from Spain, rather than further afield, and they did well in a polytunnel here.
Oca is another tender-ish crop which forms it's delicious lemony flavoured tubers in the late autumn- but beware - once you have grown it in the tunnel you will always have it as even the tiniest tubers will grow again the following year! That said - it's not really a thug, is easy to grow and like sweet potatoes is a good break crop. The small tubers are like floury lemon flavoured new potatoes - nice steamed and served with fish. You can also eat the delicious sharp flavoured leaves and pretty, small star-shaped yellow flowers in salads in moderation. Moderation is the key though - you don't want too much of it!
Something that again some 'experts' fail to tell you - or may not even know, is that Oca is actually a member of the sorrel family and so is extremely high in oxalic acid - too much of which could give you kidney stones, if you are susceptible!Some garden writers who should know better, are now even suggesting it as the new alternative to potatoes - as a staple root crop that won't get blight. Even those who write about 'healthy eating' - which is quite astonishing! They clearly haven't done their research properly! I've done a lot of research over the years into the nutritional qualities of crops, as it's something I've always been interested in - especially with growing all of my family's food and also being fascinated by plants. Apart from the fact that you'd really never get big enough crops here outside - I would suggest that they are a rather dangerous 'staple' crop to eat every day instead of potatoes! A nice alternative occasionally - as an interesting side dish - but not worth risking on an every day basis!
Now for another of what I love to call the 'Emperor's New Clothes' plant -Yacon - that I'm pictured with above!! It is undoubtedly an extremely handsome plant - but as the old saying goes - looks aren't everything!It's the very latest 'must have' plant - even what I would call a garden 'fashion statement'! Everyone professes to love it and to get great crops from it - but frankly I don't believe them and I have no problem saying so! Particularly if they live in the British Isles! I suppose it depends what you call great crops though? A few years ago I tried Yacon plants in the tunnel. I've tried them outside before - but never got much of a crop as they also don't develop their tubers until the days shorten so they need a long warm autumn - not something we usually get here! At €28 per potted plant as seen in garden centres over the last few years - it would need to be an awful lot more than just good looking for me! Plants in my polytunnels have to really earn their space! It did produce a good bunch of tubers per plant and even flowered with small sunflower like blooms - but quite frankly it's a waste of time unless you have acres of spare tunnel space - and who has, except a botanic garden? I certainly don't - for me it's a waste of valuable tunnel space (a minimum 2/3 sq.metres per plant) and outside won't produce a worthwhile crop in our cold damp autumns anyway!
In addition to that - all the' experts' (there I go again) say it tastes of 'Granny Smith' crossed with mild pear(copying each other - having obviously read each others articles!) - now come on please! I reckon I have very good unspoiled taste buds, loving as I do on a totally organic, low salt diet and being a non-smoker, I can usually taste the most delicate flavours - but apple and pear? I don't think so!! At best - weak water chestnut - but yes, a lovely crunchy texture, I'll give you that! It's also being promoted as a less 'windy' alternative pre-biotic vegetable to Jerusalem artichokes. Now there's a veg with attitude - it certainly makes it's presence felt - or otherwise! It's cheap to buy, overwinters outside because it's as hardy as old boots and it's almost impossible to lose. What's not to like - apart from the fact that it's just not as fashionable!? And it also has a most fantastic nutty flavour - valuable and versatile in countless winter recipes. Give me Jerusalem Artichokes any time over Yacon! This year Yacon will be relegated to my Jungle garden - with all the other interesting foliage plants. It will look absolutely splendid there, and I will just appreciate it's admittedly exotic looks!! By the way - you can reduce the bloating or aerating (to put it politely!) effects of Jerusalem artichokes by cooking them with a little lemon juice, and also by getting your gut used to them gradually, by not eating a lot at first!
Beautiful but hot - tubers of Mashua or Anu
Mashua or Anu - this is another crop that's suddenly become fashionable - although it's very much an acquired taste for most to say the least! If you like Wasabi - then you'll love it! It's actually a type of climbing nasturtium - Tropaeolum tuberosum - so the leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads and are just as tasty as it's cousin the more ordinary annual nasturtium that we all know and love. The roots are the real crop though - and are far higher in some cancer-fighting phytochemicals than any other members of the wider cabbage, or brassica family, to which they belong.
The very strong, if not to say explosively hot, radish-tasting tubers are beautiful but not for the faint hearted! Not bad grated very sparingly raw in salads or even fermented in Kimchi - and in South America they are greatly prized when dried, stored and later cooked. I haven't tried doing that with them yet!
Tropaeolum tuberosum aka Anu or Mashua in flower -
Other Crops - Figs, Grapes and Strawberries
Ever-bearing or perpetual strawberries are another great tunnel crop. They will of course produce good crops outside - but they will crop for far longer and more heavily in a polytunnel! The biggest problem with them is the blackbirds, if I put up netting fine enough to keep the birds out - it keeps out the bees as well, which pollinate them! I try to find netting which is about a 1/4 the size of pea and bean netting, as that will only deter pigeons and pheasants. The blackbirds have perfected a 'hobby-like' last minute wing-folding dash as they aim at the squares of pea and bean netting - I've watched them do it countless times - and I have to admire their ingenuity, but not their greed! If they get into the tunnel they will try nearly every single one - pecking at them all until they find the very ripest. I think they must be the avian equivalent of 'Goldilocks'! Encouraging wildlife is all very well - but it has does have it's limits!! Albion, Mara de Bois and Everest are great-flavoured, heavy cropping varieties that all do well for me - cropping from May until November - and you can't ask more than that!
'Lakemont Seedless' grape - September ripening
All of the grapes are producing plenty of flower buds now, and on both seedless and seeded grapes the main work is pinching out shoots two leaves beyond potential bunches, leaving only one bunch per shoot if you want decent bunches or if the vine is young, or two bunches if they are seedless and you don't necessarily want huge grapes. Be careful not to pinch out the last two shoots needed for any extension growth of the main rod or stem. Keep roots moist, but don't over water.
In a normal year I'd be doing the second thinning of peach fruitlets this week - when they're already the size of large walnuts. At the moment they're only the size of large peas my son says - about 3 weeks behind due to the weather - that's when I normally do their first thinning now - to 2 ins apart. At the end of the month or when they're walnut sized - I'll thin them to 4ins/10cm apart. It's a fiddly job I really hate - taking off all that potential fruit! But if you don't thin - either the whole lot could drop off because the tree has too much to cope with, or you'll just get very small stony fruits. I want big luscious ones - so I thin them! Keeping them well watered now is important too.
The figs in pots are also developing fast and are being fed a high potash tomato feed, as they kept their embryo fruitlets well over the winter. The 'brega' crop (the term for the overwintered early crop) looks like being really good this year on all of the figs. Brogiotto Nero is looking the best - it's a black fig with deep violet coloured flesh and has the very best flavour I think - but they're all delicious if you're into figs as I am! I've got about 20 varieties now. Figs are very easy to propagate from cuttings or suckers as they aren't grafted and so are much easier to grow than many people think - as long as you're very strict with them! They must be kept under 'house arrest' and restricted in large pots. In the ground - particularly outside - they will just produce masses of leaves and no fruit unless you have them on a very sunny wall with their roots severely restricted in some way. Nice foliage plants in a jungle - but not very productive! 'Violetta', 'Brown Turkey', 'Brunswick', Califfo Blue, Sultane and Rouge de Bordeaux are some that all have a fast-developing 'breba' crop of baby figs currently. They will need to be kept moist and feeding at every other watering - particularly as I want another later crop in the autumn.
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
"Remember - always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else, but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing you can do about it." .......... (A great piece of advice I was given many years ago)
French bean Cobra and Sweet Corn Lark are just two of the reliable and delicious crops you can sow now directly into polytunnel soil.
Sow in a heated propagator, or in a warm place, or directly in tunnel soil when it's warm enough. For polytunnel or greenhouse cropping, or for planting outside under cloches or fleece at the end of May you can now sow:
French beans, runner beans, sweet corn, courgettes, edamame (soy) beans, cucamelons, gherkins, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can still sow cucumbers and tomatoes for late tunnel/greenhouse crops. Also 'soft' herbs such as basil, coriander, dill, Greek oregano (best for flavour), lovage, mints, parsley (giant flat leaf Italian best flavour) Perilla (Japanese beefsteak plant) and fennel, Alpine strawberries (Reugen good variety) Florence fennel and half-hardy single flowers such as Tagetes, single French marigolds, nasturtiums etc. for bees and butterflies - and to attract other beneficial insects like hoverflies etc. to help with pest control and pollination, both under cover and out in the garden.
It's really important to shade propagators and young seedlingsfrom strong sun at all times now to stop seedlings from cooking! - You can also switch off propagators during the day to save energy - even if shaded, on sunny days they will be plenty warm enough - but do make sure you remember to turn them on again well before it gets chilly in the evening.
Sow in modules if the weather is still too cold, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in the ground where they are to crop - if the weather and your ground conditions are suitable:
Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, all varieties of peas, savoy and other autumn/winter cabbages, all varieties of sprouting broccoli including calabrese and purple sprouting, cauliflowers, salad onions, Hamburg parsley, landcress, lettuces, perilla, orache, chicory, kohl-rabi, kales (those for cropping overwinter outside from the middle of May onwards), parsnips (early May) radishes, rocket, salsify, Swiss chards, spinach, turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. Asparagus peas, cardoons, Good King Henry and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside under cloches now, and also from the middle of May, if the soil is warm enough, sweet corn, French and runner beans. Marrows, courgettes, pumpkins, ridge cucumbers and squashes can all be sown outside under cloches at the end of May, in warm areas. Also sow some single annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), cosmos, calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc. to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds which will help with pest control, and also to attract bees which help with crop pollination. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations), lupins & red clover (legumes) and phacelia, to improve the soil by adding humus, to encourage beneficial microbes, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that won't be used for 6 weeks or more.
Although in theory you could sow almost everything outside in the garden now - except tender veg. like cucumbers etc. - our weather is so variable now that you must keep an eye on soil temperature and weather conditions!
Unless you've had ground covered with cloches or polythene so that soil is dry and really warm - then it's always much safer to sow in modules undercover to be sure of guaranteed results and to save wasting expensive seed. The soil in some areas is still cold after recent frosts & heavy rain. A late frost could destroy newly emerged seedlings of tender crops like French beans even under cloches. Seed is expensive and you can't afford to waste it. You can't afford to waste time now either, by possibly losing any sowings made at this time of year. Too many important staple winter and storage crops need to be sown this month - and if they fail it may well be too late to sow them again. Even though the sun is strong now and sunny days are warm, there can still be serious frosts at beginning of this month.
In the tunnel you can plant tender veg like sweet potato 'slips' in pots this month - or in the ground if it's reliably warm enough, but I always prefer to get mine growing really well in pots first, as it gives them a better start. They need a long season as they don't bulk up until late, very frost tender and hate cold, wet ground. You can also plant Oca and Mashua tubers in pots now - again to plant out later, at the end of May or early June - or to plant directly into tunnel soil. The small growing tubers of Yacon can also be planted now in the tunnel or in pots to plant outside later. They are just starting into growth now.
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
April contents: An Historic Treasure rediscovered! Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear'..... The importance of pollinators......Thinning peaches and apricots vital for good crops......Dwarf Cherries?- I don't think so!..... What kinds of fruit can you grow in a north-facing site?.... Tunnel fruits - grapes, strawberries and figs.... Other fruit jobs.....
Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear' - an historic treasure rediscovered!
"In this Month your Garden appears in it's greatest Beauty, the Blossoms of the Fruit-trees prognosticate the plenty of Fruits for all the succeeding Summer Months, unless prevented by untimely Frosts or Blights. The bees now buzz in every corner.... to seek for food: the Birds sing in every Bush and the sweet Nightingale tunes her warbling Notes in your solitary Walks, whilst the other Birds are at their rest..... The air is Wholesome, and the Earth pleasant, beginning now to be clothed with Nature's best Array, exceeding all Art's Glory." - (Worlidge, 1688)
How I love the quote above! How pristine and beautiful that relatively unspoiled countryside must have been. What a stark contrast to our countryside now! How much I would love to have seen it. I long for a time machine, so that I could go back and see the abundant unspoiled beauty of that world before we modern humans destroyed so much of it in our ignorance. I was lucky to see perhaps what were some of the last remnants of it as a child growing up in the country in the 50's and 60's. There are no nightingales here sadly - but one of the most wonderful things about growing fruit, especially tree-fruits which have to be propagated from descendants of the original trees, is that we can all grow that continuing history in our gardens. We can all touch what in fact are merely extensions of the branches of those many original apple, pear or plum varieties which gardeners down through the centuries have tended lovingly - bequeathing them to us - to pass on in turn to our descendants. And fruit doesn't get much more historic or special than the beautiful Blood Pear pictured above!
An Historic Treasure Rediscovered! - Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear'
A couple of years ago I was wandering around Orchard Garden Centre in Celbridge, somewhere I go occasionally if I'm n that area, as they always have an excellent range of plants, and often some of the less 'run of the mill' fruits. I really wasn't looking for any more tree fruits, as I have more than enough - being a 'pomoholic' - with over a 100 varieties of apples and a dozen pears here at this stage, which I've collected gradually over the years! As I walked past the apples and pears though, something in the periphery of my vision caught my attention. I don't really know why - as the trees I was looking at seemed pretty similar at first to all the other pear trees they were standing among - but there was just 'something' about them. When I looked closer - I spotted that two, slightly taller trees, had several smallish fruits on - unusual for standard garden centre stock, as normally they're sold as one or two-year old trees which haven't started fruiting yet. I asked Adrian, the manager, if they had been sprayed recently, and he said that no - that they never spray the trees themselves, and that they'd had these trees in stock for at least a couple of years, as no one seemed interested in them. He didn't know anything about them, but thought that they were an ornamental variety, as they had beautiful autumn colour. I asked if I could just pick one fruit to try it.......... Well folks - they were obviously waiting just for me!
Let me tell you - bigger is not always necessarily better! Biting into what I expected might be a hard, bitter, dry fruit of an ornamental or perry pear, I was astonished when my rather tentative bite revealed the most beautiful crimson-flushed flesh, with a deliciously sweet flavour! In fact I was completely stunned - it was like no pear I'd ever seen before! Adrian said that it was called 'Blood Pear', and that he'd got it a few years ago from a small Irish grower who was into unusual ornamental trees, whose name he couldn't remember at the time, and who had got it from another nursery! Not very helpful!
I thought that the pear's name 'Blood Pear' seemed possibly either very unlikely - or very ancient, so when I got home I looked in all my old fruit books and catalogues - of which I have many! That search drew a complete blank. But thank heavens for the internet - despite it's drawbacks - it is a real blessing sometimes! The more I researched this unusually-named variety - the more excited I became! Lo and behold, I found it listed in 'The Perry Pears of Gloucestershire' - an enthusiast's book written by none other than the incredibly knowledgeable Charles Martell (of Stinking Bishop' cheese fame) - who recently featured on BBC's Countryfile TV series - and who I knew also just happens to be a very close neighbour of my favourite cousin in Herefordshire! So I emailed the always-helpful Charles to ask if he knew of anyone who was propagating it, as at that stage I still didn't know the name of the Irish grower who Orchard Garden centre had obtained it from..
Charle's beautiful book and my own further exhaustive research revealed that this incredibly rare Heritage pear was first recorded in 1675 in France - then 1684 in Germany - before Worlidge uttered those wonderful words which I've quoted above - but it may quite possibly be Medieval or even earlier. It is, as I suspected, an ancient variety, with it's origins lost in the mists of time, which was recently rediscovered in Hasfield, in Gloucestershire. Hasfield is just a few miles away from where my cousin farms on the edge of the Forest of Dean - an area where I spent a lot of time in my youth and am very fond of. Apparently now a favourite in the National Pear collection, it bears slightly smaller than average fruits that have a rose-flushed skin when fully ripe, but the really exciting thing about this absolute treasure is the meltingly sweet, ruby-flushed flesh revealed when biting into the conveniently child-sized fruits. Their complex flavour is very hard to describe - the one or two European nurseries which have it listed describe it as being fragrant, with almost muscat or watermelon-flavoured fruits, having overtones of cinnamon. The colour and those complex flavours clearly show it's high content of aromatic, antioxidant polyphenols, something which regular readers will know I've been interested in for many years.
It ripens in early August, ahead of many dessert pears, which is useful, and is absolutely delicious eaten fresh straight from the tree. It can be stored for 3-4 weeks in cool storage, can also be cooked, and the fruits dehydrate exceptionally well into deliciously-flavoured pear sweetmeats, which I discovered are especially good with a Brie-type cheese - like 'Stinking Bishop' oddly enough! I recently heard of someone even making a pink sparkling Perry from this pear - I would really love to try doing that! I could be wrong, but I think one might need to combine it with a perry pear which has a bit more sharpness, to make a really good balanced Perry - if making Perry is anything like making cider? It certainly would be an interesting drink to try though. Perry is not something I've ever tried making - but I think I may just be ordering one or two Perry pear trees in the autumn. Pears will take a bit more of a damp climate than apples - so they should be happy enough here in Ireland! My Blood Pears certainly seem to be very happy anyway!
This beautiful pear is a real find - and an absolute treasure for lovers of unusual fruit. It is hardy, disease-resistant and crops prolifically. It is self-fertile, but will crop even better with another pear such as 'Conference' nearby to aid pollination. The large flowers are very ornamental in spring, and it has beautiful autumn colour - which is a reason I would certainly grow it even if it didn't have such unusual fruit! I know some of you may laugh at me for saying this, as normally I'm a very practical person and don't often talk about my more fanciful imaginings - but I swear that those trees - which originated so close to where my family's roots go back hundreds of years, might have been connecting or communicating with me in some way through the ether - who knows? My late very 'fey' aunt - the eldest of my father's 6 sisters, my favourite cousin's mother and more like a mother to me also - could have put it into words so eloquently. She could read my mind which was pretty scary at times! But all I can say is - "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" - to quote Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is so true - there is still so much left to discover which is as yet unexplained, given the inadequate scientific knowledge or indeed language which we currently have. I often go and talk to my new trees, which came from that area of countryside which I love so much. When I stroke them - I almost imagine I can feel that connection to the soil where I know my roots still are.......... If anyone's interested - as I had written about them in the March issue of The Irish Garden magazine, I asked Adrian at Orchard if he could get in some more of these trees, which he did. They may well still be available from Orchard Home and Garden, in Celbridge County Kildare.
One of the very few positives about my recent broken ankle has been a bit more time to do research into what interests me. Microbiology has always fascinated me, and now is a rapidly-emerging field of science. More evidence of the complexity of bacterial communication is being discovered daily - and the more I learn about it - the more utterly astonishing things I discover! Gut feeling has already been well-documented and scientifically proven as valid. Which one of us hasn't at some time experienced those tell-tale 'butterflies' in the stomach when worried or excited by something? Or that 'flip' in the pit of the stomach when attracted to someone (- not always a good thing)! Recently a lot more science is emerging not just about how our gut microbes can also actually control our emotions, by direct communication with our brain - but also how our diet can influence that for good or bad. So perhaps our gut bacteria may even be able to recognise some kind of familiarity in other individuals of a similar bacterial heritage or background? I know that there is definitely evidence of that in birds.
Recently I was researching why it was, that despite the fact that the 3 different hybrid breeds of day old chicks I bought in December had been hatched on the same day, in the same hatchery, traveled home here in the same box and lived altogether in the very same quarters from day one - the 3 different hybrid strains have from the very beginning tended to gravitate towards their own breed in very distinct groups! It's quite uncanny! There is definitely something which they somehow inherently recognise in each other. This is something which I've found astonishing in creatures that one normally thinks of as just 'chickens' - and not something that I would have ever noticed before in chickens. Naturally that is because I would normally have bought all the same breed when I reared them for commercial laying-hens years ago. I got the 3 different breed this time, as I though they would be a more attractive and entertaining flock - not something one would worry about when keeping a large commercial flock. This is the first time I've raised three different hybrids all hatched on the same day. So that proves that it's not all about scent - if it is at all. Is it possible that they sense some kind of recognisable, inherited bacterial signature? Scientists aren't quite sure yet - again it's a very new idea that they are only just beginning to research. One thing is for certain - we all originally came from microbes - we are still full of them, and enveloped by them. How many more fascinating things there are still to discover! Anyway - before I ramble off into more 'what if's' and bore the pants off you all - back to the more practical matters of fruit! Although, come to think of it - microbes are relevant to fruit too - just as they are to everything other living thing on the planet, including precious pollinating insects!
The importance of pollinators
Back in Worlidge's time of the 17th century, one could take the predictability of the seasons for granted. Gardeners back then could also take for granted that there would always be plenty of bees and other pollinators every year to pollinate our fruit trees and other important crops. Sadly our seasons are becoming quite unpredictable now and bee numbers are declining rapidly everywhere, mainly due to insect damaging pesticides and habitat loss but also erratic weather due to climate change. It's in our interests to do everything we can to help all pollinators right now, to try to halt this decline, by providing different habitats for overwintering and breeding, with flowers for nectar and pollen - and by not using any pesticides whatsoever. I haven't used any in over 40 years of organic food growing - they are totally unnecessary. Correct growing conditions and encouraging biodiversity, in an environment with a good balance of pest and predator is the key to growing without pesticides.
If bees and other vitally important pollinating insects disappear - so will all of the food crops which are pollinated by them - including the peaches pictured above. That's an awful lot of our everyday foods - and we wouldn't last too long without them!
Thankfully, some frosty nights, over the last few sunny days there seem to be quite a few different species of both bumblebees and solitary bees around in the garden and the tunnels. Yesterday, the tunnels were bee central! There were masses of them in there, pollinating the last of the dwarf peaches, apricots and nectarines in the west (fruit) tunnel, and enjoying all the flowers in both tunnels, some of which I grow specifically just for them. Last summer's warm dry weather was a good one for them again and despite the fact that we're surrounded by intensive agriculture and so much habitat destruction, I like to think that all the work I've done here over the last 30 or so years to provide lots of different habitat for bees and insects is now paying off. Particularly the well-drained B&B bank as I call it - that seems to have been a great success, with so many bee nests in it that I had to stop tidying it the other day. Agitated bumblebees were flying around me everywhere as I tried to tidy the roughest of the grasses up a bit. So I left them to it and resigned myself to it looking what some very tidy gardeners would consider to be a mess. Essentially my garden was planted over 30 years ago with wildlife in mind - because insects, wasps and bees are the organic gardener's best friends. They don't just carry out valuable pollination but also vital pest control - just as nature intended.
Apple blossom - 'James Grieve'
Many people don't know that bees, moths and other pollinating insects don't just need flowers for food, but also grasses, dry banks, leaves and woodpilesto nest in and to shelter overwinter. A friend told me the other day that the 'Glas' scheme for farmers here includes a module on attracting pollinating insects and solitary bees - so that's very good news. Although we left it as late as we could, to allow for hibernating bees, I felt rather guilty when we were mowing the strips across the wildlife meadow at this time three years ago, prior to planting the new orchard. Quite a few bees crawled out from the tall clumps of grasses - but the strips are only about a metre and a half wide - I'm leaving the rest of the rough grass with it's wildflowers o so there is plenty of habitat for them to crawl back into. I'll also be planting lots more meadow wildflowers between the trees to provide even more food for them and to attract plenty of pollinators, so that our trees are well-pollinated. So far the new orchard is doing well and we got a good crop again last year.
There are lots of bumblebees but still very few native black honeybees around at the moment though - usually the pussy willow catkins are smothered with them at this time of year. I seem to see fewer every year which is really worrying. I've noticed on or two on the dandelions on the drive, which I can see from my chair on the front step, which as currently far as I can venture yet into the garden yet with my broken and still mending ankle! I was thrilled to see them. I know there will plenty of flowers in the tunnel for them right now though too. The scent when I open the polytunnel doors in the morning at this time of year is always amazing - it smells like a perfume shop! There are also plenty of hoverflies around in the last few days. Hoverflies aren't just brilliant pest controllers - really gobbling up the aphids - but they're also great pollinators. Once again this shows the enormous value of growing flowers in your tunnel - in case anyone thought it was a waste of space, or a bit 'girly'! Growing flowers outside around your fruit areas or in orchards is important too. That way pollinating bees and other insects get to know where there is food for them and they so clever that they remember it's location - so then they'll keep returning to do their job and then there'll more fruit for you too! Hopefully we can look forward to another summer full of a wide range of delicious fruit. The bees and hoverflies have done a good job of pollinating the early peaches and apricots too, and they must be swelling fast! I hope I may be able to hobble up to the polytunnels in a couple of weeks to try to thin the lower ones that I can reach - as thinning is vital if you want decent sized fruits.
Thinning peaches and apricots is vital for good crops
The peach and apricot fruitlets shown here, which are about the size of large peas, will have to be thinned as soon as they reach pea size, and thinned again in a few weeks when walnut-sized, leaving them at least 4-6 ins/10cm apart eventually - a fiddly job I really hate - especially now I only have one arm which will reach above shoulder height since breaking my right shoulder 5 years ago! I also can't bear picking off all those furry little babies - that potential fruit - but I have to steel myself, because otherwise I know that they won't develop properly! Most will turn yellow and drop off as the tree can't cope with that many. By thinning you stop that fruit drop and those left will develop properly to full size. It's hard fiddly work doing all that thinning but I congratulate myself when I bite into that first delicious really ripe peach and the juice runs down my chin. It will be peaches for breakfast for several weeks in the summer! The outside ones are two or three weeks behind, so if you have any flowering now, protect them at night with fleece if severe frost is forecast.
Dwarf cherries? I don't think so!
Most years the cherries come into flower later this month. The dwarf (ha-ha!) 'Stella' cherries were the first fruit trees to be planted in the garden 36 years ago, as small sticks less than 2 feet high, in an otherwise bare field. Now when they're in full flower they resemble a beautiful arching cathedral of blossom and are as tall as the house! Not dwarf sadly - but still worth growing for the blossom - and the birds naturally appreciate all the fruit! They can reach it - I can't! Sitting at my computer, I can see over the half door out of the kitchen, through the courtyard gate and straight down what I rather grandly called the 'cherry walk'. The trees should be literally dripping with blossom in another couple of weeks. They're under-planted with bulbs, hellebores, primroses and a multitude of other shade loving spring flowers, so they're a wonderful sight every year! They fruit prolifically, but I hardly ever get more than one or two delicious cherries, the birds get the lot, as they're far too high to cover. Even if I could - the blackbirds in this garden seem to be a particularly ingenious and determined lot, no matter what I try to do to deter them. I've even tried covering some lower branches with old tights before the cherries start to colour (not the most attractive garden ornament!), but my blackbirds aren't fooled by a bit of old hosiery, they just peck at them through the tights and still ruin them anyway! Some people say it's because they could be thirsty - but there's always plenty of water around here for them to drink and that doesn't stop them. So I have to be content with just one or two of my favourite fruit - if I'm very lucky. However, I suppose there is a little compensation in the form of melodious bird song for much of the year. Right now I can hear them competing with the thrushes, goldfinches and chaffinches for 'best spring song of 2018'! A joyous concert - although a pretty expensive one thanks to some of them - if you count the cost of the cherries!!
Eight years ago I had another try, buying more sweet cherry trees on a new, much-vaunted 'extra-dwarfing rootstock' - Gisela. Sadly it doesn't seem any more dwarf than the others but perhaps with constant attention and pruning, which I don't have time for - it might possibly work? They're showing every sign of being just as vigorous as the others! 3 years ago - I invested in some more really dwarf fruit trees - this time to grow permanently in pots. I'm growing those in my fruit tunnel, so they'll get more attention while watering etc. and they'll also be protected from hungry birds - so I'm hoping that I may finally enjoy more than one or two cherries! A few years ago I had the idea of putting empty netting log bags around many of the fruiting branches of the trees outside with some success but they're too difficult to reach now! The only cherries I will really be sure of getting outside are the Morellos which I planted 8 years ago on the back wall of the stables, which faces north. I can net them there. Their blossom won't be out for another week or so, but the buds promise a big crop on what are still quite small trees.
What kinds of fruit can you grow in a north facing site?
On the subject of cherries - Morellos are a very good, reliable crop trained as fans on a north-facing wall. They are much more easily kept within bounds than sweet cherries, as like peaches, they fruit on the previous year's growth, so a certain amount of the old wood must be pruned out each year to keep them productive. Against a wall it's much easier to keep the birds off by putting netting over them at the right time. I'm anticipating all sorts of future cherry deliciousness, not the least of which is what I call my 'Vodkatopf' - my corruption of the traditional Austrian 'Rumtopf' - which an Austrian friend of mine makes. Being tasteless - vodka doesn't detract from the flavour of the fruit and I think it's much nicer. I just pile cherries (after pricking each a few times with a cocktail stick) into a large old glass sweet jar with a lid, fill about half way up with sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit, and then just top up with Vodka. Sainsbury's used to do a very good, cheap, organic Vodka - I still have a couple of bottles, so I can still feel almost virtuous when I'm enjoying a shot or two! Not forgetting of course all those wonderfully healthy phytochemicals too - perhaps they cancel the alcohol out hopefully? Cherry juice is an acknowledged natural preventative and cure for gout and arthritis. My method works well for all fruit, especially peaches, damsons, strawberries - particularly alpine strawberries if you have enough - blackberries and blackcurrants, everything really. Then the 'alcholholised' fruit makes great sorbets too! - Yum!
There are plenty of different fruits that will grow very well trained against a north wall or in a north facing garden. Good light is essential,so you don't want a site overhung by trees,but direct sunlight is not essential - so don't despair if you have a small sunless back garden. Even if you have a sunny garden, using a north facing site for some of your fruit is a really good way of spreading or lengthening the season of many fruits, as it delays their cropping by a couple of weeks - so that they're not all ready at once. That's what they used to do in the big old walled gardens, often covering ripe fruit like currants and gooseberries with straw matting to keep them hanging on the bushes until late autumn! A north wall is potentially a great food producing space which is often wasted, because people think it's useless for fruit growing, so it's usually only occupied by ivy or something similar. I remember vividly the wonderfully productive Morello cherries trained against the high, north facing wall of the mews at the end of the late dress designer Sybil Connolly's beautiful small garden, off Merrion Square in Dublin - one of Dublin's best kept horticultural secrets many years ago. It was a real gem of a garden - where I used to really enjoy helping Sybil out occasionally with pruning etc.
As well as Morello cherries - loganberries and Tayberries, currants, gooseberries, and blackberries will all fruit very well facing north, but just a couple of weeks later than in a sunnier part of the garden. They all actually make great 'Vodkatopf' too - I've tried them all! Blackberry is particularly good. If you're planting blackberries though, do be very careful that you don't plant a very vigorous variety if you only have a small space.Although 'Himalayan Giant' is probably the best-tasting variety, it really does live up to its name - and more!! It should come with a health warning, as it's territorial ambitions know no bounds! It will grow at least 30ft/10m annually in every direction if allowed to, and if the birds can get to the ripe berries, after digesting them they will drop the resulting undigested seeds in every corner of the garden, which you may not notice until a vigorous shoot, taller than you and as thick as your wrist, is suddenly waving at you happily, having planted itself in a lovely fertile spot, under something particularly precious which hates being moved! It's enormous thorns can easily pierce even the toughest of leather gardening gloves or wellington boots and if it gets out of hand it is an extreme pruning nightmare. It can be a menace - you have been warned! I will admit it that it really tastes fabulous though, and carries huge crops! For all it's faults and vicious habits - I wouldn't be without it! Every year I fill my freezers with huge carrier bags full to enjoy in smoothies and everything else you can think of all winter long! The great thing about freezing berries too - is that the phytonutrients in them become more available to our bodies when they've been frozen as this breaks down the skins.
Himalayan Giant really tastes fantastic, better than any other blackberry. It never needs feeding (very foolhardy - don't encourage it!) it's reliable even when all else fails and is amazingly productive. The bees really love the blossom too. Although I curse it for most of the year - I love it is when I'm loading the freezer with countless bags full of fruit for winter smoothies, crumbles etc., especially when I've just been looking at their price of about 4 or 5 euros for 250gm little plastic punnets in the supermarket (unbelievable)! It makes wonderful ice cream and sorbets, the berries' gelatinous qualities making them extra smooth, they're full of heart-healthy ellagic acid and many other phytochemicals, and are far more nutritious than blueberries, according to recent scientific studies. They're certainly a hell of a lot easier to grow! Blackberries just haven't had the same expensive PR campaign, since many people just pick them from hedgerows! Although having said that - Himalayan Giant has a far better flavour than most hedge-picked brambles. The loose frozen fruit is great for filling air pockets in the freezer too, as it fits nicely around everything else. So it even saves energy and money! However, when it started to take over the neglected old hen run (own fault - too busy), and I had to get a man with a digger to remove about 1/4 acre of it - I was awfully tempted to get rid of the lot. Now I now keep it under very strict house arrest, never taking my eye off it for very long - severely trained along a fence! Gerry Kelly begged me for a root of it some years ago after tasting it. I'm never short of a root or two as any end of a shoot that touches the ground for longer than ten seconds will root - so if you hear that Drogheda has been taken over by a rampant thorny nightmare - I did warn him!!
Other fruit jobs
You can plant all types of fruit from containers now, as it's too late for bare-root planting. Make sure they're nice young plants, not 'pot-bound' as they are more difficult to establish well. Gently tease a few roots loose around the bottom when planting, so they get the idea. Be careful to make sure that any graft union on fruit trees is at least 3-4 ins/10cm above ground level. I often see potted trees in garden centres with the graft union practically in the compost - those are a disaster waiting to happen for the unaware. If the fruiting top part of the tree roots past the dwarfing rootstock, as can happen if it's too close to soil level, then the dwarfing effect of the root stock is lost altogether! Don't forget if space is short that you can also plant all sorts of fruit in containers too! If you have a high 'pH' (limey) soil, this is in fact the best way to grow fussy acid-loving blueberries, always watering with rainwater - never tap water if you're in a hard water area. This is where many people go wrong
You can also prune to shape young and trained trees of stone fruits like plums and cherries now that the sap is rising. If pruned in the winter, they may possibly develop 'silver leaf' or bacterial canker disease.
Keep a eye out for any blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry leaves which start to appear like lace - small holes appearing between the leaf veins. This is caused by gooseberry sawfly caterpillars. It's often a problem on young bushes just recently bought from nurseries, as it seems to be endemic in them! The best way to cope with these is not to spray! Just squash any caterpillars you find as soon as possible, and if you have space, put a temporary chicken wire fence around your currant patch and get a couple of chickens or even bantams to scratch around over the winter and pick up the eggs and grubs - that's how I got rid of it. A bit more protein to produce some nice eggs for you! The blackcurrants in particular will appreciate the extra nitrogen that the chicken's droppings will provide - and I can guarantee you won't have any more trouble with sawfly. Just make sure you move the chickens somewhere else in the spring, before the bushes start to fruit, or you won't have any fruit either!!
Feed and mulch all fruit trees and bushes if you haven't already done so. If you have wood ash available from a wood burning stove - all fruits particularly apples and pears, will appreciate the highly soluble, fruit inducing potash it provides - except blueberries, as it raises the 'ph' of the soil - use seaweed meal and/or comfrey mulch on these. Fruit trees and bushes in containers would also appreciate a feed of an organic general purpose fruit fertiliser and a nice mulch to preserve moisture at the roots if you have room.
Don't forget that any fruit grown in containers is totally dependent on you for it's food and water, so from now on keep an eye on watering too. If short of water, most fruit will immediately drop their fruits if allowed to wilt at all. Don't over water either - or the roots may rot unless the compost is free draining. Keep on top of weeds, but be careful hoeing raspberry beds, better to hand weed, as there may be new shoots appearing from ground level. Prune out some of the older fruited canes of autumn fruiting varieties (see March).
Tunnel fruits - grapes, early strawberries and figs
Inside the tunnel - grapes will be producing nice juicy looking shoots on the spurs now, with the flower bunches clearly visible. By the end of the month or before, you should pinch out the tips of all the shoots on the spurs (side shoots) after they have produced two leaves beyond the developing flower bunch. That is all except the very end two shoots, on grapes grown on a permanent rod (stem) system. These will draw the sap along the branch system and provide extension growth if necessary. Always leave two shoots in case one gets damaged or broken. In the case of 'Guyot' pruned grapes, also leave two shoots to develop at the base of the current fruiting branch to develop fully, those will make replacement flowering branches which will fruit next year. Next winter you will cut out this year's fruited branch completely, leaving the stems which developed from those two shoots at the base which grew this spring. I think the permanent rod system works best for amateur gardeners though - it's easier and less work.
Side shoot or 'spur', off the main rod of seedless grape 'Rose Dream' - showing the end of the shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond 2 prospective bunches
Grapes are very amenable to training and are also easy to grow in large bucket-sized pots grown as a small bush. Allowing several branches to develop rather than just one main branch. They take up very little room this way and most people could grow them. You can get a surprising amount of different varieties into quite a small space this way and have a good spread of cropping time from July to November or even later. I experiment a lot with different varieties of grapes and various methods of pruning and training. Seedless grapes don't need the bunches thinning - whereas if you don't thin some of the seeded ones - the bunches can become crowded and diseased prone.
I don't juice them any more because what you're left with is just a lot of sugary water in most cases, without all the valuable natural fibre and nutrients in the whole fruit. I blitz the whole lot in a food processor or powerful Nutribullet blender now if I want a smoothie - so that I get all the skins, pips and important fibre from the fruit too. Grape pips and skins in particular are very high in a phytochemical called Resveratrol - which studies show is extremely good for blood vessel health and circulation. This especially high in black or dark red grapes. My favourite black grape is Muscat Hamburgh, which has the same fabulous taste as those huge Moscatel raisins that are only available before Christmas. Another very good black grape is Muscat Bleu, it has the same delicious flavour as Muscat Hamburg but also has the advantage of self-spacing bunches - with the individual grapes slightly further apart, which promotes good air circulation - so it is ideal for growing in polytunnels where the atmosphere is more humid. A new seedless one I planted a few years ago is 'Rose Dream'. It fruits extremely well, is very early in the tunnel and very sweet. 'Lakemont Seedless' - is a deliciously sweet early green dessert grape that carries large bunches and is a really good variety for organic gardeners as it's very disease-resistant. It's available from many suppliers now. That's the one I use for making scrumptious sultanas in my dehydrator! It makes a lovely decorative feature climbing over the door at the south end of my large tunnel in space that would normally otherwise be wasted. Growing them in a tunnel also means that it's far easier to keep the birds away from them!
Perpetual Strawberry 'Albion' in the tunnel
All the varieties of perpetual strawberriesin the tunnel are starting to flower well now. They rarely produce runners after their first year, so if you want to increase your stock - let some runners develop. The catalogues or labels never tell you this of course, they tell you to cut them all off. Well, they want to sell more don't they? As long as the plants are strong and well fed - it won't affect them at all - and after all that's how they naturally grow. Many of the more modern summer-fruiting varieties seem to behave the same way, 'Christine' is an early, great-flavoured one I grow, which does the same, so it's safer to take one good runner from each plant in it's first year, that way you're sure of keeping them. Cut off any which develop after those, to avoid weakening the plant.
Protect flowers of early fruiting varieties from frost with fleece at night - remove during the day for bees to pollinate. Liquid feed weekly once the fruits are developing, with a high potash organic food like comfrey liquid, or the excellent 'Osmo' organic tomato food (available from White's Agri at Lusk, Co. Dublin and many garden centres). If you're just planting a new bed of more than one variety, make sure you just grow one variety per bed, to keep them distinctly separated. I find an early one like 'Christine', grown both inside and outside, with another one or two perpetual varieties, like 'Everest' and 'Albion' again grown both inside and outside, and an alpine one provide plenty of delicious strawberries to eat fresh and to freeze, from May until November. I've also brought pots of 'Gariguette' into the tunnel this year. I've grown it for years but never tried forcing it before. It's the French version of the famous old 'Royal Sovereign' - so I'm looking forward to supreme flavour. Why on earth would anybody want to buy the tasteless, disgusting, chemically-grown ones grown out of season, imported from half way across the world - when it's so nice to look forward to them in their proper season - just helped along a little in a polytunnel? By the way 'Albion' freezes particularly well too - not going quite as mushy as some other varieties.
The Physalis (golden berry, Pichu berry or Cape Gooseberry - whatever you like to call it!) will have to be potted on this week into larger pots as they've grown well. They'll be fruiting by late August/September and will go on until December. After that the fruits will keep for literally months in the salad drawer of the fridge - so they're well worth growing from seed and are a really easy fruit to grow. They have a delicious citrussy-sherbetty taste (even writing about them makes my mouth water!) - and they're very high in antioxidants lutein and vitamin C. They're even easier to grow than bush tomatoes, do really well in tubs or large pots, seem not to be bothered by any pests at all, the bees really love the flowers and the birds haven't sussed them yet! What's not to like? I've seen the dwarf version for sale in garden centres - but they produce so little fruit they're a complete waste of space - and I don't know anyone who's been successful with them. Some of last year's plants have overwintered well in the tunnel due to the mild winter, I gave them a feed about a month ago and they are now producing lots of nice new shoots at the bottom, and even flowering already on the few long branches which didn't die back. As a result I'm hopeful of some really early, very welcome fruits.
Frosty nights can be particularly difficult for any tender fruit growing in the tunnels. On the very bright sunny days after a clear night's frost the temperatures can rise at an alarming rate - so I have to watch the ventilation very carefully - trying as far as possible to even out the day/night temperatures - not always easy! There's a good crop of early figs developing fast on all the trees - many of the figlets overwintered without any damage. Those that are in any way damaged won't develop and eventually will turn brown and drop off. It's a good idea to take those off now so that they don't develop rots and spread diseases to the healthy younger ones. In the picture you can see the early figs on last year's darker coloured growth - the late summer's crop will develop on the new growth made this spring and summer. I'm being very careful to keep them evenly moist now too - if they dry out and wilt even the slightest bit - figs will ditch all their fruit without fail - usually about two weeks later - when you've completely forgotten that you possibly neglected them on just one occasion! The same goes for all potted fruit. Figs also like good drainage too, hating to be too wet - so they're temperamental devils in pots but well worth it, when even non-organic fresh figs are about a euro each in the smart fruit and veg. shops! I should have my first ripe figs in mid June and will then have a second, bigger autumn crop on this years new green growth, on most of the varieties I grow.
The scent of the citrus flowers is apparently filling the tunnel now even though there's only a couple of trees flowering! A real scent of approaching summer. I must ask my son to pick the last of the fruits on the lemons, oranges and grapefruit - I always hate doing it as they look so beautiful. Daft really isn't it? If I leave them on though - they stop the new fruits developing even if the flowers are pollinated. They're also being protected at night as the dark red young growth is very soft and vulnerable to frost. They're getting a low strength 'Osmo' liquid feed mixed with tunnel temperature rainwater at every watering now - they hate limey, high pH tap water! I do wish garden centres wouldn't water them with a hose! If they are in the garden centres for too long - the leaves start to turn yellow and drop off, as the staff don't know that they prefer the 'gentle rain' that 'droppeth mercifully from Heaven'! Talking of which - I really had such a laugh on one of my much dreaded twice yearly ventures into Dublin last year! I wonder what on earth would Shakespeare have said at being quoted on an M&S food carrier bag? - "If music be the food of love play on"! writ large on a bright purple, recyclable bag - Whatever next!?
Twelfth Night - Act 1, scene 1.- Duke Orsino:
If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.
Music and food would certainly be pretty high on my list of priorities. And I really love all kinds of fruit. I wonder if Shakespeare liked figs? 'Duke Orsino' would certainly have prized them as a Mediterranean man. I don't think you could ever die from eating them - but too many could possibly be a little uncomfortable! I find half a dozen just enough per day, any more is too many - but they're so delicious that they're very hard to resist. Anyway, I could never fall out of love with figs - they're one of my favourite fruits. Problem is - so is almost everything - each in it's own season! Though sometimes it almost seems that the more fussily difficult things are to grow - the better they taste. But then isn't that the real joy of gardening - that you can actually taste the achievement a little too?!
Early figs forming from the overwintered buds on last year's darker 'woody' growth. New shoots will carry a later crop on most varieties of figs in tunnels.
Strong red-flushed young growth, overwintered fruit and flowers on lemons in the tunnel
Sorry for the fruit blog being late this month! To be honest, writing and updating the blog has been a struggle for the last few weeks, as my fractured ankle has made it really difficult to sit for long at the computer. But it's healing well now - so I hope all will be back to normal in a few weeks!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)
April Topics:Sow Super-fast Seeds now for salad greens!.... Early Spring Aphid Problems?.... My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots.....Growing on onion seedlings to cheat the weather!.....'Hardening off' early vegetables.....Stop weeds and slugs before they start!..... When growing your own - you can choose the best varieties for flavour and nutrients......Get your seeds sown!..... Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden! ....Last but not least - my thoughts on some 'so-called' scientists!
The beautiful, delicately marked Rocket flowers taste deliciously of vanilla!
Sow some super-fast seeds now if you're desperate for fresh salad greens!
I can see the wind bending the trees double behind the stables, and rain is beating against the windows as I sit here at my computer writing - but I wouldn't mind being outside in it - if only I could be!Some of you may know that I broke my ankle badly on 16th March - so I've been housebound for almost 5 weeks now - just as things are starting to get busy in the garden! This means that I haven't been able to do anything at all outside - but the raised beds are covered for now and in the next couple of weeks I'm hoping to be able to sow a few fast-growing veg in modules on the kitchen table in anticipation of being able to do at least a little planting in the not too distant future - all being well. If my doctor says that I still can't go outside even then - I shall just grow them in pots or in a stepladder garden on my front step! Having had a few injuries over my gardening lifetime, I've found plenty of alternative ways to grow things. Determination will always find a way - and I'm getting really desperate now to be able to pick some fresh green food and breathe in fresh Spring air - even if it's only on my front step sitting on a chair!
The weather so far this 'spring' (if you can call it that!) has been so erratic, and we've had so much rain in the last few days, that many gardens are still far too wet and cold at the moment to do anything - especially sowing any seeds direct into the soil. Many soils have been flooded and are saturated if they weren't covered or carrying a crop over winter - and even if not they will have lost a lot of nutrients. So if you're craving something fresh and green - sowing some fast-growing veg like spinach, baby leaf lettuce, pea shoots, rocket and Oriental veg into modules will gain you at least 2-3 weeks on anything you could sow outside now - that is if you could! You will be eating all of these within 4-6 weeks! If you plant them out on the ends of your veg beds where they won't be in the way of any subsequent crops - then after you've picked their leaves for a few weeks - later on you can leave one or two plants to flower. Doing this provides very welcome early food for bees and other beneficial insects that help with pest control. Many of their flowers are also delicious in our summer salads - especially the rocket flowers above - which actually taste of vanilla believe it or not! They look really pretty on salads or even on chocolate desserts due to the beautiful dark-brown veining on their flowers! A double or triple whammy!
Early Spring Aphid problems?
The insects that help with pest control love these early flowers as much as we do - they rely on them for food to kick-start the breeding seasonand also like to feed their growing offspring a little protein on the side too! So while they're shopping for nectar and pollen - they'll also pick up a few greenfly or some early caterpillars! The most likely time you'll see any pests like greenfly in an organic garden is on the very young and succulent emerging shoots of some plants at this time of year - roses in particular seem prone to them. If you've been attracting beneficial insects into the garden by growing lots of early flowers though - and also feeding your garden birds all winter - then you'll already have a willing army of pest controllers ready and waiting to help you dispose of them! All forms of gardening are to some extent disturbing Nature - but organic gardening tries to do this as little as possible and tries to encourage the most natural environment possible. Very often if you do see a large infestation of aphids - it means that plants are under some sort of stress, which makes them much more vulnerable to pests. This can often be because people have used too much manure, causing a lot of soft, sappy growth in the plants, which disrupts the plant's self-defences and makes them much more attractive to pests.
I see so many people using home-made concoctions like garlic sprays, washing up liquid etc for 'killing' aphids at this time of year in particular - but many washing-up liquids contain chemicals like formaldehyde, hormone-disrupting artificial scents, detergents etc - and there is no such thing as an environmentally-friendly detergent! If these sprays kill aphids - then they must surely kill or harm other small insects like hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds - which are vitally important in controlling aphids. If there are too many greenfly for your resident predatory insects and birds to cope with, because their numbers haven't yet built up enough to deal with them all - then a quick spray with a jet of water from a garden hose, with your finger over the end, does the job just as effectively, and water doesn't kill anything! They won't climb back onto the plants, and most importantly, using only plain water renders any dead aphids still safe to eat, as they are uncontaminated with anything else, so that birds and insects can pick them up to feed to their young later! I have never had an aphid infestation that I couldn't cope with just by using my water method - ably assisted by the army of Dunnocks, Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and willow warblers here! When you think about it - isn't it timely that Nature seems to organise a glut of aphids just as baby birds need feeding? Nature never does anything without reason - as I'm always saying - truly 'everything is connected'!
My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots for guaranteed success!
My 'loo roll' sown parsnips are already hardened off and begging to be planted, they have two nice first 'true' leaves and they're waiting impatiently now - first in the queue. They don't appreciate being delayed at all! There's still plenty of time to sow them in long modules like loo rolls though - if you haven't sown any yet. If you don't have a propagator - they'll germinate far quicker at room temperature in the house than they will in cold, wet ground. Then as soon as they're up and need light you can put them out into the greenhouse or a cold frame for a couple of weeks before planting out. They'll be way ahead of anything sown in the ground even 2-3 weeks ago - which may well have rotted due to the cold wet conditions - and they won't have been eaten by the slugs which are sadly still really active now despite the cold!
If the soil is still too sticky in the raised beds, I'll do what the show vegetable people like the wonderful Medwyn Williams do - and take out a trowel-full or so of soil, mix it with some organic peat-free potting compost to dry it out a bit, replace it and then plant into that. They'll really take off like rockets then. Nothing likes being planted into cold, sticky clay, as firming them into it compacts and squashes the air out of it. Roots need a certain amount of air. The very first 'module' will need easing out very carefully from the corner of the mushroom boxthat's been their home for the last two months. I use two narrow trowels for doing this - either side of the first loo-roll module - in a sort of 'pincer' movement which lifts the loo roll with it's precious package out very gently. Then I lower it into it's hole - pushing the soil gently towards the sides rather than pushing down from the top, which would squash the loo roll down and disturb the contents. Lots of TLC is the secret - but it's worth it to get those lovely straight parsnips later!
In over 40 years of organic gardening - I've learnt a great many things from bitter experience! One of them is that when anything has been grown either in loo roll 'modules' or in paper pots - It's really important that the hole is deeper than the loo roll module. I can't stress enough that it must be buried well under the surface and not exposed to the air - otherwise it will dry out at the top and act like a wick! Moisture will be drawn out of the module as the weather warms up and the soil dries out. The module will then also dry out and shrink - which can be a complete disaster! When well-buried under the surface, damp loo roll or paper modules will just rot away slowly, adding valuable carbon to the soil with no problems at all.
After you've extracted the first module from the box or tray of seedlings - you'll find that they're then much easier to carefully remove intact. I just take them out of the mushroom box with one long narrow trowel at a slight angle so the already rotting loo roll is supported and doesn't fall apart. Then I plant in the same way, about a foot apart, as there's three plants to a module. After that they'll only need a minor weeding once, mulching afterwards (I use grass clippings) then the light excluding leaves will close over the soil and I won't need to touch them again at all, until they're ready to eat after the first frost in the autumn!
Over the years I've found that my 'loo roll' module method is much the easiest way to get parsnips sown early enoughto reach a really decent size - small ones never have the same flavour or usefulness. The ground is usually far too wet and cold with my heavy soil here in early spring for them to germinate well - even under cloches. We don't get much early warmth in this part of Ireland - it's different in the south east of England or even in the midlands there, where most of the books that give gardening advice tend to be written! They've been nearly 10 deg C warmer there for most of this last week! Parsnips take about 3 weeks to germinate even in a warmish soil. That leaves them far more vulnerable to damage by slugs etc. before they're big enough to withstand the odd nibble. That's if they don't rot in the cold soil. I always get fabulous parsnips this way, three to a module planted like that in each planting spot - with only one or two that are a bit odd shaped or curled around the others! Who knows, I may even grow show standard parsnips this year! Even if they're not - with parsnips at almost a euro each for decent sized organic ones that have any flavour - they're well worth that extra little bit of trouble.
After planting they're pretty much trouble-free, apart from keeping them well-watered in the raised beds. They just get on with growing themselves until the autumn frosts, when they develop their sweet flavour and I lift them as I need them for the kitchen. You can raise carrots just like this too, sowing a tiny pinch into each module, again eventually getting nice clumps a foot or so apart - just right for lifting a perfect bunch for each meal. A lot of people find carrots a problem because again they take ages to germinate, and they're tiny 'grassy' seed leaves are very vulnerable to slug damage just as they're germinating. This totally avoids the problem - and is a great way to raise the very expensive seed of the new purple ones. After they've reached a decent size in the modules you can plant into clean, weed free soil, so you won't have to weed, which attracts carrot fly. All you need to do after that is to keep them permanently covered with a fine mesh like 'Enviromesh' to keep carrot flies out.
My rather unconventional method of growing on onion seedlings also cheats the weather!
Onions from seed are always far more successful than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in any disease which sets can do. That can be even more likely in a wet year. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them if you get a move on and sow them now!
I also have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when something sensitive needs planting out from modules. I first thought of this when I was behind for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time - which meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and can cause bolting. The trick I use now is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily unawares, and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - taking each plug of plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success four years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long.
OK. Like so many of things I do - it's perhaps not the most conventional way of doing things - but it works! Being 'conventional' has never bothered me much anyway having been an organic gardener for 40 years! I've always felt that 'conventional' was always there to be challenged - (not a trait my school teachers appreciated though)! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience - and experience is always the best teacher. Otherwise I would have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often just as important as saving money for me! If you don't sit them on compost, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface, getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. They will then be far less efficient, the plants won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and they may be more inclined to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they start to root into the matting - then roots get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a shock that many of them will 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing a nice firm ripe bulb - which is a waste of all your work!
Leeks aren't quite as sensitive as onions - so if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way - you could just row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed instead of doing this - and plant them out as usual later - but this trick works fantastically well for them as well. I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions (Organic Catalogue) - and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind nowadays, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always has done - and we are all so busy! Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals, just because that's how things were always done, is always worth challenging. And as I often say - that's the only way science progresses too - but more on that later!
'Hardening off' early vegetables sown under cover
'Hardening off' is a term which first time gardeners often find difficult to understand. It's just a gradual acclimatising of plants to the outside world - after being raised in nice warm conditions inside. At this time of year I tend to operate a kind of airport style 'holding pattern' with plants in various stages of hardening off - gradually moving closer and closer to being completely outside. Gradually is the key though!Always be prepared to put them back under cover quickly if severe weather is forecast. I use this method for everything that's sown early under cover - including my onions. The weather's so bad here today that the gales would have battered and destroyed anything like tender lettuces in trays. Typical April weather! It really is worth taking that little bit of extra trouble to properly harden off module grown plants. If it's well done, in a few weeks time you will have perfect beds full of beautiful, healthy salads and other veg to start harvesting.
Normally at this time of year I'm running in and out of the tunnels morning and evening - putting stuff out during the day that needs to begin the 'hardening off' process - bringing everything in again at night in case of a sudden unexpected frost. I have trays raised off the ground on upturned plant crates, so any slugs can't get them - or sneak underneath and be brought unintentionally into the tunnel at night. When weather improves - I shall leave them out day and night at the side of the tunnels just covered with some fleece at night for a few days. After that they can be planted into the raised beds - which are looking like a very inviting (but very cold and wet) blank canvas right now - most of the winter crops having been cleared. The surplus late leek seedlings 'Bandit' which I couldn't bear to waste last year I planted out pencil thin - 3 in a clump in August or early Sept. - mulching them with grass clippings to keep the weeds down and the moisture in. Pictured here you can see lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates, to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
Stop weeds and slugs before they start!
If you're an all year round gardenerlike me, then you'll probably have already covered any ground vacated by any late winter crops lifted last month. If you haven't done that - then do it fastnow!This is important to stop the weeds merrily growing away while your back's turned doing something else!Otherwise you'll seriously regret it in a few weeks time - when trying to get a bed ready for sowing or planting takes a couple of hours because there's a jungle of weeds to remove - instead of the few minutes it would have taken if you'd covered it before they start growing! Don't forget that weeds tend to encourage slugs as well because they give them more places to hide! You can use the time that the ground's covered to lift the cover every so often and pick up any slugs - or just cut them in half if you really can't bear the slime! Any light-excluding and also preferably rain-proof covering will do, to stop the weeds growing and keep the soil dry and in good condition until you can get round to preparing it for a new crop. As soon as we get better weather the weeds will simply leap out of the ground practically overnight! They're always the first to germinate at lower temperatures - that's why they're so successful!
Remember - Nature has strategies that can outwit even the best-laid plans of gardeners - that's why organic gardeners work with rather than against it. Nature is always wisest in the long run and no matter how clever we may think we are - Nature will always have the last word!
With growth fast now - plots can quickly become an unmanageable mess if weeds are not dealt with promptly!
If that happens - then it's often the time when many first-time gardeners give up - thinking that this gardening lark's just far too difficult! Either that or turn to weedkillers on the advice of chemical-minded gardeners! This is a disaster for all the soil life and also for your health if you eat vegetables grown in chemically weed-killed soil! Recently I bumped into a friend who opened some allotments on his farm - he said that several people had taken on far too much and ended up with a mess - so they've abandoned their allotments completely this year. That's a shame - with the right advice they wouldn't have been so disappointed. If that's happened to you in the past - but you're going to have another shot - then good for you but don't take on too much - a little bit of forward planning really pays off.
You're farbetter to get just one small area perfectly under controland cover the rest or just mow it for the time being. You can use the clippings to start a compost heap or for mulching potatoes to keep weeds down. They love the acidifying effect on the soil. While on the subject - only grow potatoes on one quarter of the plot in the first year - not everywhere as some 'know-it-all' people may advise!You could even grow some pumpkins, courgettes or even sweetcorn through any light-excluding cover later on too - or sit tubs on top to grow in this year.
If you spread manure or compost on the surface and just cover it until next year - you won't believe how much the soil will improve without you doing another thing - but it must be covered - not left open to the weather! Don't make it hard for yourself and attempt to be self-sufficient in fruit and veg if you've only got a couple of hours a week to spare. Grow just a few things that are easy - or perhaps are expensive and hard to find fresh in the shops - or things that are better picked fresh just before you eat them like salads. Don't bother trying to grow bulk crops like main crop carrots, onions or potatoes if you haven't got much room or time - organically grown ones are easy to buy almost everywhere now. Grow some permanent fruit bushes which aren't as much trouble and as time-consuming as vegetables. And most importantly - and this sounds obvious - grow what you know you like and will actually eat!!
Growing your own means you can grow the best varieties for flavour and nutrients
Commercial growers often have to use varieties that crop heavily, travel well and have a long shelf life - which usually means far less flavour! I find that the most difficult thing of all for me is restricting myself to things which I know I will realistically have time to grow! I want to grow everything - including many of the more unusual and exotic things. But surely one does have to have a little bit of gardening fun sometimes - otherwise life could be very boring. I also like to experiment with growing new varieties of old favourites, it's an interesting and useful way of discovering better varieties. The great thing about gardening is you never stop learning - and doing it is the very best way to learn!
Another great thing about growing your own is that you can try more unusual crops which are never available in the shops. I've tried many unusual crops over the years - some successful - others not so! One of them was Oca - (oxalis tuberosa) - an ancient Andean crop. The steamed tubers taste rather like a lemony/buttery floury new potato. You can also use the delicious, sharp lemony-tasting leaves and pretty yellow flowers sparingly in summer salads. Sparingly though - as like sorrel they have a high oxalic acid content which can cause kidney stones if eaten in excess! That's something that many experts fail to mention - or perhaps don't know? There are several different coloured ocas - but I'm interested in the more highly-coloured ones for their possible higher antioxidant content. They're fascinating little tubers and very pretty plants - but I found they made masses of tiny tubers wherever the stems touched the soil as well as bigger ones - and I have a funny feeling they may become as invasive and hard to get rid of as Jerusalem artichokes! They're popping up everywhere now, wherever they've been grown previously, despite being cleared up thoroughly - or so I thought! They don't form their tubers until really late in the season - November or so - but they make an interesting alternative break crop in the tunnel rotation where they were obviously very happy in 2012, and also outside for the last few years!
Get your seeds sown on time!
You can get on with lots of seed sowing now - the list is elsewhere in the blog. If you're short of time - (and who isn't these days?) then sow your seeds before you do anything else. As I've mentioned before - you can catch up with everything else when you have time - but seeds must always be sown at the right time otherwise you'll miss the boat! It can be a fine balance - I often make two sowings of a really important staple crop as an insurance policy. If sown too early some things may get a check if we get a sudden cold spell - then run up to flower and seed almost straight away instead of cropping properly. Alternatively if sown too late - they may often never have time to develop a crop at all - especially if we have a really poor summer. In Ireland, we're lucky enough to live in a climate where it's possible to grow most things in most years given a little care.
Seeds of some food plants like spinach and lettuce which grow best in cooler temperatures have a built in germination inhibitor that is triggered by high temperatures - so it's best to keep them fairly cool for the first 24 hours or so after sowing. Don't try to hurry them more by putting them in a heated propagator as they may not germinate at all. At 30 deg C the seed actually becomes dormant - this is nature's clever way of ensuring that they don't germinate in unsuitable
conditions and have the best possible chance of growing on to adulthood and producing seeds themselves.
I know they look lovely, and we'd all love one - but the perfect picture book, 'Country Living' style old brick potting shed(as beautifully seen on Gardener's World) isn't really necessary, or even standing outside in a freezing cold greenhouse, with numb fingers trying to sow tiny seeds! I prefer to sow mine in comfort! I keep a large tray under my kitchen table at this time of year, with a few module trays and small pots, a bowl of seed compost, some vermiculite and a few labels, ready to snatch a few minutes between other jobs, whenever I can, to sow some seeds. The tray is actually a 'grow bag' tray - about 1m long by 45cm wide (a standard seed tray width) which I find is the ideal size. It has deep sides, conveniently keeps all the messy stuff together, is waterproof, and can be whipped off out of the way and shoved under the table at a moment's notice if someone arrives, or at mealtimes! I use a new cat litter tray to sit seed trays in for watering seedlings from below. You may think that sounds a bit scruffy but it's actually quite tidy, very convenient, and at least it stays where it's put - unlike the lambs, chicks or ducklings that often in the past frequented a snug cardboard box under the table in my nice warm kitchen, whenever they required a bit of TLC! I do rather miss those days now - and the children's delight with all our various little fluffy babies! It was a bit frantic sometimes though! Hey ho - life moves on.......
Yes - I knowthe books all tell us to sow seeds in a perfect 'friable seedbed'! But like a lot of you I suspect, when I first moved here I spent endless fruitless hours and energy, making an already bad back worse, struggling to break up the compacted, concrete-like, clods of clay that passed for soil! I was desperate to make 'the perfect seedbed' as recommended. That was before I discovered, more or less by accident, the more convenient and sure results that come from sowing seeds in modules, which I do most of the time now, even for many early root veg as I described earlier. Then I just made 'planting pockets' in the soil of the beds later, as I described in an earlier blog post. After years of cultivation my soil does now make a good seedbed - but I actually still sow most things in modules now because you can be more sure of the temperature, the weather and importantly - the absence of slugs!. Seeds are so expensive now that one can't afford to waste them - and the one thing that is totally beyond our control is the weather. The earliest sowings are inside in my polytunnel, and later outside sowing is done in modules in a raised, slug proof, outside propagating area. You could also make a raised seedbed, if you wanted to but I still find that sowing in modules avoids the setbacks and occasional damage which can be caused by 'pricking out', uprooting and transplanting. Plants establish so much better, far more quickly and more reliably if they already have a really good root ball.
Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden to do it!
As my stepladder garden and containers prove in the polytunnel diary this month, growing some of your own food is easy, really satisfying and can save you a lot of money. There's a lot of information here I know - but you don't have to do everything here! I just try to give the advice and encouragement that I know I would have found really useful when I was starting my gardening life. I hope that you can benefit from my 40 years experience of growing food for my family and for my veg box and co-op customers years ago (can't believe it!).Many customers became friends for life - because an interest in healthy food is something we have in common - as indeed so have you!
No matter how busy you are in the garden - I hope you'll take time to enjoy every moment of this wonderful spring time - it's such a joyous and hopeful time of year! The garden is bursting with hope. Planting a garden is really planting hope! That's something we all need plenty of - and it's something that we can renew afresh each year. Aren't we gardeners lucky?!
Last but not least! My thoughts on some so-called 'scientists' - after all, if science hadn't been challenged centuries ago - then we'd all still think the earth was flat wouldn't we?
Sadly too many so-called scientists refuse to accept that something they may have been taught in college may actually now have been proved wrong. This can particularly be the case if their science is biased by having a financial vested interest in maintaining the current status quo - as many of those scientists employed (either openly or covertly) by the globally-dominant, multinational seed and pesticide manufacturers have. In fact - today some science is for sale to the highest bidder and does not have the integrity it should! It's a case of "Give me the money - and I'll give you the results you want" - rather than what may be the actual truth! Some scientists on social media may not always be what they appear to be - their often entertaining, amusing and seemingly innocent public faces may disguise a much darker, self-interested side.
Saying such things obviously doesn't make me popular in some quarters - but that's never bothered me! In fact I was even threatened by DM - (a private direct message) on Twitter 18 months ago by one extremely arrogant but very popular and well-known proponent of industrial chemical agriculture and GMOs. This was despite the fact that I had only mentioned "some scientists" - in a tweet referring to my feelings about such obvious financially motivated bias - and had not mentioned their particular scientific discipline! This proved to me that particular person had a vested interest at the time - and events since then have proved me to be quite correct!
To such people - using the hashtags #organic, #wholefood, #processedfood or #realfood - seems to be like waving a red rag at a bull - they become almost apoplectic with rage! Their tweets infer that the proponents of sustainable organic agriculture are ignorant Luddites and hippies - using such hashtags as #SenseAboutScience, or #FactsNotFear - which are real favourites of the biased, pro-chemical farming brigade! Some pro-chemical journalists even say that we are suffering from 'orthorexia' - a curious one that - since if you look at the Greek etymology of that word it actually means 'right diet'! They're clearly not fans of evolutionary science - since if we weren't eating the 'right diet' - surely humans wouldn't have got as far as the 20th century, when artificial fertilisers and pesticides were invented?
It was only in the 20th century that the chemicalswhichare now being used as pesticides
were invented. They were originally used as poisonous nerve agents - weapons of warfare just like those being used in Syria and other regions where there are wars now
! If scientists are so confident that their way is the right way and that their chemicals don't harm biodiversity or people's health - you would think that advocates of organic farming wouldn't bother them in the slightest!.... ............ Wouldn't you?
As I've said - it doesn't make me too popular to question them - and those who prefer a quiet life probably wouldn't. But it's too easy to look the other way and allow another Silent Spring to happen. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of good scientists out there who are as deeply worried as I am about the future. What makes me so unpopular is questioning those who only appear to care about amassing as much money as possible now - regardless of what harm it may do to Nature and our children's future! But I don't care about being popular - what I care about is the future of our children, their health and also that of Nature and the planet. Surely anyone who has children must care about such things?
Nature and my children are the only vested interests I have to declare. And I don't keep those hidden - unlike some people!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)
April Topics: The many proven health benefits of growing your own..... What can you grow if you don't have a polytunnel or even a garden?.... What you could be eating now from the polytunnel if you've planned well..... Not planted any potatoes outside yet?- Don't panic there's still time my way!.... Managing your polytunnel environment....Dealing with pest problems in spring polytunnels.... Polytunnels as an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.
Spring Equinox polytunnel at dawn last year - full of good things to eat & flowers for bees and beneficial insects.
The list of health benefits from growing your own veg grows longer every day!
In fact - some very recent science has just proved that you don't even need to grow anything! Apparently, just walking gently around the garden for twenty minutes, or anywhere else in the countryside will give you some of those benefits! A new study, just published in the journal 'Frontiers in Psychology', proves that taking at least 20 - 30 minutes out of each day, to walk gently, or just sit in a place that makes our senses feel in contact with Nature can have a real and measurable effect on our health - significantly lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can contribute to such health problems as high blood pressure. Scientists say that healthcare practitioners will now be able to prescribe what they are calling 'the nature pill', in the knowledge that it has proven benefits. One stipulation was that while taking 'the nature pill' we should be outside in daylight. The other requirements were that we should at the same time minimize other factors known to influence stress, such as aerobic exercise (so heavy digging's out!), or social media use - such as internet, phone calls, conversations and reading, in order to maximise the benefits - or in other words - get a bit of peace!
This is fascinating proof that, as I'm always saying, the further we move away from the natural world which we humans evolved to inhabit - the more damaging it can be for our health! But at the same time it happily also proves just how easy it is to reverse that damage with this easy, free and all-natural stress-relieving remedy. Growing up in a pretty frantic and stressful household, with two much older siblings, an adored father who was away often and a mother who suffered from mental health problems - I must say that I found spending my days mostly outside very calming when at home, wandering around in our large garden investigating 'jungly' green places, with my dogs and pony in tow. I still find such green spaces calming to this day - especially at this time of year when all the fresh green buds of spring are bursting in woodlands and birds are singing for joy. Perhaps that's why one of my good friends said years ago that I'd faithfully recreated an overgrown old garden - when in fact at that time my garden was barely 20 years old!
You can imagine just how delighted I was to have found this study this morning - as currently I'm beginning to feel very nature-deprived and actually a bit stressed, at being unable to go outside in the garden or even walk up to my polytunnel! Right now I'm unableto even sit among the flowers and veg, listening to the sounds and smelling the scents all around me, due to being under 'house arrest' since I fractured my ankle badly 3 weeks ago. In another 2 weeks I will have more X-rays and then I'm hoping that my consultant will say that I will at least be able to walk gently up to my polytunnel with my splint on - using a walking frame or crutches, and sit on my 'meditation chair' for 20 minutes a day, getting a good dose of daylight and perhaps even nibbling a few crisply fresh greens on the way! Although whether I will find it stressful just sitting, and not being able to do anything that I can see needs doing, remains to be seen! Right now though - I would be so grateful just to be able to be able to go outside and breathe some fresh air! Even before this study there was already ample evidence that exercise, spending time out of doors in the natural environment and having contact with the soil are the keys to good physical and mental health.That's not a problem if you're a gardener - unless you're a housebound one like me at present! Sadly I can't sit at my computer for very long either - hence this blog post is a little bit later than usual - my apologies!
Overwintered spinach Viroflex cropping nicely
April is one of the busiest months of the gardening year, with so much work to do both inside and outside but ultimately it will all be worth it - because what you're doing is actually growing your own health! Although we're completely unaware of it - when we're gardening we also absorb vital healthy Mycobacterium vaccae from our soil and environment. Studies have shown that when M.vaccae is inhaled it triggers the release of the 'happy hormone' serotonin in the brain, and that this is significant enough for it to be referred to as an antidepressant! This benefit, as well as the fresh clean air we're breathing, is something people who spend their lives mostly indoors miss out on. So us organic gardeners have it right don't we? We're saving money while at the same time growing our own health, and getting a huge sense of achievement, with enjoyable, stress-reducing healthy exercise! No wonder organic gardeners are such contented folk!
Given that a recent Newcastle University study also found that organically grown fruit and veg are at least 60% higher in antioxidants, with far fewer residues of neurotoxins like heavy metals and pesticides - then growing them ourselves organically, or buying organic is surely an complete 'no-brainer' and a winner from every point of view! After all - why on earth would you buy chemically-grown. pesticide sprayed, veg when it's so easy to grow even just a little bit of luscious veg like the spinach like you can see pictured here? Not only that - you're getting the freshest food possible and you can eat it when it's healthy nutrients are at their absolute peak! If you haven't read my blog post about when is the best time to harvest your produce - here's a link to it:
Even more great news for all of us keen gardeners who grow lots of our own food is that a recent study by University College London in the 'Journal of Epidemiology and Health' stated that the more veg and fruit you can eat, the more beneficial it is for your health. As I reported a couple of years ago - most experts think now that 7 or even 9 a day - rather than 5 a day is the very best total to eat. That's no problem if you grow your own - and it couldn't be fresher picked straight from your own garden! The only dressing that home-grown, deliciously fresh veg requires is a little olive oil or butter - or quite a lot in my case - which scientists also now say isn't bad for you either. But be sure to use a good oil, like organic extra virgin olive oil, or nut oils - not industrially-processed, chemically-extracted GMO seed oils! Thank heavens finally for some commonsense about fat! We never ate anything but organic butter and natural, cold-pressed organic oils here! For salads we mostly use olive, avocado and nut oils - all delicious - and which all help your body to absorb all the healthy nutrients from your salads.
Filling up on veg also means you can cut down a bit on expensive organic meat too and you don't need the carbs from loads of potatoes to make you feel satisfied after meals! Much better for our health. In our house - actually finding room on the plate for the meat is often a problem, so we have side plates for extra veg too if necessary. We're so greedy for our lovely fresh veg here and for most of the year there's always plenty of choice. We still eat potatoes occasionally - but we eat far fewer heavy carbs like bread, potatoes and pasta here now than we used to, since we started on mostly LCHF - or low carbohydrate high healthy fat eating. We still very occasionally enjoy the odd healthy cake or pud made from wholegrain flours as we always have done - but not every day! We don't go overboard and we don't exclude anything forever more - but we do all agree that we feel much better for it. The one thing that I am absolutist about however - is that absolutely everything must be organic! After 40 years of research into how to feed my family the healthiest food possible - believe me I know far too much about the chemicals used on non-organic crops and the health effects of them on the animals and animal products that we eat! Never forget that what they eat - we are ultimately eating too! In fact - we are what they eat!
Growing your own is not just healthier for you but your budget too!
Thank heavens for polytunnels - where we can make a start on growing crops destined for outside by starting them off undercover to plant out later - and they'll be all the healthier and stronger for it! The weather here's been so wet on and off all winter and early spring - every time it looked as if it was drying up - then we had yet another deluge! Even though things have really started growing in the last couple of weeks outside - it's still far too wet to do any useful gardening. But in the polytunnel - spring is already well and truly underway, growth is accelerating and no matter what the weather outside - there's always something good to eat - for us and the many bees that have been constant visitors to all the flowers in there over the last few weeks!
Despite the recent snow and freezing weather - there is still a glorious profusion of healthy salads to eat in the polytunnel right now. If I only picked just one leaf from each different type of plant there would still be too much to fit onto a plate! It really shows the benefit of planning well now for winter salads this time next year. All the overwintered plants are cropping really well, producing a final burst of growth encouraged by the increasing light, before they try to flower in order to reproduce themselves. When they finally do - I shall leave many of the flowers for the bees and hoverflies which are already busy helping to pollinate my fruit crops and control insects. Even in a polytunnel - organic gardening is all about doing everything possible to encourage Nature to work with you - and it's happy to do so if given the chance! In fact it's getting hard to keep up with eating all the lovely salads - but the hens enjoy helping out too and all the healthy greens supercharge their eggs with all that captured sunshine!
I never cease to be grateful for my lovely polytunnels that I worked so hard for - they were worth all the effort and they certainly save me a lot of money all year round! Why do so many people lose interest in their polytunnels over the winter and then only start to use them again in spring? They could be saving an absolute fortune on the household budget - and eating a far healthier diet too! When I see the tired and miserable-looking, increasingly nutrient-depleted selection of imported salad leaves which are available in supermarkets - usually just spinach or rocket which is probably 2-3 days old at least - I feel so sorry for people who have no choice but to buy them! (see earlier link). They're expensive too - most packs are around €3 and they would barely feed two people! Last week when, browsing in M&S to see what they had in their organic section, I came across bagged organic spinach grown in Italy - only about 250g for €3 per bag! That is positively criminal! There is absolutely no good reason whatsoever why that couldn't have been grown here in the British Isles in a cold greenhouse - saving carbon and being far fresher! And there's no reason why you couldn't grow your own even if you only have a tiny outside space - as my stepladder garden pictured below proves - and that's even better for your budget!
But what if you don't have a polytunnel - or even a garden - can you grow anything?
This is something which I'm asked a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is YES - quite a lot! Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, you can grow in containers - but just on a smaller scale. If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again! You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two? So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything". Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be fresher, healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill! If you've got a path with room to walk on it, then you've got room for at least some veg in containers. For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year! I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg dept. of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit on each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them.
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago. I also put a couple of large 10l buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew! Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?" route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows!
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy!
You don't need a tunnel for container growing - but you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets for upwards of £20 or €25. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store! They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them!
What you could be eating now from the polytunnel if you've planned well
'Equinox Celebration Salad' 34 different leaves plus edible flowers all picked from the polytunnel
You wouldn't think that tunnel could be incredibly productive at this time of year would you? I decided last year to take a walk round the tunnel one morning to see what variety there was available to eat, at what is normally a pretty meagre time of year outside in the veg garden.I took this pictureabove on the morning of the Equinox on the 21st March! Believe me - it really tasted just as good as it looks!Here's the list from my large east tunnel in no particular order - but just as I happen to walk past it! Calabrese, curly parsley, Ruby and silver Swiss chards, giant scallion 'Shimonita', pea shoots, 4 different kinds of radishes, coriander, Giant Italian flat-leaf parsley, 3 kinds of spinach, salad/spring onions, rhubarb, 'Sugar Loaf' chicory, red-veined sorrel, celery leaves, rocket, lamb's lettuce, claytonia, thyme, oregano, salad burnet, curly endive, 5 different kinds of lettuce, watercress, mizuna, pak choi leaves and flower buds (delicious and something few people think of because normally they cut the whole thing whereas if you pick individual leaves carefully they'll crop all winter), other assorted mixed oriental salad mixes, red stemmed leaf radish, frilly purple kale, Orychophragma Violaceus (Joy Larkcom's Chinese Feb. orchid) for salad leaves and beautiful flowers, Ragged Jack kale for baby salad leaves, then larger leaves and now also flowering shoots (like broccoli but better) beet leaves - 'Bull's Blood and McGregor's favourite - baby beetroot, and delicious giant garlic chives - a treasured gift again from Joy Larkcom when she came to stay here a few years ago.
In the West (fruit) tunnel there's also the Sutton's loose leaf lettuce mix planted in recycled containers, along with pea shoots and spinach. The lettuce seeds are fantastic value at just 60 cents for 1300 seeds - and are a good mix of colours and leaf shapes. Lettuce all summer long for half of nothing! In another couple of weeks there will be the first new potatoes - although I still have a handful of 'Mayan Gold' left in a pot from the Christmas grown ones which I saved up and may eat this week!. So there's plenty to choose from. Actually I must tell you that radish 'Rudi' from unbelievably cheap Lidl seed was a real find a few years ago! Not usually a fan of radishes, I decided to train my palate on the basis that if something tastes foul - then it must be good for you! I did that with rocket a few years ago - and while not a huge fan I'm getting better about eating it, and in fact the flowers are absolutely delicious in salads - tasting of vanilla! I sowed the first radishes in modules in the propagator in late January and they've been cropping for about 3 weeks now, getting bigger every day. With regular watering radishes don't tend to taste as hot, although it also depends on variety, and 'Rudi' - pictured here, is crunchy, delicious and easy to grow and isn't hot at all - even at almost golf ball size which some now are - I promise you! Chopped into 4 or even 8 in salads it's sweet, tender and crunchily delicious. I've just had some for lunch. I think that variety of texture as well as flavour is so important in vegetables, particularly salads. Then you don't get bored by eating the same old thing every day. Oh! I nearly forgot the other edible flowers of course - pansies, violas, primroses and borage - all delicious and flowering right now!
The above list doesn't include all the stored veg we still have availablenow - a few red onions which are still crisp and firm, the last of the potatoes left over from those kept for seed - and also fruit and veg in the freezer, French beans, peas, broccoli, broad beans, sweet corn, basil & parsley (in copious amounts!), peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, damsons and blackberries. We also still have a few leeks and parsnips still in the ground outside in the vegetable garden. Spoiled for choice really - all easily home-grown organically without toxic chemicals. They would cost a fortune in the shops if you could buy them but you wouldn't find even a fraction of these in any shop! I would go without veg if I couldn't grow them or buy them organically, so I make sure we always have plenty all year round. (Many people aren't aware that we share up to 40% of our genes with many insects, worms and even slugs - so anything that kills or affects them also eventually has an effect on us, especially since science is now proving that they have a cumulative 'cocktail' effect!). Most of the time we almost have too much choice - but the hens are always most grateful for any that we can't eat - they then produce those delicious eggs!
If you haven't yet planted any potatoes outside because of wet soil don't panic!
You can still cheat the weather, gain a few weeks and catch up by planting into pots now inside in the tunnel, which will bring them on quickly, then hardening off gradually and planting outside later, as I described last month - protecting them from frost with fleece. These will still be much earlier than any planted on the traditional St. Patrick's day outside into cold wet ground - especially with such cold soil temperatures after the recent snow and freezing weather. If you don't get round to planting them then - they will actually be quite happy in a 2 litre pot for their whole lifetime until you eat them, or you can pot them on into larger ones. They obviously won't have as big a crop in pots and the tubers may be smaller - but I grow all the ones I keep for seed in 2 litre pots. That way they stay together, and don't get mixed up or stolen by hungry rodents in the autumn. When blight eventually strikes - I just take off the tops immediately, turn them on their sides so the blight spores don't wash down onto the tubers and let them dry out. They'll keep well all winter like that somewhere frost (& rodent!) free. Then I have them ready to plant the following spring.
April is one of the most difficult months for managing the polytunnel environment.
Gerry Kelly - my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' radio series on LMFM Radio's 'Late Lunch Show' - helping to pollinate the peach trees a few years ago.
It really feels like spring now on sunny days in the tunnels - in fact it almost feels like summer on some days at noon! The scent of all the flowers blooming in there when I open the doors is amazing. Even on frosty days it's lovely to work or sit in there. Brilliantly sunny days are lovely but temperatures can shoot up alarmingly high very quickly though. Then the sudden violent showers and gales gusting around in every direction can make ventilation a nightmare. I shouldn't complain though, I know how lucky I am to have my tunnels at home here - where I can dash out to open or shut doors in between bursts of writing. I ran up just now to open the doors again and spotted two new species of hoverfly on the early potato leaves. Yesterday there were masses of them on the flowers of the peach trees - along with a couple of bumblebees too - so I won't need to do much if any pollinating. All the oriental veg flowers look like a natural firework display and also smell divine! I always leave the oriental salad mixes to run up to flower now as the early hoverflies, bees and other insects really go mad for them. When was in the tunnel three weeks ago before my accident, there were a couple of bumblebees in there, as there are most days, and many of the flowers on the dwarf peaches, nectarines and apricots in pots, and also the peach tress planted in the ground, have been pollinated already. Bees love to come into the tunnels where they're sheltered from strong winds. Happily they seemed to have already done a pretty thorough job - lots of the flowers have turned dark pink already - so we're looking forward to lots of lovely juicy peaches again. Pollinating peach trees is a job all visitors love doing - and of course eating the odd fruit later on! In truth though - the ever-wonderful bees do most of it!
Dealing with spring pest problems in polytunnels
I've already covered propagation over the last two months so there's no need to repeat that here. The first thing to say about pests is that if you see them in any numbers - it usually means that plants aren't healthy and happy and are stressed in some way, which weakens them and make them more attractive to pests. It can also mean that you don't have a healthy balanced ecology in the environment wherever the plant is growing - whether it's inside or outside. This can often be because they're in a hot dry conservatory or greenhouse, perhaps with no flowers - or that the soil isn't healthy. I always make sure that I have as much variety of flowers and plants as possible, growing in a healthy, living, microbe rich soil with plenty of fresh air. If plants have those conditions, they rarely suffer from pests and diseases. Plants are like us - if they're being fed too much or too little and are shut up in an unnatural environment without fresh air - they are far more likely to be unhealthy! Wherever you're growing plants, if you have lots of single flowers to attract insect predators like hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings and wasps, and if you also have open vents, windows and doors where they can get in - then they will generally deal with any pests. The insects in their turn will also attract small birds like wrens, sparrows, blue tits and robins - which are only too delighted to help with pest control - particularly at this time of year when they're feeding babies. Aphids are ideal small baby bird food! Polytunnels are basically an unnatural environment, so doing all you can to create as natural and varied an environment as possible, with a balance of pest and predator, is the key to happy pest-free plants.
There's so many birds here in this garden now and so much competition for food that I almost never see a pest - but unfortunately that also means they eat caterpillars of in some cases increasingly rare butterflies - so I have to protect those by covering the clumps of nettles I grow in the tunnels with netting! Yes! I do grow nettles in my tunnels in out of the way spots - they're ideal habitat for butterfly caterpillars and early ladybird larvae. Most of the year I have the tunnel doors open, as long as it's not too windy, so small birds are grateful to hunt in there for insects - particularly in winter. I have large pea and bean netting up at the doors to keep hungry pigeons and pheasants out! The larger netting also allows bees in to do their vital job of pollination.
Although last summer was a good one for some butterflies -one of the most worrying effects of the last few year's wet summers, and the increasing use of pesticides, is the lack of bees and other vitally important pollinating insects in our gardens. This is something many people may not even give a thought to - until there aren't any and they have no fruit for instance! If the climate continues to be as erratic and wildly unpredictable in the future - then I believe that this is the single most important factor that we will have to learn to deal with if we want to continue to grow food - whether we are organic or not. You may be able to kill pests with poisonous chemicals - but if you do so you will also kill vital pollinating insects. You can't then manufacture bees and hoverflies out of thin air! (Although I read this week that Monsanto are now trying to produce GM bees - another money-making idea! Their stupidity and irresponsibility knows no bounds!) Although it's hard work, you may be able to pollinate some fruit trees by hand on a small scale - but not huge fields of oil seed rape. I think some farmers tend to forget that fact when they're thoughtlessly sloshing around the pesticides! All insect populations have plummeted over the last few years, due to the recent disastrously wet summers when they needed good weather and plenty of food for breeding, erratic winters seesawing wildly back and forth from unusually mild spells to severe cold - and of course increasing use of pesticides. Consequently bird populations have also dropped. Coming on top of all the pesticides used by farmers, decreasing habitats, hedges, wildflowers and sheltered breeding places - the changing climate could prove to be the last straw for some pollinators - and bees in particular. Without them there won't be much to eat! Many people aren't aware that we share up to 40% of our genes with many insects, worms and even slugs - so anything that kills or affects them also eventually has an effect on us, especially since science is now proving that they have a cumulative 'cocktail' effect!
Polytunnels are an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.
My B&B border as I call it - made specifically for bees, butterflies, bats and birds, is a large question mark shaped border I put in a few years ago that wraps around the north end of both of my tunnels! I planted it specifically for wildlife, and I think that the insects, birds and bats that it encourages must deal with a lot of pests - both outside and inside the tunnels. The bank's also an ideal nesting site for solitary bees too, as it's south facing and well drained, being made mostly of gravel and bark chip mixed with sub-soil, so as it's just at the top end of the polytunnels - I'm never short of pollinators. On any mild day in winter there's always a few bumble bees in the tunnels foraging for pollen and nectar for their broods. You could build a bee and insect hotel or make a well-drained soil mound topped by an evergreen shrub even in the smallest garden, and this will provide shelter for hibernation and nesting sites for insects. In front of the border is a 'lawn' made mostly of perennial white cover, which is alive with bees when it's in flower and has the most fabulous scent. It's a lovely place to sit in the evenings in summer when it's planted with scented Nicotiana and Verbena Bonariensis, especially when bats are flying just overhead to catch the moths and insects that the flowers attract. My little Eden!
The first insect pests you may see in any numbers in a tunnel or greenhouse at this time of year may well be aphids (this is even more likely if your neighbours aren't organic!). You can easily deal with these by just brushing off with a soft paintbrush if the numbers aren't too high, or by washing off with a hose or under the tap for pot plants. If the winter's been a hard one and the predator population hasn't recovered enough in time to deal with them - then you may end up having to buy in biological controls like ladybirds. These aren't cheap, but the good news is that you will probably only have to do this once, because if you do as I suggest and grow lots of flowers in your tunnel - some beneficial insects will breed and stay in there permanently then. I don't like to use even organic insecticidal soap sprays as these affect all insects. You couldn't use them on anything you are going to eat anyway and even on things like lemons they can actually damage the young shoots in spring. As I said in an earlier article this year though - soap sprays are the only way to deal with scale insect on citrus trees.
There seem to be a lot of people putting up new polytunnels at the moment and I've had quite a few questions about them. All advice naturally also applies to cold frames or outside too - but new polytunnels in particular can be a problem for a little while - before they 'settle down' and develop a balanced ecology of pest and predator, because any pests multiply far more rapidly in the warmer, more protected environment. So here's a bit more about pests that I wrote in the blog a couple of years ago. Some of it I may have already covered, but hopefully it may deal with anything else you might be looking for that I haven't already mentioned. Can you believe that someone recently complained that I actually write too much?? Ungrateful since this is free! You can't please everyone can you?
Using chemical pesticides would prevent any chance of the ecological balance of the tunnel recovering for years. We need to do everything we can in our gardens to encourage and help all insects - whether you consider them good or bad - because they are all vital links in the natural food chain - and everything is connected. Birds, frogs, hedgehogs, bats etc. all the gardener's friends - all depend on insects For the organic polytunnel or greenhouse gardener this is even more important - pests can multiply at an alarming rate in the warm, sheltered conditions of a tunnel. Just in case there are a few predatory beneficial insects around in a week or so - it's a good idea to let some overwintered salads like mizuna and rocket run up to flower now and also to sow a few annual flowers like calendula, Virginian stock etc for later on. You could also perhaps plant a few perennials like Bowles mauve wallflower, nepeta or scabious. They've been a huge success with hoverflies, butterflies and bees over the years in my tunnels - and they're flowering really well now.
Scientists are warning there's even more compelling evidence now linking the collapse of bee colonies to the widespread use of systemic pesticides. These nerve poisons affect foraging bee's navigation system - making them unable to find their way home, feed their colonies properly or to produce queens to breed new healthy colonies. Any surviving bees gradually become underweight, weakened, more vulnerable to virus diseases and die. Beekeepers say we're running out of time to halt the bee's decline and we're all being used as guinea pigs. Amen to that! It's no coincidence that global chemical giant Syngenta are also currently investing huge sums of money into farming bumblebees - they see it as the next multi-billion dollar business opportunity. Neat eh? Killing off all the competition would leave the field clear for their farmed bees - quite literally! Of course I doubt if it's occurred to many farmers yet that if they kill off pollinating insects by using pesticides - that they won't have any bees left to pollinate crops like oil seed rape etc. - so then they'll have to buy bees instead! Many butterflies, moths, bees and other insects are becoming increasingly rare due to pesticide use.
It certainly doesn't seem to have occurred to a neighbour of mine - who keeps complaining that he's got no bees, no worms and no drainage! He also blames my trees and hedges for harbouring birds that eat his crops and thinks organic people are all completely barmy - a myth deliberately propagated by pro-chemical and GM interests! Now more vigorously than ever! Of course they're now getting worried that more people might actually start thinking for themselves instead of blindly accepting the deliberately packaged, misleading and often downright untrue information put out by the pro GM lobbyists! Like many others - I've been convinced for years that the various combinations and 'cocktails' of nerve poisons and other pesticides being used in industrial agriculture may build up in our own systems, causing the cancers and other diseases which seem to be ever more prevalent - but who is going to prove that - when the chemical companies in most cases are the ones who are producing their own safety data - and constantly lobbying government scientific committees to pass their products as safe for sale? That's if their products have been tested at all - and many chemicals used in everyday household products have never been tested. Profits and shareholders are the only things that concern the chemical companies - not our future - whatever they may say. Would you let them pour their pesticides straight onto your doorstep? That is in essence what they're doing - our planet is our home address - and also our children's future!! What was it the visionary Chief Seattle said ? "Whatever befalls the earth - befalls the sons of the earth. - If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves".
The WHO and The United Nations are now seriously worried enough about some pesticides in every day use and also possible 'chemical cocktails' that two years ago that they called for re-testing of many products - it's taken them long enough! But it keeps being delayed. Will it happen? - Who will do it? - Will the data be transparent? And how long will it take? As a result of this re-evaluation - Monsanto/Bayer have really stepped up their lobbying campaign in favour of Glyphosate/Roundup. Reading their website you would think it was totally innocuous and completely harmless! Forgive me if I'm just a little sceptical - I've read the research and even know personally of cases where people were made severely ill by being careless! Everyday now there is mounting evidence that it probably the most noxious chemicals ever invented - some scientists now even consider it to be worse than DDT!
In the meantime - the safest thing you can do if you're concerned, is to grow your own food organically or buy organic if you can't grow it. OK - I do personally know how hard it can be to remember the bigger picture when we're all so understandably concerned about how to make ends meet - but some things are more important than money, and health is one of them. Money can't buy health - and growing our own healthy chemical-free food - fresh and burstingly full of vital nutrients - is such a positive thing we can all do for our families which also makes a huge contribution to the household budget in these more cost conscious times. I enjoy giving advice to people about how to grow clean and healthy organic food - and it's something I can personally do to help more people to be just that bit more independent of big business and the supermarkets! But who knows what's next? Maybe governments will start taxing the veg. we grow in our gardens - on the grounds that it deprives the supermarkets and chemical companies of profits and therefore deprives the taxman too!! Who knows? The one thing that we can be sure of though is that by growing as much food as we can ourselves - we can be more self-sufficient and much less dependent on imported produce. Many experts are now warning that when or if Brexit happens - a lot of imported produce will become more expensive due to import costs and tariffs - but I for one won't be worrying about that!
Talking of which - here's some pics of the wonderfully luscious salads we've been enjoying since last autumn all winter long, from the tunnel.The salads are lettuces Lattughino, Fristina, Cherokee, claytonia, mizuna, lamb's lettuce, landcress, Bull's Blood beet leaves, spinach, vegetable mallow, parsley coriander etc. You could be enjoying crops like this too - even if you only have a large cold frame or two. It takes very little effort really - but saves an absolute fortune!
If you're getting short of warm space in the tunnel this month and any really early tomatoes are looking like they need potting on again - as mine are now - then just give them a half strength general liquid feed of something like the certified organic 'Universal Plant Food' from Osmo - available now in most garden centres. It's still far too early to plant out in the tunnel at the moment - the night temperature needs to be a constant minimum average of about 50deF/10degC - so mine will be staying on the gently heated mat for a bit longer, ensuring they have good air circulation around them to prevent disease and not allowing them to get starved. That way they can wait another week or so in their small pots while the weather's still cold at night. If delayed I'll pot them on again into larger pots - my recycled milk cartons which are easy to label individually with an indelible marker pen so they don't get mixed up! Then I'll leave them on the heated mat for another week or so - I won't risk them in any unheated space until the weather improves a lot. I always like to have really early tomatoes - so I don't want them to get a check. Planting out too early often means they'll get a severe check and be delayed.
(I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
Growing Heritage seeds & supporting small independent organic seed companies ensures diversity in seed supply & future food security
"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing whatsoever you can do about it."(A great piece of gardening advice I was given many years ago)
Also remember - this is just a checklist to remind you of what you could possibly sow now if you want to. Not what you have to! So please don't complain that it all looks far too much to do - as one person did! I still find this list a helpful reminder, even though I've been growing my own food for over 40 years!
Another good piece of old advice is that if you can see weed seeds germinating - then it means the soil is warm enough to sow some of the hardier things, and it will definitely be warm enough for planting hardy veg plants. I find sowing in modules or pots of peat-free organic seed compost best for almost everything now though. It gains me at least 2-3 weeks of extra growing time at either end of the year. It also means I can plant out much bigger plants that are far more slug-resistant and will withstand the odd night-time nibble without total destruction!
Here's what you can sow now outside if conditions are suitable - or inside now for planting outside later:
In modules under cover without heat, or in a cold frame - (covering with fleece on frosty nights) - orunder cloches, or if the soil's warm enough in the garden:
Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, Claytonia, mangetout, maincrop peas, sugar snap, mangetout and early peas, parsnips, summer and autumn cabbages, savoy cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccoli, Hamburg parsley, onions (sow seed early in April (don't plant sets in the ground - as you could bring in disease. Plant in containers instead for an earlier crop if you need it), leeks, spring onions (scallions), lettuces (keep both lettuces & spinach cool for first 24 hours after sowing - as too high a temperature can cause poor germination or trigger dormancy), kohl rabi, Ragged Jack, Cavolo Nero and other kales for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, seakale, white turnips, landcress, watercress, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, 'soft' herbs like borage, basil, parsley, dill, fennel, Greek oregano and coriander. Remember - parsley likes to be warm and can take about 3 weeks to germinate anytime - always just when you think it's not going to! Basil also needs warmth.
As the light is increasing now - this month many hardy crops can still be hurried up a bitby sowing in the warm which will enable you to catch up if you're a bit behind because of the weather - but remember to reduce the temperature after germination and harden them off gradually so that they don't get a shock or a check, which could possibly initiate bolting or running up to flower (this particularly applies to cauliflowers and calabrese/broccoli). Rhubarb can also be sown from seed now - Unwins early red and Glaskin's perpetual (low oxalic acid variety) are both good varieties from seed. Asparagus peas, cardoons and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside from mid-April in warmer areas.
It's also worth sowing some single, early flowering annuals in the open ground or in modules - such as limnanthes (poached egg plant), calendula, cerinthe, convulvulus tricolor, phacelia or even red clover and buckwheat normally used as green manures (bees love them) etc. All of these will attract and provide food for vital beneficial insects including bees and hoverflies, which help with pest control, and also butterflies, moths and other insects into the garden and polytunnel for pollination. The will also provide nectar for any overwintered butterflies. Any insects will then in turn also attract and feed wildlife like birds, frogs and bats.
What you can sow now for growing on in the polytunnel or greenhouse:
In a heated propagator, for cropping later in the tunnel (or some for planting outside later) - Alpine strawberries (Reugen - best var.), globe artichokes, asparagus, celery, celeriac (early in month or won't grow to decent size), Florence fennel, dwarf and climbing French beans for cropping in polytunnel beds ('Cobra F1' is a very heavy-cropping, thoroughly reliable climbing variety - it's a round-podded, stringless, improved form of the old 'Blue Lake' - available in the B&Q range at half the price of all other seed companies! Purple Cascade is another delicious var.), tomatoes, chillies and other peppers (soon as poss for a decent crop), physalis (Cape gooseberries), early courgettes, melons, cucumbers and early sweetcorn for tunnel cropping. Don't forget melons and cucumbers need to be grown on in consistently warmer conditions than tomatoes to be successful. Don't sow courgettes, marrows, pumpkins, squashes or other very fast developing vegetables such as sweet corn, French or runner beans which are destined for planting outside until at least mid to late April, so that they can then grow on without any checks, as they are fast growers. Also in gentle warmth you can now sow basil (water very carefully after germination, always from bottom by sitting in tray rather than drenching from top! Over watering, particularly in cold conditions, will kill basil faster than anything - I get more questions about growing basil than almost anything else!).
Also sow somesingle-flowered more tender annuals such as Cosmos, Tagetes, French marigolds (T&M 'Tall Citrus Mixed' is good), also nasturtiums etc.- these attract many bees and beneficial insects which will help with pest control and pollination both in the tunnel and outside. It's vitally important that they are single-flowered, as bees, hoverflies and other insectscan't access the nectaries of double flowers. This means they are completely useless to them, in which case they won't hang around for long. It also means they can waste precious energy trying to get at the nectar in the flowers!
In modules in the tunnel without heat, or direct in soil now, you can sow - Beetroot, broad beans and peas for planting outside, summer cabbages, calabrese, cauliflowers, carrots, white turnips and radishes (in the soil for an early tunnel crop), onions, chives, Welsh onions, scallions, leeks. Quick growing salad mixes (early in the month) to give some young leaves fast, leaf radishes, also summer spinach, kales, rocket, spinach and coloured Swiss chards etc. for baby leaves. Fennel and other 'soft herbs' like borage, chives, parsley, dill, Greek oregano, salad burnet and coriander. Single-flowered, insect-attracting hardy annuals like limnanthes, convulvulus tricolour and calendula can also be sown direct into the soil in beds now.
If you still haven't yet planted any potatoes outside don't panic!
You can speed them up a bit and catch up by planting into pots now inside, which will bring them on quickly. You can then harden them off gradually and plant outside into their cropping positions later - protecting any exposed young shoots with fleece if necessary. These will still be far earlier than any planted on the traditional St. Patrick's day outside into cold wet ground, where they'll sit sulking and vulnerable to pests or rotting - particularly after a long spell of cold, wet weather!
I grow all my potatoes this way now, as it ensure that I always have a fairly good crop underneath them by the time potato blight hits - which can be very early in some seasons here, any time from early June onwards depending on weather. (Doing this means I never have to spray with any organic sprays like copper sulphate which can build up on clay soils.).
And the same goes for garlic!
You've also just got time plant some spring planting varieties of garlicearly in the month - check the pack to make sure they are varieties suitable for spring planting! Garlic needs cold weather to develop it's roots, or it may produce a large bulb rather than cloves. I find that planting in modules or pots and keeping in a cold spot, such as in the shade against a north wall, until they're well-rooted, is a good way to start late plantings off - then I plant them out as normal. Cristo is the best variety which I've found for spring planting and it has a good strong flavour.
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
March Contents:Some advice for new peach tree owners!......Pollinating peach trees is vital if you want fruit......Last chance now for pruning most things.....Autumn Raspberry pruning.....Still time to plant soft fruits.....Birds help to keep pests down.....Growing grapes and figs in polytunnels.....Cape Gooseberries.....Citrus tree care...
Buds of early crop on potted blackberry 'Reuben'
Buds of pear Beurre d'Alexandre Lucas
Fat buds on red-leaved peach bursting with promise
Figlets - baby figs developing on Nero d'Italia
Furry vine leaves cradling a bunch of delicious seedless black grapes!
Masses of flower buds on the potted dwarf Morello cherry
Promising fat buds of last year pictured above - but most are still about 2-3 weeks behind outside
Fruit in the polytunnel isn't too far behind.Even after the freezing weather recently - it's surprising just how fast they'll catch up!The frosty but bright and sunny days have warmed the tunnels and it's been feeling very spring-like in there.The fruit in there is almost on cue - but outside in the orchard, things are looking about 2-3 weeks behind - because the temperature of the saturated ground is currently well below normal for the time of year. That's just as well - as this weekend is forecast to get a lot colder again, and frost can do a lot of damage to plum and pear buds in particular - because they tend to flower earlier than the apples.
One of the things I love most about this time of year is the fruit buds - so burstingly full with the promise of all the deliciousness to come later in the year! Nature's wonderful example of hope and energy. At this time of year you can almost see buds everywhere are growing visibly every day - and I would dearly love to have a time-lapse camera! It makes good sense to grow as much organic fruit as we possibly can ourselves and not be too dependent on buying imported produce, whether it's just a few berries, or if it's tree fruits like pears or peaches. Imported organic fruit like peaches and apricots in particular are always scarce and expensive in the shops or markets. Locally grown peaches - especially organic, are simply non-existent here in Ireland! One or occasionally perhaps two varieties of apples are available but you never see the very best tasting varieties - only those that have been bred to travel well without bruising and produce huge, cosmetically perfect crops for supermarkets! Your own fruit from your back garden or allotment is tastier, fresher, far more full of nutrients and has a much lower carbon footprint than any you could ever buy! If you're also an organic gardener like me - then it additionally has no nasty toxic chemicals, either in it or sprayed onto it after harvesting in order to preserve it!
Spring is always early in the fruit tunnel
At this time of year, when much of the garden outside is still barely waking up - most of the fruit action is happening in the polytunnel. There - everything is already awake and getting ready for another summer's production. What a lovely thought - so much delicious fruit to look forward to! The pears and plums are always the first to burst open outside - and the pear trees in the 'new' orchard are already swelling huge clusters of fat buds! Pears are one of my favourite fruits - so just looking at those buds makes my mouth water! I must say I've been very impressed with the quality and great value of most of the fruit trees from both Lidl and Aldi. The only problem is that the apple trees rarely indicate what rootstock they are grafted on - which is a vitally important omission because it's not just important to plant the right one for your soil but also it's an indicator of the eventual size that the tree will grow. Also occasionally other trees like peaches will just say 'Peach' which isn't exactly helpful if you want to plant a couple of different varieties so that you have a long season of fruiting! ============This weekend I'll be getting on with planting more trees in the new orchard as things are getting very urgent with all the recently arrived bare-root trees showing signs of swelling their buds! Panic time!! If it rains as it's forecast to do - then I'll just have to pot up the remainder - but I would prefer to plant direct into the ground as I find they always establish far better.
Some Advice for New Peach Tree Owners!
For anyone who has bought a peach tree recently - here's a few tips on how to grow them!
You won't believe how easy it is to grow peaches in Ireland! And if you grow them undercover in a polytunnel, where they are protected from rain - then they won't get the dreaded 'peach leaf curl' disease. They're not fussy about soil - but like good drainage. Just fork over soil, add a little compost, and a small handful of seaweed meal to provide potash and encourage biological activity, and another small handful of bone meal to provide phosphate for root development, working them into the soil. It's also useful to sprinkle some Root Grow directly onto the roots when they're in the hole, before covering them. This preparation is widely available in garden centres now and it's a mixture of mycorrhizal fungi which develop a network of very fine fungal threads that work symbiotically with the plant's roots - enabling them to be far more effective in taking up nutrients from the soil.
Peaches and Nectarines can easily be kept as small as you like by pruning - and this is especially important to do immediately after planting, in order to give the tree time to develop a good root system which will help the tree to fruit much better later in life. Pictured here is a 3 year old 'Fush' - as I call it - a sort of cross between a fan and a bush shape, which keeps the peach tree branches within a fairly restricted space, but allows for much more fruiting than the normally much more restricted 'fan' training would.
If you're planting a young tree in spring - you MUST prune every branch back immediately, selecting the best to give your tree a good shape by leaving just 2 or 3 buds on each of the larger growths. Try to imagine the shape your tree will grow. The buds will then grow out vigorously and produce lots of fruit next year. I grow my trees as what I call 'Fushes'- a sort of cross between a fan and a bush. They produce far more fruit than fan -trained trees - but don't take up as much room as a round, 'mop-headed' tree. This also means they don't need laborious 'tying-in' to supports! Don't be tempted not to prune and to leave branches un-pruned the first year - hoping you'll get fruit this year as a friend of mine once did, against my advice! She lost her tree altogether, as although it flowered the first year - it couldn't cope with trying to establish roots and produce fruit at the same time and she killed it! It's a common mistake many impatient people make sadly! Patience always pays off!
Peaches fruit best on the young green growth formed the previous year - not on the brown, older wood. So it's important to prune them every year immediately after fruiting. Pruning like this also means that they're easy to keep within bounds to the size that you want. Even quite old trees will produce new buds out from their trunk - a very useful attribute if they get too big because it means that you can be quite brutal and prune them right down to the trunk!.
Pollinating peach trees is vital if you want fruit
Beautiful blossom on the dwarf potted peaches and apricots in the fruit tunnel
This year I've only seen one or two bumblebees around so far - so it looks like I'll have to do a lot more pollinating myself this year if I want a good early crop in July! The early peach growing in the bed at the top of the east tunnel is just starting to flower, and the dwarf peaches in pots in the west tunnel are already in full bloom as they're always earlier. These will have to be protected on the coldest nights - but the dwarf ones are easy to cover with fleece, being only shoulder height. The early peach in the ground is a bit more difficult. The blossom still needs protection on the coldest nights if a very severe frost is forecast, soI use a big sheet of fleece to cover as much as I can of the tree, using a 5 ft long blunt ended bamboo cane to help reach the topmost part of the tree. I use the same cane for 'fleecing' most things this year - it makes a useful extra arm now - since my accident 3 years ago when I smashed my right arm and shoulder, I can't extend my right arm above shoulder height to reach things which is a bit of a nuisance to put it mildly! But one gets used to it and there's ways around most things with a little initiative. One just has to think laterally, be inventive and learn to do things differently! Determination is really all you need - and I refuse to be beaten by anything!
For the last few days, whenever it's sunny and the wind has dropped enough to have the tunnel doors open, there's been a few bumblebees busily helping with the pollination so insects are starting to wake up. That's just one of the reasons I grow so many flowers in there - the insects are attracted to the nectar in them and then I get the benefit of them pollinating the peaches as well! I re-homed a couple of ladybirds the other day that I'd found crawling up a sunny wall. I put them on the nettles I always leave in the corner of the tunnel, where they should find some early nettle aphids for breakfast and they're safer from the keen-eyed birds. Small birds like Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and Dunnocks always come into the tunnel at every opportunity, as they know there's always insect food in there that they won't find outside just yet. There still aren't thatmany bees around though, and if you have early peach or apricot trees in the tunnel they'll need pollinating during the middle of the day, while the polytunnel is as warm as possible and the pollen is 'running'. The best time to do this is around midday if you can. The trees will then need protection at night with a light covering of fleece if a very severe frost is forecast, to protect the developing embryo fruit. I know it seems like a lot of fuss and bother - but when you sink your teeth into that very first late June peach - you'll be so glad you did! I always save the very last of my frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now - just to remind me of how utterly delicious they are, Then all the pollinating doesn't seem quite so much of a chore! Accompanied by a tiny glass of home made peach Schnapps, I just fly along pollinating!
A. It's easy to tell which flowers to pollinate. This pale pink flower has only just opened and is not yet pollinated.
B. This older flower has deep pink staining in centre - which indicates that pollination has taken place - so no need to brush that flower
C. Pollinating peach blossom gently at midday with a soft paintbrush fixed to a cane so I can reach the top ones!
I'll be pollinating my two fan trained peach trees and the dwarf potted peaches and apricots every day for the next couple of weeks. I don't just rely hopefully on any early bees, because the fruit is far too precious and only available once a year! I work over the trees with a soft paintbrush fixed on the end of a bamboo cane so I can reach right to the top, very gently transferring pollen from one blossom to the next. Midday is generally the driest time in a tunnel when it's been open for a few hours and the humidity lessens, so that's the most effective time because if the pollen is wet it won't work. A day or so after pollination - you'll see some flowers develop a deeper pink staining in the centre of the flower which you can see pictured above. This means they've been pollinated and the fruitlets have set successfully. It's quite easy to see then which ones you've done already - so you don't have to do every single flower again, just the very pale flowers which have only recently fully opened. It's a very fiddly job and being an impatient person it's not one I look forward to - but actually it only takes about 15-20mins to do quite a large fan trained tree - so I just steel myself and think about warm summer peaches.
To encourage myself over the last few years, I've got into the habit of leaving the very last of the frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now - that reminds me of exactly why I'm doing such a fiddly job! They really taste fabulous, especially semi-dehydrated - which concentrates their flavour - and then half frozen to preserve them as although frying them completely would preserve them - it ruins their fabulous taste - which is the absolute essence of summer! Last year I tried to count the fruit on both of my 8ft wide 15ft high fans planted either side of the north door of the large east tunnel - but I gave it up as a bad job at well over 200 fruit on each! The dwarf trees in pots won't produce as many but they'll be a bit earlier, so the peach crop is spread over about 2 months.
Last chance now for pruning most things
Now is absolutely your last chance to finish pruning everything outside except stone fruits like plums and cherries, which are best pruned when they start back into active growth, to avoid silver leaf disease. Pruning can be a very confusing thing, with the result that many people often don't attempt to do it at all - and end up with very little fruit as a consequence. A few years ago I came across a really useful book on pruning, which I can thoroughly recommend. It's in the Alan Titchmarsh 'How to Garden' series from BBC books - entitled 'Pruning and Training'. I have to be honest that years ago, I wasn't that keen on his presenting style compared to the wonderful and very sadly missed late Geoff Hamilton. However, he rose in my estimation considerably when he started gardening organically as Geoff did! Unlike some of the more recent celebrity gardeners - he is also extremely knowledgeable - as he was not self-taught. He trained at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, so he really knows what he's talking about when it comes to pruning not just fruit, but everything else too. I know it's a book I shall refer to often - even though I already have quite a collection of really old fruit pruning and training books. He really IS an expert and the book would be very useful if you're new to gardening in general, or even just to fruit growing in particular. It's really comprehensive - and is also the first book I have ever found that actually explains clearly how to prune a Kiwi fruit! (I learnt by trial and error) It has very concise, clear diagrams - from planting through to maintaining. It's altogether an excellent book for advice on pruning almost everything.
Don't forget that when you're reading books written by most 'experts' - that they're often resident in the south of England - where they would normally have a much warmer and drier climate compared to ours here in Ireland! Their advice often doesn't take into account the fact that there are people who actually live somewhere else! Our climate is normally much wetter here and also a week or two later - so take that into account and adjust for your particular climate when following their advice. So many of these 'experts' either seem to have half of their book written by someone else - or have never actually done what they're telling you to do - a fact which is often obvious if you're someone who has many year's experience of gardening. I've often found that good fruit nursery catalogues can be a far more reliable source of useful information than many books - and they're free!
After you've pruned your fruit trees and bushes, you need to feed established ones - if you haven't done that already. A few handfuls of seaweed meal (potash to encourage flowering and fruit), and if necessary, a good general feed such as the certified organic Osmo Universal granules which are useful feeds for most things as they are well balanced and encourage the beneficial bacteria vital for proper uptake of nutrients by tree roots. Blackcurrants need a bit more nitrogen as they need energy to make new growth each year - so use some rich compost, chicken or even pigeon manure (both must be well composted to avoid burning roots). I find Osmo granules very useful for everything and they are certified organic. You may have added a long acting fertiliser such as bone meal and seaweed meal to any recently planted fruit at the time of planting, so just give these a good mulch to keep weeds down and keep moisture in. Grass clippings will do for this but remember don't pile them deep too close to the stem, keep a few inches away or they may cause stem rots. This willkeep weeds down, keep the roots and cool and encourage good root development and biological activity.
Remember - keep off all soil if it's still very wet. Work from the paths or put down a wide plank or two to walk on in order to spread your weight, to avoid compacting the soil. Compacting soil damages the drainage by squashing air out of the soil. Don't forget that soil life needs air too!
Autumn raspberry pruning
By the way,I'll just repeat again that you do not have to prune down all fruited stems of autumn raspberries now. If you leave some of the stems, maybe 1/3rd - 1/2 of last year's, then they willl fruit again, lower down the stems, in early summer. After that you can cut them right down to their base and the new growth from those will fruit a little bit later. This spreads the crop conveniently and does no harm to the raspberries at all, as long as the clumps are well established and well fed. If you're just buying them then 'Joan J' or 'Brice' are the best two varieties available currently - I grow both of them. The yellow variety Allgold or Fallgold (as it seems to be called more often now is also good). I've grown 'Joan J' in large pots in the fruit tunnel for the last four years now and they have been a great success, producing huge delicious fruits continuously until almost Christmas!
Still time to plant soft fruits
I did a bit of my favourite sort of retail therapy a few days ago! Not for me handbags and shoes!! Strawberries are the sort of retail therapy that makes me happy! Ken Muir's Nursery in the UK have a new variety of perpetual strawberry called Finesse! Squeals!! I'm so excited - their wonderful variety Albion has been a great favourite of mine for many years, it's so reliable and delicious that I've given up most other varieties! Being a 'perpetual fruiting' variety - it fruits from early May until November in the tunnel and I think it has the best taste of any strawberry apart from the old variety Gento, which I brought here from the garden I where I grew up. Gento was bred in France in the 1960's and is without doubt the nearest in taste to wild strawberries. It has that meltingly delicious and incomparable flavour. It doesn't travel well though because it bruises easily and starts to deteriorate the minute it's picked, which is probably why it fell out of favour. It hasn't been available as plants for about 30 years at least, so I really treasure mine - quite apart from the sentimental value. I grew up eating it and so did my children - and I've been propagating from those same original plants for almost 40 years now! Don't believe those who say you shouldn't do that! As long as you only ever propagate from the healthiest and most productive plants and then rotate them around the garden - changing their location every few years to avoid any build up of pests and diseases - then it's perfectly possible! Gento is actually one of the parents of Mara des Bois - which has inherited much of it's flavour but is smaller and not quite as productive. Albion is a good alternative - it's very productive, delicious and a great choice if you want a really good strawberry that fruits all summer long. It freezes well too as it's juicy berries are nice and firm.
Ken Muir's Nursery are the best fruit nursery I've ever dealt with and their people on the other end of the phone are also by far the nicest. I've been buying fruit of all kinds from them for about 35 years and they are thoroughly reliable. I can't recommend them highly enough. Many people have asked me where I got Albion and they've always been happy with both their plants and their customer service. (and no - I don't get anything free or even a special price! I just like to give credit where it's due and always try to recommend good retailers to you!) I'm really looking forward to trying this new strawberry Finesse. In their words it is:
"An outstanding perpetual variety which combines heavy yields with great fruit quality, excellent flavour and good disease resistance. ‘Finesse’ produces bright red, medium to large heart-shaped berries which are both sweet and juicy. Plants are vigorous, producing very few energy-sapping runners, resulting in heavy crops of up to 1.2kg (2.6lb) per plant."
So there you have it - straight from the horse's mouth! I can't wait for my new plants to arrive in a few days time - it will be just like Christmas again!!
Many of the mail order nurseries have good offers right now. Prepare the ground well and then water and mulch after planting. Never mulch dry soil - always water first. A few years ago I was asked to visit a garden to give some advice on pruning raspberries, and discovered that sadly, the person asking had planted autumn and summer ones right next door to each other - with the result that they had all become so mixed up that it was absolutely impossible to tell which was which!
Never plant summer and autumn fruiting raspberries close together - always keep autumn varieties segregated and under strict 'house arrest'. The summer ones are slightly more genteel, and don't have quite such territorial ambitions! Autumn varieties like Autumn Bliss and Heritage in particular can spread sideways at a very alarming rate once they've settled in, and summer and autumn varieties can easily become muddled up and indistinguishable very quickly if they're planted near each other! A few year's ago a friend called me to ask if I would show him how to prune his raspberries. When I went to his garden I saw that he'd actually planted them close together and they were a complete muddle, making it impossible to differentiate between the two! Enough said!
Birds help to keep fruit pests down - until they become pests themselves!
Talking of greedy feeders - don't put fruit cage netting back up yet, wait until the fruit is forming. The birds need to be able to get in to the fruit bushes and canes to help clear up any pests like blackcurrant blister aphid or gooseberry sawfly caterpillars (which can completely defoliate a large black or red currant bush literally within hours!) Hang a peanut feeder in there to attract the the birds, and they'll also do a good job 'working over' the bushes while they await their turn!
DON'T use nasty detergent-based washing up liquid sprays on them as I saw one gardener on a TV programme doing a few years ago - they unbelievably claimed they were biodynamic gardeners!!!? Washing-up liquids contain formaldehyde and other nasty chemicals in many cases - but even if they're organic - they're unnecessary and can harm beneficial insects. If you have bantams or chickens, You can use an old fashioned organic method that I remember my father using every winter in the kitchen garden of the house where I grew up. He used to run some of our poultry into the fruit cages throughout most of the winter. Chickens are amazingly efficient pest clearer-uppers and scratching around under bushes for grubs is their natural behaviour since the come from the jungle! I had a bad case of sawfly many years ago when I first planted some new bushes which were obviously carrying it. The chickens cleared up the pupae that overwinter on the ground very efficiently over the following winter - eating all the grubs before they could crawl up and do any damage to the bushes. I've never had a problem with it since! Poultry also gradually supply a good hit of nitrogen for the following spring and keep weeds down, doing three jobs at once! Don't leave them on ground too long though - always take them out before early spring - or they will 'sour' it with too much nitrogen.
Tidy up outdoor strawberry beds by cutting off any old, dead, spotty and yellowing leaves from plants now, scrape off any old straw or bark mulches from beds, letting birds in again, clear any weeds and then feed with seaweed meal, watering it in if dry. Then mulch with good compost if possible, keeping it away from the necks of plants to avoid possibly encouraging rotting. If plants are loose and pull up easily then suspect vine weevil and treat with nematodes.
The same applies to strawberry beds under cover, if you haven't dealt with them already. Some of the early varieties are in bud and the alpine strawberries 'Reugen' are already floweringin my tunnel. Hoverflies love them and a small row somewhere in the tunnel will attract in lots of them, as well as fruiting all summer long, often until November! 'Reugen' (from Chiltern seeds) is easy from seed and is larger than normal alpine varieties, but with that same exquisite, aromatic wild strawberry flavour. Sown now it will fruit later this year - and after that will barely stop cropping in a polytunnel! Last year we had the first fruit in April! They tend to hide their fruit among the abundant leaves though - which as a bonus as birds don't find them so easily but that also means that they're hell on the back to pick! One has to bend over for ages to pick a whole row of them - even in a raised bed!
Every year I give my 'stepladder garden' a makeover and grow something different. Last year it was the 'Reugen' alpine strawberries and it saved a lot of backache!!
Early summer fruiting varieties of strawberries, like 'Christine', or even the excellent perpetual fruiting variety Albion, will fruit quite happily in 2 litre pots, as long as you're careful to remember to water and feed them regularly. This means you don't have to make a permanent bed in the tunnel if you don't want to - which can take up a lot of space. You can put them back outside once they've finished fruiting, to produce runners for next year. 'Christine' is the best flavoured early variety and is very reliable - I always have fruit from that in early May, and I find that with the protection of the tunnel - the perpetual varieties follow on quite soon after - often fruiting until November. Those can also be grown in pots but they need larger ones to produce well continuously over the summer and autumn. 'Albion' is the very best perpetual for this way of growing - or in fact any. Mine fruit from May until November in the tunnel - and you can't ask for more than that! They need feeding regularly if they're in pots, with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo. And do keep an eye out for vine weevils - if one or two plants suddenly wilt and the plants become loose, it could mean that little devils are eating the roots! There are nematodes to deal with them which are a good organic option - you can buy them online. Peat composts encourage them - so not using those is better from every point of view - not just for environmental reasons!
Growing grapes in polytunnels or outside
Pot-grown, bush trained grapes 'Regent' & 'Muscat of Alexandria' in early August - with my unconventional clothes horse supporting the massively heavy crop! It works!
You can still plant grapevines from pots, either inside or outside, in the ground or in pots. Prepare the site well because they'll be there for a long time and use a good mycorrhizal fungi product like Rootgrow, to dust the roots before planting. This will expand the reach of the roots and their nutrient catching ability hugely. Grapes like a really well drained warm spot outside. If you want to grow really good desert grapes, then I think that planting them in a polytunnel or greenhouse is best though, unless you live in the sunny south east of either Ireland or the UK. The north side or end is best - where they won't shade anything else during the day. Training them over the end roof arch, as I do, is also a good utilisation of space that's often wasted, or alternatively you can train them at about 1 metre high along the sides, where again they don't shade anything else because they come into full leaf well after any winter lettuce or other light-hungry crops are finished.
Although it's normal to prune things after they're planted, you mustn't prune indoor grapes now or they'll bleed! It's too late now as the sap is rising strongly. It's a mistake you only ever make once believe me! I did it a bit too late once and it was just like turning on a tap - the sap just poured out as soon as they were cut! Don't worry though - in couple of weeks, when the buds start to swell noticeably and break - you can then pinch out or rub off any soft shoots that you don't want, or are growing in the wrong direction. Those young green shoots won't bleed.
Growing grapevines in pots or tubs is great fun as they're so flexible and can be trained into a variety of different shapes. Pots of trained grapes were something the Victorians were very fond of using to make centre-pieces at their elaborate dinner parties. You can also grow them as spiral 'bushes' in pots which is fun, tulip shapes or even 'umbrella' standards - allowing several permanent stems about 3-4ft/1m. to develop. When space gets tight you can put them outside for the summer in a sheltered spot, just bringing them in later on to ripen - safely away from the hungry blackbirds and wasps which love them!! This week I'm potting up the last of the grape cuttings I took in December 12 months ago when pruning - they've nearly all rooted well - about 90%. It's a very easy way to increase your vines, as cuttings take very easily. You can even do what some of the old kitchen gardeners did if you only want one plant - you can train a shoot up through a pot from the bottom - the shoot will root gradually over the year, if you keep the pot moist. You can then sever the shoot at the bottom in mid-winter when the shoot is dormant and it can be detached! It's a great way of increasing a grapevine if you've forgotten to take cuttings at the right time in winter, like me this year - so many people have asked me for Muscat Hamburgh - which is the very best seeded black dessert grape. It's even self-thinning! Thinning bunches of seeded grapes really IS something I have absolutely no patience for! The problem is that with some varieties that make very tight bunches, these can attract moisture and therefore disease. I'm sadly removing one very good tasting variety Perlette this year because of this. If I had a gardener or had time myself to thin the bunches it would be fine. It has a really fabulous muscat flavour and always sets dozens of bunches - but I'm afraid it's sadly time to say goodbye now after 20 years of growing it for varieties more suited to organic growing and my lack of time!!
If you have grapevines in pots - lay them on their side now to ensure that the buds break evenly all along the rods or stems. That's if you haven't done that already. If you don't do this the buds at the top get all the plant's energy when the sap rises, then some of the lower buds can be weakened or may not develop at all. I've just noticed the buds on all my potted grapevines starting to swell now in the tunnel. They're always a bit earlier than those planted in the ground. It's a very good way to grow some of the later ripening grapes, as being in a pot tends to encourage them into growth just a little bit earlier, so they then ripen earlier. You should already have untied and lowered the rods (or stems) of all grapevines growing in the ground as far as possible for the same reason.
At this time of year I take down the smaller netting at the top of the tunnel entrances, just leaving up the big square-meshed pea and bean netting which keeps the hungry pigeons out. If I don't take the small netting down - the bumblebees can't get in, or get stuck trying to! It must be put back up before the strawberries are ripe though, as my blackbirds have perfected a brilliant rather 'hobby-like' dash method of last minute fast 'wing folding' - flying straight through the larger mesh - I've watched the crafty devils do it! Greedy little blighters that they are - especially considering that I grow lots of fruit elsewhere which is left specifically for them - but they still want mine as well!
Figs in tunnels or greenhouses need feeding and tidying up now
The tiny embryo fruits will be starting to swell rapidly on indoor fig trees now. At this stage they are large pea sized - these are very easy to distinguish from any small to middle-sized fruit which may have developed late last autumn after the main crop. Although they may have appeared to have survived over the overwinter - those larger figlets, one of which you can see in the picture here, should be taken off now as they won't develop properly and may give off a hormone signal to the plant which stops the smaller others developing - or it may possibly start to rot and spread disease. Either way it won't develop and ripen. In the picture here you can clearly see the difference between the two. Also take off any 'mummified' and wizened undeveloped fruits or they could spread diseases. Prune back overlong or weak shoots and those not carrying any embryo fruits by about half, to stimulate production of fruit buds. It looks as if I may have a good crop on all my potted bushes again this year - I'm hoping to have enough to dry for the winter - they're one of my favourite fruits. The only problem with them is that they're so delicious fresh that we tend to eat them for breakfast or lucnch every day when they're in season and I never get a chance to dry any! Weed the tops of tubs or pots now, scratch off a little of their old compost from the top and replace with a fresh compost/earth mix enriched with some added seaweed meal and general organic fertliser. At this stage you may notice some suckers and this is a great way to increase your stock if you want to. Figs grow like weeds and are very easy from these 'Irishman's cuttings'.
Cape gooseberry seedlings germinate well from home-saved seed
There's still just time to sow Cape gooseberries (Physalis Edulis) - which is a tender perennial fruit. They will germinate in about 10 days in a warm propagator. They're now being touted as the next 'superfruit' and called 'Inca berry', Pichu berry or goldenberry - dried ones cost a fortune in health food shops where you can't even find organically grown ones! Those little paper 'lanterns' that seem ubiquitous on every smart dessert plate now? (I've had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that many people don't know what they are - so don't eat them - that restaurants may actually wash & 'recycle' them from plate to plate!) They're very expensive to buy in the shops, but unbelievably easy to grow if you have the space (they grow like weeds and make a 5-6ft wide and high bush eventually). They appreciate the protection of a tunnel.
If you grow physalis in the ground they can become very vigorous and take over - making far too much leaf, and as they are also tomato family - it's easier to fit them into rotations by growing them in containers too. I grow mine in 10 litre buckets and they're quite happy. When properly grown and ripened, they're delicious and will last for literally months in their neat little paper cases. A few years ago I experimented with some that I picked in November - to see just how long they would last - and they kept well in the salad drawer of the fridge until the following May! And astonishingly tasted as good as ever! The best thing is that as they come ready packaged, the birds don't know what they are so don't eat them - and not even the mice have discovered them yet either - a valuable attribute! Don't get the dwarf variety though - it's a complete waste of time - producing very little fruit. In a mild winter Cape gooseberries will overwinter in pots in a tunnel or in the ground - and those plants will fruit much earlier than ones sown the same year. I've found it difficult to keep them going in pots for more than two years though.
Citrus tree care in early spring
As with figs, again weed, renew the top compost and feed these. If you see any scale insect on trees - then deal with it now before the tender new shoots start to grow. Either use an organic insecticide based on fatty acids, or gently warmed coconut oil painted on with a soft brush. These are greasy and stop them breathing through their skins - they then die and fall off. Slighty warmed melted coconut oil brushed on is effective. Black unsightly 'sooty mould' is usually a symptom of scale insect - it's a fungus which grows on the 'honeydew' which the scale insects excrete - so if you see this then look closely at the leaves - particularly underneath on the leaf midrib and on the stems.
You can start to feed lemons nowwith a high-nitrogen feed like Osmo liquid feed or nettle liquid feed, as soon as you can see growth starting. Never use chlorinated hard tap water on citrus trees - they hate it. Treat them as acid-soil lovers like rhododendrons and they'll be happy. If they leaves are looking a bit yellow after the winter, a dose of sequestered iron like 'Sequestrene' (available in most good garden centres) will also help to green them up quickly again, diluted into some rainwater.
If you grow even a small amount of your own fruit organically - you can pick and eat it straight from the garden, warmed by the sun, perfectly ripe and at the very height of it's nutrition. Recent studies show that organically grown fruits and vegetables are 60-70% higher in phytonutrients!
March contents: Our garden friends are waking up.....'Seat of the pants' gardening!..... How to get ahead with your veg gardening even if it's too wet outside.....Time to sow leeks......My unconventional method of sowing onions and leeks to cheat the weather!.....Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions......Make sure there's no hiding place for slugs.....How to make an protected propagating area outside if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel.....My easy, slug-proof 'Moat Method' to keep slugs out of propagating areas!.....Improving difficult Soil.....Soil Matters!.....My peculiar method of planting potatoes in pots to transplant for outdoor cropping!
There never was a more welcome sight - a hoverfly sunbathing on a potato leaf in the weak spring sunshine in the polytunnel
Our Garden Friends are Waking up - and They're Such a Welcome Sight
Three days ago, while tidying up in the polytunnel, I saw my very first hoverflies and ladybirds of 2019, joining the bumblebees which have already been leaving their nests to forage in there whenever there was a mild day over the last few weeks. They are always such a welcome sight and sound - especially now that we are aware that insects are declining so much throughout the world due to pesticide use. We simply can't produce food without them - and as they also provide food for other creatures like birds higher up the food chain - the rest of biodiversity can't survive without them either. They are vitally important - not just to us but to all of that biodiversity which we are only one small part of. Everything is connected - a fact some seem to forget!
All of the what us gardeners call 'beneficial insects' were no doubt venturing out into the relatively warm midday sun to see if there might be any early aphids for a spring brunch or some nectar from all the tunnel flowers. Their appearance reminded me that there are still many more of the organic gardeners' good friends hiding from the weather and from hungry birds among the dry leaves - so it's a mistake to try to tidy up too much just yet. I stopped my housekeeping immediately and left them alone, because tidying too much and disturbing them exposes them to the wrens and robins that are always busily foraging around the tunnel all year round. There is already a robin nesting under the staging which comes out to take a few organic hen food pellets from my hand whenever I'm in there - so I keep a tiny pill bottle of hen food in my coat pocket just for feeding it. It always makes me feel so incredibly privileged to be trusted by such a tiny and vulnerable scrap of nature. The scent of wallflowers, narcissi and primroses wafting up from underneath the blossoming peach trees, the grapevines swelling their buds and birds sweetly singing, lifts the spirits and gladdens the heart - and it begins to feel like spring has finally arrived at last. But the gales raging outside reminding us to bide our time for a while yet! But there is plenty we can get on with inside to be ready for when the ground is in a more suitable condition outside
'Seat of the Pants' Gardening!
After a lovely dry February - the last couple of weeks storms seem to have brought "February fill-dyke" in March! That old colloquial expression shows us how predictable the weather was decades ago. Sadly the increasingly erratic weather we're now experiencing is one of the symptoms of climate change that we're clearly going to have to become accustomed to. It's becoming increasingly obvious that we can no longer rely on the weather progressing as it has done in spring for many centuries. Erratic will become the norm - and February record high temperatures may often be followed by freezing weather and snow in March as we had in 2018! That means that flexiblity, or what I call - 'seat of the pants gardening' - will have to be the norm from now on if we want to get good food crops. Those gardeners who still go by rules that I see so often repeated from old gardening books will be caught out time and again now by the unpredictable weather. The key thing from now on will be to be flexible, experiment and see what works best for you. That's what I've been doing all the time for over the last 30 years since I first really began to notice climate change happening.
One of the things that is an absolute no no, is leaving ANY soil uncovered now in this weather - and yet I'm still seeing so many gardeners on social media proudly displaying their pristinely bare, weed-free plots - even if they don't use weedkillers! Bare soil is absolute anathema to Nature, it's bad for soil life and is one of the things contributing to climate change. Some may think that their small garden or allotment plot can't make that much difference - but think about it. All of those small plots add up to a huge expanse countrywide - especially when combined with the ugly, yellow, Roundup/glyphosate-treated farmland I see everywhere throughout the country! A large, bare expanse that is not just polluting groundwater, but also emitting nitrous-oxide from the bare soil - especially where manure or compost is piled onto the soil to prevent weeds germinating and create a nice 'tilth' as it's called - or crumbly soft surface. We should NOT be doing that any more! If you want to get ahead by getting compost or manure out onto beds - then for heaven's sake cover it afterwards! We should be doing ALL we possibly can to minimise greenhouse our gas emissions and pollution, and to preserve precious soil life - as I've been saying for years! Every bit we can do does make a difference, when it's all added up.
Anyway - there's nothing that can be done outside yet, and even walking on wet paths damages drainage. The soil here is still so saturated that in many well-trodden places, I'm squelching around in gloupy mud up to my ankles! The route that I use up to feed the pullets and cockerels every day is really treacherous at the moment with all the mud! It's currently impossible to do anything useful in the kitchen garden and my raised beds are islands surrounded by water. As a result - all my efforts for the next week or so will be concentrated on sowing more seeds into modules, so that I have nice, big slug-proof plants hardened off and ready to go when things dry up enough to finally start planting.
Although, like you, I'm keen to get out and feel my fingers in the soil, it's still very early days yet, and anything in modules that needs planting will now be potted on before being planted outside. There's no point planting anything just to have it blown out of the ground by gales - it will be safer potted on and growing on quietly in the polytunnel! Not only is the soil far too wet to do anything - but the soil temperature is colder than normal. It would be a complete waste of both time and seed trying to sow anything into it even in the raised beds! A couple of weeks of being covered with clear polythene now will work wonders though in the places where I need to do any early sowings of carrots etc. so I'm not panicking. Over the years I've learnt that it's always a mistake to sow too early - as it often results in seeds just sitting miserably there doing nothing and even perhaps rotting. Any gardening - here at least - will have to be restricted to the polytunnels at the moment - but there's plenty to do in there! After the winter storms over the UK and Ireland - I suspect it's the same for most people!
I already have 4 dozen pots of potatoes planted out in the polytunnel which are growing nicely, and as I always do now - I shall be starting all my potatoes for outside in pots too - which I talk about below. Planting them on the traditional day of St Patrick's Day here would mean them sitting in the now icy-cold, saturated ground for quite a long time before they even venture to put their snouts above the ground! I always try to 'think like a plant' when growing anything - and frankly if I was a tender plant like a potato I think I'd sulk for ages planted like that after all the snow we've had! Anyway - mine will be ready at least a month ahead of any tubers direct planted. OK it's a bit more trouble - but I believe it's well worth the small amount of trouble to do this, as it means I reliably get good crops without ever spraying for blight.
My peculiar method of planting potatoes in pots to transplant for outdoor cropping!
You could plant well chitted early varieties of potatoes in well-drained soil later this month (is there any after this winter?)!! That's if you've had covers on the soil to warm it up. Remember - even the early ones will take at least 10-12 weeks from planting to cropping but you may have to cover with fleece once they're above ground, if frost is forecast.
I now grow all my outdoor potatoes by starting them off in pots, as it guarantees that I will miss early blight and it's really useful if the ground is still too wet and cold. It's well worth it, as we've had early blight here at the end of May once or twice over the last few years. Some of the potatoes I grow are extremely rare and hard to replace varieties, so doing this guarantees that I won't lose them. OK - so it may be a bit of a 'faff' starting them off in pots and then planting them out - but no more so than planting out bedding plants - and few people have a problem with that! It just requires a change of mindset that's all! They may occasionally have to be covered with fleece if frost is forecast - but doing this it means that I never have to spray with anything - not even copper based organic fungicides. My soil is heavy clay and copper can build up in soil creating imbalances and causing other problems.
I also live in an area which grows a lot of horticultural crops including potatoes - and these are often left in the ground and sometimes not even lifted if it's not financially worth it - with the result that there is more and more early blight around here now. There are also more aggressive new 'super-strains' of potato blight emerging due precisely to this bad practice I believe, which are more resistant to chemical fungicides (as always happens eventually with most chemicals) - so planting early before the weather warms up enough for blight is the only way to avoid it, and absolutely guarantees a crop. As regular readers may know - I'm not keen of the 'Sarpo' varieties, as in my experience here in my local climate, they're really not much more blight-resistant than many of the other varieties I grow. I also happen to think that the Sarpo's are not that tasty either really - so really what's the point? We don't eat tons of potatoes every day as they're very high in carbs -we probably only eat them about twice a week. So despite being able to lower their carb content by about 50% by retrogradation - I would still sooner go to the extra trouble of just starting off my favourite potato varieties in pots just a bit earlier. I grow about 20 different varieties of great-flavoured potatoes each year, some very rare - especially the purple ones. I'll be starting all of them off in pots over the next week or so.
People often think that the difference between the earlies, second earlies and maincrops is the time that you plant them - it isn't. The name is what tells you how long it will take them to crop. Early and second early potatoes are the fastest growing and need the shortest time to produce a useful crop, but most will keep just as well as the maincrop varieties. Many become floury and mash well too - particularly Red Duke of York. I also start my maincrops off now too - because they take longer to produce a decent harvest.
The old traditional way ofplanting potatoes straight into cold ground on St. Patrick's day no longer works unless you areprepared to use toxic, expensive and often completely useless spraysagainst potato blight. That method may have worked many years ago - but our climate and weather have changed and become unpredictable - and so have the fast-evolving strains of blight. Also if ground is saturated it means planting isn't delayed because you're waiting for it to dry out. Using my method - it's unnecessary to use any sprays, organic or otherwise. It's much cheaper and healthier too!
So whatever the weather - there is plenty we can do though, to prepare for when the weather changes. March is the serious start of major production in the garden - up to now anything sown indoors has just been the rehearsal! Anything we can do to get ahead now, despite the weather, will save a lot of time and hassle later - and lay the foundations for good crops. Otherwise work starts to pile up - and if it does gardening can become a bit of a stressful chore, if you're trying to grow all your own food like we try to do here. It's meant to be enjoyable as well as productive! The birds are already gearing up for the breeding season though. The sparrows are all chasing each other round and arguing over nesting sites as usual and it's almost impossible to concentrate on any writing, because the starlings are performing their noisy morning ablutions in the gutter just above the back door, accompanied by much splashing, cat calling and 'wolf-whistles'! I can see them from my kitchen table 'desk' beside the kitchen window and they are so entertaining!
How to get ahead with your veg gardening even if it's too wet outside
If you're impatient to start sowing seeds - then do it in modules inside and wait another couple of weeks or so before risking any expensive seed outside. The ground is still far too wet even in the raised beds, which drain far better that vegetable beds on the flat. In the meantime if you haven't got ground covered, then cover it immediately with clear polythene - this will warm the ground up and start it drying out. If you've had ground covered for a few weeks with clear polythene or cloches to warm it up and you live in a warm area - you could start to sow some of the hardier veg. like peas and broad beans outside in a week so - but only if the weather gets milder. Seeds will germinate far more reliably, you'll lose far less and they'll crop much earlier if you sow them in pots or modules indoors now, then you'll be able to plant them out in a few weeks. That way you won't waste any expensive seed and you'll actually fit more crops into the growing year because you're not wasting 'ground time' waiting for something to warm up enough to grow.
At this time of year you can often be waiting 3 weeks for something to germinate outside in cold wet soil and all the while they're sitting there in the ground, they're vulnerable to slugs and rotting because of the conditions. Sowing them in modules on a warm windowsill indoors,or in a sunny cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel now means you can get a head start. They'll germinate quickly, be far healthier and be way ahead of anything sown outside. I actually find it much easier and more reliable to sow most of my veg. in modules now anyway, it saves so much on expensive seed, avoids unnecessary waste from thinning between plants, ensures that plants don't get a check when transplanting and that I don't have any gaps caused by slug damage. In the meantime your plants will be growing away beautifully - in a snug, slug-free environment! The plants will be big enough to withstand the odd slug nibble without being totally wiped out if they're bigger when they're planted. Then when soil conditions allow, you'll be able to plant up beautifully organised, gap-free rows in your veg beds! I love this kind of instant planting - it's so satisfying.
Module seed sowing is a also a great method for beginner gardeners. Firstly, one of the great things about planting things out you've raised in modules is that you don't have to spend hours of back-breaking work trying to get the perfect seedbed that some gardening magazines and books recommend! After which either heavy rain can often compact and 'cap' the soil, or more heartbreaking - slugs may eat them overnight before you even noticed they'd germinated! Another reason module sowing is a great method for beginners, is that you can learn to easily recognise clearly each type of seedling. This is much more difficult to do in the open ground - when you've got lots of other weeds etc. germinating. It's also easier to get the right sowing depth, often critical for good germination. And best of all - there's no slugs!! More on that topic later!
Time to Sow Leeks
Leeks sown in modules of peat-free compost
I'm going to sow my favourite leek Bandit later on today - just as I'm using some of the last of them in the delicious smelling chicken stock (or bone broth as some now call it) that's bubbling away aromatically on the range right now. I was a bit too late sowing them last year - I didn't sow them until the beginning of April and they weren't quite as large as usual. It's surprising the difference three or four weeks makes even this early in the year. Above Bandit is pictured growing in one of the raised beds a couple of years ago, with sugar loaf chicory in background. In the foreground the bed is covered with clear polythene to dry it out and warm it up, as I mentioned earlier. Seed of Bandit is available from several suppliers now. It is a wonderful late variety that's very healthy and disease-resistant, very reliable and great for organic growing. It's also one of the best tasting leeks in my opinion and a really valuable late vegetable when supplies are starting to run short. I usually multi sow it 3-4 seeds per module and then plant them out later, just as they are, if only 3 germinate. At roughly 1ft/30cm spacing - they make a good bunch of 3 which I find a really convenient size to dig up for most meals. If four come up then I carefully detach one and plant them singly for even bigger leeks. I sow them in exactly the same way as I sow my onions - in module trays of peat-free compost - as I describe in the polytunnel section of this month's diary.
If you still have leeks in the garden but need to get on with preparing the space they're occupying for different crop - they are very good-natured about being gently lifted with roots as intact as possible and 'heeled-in' - to use the old-fashioned phrase - somewhere else. A shady spot is good as they will then last much longer before starting to produce flower buds later on - so you don't have to use them in too much of a hurry! Just dig a small trench not too deep and put all the leeks together in a short row. No need to space them out too much. Then back-fill the trench with some good soil, water them and they'll be happy there for ages. Be careful not to damage the tops too much when doing this - as they're actually the most nutritious part of the leek - with loads of vitamin A. I can never understand why people cut off the most nutritious and I think delicious bit! I suppose that because they see it done on the ones for sale in supermarkets and other shops - but that's because the tops get so easily damaged and would look very tatty if left on when they're being sold! I think it's really criminal to cut off half the leek and waste it though!
My unconventional method of multi-sowing onions and leeks to cheat the weather!
Onions from seed are always crop far more successfully than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in onion white rot disease which sets may sometimes do. That can be even more likely in a wet year - and as it can survive for up to 20 years in the soil, destroying all your onion crops - you really don't want it!. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them, if you get a move on and sow them now! I've been multi-sowing my onions and leeks for about 35 years now. It saves pricking out and gives me exactly the size onions I want for various different kitchen uses.
I have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when anything sensitive needs planting out from modules. After sowing them in module trays, as soon as the roots start to show through the bottom of the modules - I then sit the module tray into a larger tray of peat-free potting compost. This means that instead of wrapping around and around inside the modules - the roots will immediately start to explore a bit further. I find that despite this involving lifting them gently later in order to plant - I get far fewer 'bolters' this way. I also grow on my leek seedlings leeks this way too.
Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting in a larger tray of peat-free compost
I first thought of this particular trick when I was behind with my work in the garden for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time. This meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and is far more likely to cause bolting. What I do is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and then just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily completely unawares and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - take each plug of multi-sown plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success a few years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as usual as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long.
Experience is always the best teacher -and like many of the odd things I do, while it may not be not the most conventional way of doing things - it works! Being 'conventional' has never bothered me very much though! I've always felt that 'conventional' was there to be challenged - particularly if it didn't suit my hectic lifestyle, with so many other things to do! Given that we now also have to cope with unpredictable and erratic weather patterns brought on by climate change - it means that we can often be delayed and unable to do jobs when we would like to! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience. I would otherwise often have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on to avoid plants getting a check - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often as important as saving money for me! If you don't do this, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. As a result - they will then be far less efficient, the plants will get a check and won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and may be more likely to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they will start to root into the matting - the roots then get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a severe shock that many of them will definitely 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing the nice firm, ripe, long-keeping bulbs that you want. I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always did - and we are all so busy!
Although leeks aren't quite as sensitive to being moved as onions - this is still a very useful trick that works really well for them too - especially if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way. If you have time beforehand you could row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed if they are large enough instead of doing this and plant them out as usual later - but if they're still small that's risky as they're far more vulnerable to slugs! This way success is guaranteed!
Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals just because that's how it was always done is rather outdated now. Our climate is definitely changing and we'd better learn to be adaptable and think laterally. That's why I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions
If you've had a lot of slug problems in the past - then putting some black polythene cover on beds is a useful thing to do right now, if you haven't done that already. As the beds start to warm up a bit slugs will collect just under the surface rather than going deeper underground. The dark fools them into thinking they're safely out of sight and you can just peel back the polythene and dispose of them in whatever way you like - but just make sure they're truly dead!
What you do after collecting slugs is up to you. My favourite way is to snip them in half with some long sharp scissors - or feed them to my hens who love them - although some people are squeamish about that. It really freaks them out - but don't forget slugs are food for many birds and other wildlife who are now absolutely desperate for food - so steel yourself and just think about them! Odd how people can be so squeamish about doing something which is a far kinder death and far less likely to kill something else than using poisonous slug pellets! Out of sight out of mind I suppose! If slugs and snails are just snipped in half without being poisoned - it means that hungry wildlife can still eat them with absolutely no danger of being poisoned. And of course chopping them up makes a much more convenient mouthful for a hungry blackbird or thrush! I find it also helps to think about the crops you may lose if you don't do that! Then you'll find that using the scissors becomes much easier!
Birds don't seem to like the really huge slugs - they prefer them once I'vecut them in half with my sharp scissors (dainty appetites obviously!) - and I don't mind obliging in the least! Either that or I give them to the hens who have great fun with the really big ones - playing a sort of 'slug tag' - running around with a big one dangling in their beaks while being chased by all the others before finally gulping it down! (more protein for the eggs!!) Cutting them up is not only probably kinder to them - a fast decapitation rather than a slow death from poisoning - but it's also much the most wildlife friendly and environmentally sound way of dealing with slugs.
I know some people area a bit squeamish about slug snipping - but believe me - it 's a lot easier after you've lost a few expensive rows of carrots or lettuces to the little blighters! They say committing murder is always easier after the first time! Please don't be tempted to use poisonous slug pellets - even organic ones can poison some creatures - especially some greedy pets. Slug pellets don't just potentially poison wildlife, they also pollute our groundwater - so I'm delighted to hear they will be banned soon outdoors!
Make sure there's no Hiding Place for slugs!
Hiding a lettuce leaf under a slate is a good way to trap unwary slugs!I tend to use a combination of different approaches for dealing with slugs and it works well for me. As the garden warms up, the weeds start to grow, and keeping them down in and around vegetable beds will prevent slugs from hiding there and coming out at night to wipe out your crops. Keeping any grass paths next to veg beds mown really tight is key too, as it also allows birds to see slugs and snails more easily and pick them off and it stops the paths being a convenient hiding place! Occasionally I might use beer traps, but they don't always work. They can be useful if you have a big problem, which you will do if you allow your plot to become weedy and overgrown, or may have if you're starting on a new plot. I find if you get rid of slugs my way, there's generally very few left after that. Pieces of slate or well-anchored small bits of black polythene placed along rows and at the edges is very good too - especially along rows or in between vulnerable plants. Slugs will hide under the slates thinking they're safe! Not so! You can just have a quick look underneath and scrape them off into a container every so often. Ducks are very partial to slugs too. I used to keep a lot of Khaki Campbells and rare breed ducks like Silver Appleyards here many years ago, before the fox problem became too bad around here. Ducks hate being shut up and they used to patrol happily around the vegetable garden hunting for slugs - which wasn't a problem as long as juicy duck treats like lettuces were well covered! If you moved a bit of black polythene in the vegetable garden back in those days - you'd nearly be killed in the rush - with quacking ducks all piling in from all directions with great gusto, to be the first to grab them and greedily guzzle them up! They were such sociable, intelligent creatures and used to come if I called their names - I do miss them!
How to make a protected propagating area outside if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel
With ground far too wet to do anything in veg. beds - organising a small propagating area outside is a good job for a sunny day. Even if you have a tunnel or greenhouse - it's always useful when things get busy to have an extra area where you can stand things that are 'hardening off'. It needs to be in a well lit, sheltered but not shady area - where it won't be too sunny later on. As a bench - you coulduse an old table or a even couple of planks resting on some blocks, so that your seed trays are off the ground. This prevents slugs from reaching them.
If you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel this is a really good slug proof way to raise seedlings outside - which you can further improve by the addition of a cheap cold frame, cloche or home-made polythene frame to give seedlings a little extra warmth and also protection from heavy rain and wind. It's also a great place to 'harden off' safely any seedlings raised indoors in modules.
Module sowing at home is also a great way to get your plants going if you have an allotment, which may not be near enough to pop down to every so often to check on slugs etc. It's obviously much easier to keep an eye on seedlings if they're just outside your back door - and a few modules or seed trays really don't really take up that much room. As I've said many times before - it's not just easier to protect them from slugs if your propagation area is raised - it also means that they're at a reasonable height to tend, which is great relief for a bad back! Then you'll have nice big plants ready to plant out that are big enough to withstand the odd nibble from a slug or two without losing them altogether.
My easy slug-proof 'Moat Method' to keep slugs out of propagation areas!
Over 40 years ago, before I had a tunnel or greenhouse, I came up with a brilliant way to prevent slugs and snails from getting into my seedlings! I had a home-made cold frame placed on an old metal legged table and after much thought I invented what I called my 'Moat Method'! This involved putting each table leg sitting in a big metal can of water - that way, there was absolutely no way for the slugs to even be able to climb up there! If your table is wooden - then just cut off the bottoms of four plastic bottles and sit the table legs in those so that they stay dry while sitting in the water and won't rot! Simple! Slugs can do a lot things - but the one thing they can't do is swim!! (They do try bungee-jumping though! Occasionally dangerously suspending themselves on a long thread of mucous from the roof of the tunnel - not nice when you walk into them unsuspectingly!) Just make sure your table, seed trays pots etc. are completely slug-free to start with and then you won't have a problem! A favourite place for them to hide is between the inside of seed trays and the module inserts, or under pots. Keep an eye out for their 'give away' silver slime trails, even really tiny slugs can decimate a tray of precious seedlings like lettuce or carrots very quickly, so check under seed trays etc. from time to time. It's also a good idea to cover brassica or carrot seedlings with something like Enviromesh to keep cabbage root fly and carrot fly out from now on as the weather warms up, and old freezer baskets or chicken wire are useful for keeping sparrows and some other small birds out - who sometimes seem to enjoy scratching up tiny seedlings just for the sheer hell of it! If you have a pigeon or pheasant problem having netting over them prevents them getting into them too. Mouse traps are also essential here too - I lose more to mice than anything since I don't have an effective cat! They've all my broad beans this year even though they were already 2 inches high!
My'moat method'works perfectly for vine weevils too if you have something really precious you don't want to lose like auriculas which are very prone to vine weevil damage. After ensuring that there are no vine weevil grubs in their compost - just sit their pots on something raised above a saucer of water. The female vine weevil bugs won't be able to crawl up into the plant pot as they usually would - because they can't swim either! Propagating in modules in this way means you can deal with any slug or pest problems in your vegetable beds at the same time as raising your plants elsewhere. This gives you the absolute peace of mind of knowing that you'll have really nice strong plants to plant out in a few weeks time with no losses to slugs, even if you haven't managed to get every last one by then!
I sometimes feel the garden is under siege from all sides - but there's always a clever organic way of defeating everything with a little thought and effort - and it's so much more satisfying using your wit, rather than harmful chemicals! Ireally love what I call 'instant gratification' of module raised plants too - there's nothing as satisfying as looking at really well-grown plants, planted neatly spaced out, in rows without gaps in a well prepared bed. That is except eating them - naturally! Neatly ordered, well-grown veg. are every bit as beautiful as any herbaceous border! I've already covered my particular method of sowing seeds into modules in February's veg. garden and polytunnel diaries - and you can find details of all the veg. that it's possible to sow now in my 'What to sow now' section for March.
Over the next weekor so - whenever it's dry -I'll be uncovering the empty beds in my kitchen garden and, letting the air in to dry them out even more. Doing that also lets the birdsclear pests like millipedes, wood lice etc. They'll be grateful for anything they can find as food is very scarce right now. Cover the beds up again before any rain is forecast - and if the cover excludes light - like black polythene - this will also help to stop weeds seeds germinating. So no need to panic if the soil's too wet to work. If you can see plenty of weed seeds germinating, when the soil outside has dried up a bit - that will show the soil should be warm enough to sow the hardier things outside - no need for expensive soil thermometers - Nature shows you exactly when the soil's warmed up enough for growth.
Improving difficult soil
I'm often asked what is the best way to improve soil - and I always say - grow things in it! I know that sounds a bit like a daft or clever reply - but no one starts off with the perfect soil (if there is such a thing - except from an individual plant's perspective). That is unless they've inherited an old garden that's been worked organically for countless years. I think you can turn even a 'builder-ruined' soil into something reasonable within about three years - I've done it! The proof of the pudding is good, healthy crops. Just keep adding compost, well rotted manure, mulching (which also excludes light between rows and keeps weeds down) and using green manures. You will be amazed how quickly you'll achieve a really good soil structure. Calcified seaweed and seaweed meal also help too, as they really get the biological activity going in poor, very compacted soil - encouraging all the micro-life including worms, which also help to break it down and aerate it. This is the reason why 'double digging' is so bad for soil - because there's a vast army of little workers beavering away permanently just underneath the surface of the soil - and each one has it's own designated level. They don't want to be buried so deep that it takes them years to fight their way back to the surface where they can do the specific job Nature evolved them to do, in those particular top few centimetres! It would be the human equivalent of a serious earthquake to us! These microorganisms have developed over billions of years to live together symbiotically and do their specific job just in the very top few centimetres of soil - so don't make life even harder for them. And remember - the better you make life for them, the more efficient they are, and the harder they'll work for you! Good organic gardening grows the soil - it's the living population in that soil that really grows the plants!
Even if your soil is really rubbishand full of concrete-like clods - as itoften is in the so-called 'garden' of a newly built house -there is hope after builders! Pictured here on top of my soil now is a lump of the 'soil' I started off with 8 years ago in my new polytunnels! It makes a stark contrast with what the soil looks like now! If your soil looks like that - you can raise your plants in modules, then plant them out and they'll be fine. If it's seriously bad the first year, you may have to even make little pockets of compost in the soil to plant into as I mentioned last month - but after that the plants will grow on afterwards quite happily, the roots finding their own way around the clods or even breaking them up, as long as you keep the soil moist. Plants want to grow - as anyone who has ever left a forgotten few spuds at the back of an untidy veg cupboard will know! I'm sure you probably tidy yours out more often than I do mine, so perhaps you haven't experienced that interesting phenomenon!! I'm afraid once it gets to this time of year, any thoughts of 'spring cleaning' inside the house completely disappear off my agenda (if they were ever on it in the first place)! That's after I've cleared out any odd packets of nuts etc. that escaped my notice at the back of the cupboard and fed them to the hungry birds!!
Chemical additives or gimmicky 'quick fixes' may seem an attractive idea and possibly produce impressive results for a very short time - but they don't feed all the soil life that works together to ultimately produce the humus that builds a healthy, carbon-fixing soil. They may not produce healthy food with a properly balanced range of nutrients for us to eat either. There is a growing body of strong scientific evidence showing that by emphasizing one particular nutrient in soil - you can seriously unbalance others, and this can even mean that our bodies absorb the nutrients from that particular crop less well than Nature intended. It may be an unpopular thing to say - but Nature still knows best when it comes to growing food - and it is extremely arrogant of humans to assume anything else! There is still so much we don't know about how everything in the soil works symbiotically - and yet in many parts of the world we have already virtually destroyed it completely!
The best way to improve any soil and encourage worms to help you too is to mulch, mulch and mulch again! You can't go wrong with that. Mulching with whatever you have to exclude light also helps to keep weeds down and keeps moisture in - especially important if we get a long drought as we did in the summer of 2018. Grass clippings from untreated lawns are great between potato rows, and the potatoes also enjoy the acidifying effect, which discourages potato scab, often caused by excess lime, or chlorosis (mineral unavailability). This is something which can happen on high pH (limey) soils - especially encouraged by gardeners following the 'rule-books' and adding lime annually to soils! In the past I used grass clippings on top of layers of damp newspaper, but the birds just loved scratching them all aside to find worms, and the garden started to resemble the local tip! Now I just use the grass clippings on their own, keeping them a little away from the stems as the nitrogen in them when they're freshly cut can burn soft young growth. Watering any mulches immediately, as soon as you you've put them down prevents this happening. I also use comfrey leaves in the same way, as well as compost. If you're mulching with anything, always make sure that ground is damp first. Not usually a problem in our spring weather! Even a black polythene mulch is better than nothing, but tends to harbour slugs. Although then it's easier to lift it and pick them off from where they're hiding underneath!
A couple of years ago - I was asked to give a talk for gardeners about how to restore soil, at the launch of the 'European People4Soil' initiative at our National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin.In it I showed some slides of my garden - explaining how it evolved from a totally degraded, virtual moonscape, to the vibrant and productive place which it is today. I didn't know at the time that it was being filmed for showing on You Tube! Unfortunately I had a static microphone which didn't move when I did, so the odd word escaped here and there, and I was also rushing a bit due to the time alowed for my talk being cut slightly. But if you haven't seen it before though - you may enjoy watching it! (Sorry about the squeaky door noises and the mobile phones!!) Here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0&feature=youtu.be
For those of you who may be new readers - this blog isn't just about ways to garden organically. It's also about sharing with you many practical tips for making food healthier and also cheaper, which I've learnt over the 40 plus years that I've been growing for my family! I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you!
Will take place this year on Saturday August 17th to Sunday 1st September 2019
I am delighted to be able to announce that Dr. Matthew Jebb - Director of the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin informed me yesterday that 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' is returning to the National Botanic Gardens this year! The festival will run from Saturday 17th of August to Sunday 1st September. Once again there will be talks (yours truly included - they can't get rid of me!) and definitely the most fantastically diverse display of tomatoes that you will ever see anywhere in the world! It was wonderful to see them all displayed so beautifully there on the upturned terracotta pots last year - as you can see in the pictures of both sides of the display in the Teak House. The joint effort established a new World Record of 256 varieties - mainly due to the hard work and generosity of The National Botanic Gardens and also of many great tomato enthusiasts, including in particular Chris Enright - who I must mention as I think he contributed the most number of varieties for the display - apart from the Botanic Gardens. The news of this year's Festival is just what we all need to cheer us up in the miserably cold and wet un-spring-like weather that we're currently experiencing - and at this time of year it will surely re-energise even the most hardened of gardening enthusiasts!
Everyone is very welcome to take part - so start sowing those tomatoes now! It would be lovely to get schools involved too - because children are the future growers and consumers of our food, and sadly they increasingly seem to be losing touch not just with where their food comes from and how to grow it - but also how to cook it - instead of opening a pizza packet! So if anyone's connected to any school gardens please get involved - I shall propose that if we could get enough schools interested in taking part, then I will personally present a prize to each one participating - perhaps a gift voucher for seeds - because I think it's so important. There'll be more news on competitions etc over the coming months here on my blog, on Twitter, Facebook Totally Terrific Tomato Festival page and on The National Botanic Gardens events page. Below is the wonderful array of tomatoes which were displayed in the Teak House at the gardens last year. I felt quite emotional leaving it for the last time at the end of the Tomato Festival - because for me it was the realisation of a long-held dream first initiated in the early 1990's - to demonstrate the importance of preserving genetic diversity to the general public, in an appealing and practical way. I couldn't possibly have chosen a better, more appropriate or more beautiful venue for it, and I am very hopeful for it's long term future now. I'm happy to say that Matthew Jebb tells me preparations are already well under way for this year's Festival, as the wonderful staff at the Gardens have been busy propagating over 200 varieties of tomatoes for this year's display - so we might even beat last year's record! To that end - I'd better get on with sowing the rest of mine this afternoon!
Dr. Matthew Jebb & I, with the 2017 display of tomatoes which he carefully transported from that year's Tomato Festival to display in the beautiful glasshouse at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin - this spawned last year's Festival. 2018's record-breaking display was bigger and even better - taking up the whole Teak House as you can see at the beginning of this blog post.
o why IS genetic diversity in tomatoes important? Well - whether we grow them or not - most of us eat them!
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
The fact that we all eat some plant foods means that genetic diversity - not just in tomatoes but all food crops is a hugely important issue that potentially affects all of us. It's daily becoming even more vitally important - with climate change, soil loss, destruction of habitats with subsequent loss of wild crop relatives. It's a subject which I've always cared passionately about. Tomatoes are a wonderfully colourful and joyous celebration of nature's abundance - in fact they're a really 'Terrific' (!) way to illustrate genetic diversity in all it's surprising and eye-popping abundance, to a public who often only know the plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting imposters that pass for tomatoes on today's supermarket shelves!
To the best of my knowledge - the variety Indigo Rose, pictured here, was grown and also seen for the very first time in the British Isles at the 2012 Tomato Festival! I was browsing the internet looking for tomato seeds in early 2012 - as you do - and came across this stunning new variety. I had run a smaller version of the Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens back in the early 1990's - it was called a Tomato Day which a few enthusiasts attended. But that was really just a tiny seed of the idea - which waited in the background and germinated instantly when I saw Indigo Rose. That sowed the idea of the newer version of the TomFest as a brilliant way to show the wider public the importance of genetic diversity! Indigo Rose was originally bred by Oregon State University, while seeking to breed tomatoes with naturally higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants and it was released in the US for the very first time in 2012. It's not a Genetically Modified or engineered variety (or GMO) produced in a laboratory. It was naturally bred from a wild tomato growing in the Andes which had very high levels of the purple-coloured anthocyanin phytochemicals in it's leaves and fruit, and it is now the forerunner of many other black tomatoes that have been naturally bred since then.
Anthocyanin antioxidants help to give plants protection against many diseases and also protect their skins from sun damage. They do exactly the same for us when we eat them! Anthocyanin phytonutrients are found in many purple vegetables and fruits - and as I often mention - these are scientifically proven to boost our circulation and our immune system. This is why it's so important to include plenty of them in our diets. They are clearly very effective because it's definitely one of the healthiest tomatoes I've ever grown - so I can forgive it's slightly 'less than fabulous' flavour! In all we had almost 100 varieties at that first Festival. People were amazed by the unusual look of the Indigo Rose tomatoes and even asked if they were giant blackcurrants! It looks stunning contrasted here with the beefsteak White Queen. Celebrity chefs eat your hearts out! I must say I found it irresistible when I saw it - it was what gave me the initial idea for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. I would be the first to admit that it's not the most tasty tomato - but what it lacks in flavour it more than makes up for in looks! It does improve on dehydrating though, which concentrates the flavour! But of course it's main attribute is that it is naturally so high in healthy anthocyanins.
It's always such fun showing people the amazing genetic diversity that there is to choose from - and watching the wonder on their faces when they realise that what they're looking at are actually tomatoes! It's also vital to convey how important it is for our future food security that we preserve the genetic heritage in all our food crops. If we only grow the commercial varieties that we see in supermarkets - before very long we could be in serious trouble. Just one of the many genes in wild or naturally-bred tomatoes could be vital for using in future natural breeding programmes. They could possibly even be the saviour of all tomatoes or other crops, if they were to be threatened in the future by some as yet unknown disease, possibly brought about by climate change.
Who could possibly imagine a future without tomatoes? Impossible isn't it?I simply couldn't imagine my summer without eating them fresh - or my winter without delicious and healthy tomato sauces or semi-dried tomatoes to use in all sorts of treats! Journalist Fionnuala Fallon asked me a few years ago to name my absolute favourite variety for an article that she was writing for the Irish Times magazine. But as I said to her - it's a bit like asking someone to name their favourite child - impossible, as they all have their different qualities and I love them all! I definitely get an uncontrollable urge to hit all the 'buy' buttons whenever I look at websites selling unusual varieties I haven't tried! Anyway - someone did say once that my epitaph should be "She never did anything by halves"! Hmm.... They may have a point there! I think there could be a happy medium somewhere! I really am a hopeless case! But being a tomatoholic/tomatophile isn't really such a bad thing is it? Given that there's about 12,000 varieties of tomatoes out there - I'll definitely never run out of new ones to try!
The importance of genetic diversity is something that I've been trying hard to make people more aware of for over 35 years now, by running various events - tomato, pumpkin and potato festivals - and also by giving talks at various venues like the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, the Dublin Food Co-op, various farm walks and open days etc. I had great support in the 1980s and early '90s from the HDRA in this - now Garden Organic - and was given seed of many unusual varieties by their Heritage Seed Library to help in this effort. Potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes are such colourful, attractive and easy subjects to grow for festivals.They're so well-known and almost everyone grows them. People can also easily understand how important they are to our diet - as everyone eats them. But genetic diversity is important in other food crops too and it's really vital to grow the old, so-called Heritage varieties, always being careful to keep them true to type. We don't know when we made need any of the qualities in them, like frost or heat resistance, what changes and challenges climate change may bring about in our weather patterns - and what new pests or diseases changing weather patterns may bring. Everything has evolved to grow somewhere - so there will always be some varieties of staple food crops that are suitable to grow somewhere, just as long as we make sure we keep all their precious genes in case we may need them in the future. Not only that, they are part of our social history too. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those who went before and saved these seeds to pass them on down to us. We have an obligation to them to keep their precious legacy going and growing for future generations to come.
Despite the snow and flooding again - believe it or not - it's now officially spring!Except nobody told the weather gods!
Never have the benefits of polytunnels been shown more clearly than over the last week! Despite experiencing almost a metre of snow I've still been picking salads and other veg like broccoli and chards from the polytunnel. Somewhat surreal - considering I had to go out a few days ago and spend hours carefully persuading the snow to slide off the polytunnels - otherwise they surely would have collapsed under it's enormous weight! It's sunny this morning - but it still feels more like winter! We were without electricity to the polytunnels at one point, so after my horror at discovering they had unknown to me spent a night at 0 deg C - I had to hastily bring all my tiny newly emerged tomato seedlings into the house for a few days, until I sorted out an alternative source by running an extension from the outhouse where the freezers live! As a result - they're looking a little bit stretched to say the least - but they'll soon straighten-up and grow stronger in a few days, now they're getting some proper light again. I still have more to sow - so I hope the weather will improve.
March is always such an exciting month in the polytunnel - it's my horticultural Narnia and a very 'alternative' world to the one prevailing outside! In there it's a very different story, spring is already everywhere. As - Primulas, narcissi, violas, feverfew and wallflowers flowering at both ends, and in the little gardens planted around the foot of the grapevines halfway along the sides.There were even a couple of bumblebees in there over the last couple of weeks before the snow - anytime there was a rare mild day and the sun warmed the tunnel! I'm so glad that as always, I'd planted some early flowers in there to attract them in - the scent of primulas and wallflowers is wonderful when I open the door. The peach buds are already swelling and In three or four weeks they will be in full flower. Encouraging bees to visit the tunnel to do some of the pollination by growing flowers for them will mean plenty of juicily delicious peaches again come July - although that seems a long way away right now!
The soil temperature outside in the open garden is still very low, and it's so saturated now after all the snow and rain, that there's very little you can usefully do outside at the moment - but to get ahead you can start lots of things off in modules and pots inside for planting out in the garden later. Even if you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel and are only dreaming about one at the moment - there's still a lot of things you could sow on your windowsill that could go out into a cold frame or in a protected propagating area outside, once they've germinated in a week or two. I describe how to organise one made from an old table in this month's Vegetable Garden Diary. That's how I used to do all my seed sowing before I had my first tiny polytunnel - a 6ft x 8ft. Yes - I've been there too - and it encourages you to use your space very efficiently and inventively - something I've never forgotten! I still don't waste an inch in my polytunnel. You can't afford to - they're not cheap items. I worked out a few years ago that any polytunnel, if it's well organised and properly cultivated all year round, should easily pay for itself within 3 years! Even if you only saved yourself £20 or 25 euros a week on fruit and veg. - within a year you'd have enough for quite a decent tunnel. Think about that!
This is how I'm sowing my TTTomFest 2019 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
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!
Buying peat-free seed composts
I can't stress enough just how important it is to use a really reliable SEED compost. Don't usea '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! 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 - butas 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!)
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 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 aircirculation 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, soI keep some fleece suspended well above the small seedlings on the propagating bench in the tunnel - in order to shade them at midday if the sun suddenly comes out. In the greenhouse it's a lot easier, you can just shade the glass by painting on 'Coolglass' paint - a powder which you mix with water and paint onto the glass. Mix it up in an old measuring jug or similar, put into an old baking tin or paint tray and use a paint roller or soft household sweeping brush to brush it all over the roof and about half way down the sides. Do this in dry weather, then once dried, it won't wash off again in rain. It just cleverly turns clear again when wet - letting more light in. Heavily abrasive hail may damage it, but you can re-apply it, and then in the autumn you can remove it by just brushing it off again on a dry day. Unfortunately the tunnel is too big and difficult to paint unless you have a helicopter! So fleece or shade netting is the only answer there. While on the subject of fleece - another of my money saving tips. It's a lot cheaper by far to buy a big roll of it from your local agricultural supplies shop. You'll get one for around 20 euros or so, and then you can then split it up with friends. A small packet of fleece from a garden centre or DIY store will cost you almost the same - though in some you can buy it by the metre from a large roll.
Keep a careful eye out for slugs or other pests in propagating areas
Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year!
One other thing to look out for in propagation areas are those nasty little grey slugs which can sneak in, clinging to the bottom of seed trays or climb up the sides of the tunnel. I discovered one morning that one had snuck in and mown 1/3rd of my loo roll sown 'Purple Sun' carrot seedlings, which had all germinated beautifully. Good job you couldn't hear the fairly choice language ***** more appropriate for the stable I can tell you!! Probably my own fault for putting a potted plant on the heated mat to get it growing encouraged by the bottom heat. It was a plant of the beautiful silver foliage plant Plectranthus Argentatus. I was in a hurry the day I moved it and don't remember tipping it out of it's pot to check for any pests before putting it on the propagating mat. One learns far more by mistakes sadly!! Aren't I always saying that?
I recently had a query about the purple potato Purple Majesty - someone asked me if the Sarpo Blue Danube potato also had purple flesh- because they couldn't get Purple Majesty. It doesn't - it has bright white flesh with a purple skin - so you definitely won't get electric blue mashed potatoes from that one! I grew it a few years ago when it first became available - it's one of the 'Sarpo' supposedly blight-resistant ones. Not only did it not have much flavour - but I didn't find it very blight resistant either! In my opinion - there's no point in growing any potato unless it has a fantastic flavour - even if it has some blight resistance.
I've always grown for flavour rather than bulk because I like eating tasty spuds and we don't eat them more than a couple of times a week at the most because of their high carbohydrate content. I always lower that though by about 50%, by a process known as 'retrogradation' - where I cook them all one day, chill them overnight in the fridge and reheat them for eating whenever I need them! This turns the starch in them into something known as resistant starch - which our gut bacteria love - so doing this is great for our gut health too, as I mentioned on Gerry Kelly's Late Lunch Show lately! It's also a great time-saving tip if you're busy during the week! I know some who may disagree with me - but taste can be a very subjective and personal thing - often perhaps linked to the perception that 'newer' is better. Not always the case in my experience! Something to do with plant breeders rights means that unfortunately you couldn't get Purple Majesty seed here until this year - so I've always saved my own seed tubers. It has a fantastic 'old baked potato' flavour - despite being a new introduction only a few years ago. It's much the best flavoured purple fleshed potato too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years - having always been interested in the plant phytocyhemicals they contain. I'm happy to say that now though - you can get it by mail order from some UK seed companies.
There are other purple potatoes I like too. A very old variety - Truffe de Chine - is a salad type with a similar same shape to 'Pink Fir Apple'. It's almost black and has a lovely flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket veg shops. I found mine well over 30 years ago in Harrods food hall - always worth investigating for interesting things to grow if you're in London! It's amazing what you find in there. Vitelotte is another delicious purple-fleshed one which is more blight-resistant than many and good for organic growing - some say this is actually Truffe de Chine - but I've found them to be slightly different. 3 years ago I grew Violetta for the first time - another deep purple one. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some non-organically grown Violetta I tried from a well-known Dublin shop - but growing them without chemicals made a huge difference to the taste - I really loved the ones I grew here! Now a lot more people are growing the purple or blue varieties. Salad Blue is another tasty, easily available variety. A few years ago the renowned potato expert Dave Langford, who lives in Co Mayo, gave me a few lovely old varieties, including a variety he bred himself - called Dave's All Blue 2011, which makes a very tasty mash although a bit blight-prone. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots though - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using my method, and I never need to spray, even with copper sulphate.
Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut
The overwintered calabrese 'Green Magic' (from Unwins) has yet again come up trumps (sorry!) and it's done really well despite a much colder winter than last year. On the very worst nights it was covered with a several layers of fleece. It's such a sweet variety and not just good for lightly steaming but also really good raw for dipping individual florets into hummus or any avocado dip. It's a terrific variety, thoroughly reliable and long- cropping all year round both in the tunnel and outside. It's the only one I b other to grow now in the tunnel. I sowed two dozen last month in the propagator - one dozen will be planted when big enough into the tunnel, and will crop by May. The other dozen will be hardened off and planted outside, which will make them crop about 3 weeks to a month later in a normal year. This is a good way to spread the cropping time of any crop.
I like to be able to pick an interesting and varied salad every day all year round so I'm really grateful for luxury of a tunnel. There are still plenty of lettuce, endives and other leaves of various sorts - mostly loose leaf varieties that have cropped really well all winter. 'Lattughino' is one of my favourites - with crispy bronze-tinged leaves. Jack Ice is another - rather like an Iceberg but a loose-leaf type that you can pick all winter and then allow to form quite a nice heart from March onwards. 'Veneziana' an unusual sword shape Cos type and delicious, 'Belize' is another good one - an oak leaf that will also form fat hearts now. Fristina is another excellent crispy loose-leaf type. Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is great for some reliable red colour - and also the Cos varieties 'Marshall' and 'Nymans' - one's really spoilt for choice these days with so many new lettuce varieties every year - but you don't have to go for expensive F1 hybrids - some of the 'value' mixes - like B&Q's are fantastically cheap - 60 cents for 1200 seeds! Great if you're watching the pennies - costing almost nothing per lettuce! The value mixes mostly contain older varieties that are easy, colourful and reliable for all year round growing - either sown thickly for baby leaves or as individual whole lettuces. The endive pictured here - an old Italian variety 'Riccia Pancallieri' is very bitter when green - which I don't like - but if you blanch it by covering it for 2-3 weeks under a large pot as the old Victorian gardeners did - it is beautiful and really delicious in a late winter salad - with a nice fruity/sweet dressing like my walnut oil/cider vinegar/honey & orange dressing which goes with everything and is full of healthy omega 3 oils. The photo above of the blanched and un-blanched endive side by side really shows what a difference blanching makes!
Two years ago, on this weekend - after all the fuss about the lack of imported lettuces and other salad vegetables in shops due to the bad weather in Southern Europe, I decided to see exactly how many I could pick from my polytunnel. Pictured below are 27 varieties which surprised even me - and when picking them to arrange this delicious display - I actually even forgot a couple like lamb's lettuce and Chinese chives! Here's the list - in no particular order:
Watercress, Chinese cabbage Scarlette, Giant Italian flat leaf parsley, Cos lettuce Nymans, Red leaf radish, Sorrel, red oak leaf lettuce, ruby chard Vulcan, green Mizuna, frilly leaf mustard, rocket, red-veined sorrel, endive White Curled, red cos lettuce Rosedale, chicory Sugar Loaf, bronze stemmed chard, mustard Yellow Frills, spinach, mustard Giant Red, lettuces Lattughino, Little Gem & Jack Ice, red Mizuna, claytonia, kale Ragged Jack, mustard Red Frills, beetroot leaves McGregor's Favourite.
27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
This is one of the most difficult times of year for ventilating greenhouses and tunnels.
Temperatures can fluctuate wildly now. From freezing at night - to rising alarmingly during the day when the sun comes out, and quickly becoming dangerous for small tender seedlings, even 'cooking' them if one isn't careful! But at the same time, a vicious March wind can get up seemingly from nowhere, often before a sudden shower, and things can then be a bit draughty to put it mildly! One also has to be careful that small seedlings aren't sitting in a draught. I'm on a very windy site here, about 400ft above sea level, not far from the coast in one direction, with a lot of open flat land for miles in the other - and until the trees I planted originally grew big enough (including the dreaded Leylandii and eucalyptus) I lost greenhouses on three occasions and a polytunnel! Without the Leylandii in particular, I wouldn't have a garden here at all. So I appreciate mine. (The starlings always roost in them too - another reason to like them - although my neighbour blames them for harbouring pigeons!) I don't know why some people are so snobby about them. I think it's because they're usually planted in a totally unsuitable place and 'tortured' into being a hedge. As an individual tree, they actually make a very nice specimen if allowed the room to develop properly. - And they need a lot - they are completely unsuitable for small gardens.
But I digress........Always watch the weather forecasts andkeep an eye on wind direction in particular - a sudden severe gust of wind can rip off tunnel doors - or burst out and scatter panes from greenhouses as if they were confetti. I know that from bitter experience! Get to know your local weather and prevailing wind direction, always make sure tunnel doors are fastened securely - whether open or shut - and always keep plenty of tunnel mending tape handy! Apropos of that - I was really sorry to hear that a few local allotment holders had lost tunnels over the winter. I know how heartbreaking that is. But speaking from experience - never, ever, try to re-use hoops from the lighter types of tunnels - they will collapse again far more easily if you do. Recycle them as fruit cages or perhaps to make lower large cloches over veg beds - and save up for a much stronger replacement. As I've said before, a good strong tunnel should pay for itself easily within 2-3 years - even if you save only 20-25 euros a week on fruit and veg! After that you're quids in! If I had to choose between a really good strong polytunnel and an annual holiday in the sun - the polytunnel would win every time. After all - you can sit in there and enjoy the sun all year round and save lots of money at the same time. What holiday does that?
Watering is one of those things you must take a bit of care with too.
A little trouble can save a lot of heartache! I keep a big black barrel full of rain water in the tunnel, so that it's the same ambient temperature as inside the tunnel, rather than bringing in freezing cold water from outside or using the hose. This barrel water I use for watering plants in pots and also seedlings in trays - always watering from underneath. I have a large tray, about 4-5in. deep, and fill that with the water from the barreI, sitting the seed trays in there for a minute or two, until they've taken up just enough water. I prefer to all water seedlings in modules or seed trays from underneath, so that they don't become completely saturated, that way they stay slightly less damp around the stems, which is where 'damping off' disease can quickly attack in seedlings if they're too wet. That's another reason I use vermiculite for covering seed when sowing. Vermiculite is a completely sterile, open medium, which promotes really good air circulation around the stems. When I'm watering crops in the ground, I always water the ground between the plants, rather than directly onto their roots. They don't like a sudden cold shower any more than we do, when they're just beginning to be encouraged into growth by the spring sunshine. Even in the height of summer, I always water between plants - and if at all possible - early in the morning, so that any surface dampness has a chance to dry off before the evening when the tunnel is closed and the air isn't moving - doing this discourages fungal diseases and avoids plant losses.
Keep on top of weeds now, mulching, hoeing or carefully hand weeding if necessary between crops. Give overwintered leafy crops like chard, spinach and salads a light dressing of a fast-acting organic feed such as worm compost or if you don't have any compost, Osmo Complete granules. Scatter around the base of the plants, not on the foliage and water it well in. There should still be quite a lot of cropping potential in many things before they finally run to seed, as long as you keep them well-watered as the tunnel warms up and they start to grow more and need more water. Be careful to water in the mornings if possible to allow the surface to dry off before night time though - you don't want a lot of condensation hanging around to create a damp atmosphere and possibly cause disease. Keep up the good housekeeping - removing any dead, diseased or damaged leaves, to avoid disease spreading. Keep slug hunting, it's amazing how much damage one tiny grey slug can do to a nice head of lettuce. They do eventually become less of a problem after a couple of years - however bad they are in a new tunnel at first. Look around when you're tidying dead leaves etc.- that's where they love to hide. Don't use slug pellets - you'll be killing helpful frogs, soil life and birds etc.!
Cut down and incorporate into the surface, or leave as a surface mulch any previously sown green manures. Worms are getting active in the tunnel now as the soil warms up, and will appreciate a nice hearty breakfast - they'll do a lot of your work for you if you feed them well. Green food is what they like best - not already rotted manure. If you have vacant ground, where you won't be planting until May it's still worth sowing a quick growing 'soft' green manure, like fenugreek, lupins, mustard, red clover, borage and phacelia. Or even early peas that you can use for some pea shoots and then dig in - a double whammy - nitrogen fixing too! Make sure the varieties fit into your rotations though - and don't follow them with a member of the same family.
Bring some pots of early single flowers into the tunnelnow to attract early hoverflies, bees and ladybirds, and maybe even a pot of stinging nettles! Yes, you read it right, nettles in a pot! They are one of the most important plants in the garden for feeding early, just emerging ladybirds, which voraciously feed on nettle aphids. These aphids are actually specific to nettles, so don't be worried that they may migrate to other plants - they won't. A few years ago on 1st. April, I was giving a talk to our local Green Party - which I was one of the founders of over 30 years ago with our former Green Minister for Horticulture Trevor Sargent. I took a pot of nettles along - and it was highly amusing for the first twenty minutes or so- there were some very puzzled faces - until I explained exactly how important they were. I think most of them thought that it was either an April 1st. joke - or I'd completely lost the plot (always a possibility!!) Don't forget that old classic excuse too - that wildlife loves untidy gardens. That covers a multitude - including nettles - (beneficial companion plants naturally - if nosy neighbours ask!) I've seen masses of overwintering ladybirds in the tunnel so far this year - so I hope the robins and wrens that are currently busy hunting in there don't find them!
Don't forget that a polytunnel isn't just full of vegetables and seedlings at this time of year though - it's also full of hope too. That priceless thing we all need plenty of!
There's always something good to look forward to in a well-planned and well-tended polytunnel. Most importantly of all -there's always something good to eat too - whatever the weather, as you can see from the salads pictured above. I really couldn't garden without such a valuable space now, particularly after injuring my right shoulder badly over 4 yrs ago. It's always possible to have the soil in perfect condition whatever the weather's doing outside - that makes it so much easier to sow or plant into it. I can even garden when it's dark if I want to - with a light on! The thing one must remember at all times though - is that YOU have complete control and also of course, you have total responsibility. If you really take the trouble to look after things properly though - you will get great results.
I always say that a tunnel is like life -you only get out what you put in. And like life - with just a little bit of thought and effort you will be more than handsomely repaid!
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you!)