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!)
Hoverflies also love single French marigold flowers
Moth on a single marigold
*While we're thinking about sowing some food for ourselves - it's more important than ever to sow some for pollinators too!
What you can sow now In a heated propagator for growing in the polytunnel or greenhouse
(for growing on later in the polytunnel or greenhouse)
Aubergines - (as early as possible in the month to get the best crops). Bonica F1 is best - this top of RHS trials & AGM about 15 years ago - I don't bother to grow any other now as it's by far the most reliable, alpine strawberries (Reugen a large-fruited var.), globe artichokes, (if sown early in the month, they'll crop outside in autumn this year), dwarf French beans for cropping in pots or in tunnel beds later (choose a fast-growing, disease-resistant variety suitable for early sowing), asparagus, celery, celeriac (early in month) tomatoes, chilli and other peppers, physalis (Cape gooseberries). From mid-March onwards you can sow early courgettes for tunnel growing, and then later in the month melons and cucumbers for warm tunnel cropping. Don't forget melons and cucumbers need to be grown on in consistently warmer conditions than tomatoes to be really successful - they grow very fast and hate to be checked (this applies to pumpkins & squashes too - so wait until next month to sow them in pots if they're for growing outside).
*Also sow some single-flowered tender annuals now like Tagetes, single French marigolds (Tall Citrus Mixed' is a good variety), etc.- lots of vital beneficial insects like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths really love these. Remember that by growing single flowers organically you won't just be helping to preserve them - but they will also help you, by helping with your pest control and pollination.
Note - It's vitally important that they are SINGLE flowered, as bees, hoverflies and other insectscan't access the nectaries of double flowers in order to feed - so those flowers are completely useless to them! They then have to fly elsewhere to find food. When their energy supplies are low, wasting time trying to get nectar from useless flowers can make the difference between life and death for many small insects including bees!
In pots or modules in the polytunnel without heat, or direct in tunnel soil as soon as you feel it's warm enough:
(If weed seeds are germinating - then the soil is warm enough for most things that don't need very high temperatures for germination)
Beetroot, broad beans and peas, spring and summer cabbage, calabrese, carrots, white turnips and radishes (in the soil for an early tunnel crop), onions, chives, Welsh (perennial salad) onions, scallions, leeks, lettuces and salad mixes early in the month, kales, rocket, spinach and coloured Swiss chards etc for baby leaves, fennel and 'soft herbs' like borage, parsley, dill, Greek oregano, salad burnet and coriander.
Other single flowered annuals like limnanthes, convulvulus tricolour and calendula (pot marigold) can also be sown direct into the soil in polytunnel beds now. Keep an eye out for hungry mice - they love pea and bean seeds - it's a good idea to put down a trap - but cover to avoid trapping small birds like wrens and robins.
If you have space now in the tunnel or greenhouse where you'll be planting tomatoes in May - then you just have time to sow a green manure:
'Caliente' mustard (generally available now, or from Marshalls and Unwins seeds - one packet will easily sow a bed about 20ft x 4ft.) This mustard is a very useful green manure as it acts as a natural 'biofumigant' by releasing a plant phytochemical in the form of a gas - called isothiocyanate. This suppresses a range of soil-borne diseases and harmful nematodes - it also encourages beneficial bacteria and soil micro-organisms, adds nutrients and really encourages worm activity. It's particularly helpful where the soil has previously grown tomatoes. A couple of weeks before planting the tomatoes, cut it down - chopping it up as finely as possible in order to release all it's beneficial compounds - and then incorporate it into the soil surface immediately - before the resulting gases escape. Then cover it with black polythene to seal the gases in. (see this month's polytunnel section). As it's a member of the brassica (or cabbage) family - make sure that it fits into your minimum 4-course rotation even though it will only be there for a short time.
Phacelia is another fast-growing 'soft' green manure well-worth sowing now if you have space - this can also be dug in after just one months growth, will break down quickly and it isn't rotation sensitive, so it can be used anywhere. Leaving one or two plants to produce their pretty scented blue flowers later on will also really attract in the beneficial insects too!
Red clover is also useful, because being a leguminous plant, it fixes 'free' atmospheric nitrogen which it concentrates in nodules on it's roots, made by beneficial microbes. This is then released for the following crop (leave a few to flower for bees - they adore them!). Studies also show that growing a legume crop between tomato plants boosts their disease-resistance, bu encouraging beneficial bacteria..
Borage also makes a good very fast-growing green manure, with a long tap root which draws up valuable minerals such as magnesium from lower down in the soil profile. It breaks down easily when dug in and encourages good worm activity, as does claytonia (or winter purslane). Both Borage and Claytonia are useful in salads too.
What you can sow this month outside, if you have ground covered with cloches - or undercover now for planting outside later:
In modules under cover without heat, in a cold frame, or under cloches - or when the soil is dry enough and has warmed up later in the month - unprotected in the open (covering with fleece on frosty nights) you can sow:
Beetroot, broad beans, carrots, mangetout and early peas, parsnips, late spring and summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccoli, onions (plant onion sets in pots for an early crop), leeks, spring onions, lettuces, kohl rabi, Ragged Jack and Cavolo Nero kales for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, white turnips, American land cress, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, 'soft' herbs like borage, parsley, dill, fennel, Greek oregano and coriander. There's a lot of nonsense talked about germinating parsley, but it just likes to be warm and usually takes about 3 weeks to germinate at anytime of year - it always finally appears just when you think it's not going to!
It's also worth sowing some single, early flowering annuals in the open ground or in modules for planting out later - such as limnanthes (poached egg plant), calendula, cerinthe, convulvulus tricolor, borage, red clover and phacelia. They'll attract beneficial insects to help with pest control, encourage bees into the garden for pollination and also look beautiful - which is very important too.
There's still just time to plant garlicearly in the month.Only plant varieties clearly labelled as 'suitable for spring planting'' now - such as 'Christo'.
Plant Jerusalem artichokes and also early potatoes in warm, well drained soils - protecting from frost with fleece later (see veg. garden section). These will crop early enough to completely avoid blight. Or alternatively - if your ground conditions aren't suitable - you could start them off in pots now for an early crop - I do this with all of mine now. You can also start off Yacon, Oca, Mashua and Ulluco tubers inside in pots of well-drained peat-free compost now for planting in the polytunnel or outside later - protect these carefully from frost when they start to produce shoots!
PS! Don't forget that these are just suggestions for what you could sow now - not what you must!I found a checklist/reminder like this invaluable when I was just starting off many years ago - and I still do! Someone actually once complained that I gave far too much information!! So I thought I'd make that quite clear! You can't please everyone - and all the information here is free!
AND REMEMBER MY ADVICE. - IF YOU'RE SHORT OF TIME - JUST GET YOUR SEEDS SOWN! YOU CAN CATCH UP WITH EVERYTHING ELSE LATER BUT NOT THAT! TIME WAITS FOR NO MAN! (Or woman!)
Funny how we spend our time wishing away winter - then wishing everything would happen more slowly in spring - gardeners are never happy!
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
A colourful small flock of 6 hens enjoying some late winter greens from the polytunnel in early March
There’s very little more rewarding than keeping a few hens in your back garden. A colourful flock of beautifully marked hens look every bit as ornamental as any exotic birds you could keep in an aviary – but unlike purely ornamental birds - if you look after hens correctly, they don’t just look beautiful, but they will provide you with far more delicious and nutritious organic eggs than you could ever buy. In addition to being amusing, intelligent and very watchable company all year round, keeping your own laying hens also gives you a measure of food security, because you will always have some eggs handy for a quick meal, for baking or can even to make a very welcome gift – far cheaper and healthier than a box of chocolates!
An organic egg is probably the fastest, most convenient and nutritionally perfect meal in the world. A simple omelette made with couple of eggs along with a handful of homegrown salad greens, is a nutritionally-balanced meal, containing high quality protein and fats, virtually all of the vitamins and minerals we need, and also choline – recently classified as an essential nutrient - which is vital for many bodily functions including liver function, cholesterol metabolism, and healthy brain and nervous system development. Eggs also supply important antioxidants like Lutein and Zeaxanthin, which are vital for eye health.
Producing your own eggs means that you know exactly where they have come from and how the hens were kept. That gives you a great feeling of self-sufficiency and of being more in control over what you’re eating – because you are, quite literally, what your hens eat. The better you feed them – the better their eggs will be. The more organic greens like broccoli, kale and spinach that you feed your hens – the higher the eggs will be in those vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients vital for eye health. In addition to all of that – as if that wasn’t enough - your hens will give you a wonderful free by-product, fertile organic manure which will greatly enrich and boost the vital microbial life in your garden compost, which can then be used to grow your own delicious vegetables and fruit! What a lot of benefits, in return for very little daily trouble, after you have initially set up your domestic egg production unit!
Hens are a valuable adjunct to any organic food-producing garden. They convert the leftover bits of green vegetables like kale, broccoli, spinach and chicory, which are not quite good enough for the kitchen, but still too good for the worm bin, into wonderful eggs. At the same time, they produce very valuable, high nitrogen manure. They are also very happy to help you to get rid of garden pests like gooseberry sawfly larvae, if you let them roam among your fruit bushes during the winter.
I’ve kept hens for most of my life but last year I was without them for 3 months in the autumn, and I really missed them. Although we buy organic eggs, they are not nearly as good as our own, because as I’ve often explained before in other blog posts – organic producers are forced by economics of scale to keep the maximum number of hens on their holding that they are allowed to under Irish organic standards (or Soil Association standards in the UK) - otherwise it would not be economically viable due to the cost of producing the eggs in relation to the price they get for them, and they could not survive. However, I won’t go into that here, as I’ve already done so before. Hens love to graze on short, sweeter, newly emerging shoots and grass, and the more hens you keep on any pasture naturally means that they eat any green food like grass and clover faster – so then their eggs will not have such as deep an orange colour to the yolks as hens where fresh green food is always available. When I was producing organic eggs commercially, I used to grow green food especially for them which makes a huge difference – particularly in the winter, when growth outside is slower. My customers really loved our eggs. I often see some of them and they still tell me that they simply can’t buy eggs which are anything like as good as ours were. I can guarantee that once you have tasted your own home-produced eggs – you won’t ever want to go back to buying them from shops!
Gerry and I looking at the friendly and fast-growing 8 week-old pullets and cockerels in net-covered run
Gerry Kelly came over here recently to see how the day-old chicks which had just arrived when he was last here in early December were doing – and he was amazed to see how grown-up they were already looking, and how friendly they were! I got a mixed bunch of male and female day-old chicks from the hatchery – somewhat unusual as most people just want females, or pullets, for laying eggs. However, I wanted to prove that it was worth rearing the male chicks too, which are usually discarded, and that’s certainly proving to be the case – but those details are for another blog post I will write soon. Suffice to say here, that the males produced when hatching eggs of laying breeds (roughly 50% of the eggs hatched) are usually discarded, which is not only cruel and unethical - but also incredibly wasteful, when so many people in the world are starving! While I think about it by the way – hens are just purely for laying eggs - while hens and cockerels bred for meat production are collectively called chickens. A fine distinction of nomenclature perhaps – but there is often confusion about the use of those names. I’m talking about keeping hens for egg-laying here.
What do you need to think about if you want to keep hens?
Before you start –the most important thing of all is to consider your lifestyle, and if you have enough time/are prepared to make the commitment to looking after them properly every day. In that way – keeping hens is just like keeping any other animals. Happy, well-kept hens lay the best eggs!
Then will first need to check with your local authority to see if there are any by-laws forbidding the keeping of garden livestock like hens or rabbits. If you are renting your property, then you may also need to check with your landlord. Unless you are keeping a cockerel which will crow loudly, waking up everyone within a mile at 3.30am in summer - it’s unlikely that neighbours will object to some occasional daytime clucking from a hen that’s just laid an egg – especially if you occasionally present them with half a dozen. Obviously hens need to be kept clean as possible to prevent smells, flies attracted to their droppings or vermin like rats attracted by their food.
If you go away occasionally - don’t forget that you will also need to arrange for a ‘hen sitter’- someone who will look after them every day while you are away – whether just for a night or for longer. It’s important to make sure your hens are properly looked after if you’re away from home, even if it’s only for a day or two. You can’t send hens off to a kennels while you’re away like dogs or cats, as they get used to feeling secure in familiar surroundings. Any sudden drastic change can easily upset them and would definitely stop them laying.
There’s just no substitute for someone looking at livestock every day– whatever sort of livestock it is. While there are some automatic door openers, feeders and drinkers etc – I would never rely on these as they can always go wrong (and Sod’s law says – if it can go wrong it will – and usually when you’re away!) Drinkers can get blocked, hens may get trapped, injured, or have some other misfortune. While it’s alright to leave them if you’re at work during the day, they shouldn’t be left without attention for any longer – as this could lead to disaster and suffering for the hens. It’s also important that eggs are collected every day – because not doing so can result in broken eggs, which can then lead to egg eating. This can be a big problem, because once they get a taste for it – it’s almost impossible to stop.
I’m not trying to put you off – just to make you really think about the responsibilities of keeping them, and whether they will fit into your life. If you do decide to give keeping hens a try – then I can almost guarantee that you will never want to be without them again. Hens are endlessly fascinating to watch, far more intelligent than most people give them credit for and definitely have very individual personalities. They are great company and a really good way of teaching children how to look after animals responsibly, and also of giving them an understanding of where their food comes from. Being outside in nature and having contact with pets is known to be good for boosting children’s microbiome – the community of beneficial microbes living in their gut which is their immune system. Science has recently proven that the more naturally occurring, beneficial microbes children are exposed to from an early age – the better their immune system functions. This means that it is less likely they will suffer from the allergies which the many nature-deprived children, reared in often microbe-phobic, antiseptically-wiped environments, are increasingly suffering from.
Then you must decide how many hens you want to keep.
If you want to keep hens really happy and healthy, the first thing to remember is that they evolved in Asia to live as jungle fowl, spending their time mostly in jungle clearings – so they are happiest when they have plenty of room, and are warm, dry and scratching around in grass and the leaf litter under shrubs and trees looking for insects and eating the green shoots of plants. They also like having a daily dust bath to keep their feathers in top condition. Hens are very social animals which evolved to live in flocks and are very unhappy if they don’t have the company of others. For this reason, I would never keep less than 3 or 4 hens, because if you only have two, and one dies or has an accident, which can happen occasionally, the one left on its own will pine and suffer. So, given that we can’t supply jungle – we must try to replicate the natural food, shelter, company, places to roost up off the ground as they would in jungle trees, the opportunity to dust bathe, and the freedom and plenty of room to scratch around looking for insects.
Next you need to decide how and where you want to keep them
You may like the idea of hens romantically roaming free in your garden, but as they like to eat a lot of plants - they will destroy your garden! Bear in mind that 3 or more hens can also make quite a lot of poo and can damage a small patch of ground very quickly - turning a small piece of lawn into a mud patch within a few days, especially in wet weather, which is not good for their health! Also roaming completely free they are far more vulnerable to predators. Urban foxes are becoming an increasing problem often due to takeaway rubbish being discarded, most are not one bit afraid of people and regularly visit urban gardens. To a fox – a hen is naturally just another takeaway opportunity – and you don’t want your beautiful hens to be hurt or to disappear completely! Other predators like mink can be a problem if you have water nearby, and also neighbour’s dogs and cats. While hens undoubtedly look lovely roaming freely around the garden – that’s not the best way to keep them. From a welfare point of view – a roomy safe run is always best.
Some housing options:
The so-called 'Hen Hilton' - the re-purposed child's Wendy house where my hens live and even have their own vertical garden!
Wooden hen houses/chicken coops are widely available now and suppliers can be found online. They can be an expensive option though - but admittedly, they often look tidier and nicer than many homemade ones! A small re-purposed garden shed, making a pop-hole, can also be an option, but it must be heavy enough wood to keep predators out, or lined with wire to stop them eating through it as happened to me once many years ago. You can do a lot to beautify and have a lot of fun re-purposing a plain old garden shed! I was thrilled to find a child’s ‘Wendy house’ on sale 6 years ago in my local DIY store – it was just what I’d been wanting for keeping my few hens for ages. The hens even have their own vertical garden outside it in the summer!
I describe my re-purposed Wendy house further on. It is ideal for our 6 hens, and they provide us with more than enough eggs for our needs now. I prefer wooden houses as wood provides better insulation from heat or cold than some of the funky small plastic ones, which can also have condensation problems. Here are some ideas.
A moveable house preferably on wheels - with a predator-proof run attached which can also be moved daily. This is what I chose for the few hens which I used to keep after I stopped producing eggs commercially. It was a re-purposed small dog kennel with a sliding door, and a hinged roof for cleaning out and collecting eggs. After I broke my shoulder, unfortunately I was no longer able to move it, so I purchased the Wendy house which they now live in. It is far more plush and attractive – and one of my friends even called it the ‘Hen Hilton’!
Four hens in a small re-purposed dog kennel house on wheels with movable run attached - in early spring.
Permanent fixed housing - with 2 or more permanent runs leading from it so that these can be alternated regularly to keep them fresh and disease-free. This is a good option for anyone with limited space, as even if you only have two alternating runs, you can throw all their green food and anything else which could go on your compost heap into one small run, which they will enjoy scratching through, will give them exercise and keep them amused, while you’re growing a green manure or grass in the other run. Then you can change over sides when this is ready for them, cleaning out the one just vacated onto the compost heap and sowing more grass or green manure into the soil there.
Permanent housing - letting the hens have free run of all your garden which some people do.
It may look lovely, but I don’t like this as:
- It means you have no fresh ground for them, which is important if you have any disease problems introduced by wild birds.
- They will destroy your garden, eat your vegetables if there are any, and they are far more vulnerable to predators like foxes and mink.
Hens being hens – they much prefer to find hidey holes under bushes to lay their eggs, as they naturally would do in the jungle where they originally came from - rather than lay them in nest boxes for you to conveniently collect! Doing this can attract vermin like magpies which love to eat eggs, and also rats.
Perches – Hens and chickens like to roost at night off the ground on a perch. In the wild they would naturally do this in trees. The perch needs to be a minimum of 45cm/18ins off the ground and long enough for each hen to have a bout 30cm/1ft of space.
Nest boxes - Whatever type of housing you decide on – or if you make you own – you will need at least one nest box to every 3 hens. When I’m shopping, I always look for wooden orange boxes which are a real rarity now, as everything tends to come in cardboard. Wooden orange boxes make brilliant nest boxes with one of the sides lowered for easy access. If they have a lid you can leave it on as hens like to lay in a dark place. If not you can put a board across the top, which also prevents hens roosting on the and dirtying the nest. I always use hay to line them, as I can’t get organic straw, and it’s softer anyway. I make a cosy nest shape in the soft hay for them, and when they’re young pullets I also put a golf ball into each nest so that they get the general idea! I fondly remember the beautifully realistic china eggs my father used when I was growing up, and so wish I had one of them purely for sentimental reasons. The funny thing about hens is that when one decides to lay, usually in the morning – then they all get the urge to lay – often in the same nest. So, if you don’t have enough nest space you may well get smashed eggs! Purpose made hen houses obviously have their own, usually accessed from the outside of the house or coop.
If you’re handy at carpentry you could make your own hen house from recycled pallets or other materials, which I have done in the past. Ventilation without draughts, insulation against heat or cold, easy access for cleaning out, and being raised off the ground to prevent vermin must be considered when building it. Or you could buy a small wooden garden shed and re-purpose it as I did as I describe below.
My girls have a delightful re-purposed Wendy house which I bought cheaply in a DIY store sale. It has a smart front door and an opening window. The front door allows easy access for cleaning them out once a week. It came in a flat pack, which my son put together, lining the inside with small-mesh chicken wire to keep out predators. He made a pop-hole in one side, which has a sliding door leading out into their roomy scratching pen. I just love it!
On the floor I have heavy-duty, recycled polythene damp-proof membrane, which is available cheaply from DIY stores and prevents the floor from rotting. This is then covered deeply with wood shavings which are topped up with a few handfuls more daily to keep the air sweet. This is all cleaned out weekly and goes onto the compost heap.
Hen house with scratching pen attached accessed by the pop hole. Sliding side panels allow access to runs on either side.
February contents:Exciting new Beginning to another Fruit Growing Year.... Force Rhubarb.... What are the best 'Autumn Fruiting' Raspberry Varieties?.... Woodland Gardening - or Just Feeding Wildlife?.....Ever Thought of Growing a Grapevine?.....Don't Prune Grapevines Now!.... Pests on Grapes.....There's still time to plant grapes.....Which Varieties are Best - Seedless or Seeded?.....Growing Physalis or Cape Gooseberry...... Other jobs for Feb...
A wide variety of fruit can be sown or planted now to fruit this autumn!
My name is Nicky Kyle and I'm a Fruitaholic - I've finally admitted it!
I just can't resist trying to grow and eat anything delicious and exciting in the fruit world - especially if recent scientific studies show it may have potential health benefits. - Not that I need an excuse! I could quite happily be what's known as a 'frugivore' most of the time - granted with the odd steak and bit of good cheese occasionally! It seems to be the fashion at the moment to dismiss fruit as just 'so much unnecessary added sugar' - but I'm afraid I have to disagree! Those often repeating that particular dogma mostly know very little about plants or their physiology. I agree that added sugar isn't necessary - but I believe that including some fruit in our diet is - and it depends on what you eat it with or how. We invariably eat our fruit with something else - like a mixed salad, cheese or nuts etc. which slows down digestion of them, and never drink fruit juices. If you're not a salad fan - it's amazing how good they taste with fruit like apples, pears or pomegranates mixed in! Here's my midwinter Tunnel to Table recipe with Organic Cashel Blue cheese, pear, pomegranate and walnuts, which was utterly delicious! I'd eat it every day if I could - it's positively medicinal! - http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes
I've always believed that as Hippocrates said - food is the very best medicine! Surely Nature wouldn't have invented fruit if we weren't meant to eat it! It's very helpful having a son who is both a zoologist and and archaeologist as he's an extremely useful source of information on both our evolution and early human diets - which he has particular interest in. (He's also my best critic at times!) We evolved originally from tree-dwelling apes which ate a lot of fruit as part of their diet. There is also later archaeological dental evidence that our ancestors also ate a lot of fruit. There are, however, two caveats with that ......
Caveat 1: Our distant ancestors didn't have juicers - so we were always meant to eat WHOLE fruits - not drink them as juices! Drinking pure fruit juices, or high sugar, tropical fruit juices and smoothies has a massive effect on raising our level of blood sugars very quickly - before our bodies have a chance to metabolise them properly. In addition to that - juicing wastes a huge amount of the healthy nutrients, especially the many, as yet still unknown, immune-boosting phytonutrients, which are contained within the pulp and fibre of the fruit. Some of which are not available from vegetables or any other food sources.
Caveat 2: The fruits our early ancestors ate were also mainly in season - although some fruits would have dried naturally in the sun. There is also evidence that Middle Eastern and Oriental cultures actively dried fruits in the sun as early as 12,000 BC. If fruit wasn't healthy for humans we wouldn't have evolved to eat it! BUT - the fruit that they ate and the season in which they ate it was mostly varied - and they didn't have all fruits easily available all year round as we have nowadays. All recent studies confirm that eating a varied diet is the key to good health - not restricting whole classes of food which we actually evolved to eat.
I believe that eating fruit is a vital healthy part of any well-varied, wholefood diet and that we only overload our body's capacity to metabolise fructose and other carbohydrates when we are also eating a lot of artificially-made fructose along with processed, highly-refined carbohydrates in other processed foods. If our ancestors didn't evolve to eat fruit as part of their wholefood diet - then we wouldn't have arrived in the 21st century! But many studies show that the population in general is not eating enough of the fibre which our gut bacteria would have evolved to metabolise, and from which they consequently produce many health-promoting metabolites. What is causing the epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes and associated health problems is not eating whole, naturally-grown, organic fruit - but all the other junk which we didn't evolve to eat - including artificial sweeteners which are actually toxic to our gut bacteria, that we have increasingly been eating in the last 50 years or so! Surely that is a 'no-brainer'?
Exciting New Beginning to Another Fruit Growing Year!
I'm always so excited when new fruit trees arrive - like a child at Christmas! I'm planting more trees into the new orchard again this year, to add to those initial plantings of 2 years ago. I decided to start planting a new orchard last year because the 35 year old orchard of 55 heritage varieties, which I planted just after we moved here, had almost completely stopped producing fruit because my neighbour ploughed up all the old pasture behind us and started growing grain crops every year. His spraying with hormone weedkillers in spring makes virtually all the flower buds drop off the apple and plum trees. Very little escapes depending on the timing of the spraying! So last year - fed up with no decent apples - I started planting a new orchard on the other side of the property, on the eastern side, as far away from danger as possible! The first dozen trees have established very well and I'm hoping that in time, with the shelter of the now tall garden trees, the strip of maturing woodland I planted 26 years ago and the house and outbuildings as well - that I may finally get enough fruit again. Sod's law though!
The ground is saturated at the moment and far too wet to plant in without damaging it's structure permanently - so any new arrivals that are un-potted 'bare-root' trees are being 'heeled in' into tubs of old potting compost on arrival. Snug in the large tubs of recycled organic peat-free potting compost in the shed they're frost free - and will stay there to await drier weather - hopefully before they start shooting in March! If they look like starting into growth before the ground dries out enough - I shall pot them up in a soil/organic potting compost mix, dusting the roots with mycorrhizal fungi like RootGrow - so that they can start to establish a healthy new root system quickly. If moved after the tops have started into growth - they can get a setback.
Apple d'Arcy SpiceWe've just finished the last of the wonderful crisp russet Ashmead's Kernal from my rather unconventional, re-purposed old freezer apple store. Every day from December to February every year I thank Dr. Ashmead - who bred this supreme, late-keeping eating apple in a village in Gloucestershire, way back in the 1700s. We've still got some of the even later-keeping apples, varieties like Kidd's Orange Red - an incredibly aromatic, almost pear-drop tasting, offspring of Cox's Orange Pippin - but happily much more healthy and disease resistant though, so has kept well. D'Arcy Spice is another delicious eating apple which is still crisp. We've also got plenty of the long-keeping cooking apple Bramley's Seedling stored too and also some Annie Elizabeth - a lovely tart cooking-apple that keeps well into April. This year I'm really looking forward to some new varieties, as last year I planted a few more heritage varieties which I haven't tasted before. That's a delicious treat to really look forward to!
I find apples so addictive! In the home where I grew up, we had lovely old orchards and a large kitchen garden full of every kind of fruit - I really miss the huge variety we had. My father was a keen pomologist, and an expert on apples and pears in particular. As far as apples go in shops these days, most are grown for ease of harvesting and packing - not for flavour or seasonal variety! It's very difficult to get anything more than Gala (tasteless), Pink Lady (too sweet) or Braeburn (picked unripe) grown organically - either in shops or farmer's markets - and organically grown Bramley's are totally non-existent. I've never seen any on sale anywhere!
Ashmead's Kernal in my very effective apple store - a re-purposed old freezer!
Deliciously crunchy & aromatic Ashmead's Kernal
All the new apple trees I buy from nurseries are on the root stocks M26 or MM106 which are the best ones for early fruiting in less than ideal conditions - like my very heavy clay soil. These grow to mostly about 15 ft/ 3 metres high and wide, they're productive and are fairly easily controlled by pruning. I'm planting some of the trees, along with other fruit bushes like Jostaberries and gooseberries, around the perimeter of the hen runs as the hens really appreciate shelter from the wind and a bit of shade in summer. Trees around their runs provide the ideal habitat for them - as hens are jungle fowl originally, love scratching about among leaf litter under trees and shrubs and don't like to be out in the open too much.
Force Rhubarb clumps
In February I always put an old broken dustbin stuffed with straw upside down over the larger clumps of rhubarb to force them into growth a bit earlier. Not nearly as beautiful as those lovely terracotta rhubarb forcers - but actually I think they're more effective at attracting any late winter sun and warming up more.
Baby 'Livingstone' - promisingly pink!
In autumn 2012 I bought a new variety of rhubarb - 'Livingstone' (new to me anyway but an old Victorian variety I believe) which produces lots of really red stalks in the autumn - unlike other varieties which are only producing green ones by then. It forces well in a large tub in the polytunnel and has a really good flavour.
Traditionally in the old kitchen and cottage gardens, rhubarb was never pulled after English Derby day - which in the UK is in early June. This wasn't just because the plants needed a rest - but it was also because when the stalks are mostly green they are full of oxalic acid which is very bitter and could give you kidneys stones if you are susceptible! You should never eat green rhubarb for this reason. I'm amazed that shops still sell it in summer and autumn - even when it's bright green - and unsuspecting people buy it! It probably needs about half a ton of sugar to make it at all palatable! But then - thinking about it - since when did shops ever worry about people's health?! The health of their balance sheets is all that really concerns them!
Oxalic acid from rhubarb's green stalks and leaves can actually be made into a very effective pesticide - so that should surely tell us something? (although don't tell the EU - because it's actually illegal to make your own)! Odd that isn't it - when shops can actually sell it to us as a food?! Mind you - they also sell us food laced with other legal pesticides, many of which are so old that they've never even been properly tested for safety! Anyway, as the ground was already far too wet to plant my new rhubarb - I planted it into one of those 10lt. recycled buckets I've used for growing tomatoes in for the last couple of years and put it in the tunnel. Pictured here last Feb it's looking quite perky and already has about 6in/10cm of juicy looking red stalks on it - but I resisted temptation and kept my hands off it - putting it outside for the rest of the year - to give it a chance to build up a nice crown. I brought it into the tunnel 2 weeks ago and put a large pot over the crown to encourage it. It's already making some small, mouth-wateringly deep pink shoots which I shall allow myself to sample this year. Not too many, as I shall pot it on soon into a larger tub to give it more root room, and feed it well - then it may crop well in the autumn, after a summer holiday. I'm not sure how long it will be happy in a tub - but it should be fine in a large tub in shady corner if kept well watered. Anything that makes use of difficult corners in a tunnel is very valuable - and it will hopefully stretch the fruit season at either end just that little bit further.
If you're just starting off a new fruit garden - there's still just time to plant bare root fruit trees and bushes into the ground, if soil conditions aren't too wet.Or heel them into pots as I mention in my apple piece above. Never attempt to plant anything - particularly fruit trees - into a wet sticky soil! Instead you could pot them up for now in a soil/compost mix. Make sure the pot is a lot larger than the roots to give them room to spread out instead of winding round. If you've read my blog before you'll know that I use large plastic carrier or bin bags for this - making drainage holes in the bottom. Don't use a pure peat compost - apart from destroying bogs by using peat (and you know my opinion on that!) the roots of large trees often never move out into the surrounding soil properly if they've been potted into peat composts - something you may not discover for a few years until they're carrying a heavy crop and the wind blows so hard it causes them to keel over!
What are the Best 'Autumn-Fruiting' Raspberry Varieties?
Some fruit like autumn raspberries will even give you a good crop this year - if planted in really well prepared, fertile ground in a sunny spot or even in pots now. If your soil is still too wet to plant for the next few weeks - then you can pot them up for now and plant them later when conditions are better and they will still fruit well. 'Allgold', 'Brice' and 'Joan J' all have a fabulous flavour, and will fruit twice a year if you leave about half of the previous year's canes on the plants when you are doing your spring pruning. Those older canes left will crop again in June, then you cut them right down. After that you will then have a longer autumn cropping period from August to November, on all the new canes grown in the current year. Although vigorous - they are reasonably well-behaved varieties. This year I got a new variety of autumn fruiting raspberry called Erika from Ken Muir's Nursery - who I have always found to be a thoroughly reliable source of mail order fruit of all kinds. (They are the only nursery who I have never had anything from that wasn't the variety it was supposed to be. Several others have sent wrong varieties and one recently even had the gall to tell me I didn't know what I was talking about when I said that the variety they has sent me was not Ashmead's Kernal! The names of apple varieties were taught to me by my father - a very keen and knowledgeable apple grower - when I was only about as high as the basket he was picking them into - they were practically the first words I learnt!)
The newer 'primocane' varieties like 'Joan J' seem to concentrate their energies a bit more into the fruit - unlike two of the older type of autumn varieties which I planted years ago - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss'. Those two have much smaller fruit which doesn't have nearly such a good flavour. They also have serious territorial ambitions and seem to enjoy trying to run all over the garden, popping up in all sorts of unexpected places and becoming an absolute nuisance. I wouldn't dream of giving them away to friends though - knowing how much of a pest they can become! As I hate wasting anything I dig them up and plant them down in my small patch of woodland for the wildlife. There they can go back to their original woodland roots - running around and doing exactly what they really like - and while doing it they provide natural cover and food for the birds - who really enjoy them! Sadly though - it was a vain hope that if the birds have their very own fruit patch they'd leave mine alone! Dream on - instead they just bring all their friends along to the party as well!!
Woodland Gardening - or Just Feeding wildlife?
For many years now I've been planting all sorts of stray seedlings of fruit bushes and trees in my little patch of woodland here. I'm always finding blackcurrant or other seedlings when I'm weeding - particularly where the birds have been sitting on branches and digesting their breakfast! I hate wasting them! Perhaps one day I may even be rewarded by finding a new hybrid variety - that's if I ever get to see any of the fruit before the birds eat it all. "Forest Gardening" is a new term for this habit of mine which has been coined by a man who recently claimed to have invented it - well he invented the name - but not the practice. But apparently it's the very latest fashion! Anyone into wildlife gardening or permaculture like me has been doing it for years - but we just didn't call it a fancy name! Anyway - I actually plant them for the birds - in the vain hope that they'll leave mine alone!
It's always amusing how very different many of these romantic-sounding ideas are in practice! I have to say I often wonder if those who invented the term have ever actually even done it? Unless fruit is covered with netting, the birds eat it all! Well - they do here - because I have so many - instead of leaving my fruit alone they just invite their pals to dinner as well! Once again - it's an extremely attractive sounding idea that doesn't really work in practice - not if you actually want a crop! It's a sort of 'fuzzy and warm' idea in a very 'Country Living- ish' kind of way! It's hard enough to keep the birds off the fruit in the garden - apple trees are far too big to net and my blackbirds go for them the second they can see a bit of colour! The little dears! Nature, by the way, has been doing it for millennia - the birds drop all sorts of interesting varieties of berrying shrubs in the garden when they're having an after dinner snooze on any handy branch. A few years ago I found a very pretty scented berberis with edible berries later - which I'd never planted! The nearest bush that could possibly have come from was at least a mile away!! And a few years ago, I discovered a new blackberry/bramble hybrid growing in the field here which every one was sampling eagerly and asking for cuttings of. Obviously it is a wild bramble/Himalayan Giant cross from the flavour, the obvious similarities and very vigorous habit. It's been given away to several grateful gardeners (including my 'Tunnel to Table' co-presenter Gerry Kelly) with a severe health warning!
Ever Thought of Growing a Grapevine?
Grape 'Perlette' - (a seedless variety)All fruit is expensive these days - particularly if organically grown. A bunch of grapes can cost at least 2 or 3 euros - whether organic or not - and they're very easy to grow considering they're such a luxury! In just it's second year after planting a vine should actually pay for itself in fruit. You don't necessarily need a greenhouse or tunnel, or even have to grow them in the ground either. You can grow them quite easily in a good well drained, soil based compost in tubs or pots as standards. A standard grapevine is like a small tree, on a single stem, with branches arranged a bit like the spokes of an umbrella) - that way they take up very little space and it means you can bring them into a glass porch, a sunny window or a conservatory - for a bit of TLC when they're flowering - and again later when they're ripening their fruit.
Dry weather is important at flowering time for grape pollination - and also when they're fruiting - the later varieties also really appreciate the extra warmth to ripen their fruits. Being able to bring them inside when they're fruiting also means more protection from pests. Growing vines in pots also means that you can grow a lot more varieties too. You don't always want 200 bunches of grapes ready at the same time - and the family tend to go on strike when faced with juicing them! Juicing is something I don't do any more anyway - because juice is pretty much pure sugar and you only get all the nutrients in grapes, including the valuable heart-healthy Resveratrol, if you eat the whole grape including the skins and pips. Blending them in a Nutri-bullet blender is far better for you.
Don't Prune Indoor Grapevines Now!
If you already have a grapevine and didn't get round to pruning it - for heaven's sake don't panic and prune it now - it's too late. It's been so mild in the last couple of weeks that buds on many fruit trees are already moving about 2 weeks earlier than usual. In milder areas or in warmer greenhouses and tunnels - vines are already beginning to wake up and the sap's rising. If you prune them now after the sap starts to rise you could severely weaken or even kill them! They can quite literally bleed to death if the sap is rising fast, particularly indoors in pots where they start into growth a bit earlier. I once pruned a vine too late many years ago and it's very scary believe me - it's just like turning on a tap! It's something you never, ever, make the mistake of doing again!! Wait until the shoots start to grow later on, and 'rub out' or 'pinch out' those you don't want to grow. They may not look as organised and tidy if you do that - but they won't bleed. The buds on my earliest varieties of grapes in the tunnel are already fattening and beginning to swell.
The other thing that needs to be done now - if you haven't already - is that the main stem or rod of grapevines needs to be lowered by untying it from its support and laying down as horizontally as possible so that the sap is distributed evenly along it's length. Otherwise the sap will just shoot straight up to the tip - if you leave it upright. Vines in tubs can be laid on their side if being trained as a single stem or in a spiral as I do with some - or you can leave them upright if they're grown as standards with several buds all breaking from the same level. If you don't do this - when the vine starts to grow it will send all it's energy into the buds at the very tip - leading to uneven growth along the stem with some fruiting spurs not developing as well as others, or possibly not even growing at all.
Pests on grapes.
The main pests I find a nuisance are wasps, birds and mice when the fruit is ripening - but otherwise I find grapes have very few problems. Protecting the fruit with netting or using traps is the only way to deal with those. Pests you may occasionally see are either scale insect or woolly aphids - these often come in on new plants bought from garden centres. These are easily dealt with by using an organic fatty acid spray once or twice or by painting them with melted coconut oil. This coats the insect's skin and stops it breathing. These methods are very effective - so there's no need to use the highly toxic sprays usually advised in many books or articles on grape growing. Contrary to what many people think, they're actually very hardy when growing in pots. Even in the very low temperatures of 2010/2011 winter - mine all stood outside with the pots protected so that they didn't get frozen solid. Growing in pots also means you can grow several different varieties, to give you a longer season of fruit. If you have a south facing wall many varieties will grow well there. The wall acts as a kind of storage heater - keeping the frost off in early spring and then helping to ripen the fruit in the autumn. They make a very attractive ornamental feature on a patio too - bringing a real touch of the Mediterranean into the garden, particularly when they're fruiting. A few scarlet geraniums in terracotta pots, a bit of sunshine and you'll almost think you're there!! All you need then is the deckchairs and a bottle of wine - which you might even make from your own grapes if you have enough!!
There's Still Time to Plant Grapes
Even bare root vines can be planted in the next week or so - and potted vines can naturally be planted anytime.I actually prefer to plant mine inside the tunnel if I'm growing them in the ground - because that way I'm much more in control of the watering. When the fruit has 'set' it's skin and is ripening - there is nothing more heartbreaking than to have a sudden deluge of rain - which can cause the fruit to split and to start going bad. That's far less likely to happen if they're planted inside and kept evenly moist. Many garden centres and shops seem to have potted grapevines this year - but make sure they are strong plants with a decent firm root system - not a wobbly, weak root system which may either indicate vine weevil infestation, or that the plant may have been sitting in water all winter and be half rotten - like some I've seen for sale! Vines never recover from this treatment as they're very fussy about good drainage at their roots. As I've said before - given the right conditions and pruned properly they can be extremely productive - and well worth growing - particularly in a greenhouse or tunnel. If you don't have a tunnel and you're going to try growing them outside in this part of the world - you really need to choose the earliest varieties or they won't have time to ripen - particularly here in Ireland with our often damper autumns. With climate change our weather is becoming less predictable too - so I think giving them a prime spot on a south facing wall is well worth it. In the south of England though where there's a slightly drier climate - there are many vineyards now on the more free-draining chalky soils. There are many award winning wines grown there. In London too - with it's even warmer micro climate - a lot of people now grow vines as a very productive ornamental feature on pergolas - but they don't tend to do very well here grown like that - the leaves look lovely - but they never produce much worthwhile fruit! Sadly it's just not warm enough most years.
Which Varieties are Best - Seedless or Seeded?
It depends what you like best - although there is some evidence that black grapes contain more healthy nutrients. I have a lot of different varieties here - over 20 I think (I've stopped counting now!) They're one of my favourite fruits - but I'm mostly planting new seedless varieties these days. I think if you're eating them fresh as dessert grapes, or dehydrating them for sultanas - it's much nicer not to have seeds in them. Unless you have endless time to thin grapes (life is definitely too short!) or have a full time gardener (I wish!) then seeded grapes can be very small, 'pippy' and fiddly if not thinned, although they're fine for smoothies etc. An exception to this is the wonderful seeded variety 'Muscat Bleu' - which I think is the absolute 'caviar' of grapes - with it's rich, deep, muscat flavour - just like the very best muscatel raisins. It's actually self-thinning in a very convenient way - producing long, well-spaced bunches of huge blue-black grapes with the most heavenly muscat flavour! Like all black grapes - it's also very high in phytochemicals like resveratrol - which are beneficial for our cardiovascular health in particular.
Good white seedless varieties - 'Lakemont Seedless' - early, very disease-resistant and the best for making sultanas by dehydrating (unbelievably scrumptious and irresistible, 'Perlette', 'White Dream' and 'Himrod'. Good reds or black seedless are 'Flame', 'Vanessa', 'Blue Dream' and 'Rose Dream'. I grow all three of these - 'Rose Dream' is the earliest and produces the best crops in a bad summer. It's very sweet but doesn't have quite as good a flavour as 'Flame' which is much later but has large, delicious berries with a bit more acid to balance the sweetness. You often see 'Flame' in supermarkets - but you'll never see chemical-free organic ones on sale anywhere here. Vine leaves are useful too and also high in nutrients. You can blanch and freeze them for cooking 'stuffed vine leaves '. Vine leaves are the only thing I ever blanch as this makes them pliable so that they don't shatter when frozen.
There are many varieties of seeded grapes available - 'Boskoop Glory' is a good disease resistant, very productive and reliable black, so is 'Black Hamburgh' but a bit later. 'Bianca' an early, very sweet pale green/yellow and 'Chasselas Dore de Fontainebleau' is a hugely productive, very sweet golden grape that ripens in early September. My son has never forgotten the time he had to juice well over 200 bunches of that variety years ago - when I was away - bless him. I think he's only just forgiven me!! 'Muscat of Alexandria' I've seen being sold everywhere with a label that says it will grow outside - it it will grow - but only leaves! It's so late fruiting that it only reliably produces ripe fruit in a tunnel or greenhouse unless you live near the Mediterranean - where I think a lot of the potted nursery stock is actually grown these days! I've done a 'trawl' on the web - and only Ken Muir in the UK have 'Muscat Hamburgh' which I think is the best-tasting black. It's also the main one that those gorgeous Muscatel raisins are made from. They also have another very good black called 'Regent' - my 5 year old vine had a fantastic crop on here last year - it was literally dripping with grapes! It's a seeded variety which also tastes very sweet and 'raisiney'. The dark brown-fruited 'Brandt' is another good-flavoured variety that will grow well outside and also has beautiful autumn colour. If you want to buy mail order grapes - it's advisable to get them as soon as possible as the young shoots can easily get knocked off in the post if they're delayed for any reason and start to grow. Ken Muir's Nursery in UK have a great selection of figs and grapes.
There's a huge variation in the price of fruit trees
I like to visit garden centres to compare value - (strictly in the interests of research you understand - although I have been known to purchase the odd little thing occasionally!!) It's amazing how much prices can differ for exactly the same plants - and the quality too. These days value for money is all important - and one of the things I have always tried to do here is to let you know about anything I think is good value! It's surprising the amount of savings you can make if you shop around.......The discount supermarkets Aldi and Lidl often have great value on fruit trees and bushes at this time of year - so cheap you really could plant them just for the birds if you were feeling generous! They're all good, reliable varieties well worth planting in your fruit garden - and a fraction of the price you will find them elsewhere! So keep your eyes open in the next couple of weeks! As I've said before - their peach trees are exceptionally good value and I had a huge crop on the 8 year old trees last summer in the tunnel (well over 200 fruits on both trees!!) That's why I invested in my dehydrator - I adore dried peaches and there are only so many you can eat fresh - even though they do ripen over a couple of weeks! In the summer, time is always at a premium, bottling takes ages of 'faffing around' when you have least time - and freezer space is never plentiful enough here!
The peach Aldihad last year - was 'Red Haven' - which is hardy, disease resistant variety and very productive. If you don't have tunnel you can grow them as a fan against a south or west-facing wall and cover with a polythene frame in late winter/early spring to keep away peach leaf curl, and they will produce loads of fruit! The ALDI price last year (bare root so you have to pot up or plant) - was just €4.99. For comparison - in Homebase for exactly the same variety - a similar sized but potted tree - the price was €11.98, and in a well known garden centre - same again - €55!! They'll probably be even more this year as everything seems to have gone up in price! - Funny how things never seem to go the other way isn't it?? Anyway - If you see them in Aldi or Lidl - do buy them as soon as possible or they'll start to shoot in the warm shops - unpack them as soon as you get them home and pot up or plant immediately as they start into growth early - mine are already swelling their buds now.
Make sure you immediately prune the branches back by at least two thirds after planting - so that the tree will start to form a good shaped branch system - don't be tempted to leave the branches alone and try to let it fruit this year as one friend of mine did a few years ago - despite my warnings. If you do that it may well flower on the growth it made last year and you may think it's going to fruit - but in a couple of months it will drop any flowers that have 'set' as it simply doesn't have enough established roots to support any fruit. By doing that you've lost your early chance to force a good shape onto the tree and you may well permanently weaken and damage the tree. Pruning it back in it's first year will give it a chance to develop a good root system before it's asked to bear fruit or too many branches, so that next year you should get a good crop. Peaches always fruit on the new 'green' growth made the previous year - so you have to cut some of the fruited branches back every year to encourage new growth.(See last month's fruit diary)
Growing Physalis Peruviana - (aka Chinese Gooseberry/ Inca Berry/ Golden Berry)
Cape gooseberry - a comparison with €1 coin
This is a fruit that must be sown now in a warm propagator if they're to fruit early enough to give a decent crop this autumn.I grow some from seed every year. They're dead easy and grow like weeds from seed. Someone said recently that they're difficult to germinate - they're not - just slow! They take about 3 weeks to come up and then do it all at once! I was also reading somewhere recently that apparently they are the very latest Peruvian so-called 'super fruit'! I've been growing them for at least 30 years!You're not going to believe this - but we're still eating those I picked last November - stored in the fridge! They're being strictly rationed now though! They're a waste of time outside as they won't fruit early enough to bother with. I grow them in tubs in the tunnel, as this restricts root growth a bit which makes them fruit even earlier. Each year I overwinter some of the previous year's plants in the tunnel under fleece as they're actually half-hardy perennials. They fruit much earlier than those sown in February, and in that way I get a longer crop of these delicious, 'sherbetty'/'pineappley' tasting fruits. They're very high in Vitamin C and the phytochemical lutein (good for eyesight & which we can only obtain from plants) among many other good things - they grow like weeds, are really delicious and fruit generously for months.
Although they're quite soft and sappy they are hardier than their tomato cousins and each year I leave a few in their tubs, overwintering them in the dry in a tunnel so that they fruit earlier the following year. They start to produce new shoots from the base around now, so I cut back the protecting, now defunct, older shoots and they'll start to fruit in July, instead of September, when the ones sown this year do. A good tomato feed like Osmo* when they show signs of growth and away they go - but after their second autumn I compost the two year old plants, as they tend to go downhill with age! Although the leaves are reputed to be a folk remedy for diabetes in Africa - like other members of the Solanaceae (tomato) family - all parts of the plant, apart from the fruits, are highly toxic and dangerous if consumed!
I read a very amusing article a few years ago by the food writer Susan Jane White - who likened the fruits to Victoria Beckham: "bright orange and deluded" (her words!). She may just possibly have been confusing their looks with the ornamental (inedible) type, as these are shown when you 'Google' them. At the same time, if you don't grow them yourself - they are very definitely extremely expensive and highly fashionable! The similarity ends there however, as they're really easy, good-natured, generous and not the least bit sulky, difficult or 'Prima Donna-ish'! They are one of the most productive annual fruits you can grow, and when you grow them yourself, not only are the fruits chemical free - but are usually larger than those you'll find as a garnish on your plate in fancy restaurants, as you can see from the picture here.
NOTE - DO NOT CONFUSE THESE WITH THE ORNAMENTAL CHINESE LANTERNS WHICH ARE A VERY PRETTY DEEP ORANGE, and fruit in the autumn - harvest festival flower arrangements are all these are good for! If you grow them yourself from seed, rather than buying them in a garden centre where the assistants sometimes don't know one plant from another, you will be sure that you're getting the edible one! The leaves are very similar - bu when the edible ones are ripe - the outer husk is a pale straw colour and the fruit inside is the ONLY thing that's bright orange.
Finish winter pruning of apples etc. now if you can walk on the ground
The sap is starting to rise, and although things like apple trees don't bleed like grapes - you don't want to waste the plant's energy by letting it make shoots you will cut off later - concentrate it into the ones you want to grow. Don't prune any stone fruits like plums and damsons now - wait until late spring to do this - before then they are very susceptible to silver leaf infection. Keep any twiggy prunings somewhere dry until you can burn them later in the year - they are rich in valuable, very highly-soluble potash and can be used for feeding all fruit and veg. The same goes for the ash from wood burning stoves, although ash from bigger logs is not as high in potash as twiggy prunings but it's still valuable. Bear in mind that all wood ash will raise the soil 'pH' slightly, so acid lovers won't like too much - use seaweed meal for them. The best way to use it is to mix it through the material you are putting onto the compost heap - I keep the ash from my stove in a bin to keep it dry and then sprinkle it one as I'm adding stuff to the heap. I get my properly seasoned 2 yr.old ash logs - cut to whatever size I specify - delivered in handy reusable skip bags from Peter Barry at www.logonfirewood.ie - much easier than having them dumped and having to stack them - saves a lot of time and backache! It also means they arrive totally dry and ready to go - and they don't mess up your stove or chimney. Buying them in bulk means they're a lot cheaper than in small bags bought a few at a time - which are usually not dry, are unsuitable wood and not properly seasoned either - messing up your stove. The skip bags are then great for re-using to make leaf mould, compost, or even better as extra large grow bags/raised beds.
Look for scale insect now on the leaves of citrus or bay trees
Black sooty mould is a good sign that there may well be some. If you do find any - spraying them with an organic insecticidal soap or again painting them with coconut oil works like a treat. These are approved organic remedies which are perfectly safe for any food plants. They work by covering the insect's pores with fatty acids so that they suffocate. Do it now. Don't spray it on lemons or other citrus when they're making the very tender little new pink shoots in a few weeks time - doing that can burn them - particularly in strong sunshine. If you don't do it now - then wait until the new shoots firm up a bit - although by then you may have a real infestation which may have weakened the plant! It's much better done now. Don't ask advice at your local garden centre - in my experience they know nothing about citrus trees and also they'll just recommend some very nasty organo-phosphorus insecticide for use on house plants which will actually make your lemons poisonous. I think that anyone selling pesticides to people should first have to pass an exam to prove they actually know something about what they're selling, other than just from the instructions on the back of the bottle!
I simply could not believe my ears last year to hear someone who was supposed to be a gardening 'expert' (here I go again - but really!!) on the radio. He recommended that for scale insect on bay trees people should either use a systemic insecticide (scream!) - or that if they 'were organic' (weird in so many words) then they could use methylated spirits! OMG!! Not only is that not remotely organic - but does he not know that people actually eat bay leaves?? I wouldn't fancy meths. in my stew thank you! So called 'experts' who don't know anything about organic growing shouldn't pretend to - someone could be made seriously ill! They should be honest and admit that they don't actually know if that's the case! But so few of these 'experts' do. There's an old saying isn't there........?......"It's a wise man who knows what he doesn't know"!
Pot grown lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in spring
Don't feed citrus trees yet - unless they're in a heated conservatory in which case they may be making new growth. I like to use a good high nitrogen fertiliser for citrus which also very slightly lowers the pH - just what they like. A couple of years ago I discovered the Osmo range of certified organic fertilisers*, I use them all the time for my citrus trees now, they are really good, and I use rain water (no shortage of that!) to make them up. Citrus plants are actually acid loving plants like rhododendrons - so never water them with tap water either. Always use rainwater. If they're looking sickly and yellow - it's something called 'chlorosis' - which they get if given tap water. If that's a problem - wait until they're starting to grow again and give them a dose of sequestered iron, mixed into rain water. That fixes the problem miraculously - greening them up again in no time. You'll find a product called 'Sequestrene' being sold in sachets in good garden centres.
I'll be giving my lemons in the tunnel a very light watering of rainwater this week - not saturating them - as just like grapes they really hate sitting in wet soil. In another month or so they'll really start to growth - then I'll start to feed and water them a bit more. They won't go outside until at least the end of May though - the young shoots and flowers are vulnerable to frosts.
Give fig trees in pots an early spring feed now - they'll be starting into growth soon too. The top buds on mine are already showing signs of moving. Scratch off a bit of the top soil in the pot - feed them with a balanced organic feed or seaweed meal, top up again with a little good compost, and water it in. Wait until next month to feed those outside as they'll start growing later and the food will just wash away, be wasted and pollute groundwater. Take off any overwintered fruitlets that are larger than pea size if you haven't already done so, these won't develop and will either drop off or rot on the stem - possibly causing disease.
Clean up established strawberry beds, cutting off all the old leaves carefully without damaging the crowns. Feed them with seaweed meal which supplies slow release potash for good fruit development. Pot up some of last year's runners and bring them inside for an early crop. 'Christine' is the earliest variety for doing this - I always have strawberries in mid May. Sow some alpine strawberries now, and they will fruit all summer long until the first frosts. I grow the delicious and aromatic 'Reugen' (Chiltern seeds) which is a very good variety - huge fruit for an alpine, or 'Baron Solemacher' the next best. There's a white fruited variety you can grow from seed which totally fools the birds and looks attractive in a fruit bowl. There's even a very pretty golden leaved one too - Golden Alexandria (Suttons Seeds I think) - lovely for an edging in an ornamental potager. This year I'm going to try to spread the season of the unkown old white strawberry (poss Chiloensis) I have by growing some in pots in the tunnel again and then some outside as well. It's the only summer-fruiting type I grow now as I find the 'Albion' perpetual fruiting one produces so well from May to November that the others an unnecessary use of space that can be better used by other fruits.
When it dries up enough to walk on the ground without sinking in at all - feed and mulchall established fruit trees and bushes with a light dressing of very well rotted manure or home made compost, a proprietary compound organic fertiliser, or seaweed meal plus a good mulch. If you had problems with 'bitter pit' in apples (small round black spots on fruits - caused by poor calcium uptake in wet soils) top dress the soil around them with calcified seaweed - which provides lime, trace minerals and encourages biological activity in the soil.
Prune older shoots out of blackcurrants. Blackcurrants really appreciate nitrogen, as they fruit mostly on young wood made the previous year, so you want to encourage plenty of new growth each year. I often put my chickens in the fruit cage in winter, they supply nitrogen and pick up pests at the same time!
*Osmo certified organic fertilisers and liquid feedsare available in many garden centres now. They are also available in Whites Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co. Dublin. Whites are the Irish importers for Osmo and have a good range of really reliable products that work well. Whites also now stock the Klasmann peat-free seed compost and potting compost which I recommend. You don't have to buy in agricultural amounts - they are more than happy to just sell you a bag. They are brilliant composts, the best I've ever used, and worth every single cent. Once you've tried them you'll never go back to using habitat/biodiversity destroying and disease-encouraging peat composts I promise you!
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)
February Contents: Pesticides or Pollinators? - It's OUR choice!........andMore Feb topics: The 'Darling Buds' of February..... Early February marks the mid-point of winter.... Fruit trees suitable for polytunnel growing..... Reminder to order seeds now - if you want a tunnel full of healthy veg next winter!... How to afford the 'luxury' of protected polytunnel cropping?.... Will you have 'Extra early potatoes' for Easter?.... Winter watering.... Waking up our soil friends after winter.....Start sowing early seeds in modules.....What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?.....Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots..... Early spring has already arrived in the tunnel - and I wouldn't garden without one now!
Pesticides or Pollinators? - It's OUR choice!
The early buds of early fruit trees are now starting to swell in gardens everywhere. Soon all gardeners will be hoping for plenty of bees and other pollinating insects to pollinate our crops, so that we will have plenty of healthy food to eat later on. This is something which we have all been lucky enough to be able to take for granted since the beginning of human life on earth - but now we cannot take it for granted any longer! Intensification of agriculture, with it's use of vast amounts of fossil fuel-derived pesticides and fertilisers is destroying insects, habitats and all the vital, inter-connected biodiversity which depends on them. Those chemicals are also increasingly destroying soil health and soil carbon - with the result that soils globally are releasing massive amounts of CO2.
THIS is happening while so much of those crops produced by industrial agriculture go to waste! The pro-chemical people constantly promote the idea that organic farming couldn't possibly feed the world's growing population. The reality is that because organic farming both protects and improves soils, and also biodiversity, it is actually far more sustainable in every way. Instead of saying that we can't feed the world without intensive agriculture and pesticides - why don't scientists come up with solutions for preventing the almost 40% of all food produced globally which is wasted throughout the food chain every year? Then tell us that we can't feed the world organically - as Nature has done for billions of years!
I read some interesting research recently which said that if we cut out all food waste - then we could feed another billion people tomorrow. But even if we stopped all food waste now - if we continue to destroy our soils and pollinating insects with pesticides, there will be mass starvation anyway! Firstly there would be be no soil left to grow crops in, and in addition, many of the valuable crops like fruits, nuts and seeds etc. would have no insects to pollinate them. Healthy crops also depend on a microbially-healthy, humus-rich soil in which to grow - otherwise all plants are more susceptible to pests, diseases and the increasing fluctuations of the weather. Few people seem to be warning that plant growth will also naturally be affected by climate change. This is something I have been warning about for well over 30 years - as I could see those climate fluctuations happening before my very eyes, even then! It was obvious that was what was causing the weather to swing wildly from unseasonably mild, almost spring like weather too early in late winter, back to sudden, seriously damaging weather with bitter, unexpected frosts. One didn't have to be a scientist to see what was happening - but many concerned scientists were warning back then that global warming wasn't going to be lovely Mediterranean-like weather that some were hoping - but the wild and unpredictable weather patterns now happening worldwide.
If you're a regular reader you will know much of this already - because I've been banging on about this for years! But if you're a new reader, interested in organic alternatives to the current mess we're in - you are most welcome. Here is the evidence of what I personally, and many other organic farmers have been warning about for decades.
Yesterday a very concerning article was published in the Guardian newspaper. It warned that according to the first ever comprehensive global scientific review, the world's insects are hurtling down a path towards extinction, threatening a "catastrophic collapse of Nature's ecosystems"! The analysis found that more than 40% of insect species are declining - falling by a precipitous 2.5.% each year, with a third now critically endangered. Their rate of extinction is eight times faster that that of mammals, birds and reptiles. A terrifying statistic - since insects are the foundation of life on Earth, and they are essential for the proper functioning of all the Earth's ecosystems. They are the unseen recyclers of nutrients, food for other creatures and also vital pollinators for our food.
Pesticides are without question the primary cause for the rapidly accelerating decline of bees and other pollinators, along with loss of habitat. The ubiquitous neonicotinoids and the fungicides they are often combined with are particularly harmful - as they affect the bee's sense of direction and ability to forage.I won't bore you with explanations - there's enough information about them out there now. Neonicotinoids don't just affect bees - but other insects and biodiversity like soil and aquatic life as well, and are so persistent that they remain in the environment, in soils an water for a long time.
What seems to occur to very few people is that all of these pesticides affect creatures with which we share our most basic, evolutionarily conserved DNA. In other words - the evolution of life on earth gradually built onto those first, early foundations. But we still retain those genes deep within our DNA, and we are just as affected by pesticides as insects are - except the effects show far more slowly - beginning at a genetic level. The combined effects of eating foods containing all of these toxic pesticides have been tested very little - if at all - but what few studies there have been, show that they are many times more toxic when present in the combinations in which they are routinely used on, and residues found in, the food we eat. Science has virtually no understanding of how those combinations then interact in our bodies, but even individually many are known to be endocrine-disruptors, or in other words - disrupting all the basic metabolic systems of our bodies. And that disruption is, after all, exactly how they kill insects!.
In my opinion all pesticides should gradually be banned completely, worldwide, starting urgently with the most toxic, in order to give farmers time to adjust - and adjust they will have to! They could easily convert to sustainable and regenerative organic farming within 3 years if they wanted to - after all, organic farmers do! And organic isn't just applicable to small farmers - there are many examples worldwide of very successful and productive large organic farms! We really have no choice, we need bees and other insects. They are vital to crop pollination and ultimately - not just to mankind's survival, but also the rest of Nature. The multinational chemical companies don't care - they're focused on providing a fat profit for their shareholders. For some years they've been putting millions of dollars into farming bumble bees - what they see as their latest sick business opportunity! But bumblebees bred for pollinating commercial crops in greenhouses won't save entire ecosystems.
As I wrote last year - "We are not just poisoning our soils with pesticides, but also our pollinating insects, and every other creature on the planet. They are the canaries which are being sacrificed in this giant 'coalmine' that is our planet's ecosystem. We see the effects of pesticides and other chemicals on insects and smaller elements of biodiversity long before they gradually affect us, because their lives are far shorter and we see the effects on them more quickly - but don't be in any doubt that by poisoning them we are also ultimately poisoning ourselves! Organic gardening and farming restores soils, and helps to preserve natural ecosystems and the health of all biodiversity - as it tries as far as possible to mimic the way that Nature has grown things since the beginning of life on earth."
People on social media often scream at me that organic is more expensive - and I know that is the case in many instances, since we buy whatever we can't produce ourselves. But that is a political choice - made by those public representatives who continue to support the huge taxpayer-funded subsidies given to damaging conventional farming. If those who are polluting our environment and damaging public health had to pay the true cost of cleaning up that damage, and the health costs of cancer and other non-infectious diseases, or NCDs - then conventionally, chemically-grown produce would be massively more expensive. In addition, there is the ultimate cost of loss of biodiversity, planetary health and climate change - how do you put a value on those? These are all being caused, or accelerated by our use of fossil fuel-derived chemicals. All to produce, as I have already said, the 40% of food which is wasted, going to landfill and emitting climate-changing greenhouse gases. What are we doing?
As for the rest of us non-scientists - we cannot just eat non-organic food and then say - "How dreadful it is that our bees and other insects are disappearing" - or - "How awful it is that the climate is changing", when anyone who eats non-organic food by choice, rather than due to unfortunate economic necessity, is knowingly contributing to this catastrophe! Is it any wonder I am so angry? The facts have been known for many years - but so many people selfishly choose to ignore them!..... And as for those scientists who are defending the use of GMOs and pesticides - and in particular defending their use on social media - if any of them are reading this, which I doubt - then I utterly despise you! You are the lowest of the low and beneath contempt! And as far as I'm concerned - you belong at the very bottom of the toxic chemical cesspits which are of your making!
We are now faced with a choice.... And it's up to us to make the right choice - if we want life on earth as we know it to continue, and our children and grandchildren to have a future. That's not being melodramatic - it is the stark, absolute truth which we now face! We can no longer ignore it. Politicians must step up to the plate quite literally, end the age of fossil-fuelled chemical farming, and put organic food back on global plates. To do otherwise is not simply irresponsible and selfish but will, quite simply, destroy life on Earth!
Apricot buds just bursting into flower in late February
Peach buds about to burst in the polytunnel in late February
The 'Darling Buds' of February - Attracting bees and other beneficial insects to help pollinate them
Back to more cheerful matters! Spring is fast approaching to cheer us all up - isn't it exciting?I can already see all of Nature responding to the lengthening days as weed seeds are germinating in the tunnel soil and the buds on the apricots and peaches in the polytunnel are swelling fast as you can see above. No matter what the problems in the world are - plants still want to grow and seeds want to sprout! Buds are beginning to move everywhere. Every day more of the early spring bulbs are beginning to peep out of the chilly wet ground and the Robin's loud singing starts at least ten minutes earlier each week. But winter isn't done with us quite yet - so take care - and don't be fooled into thinking that Spring's arrived just yet! Don't be too impatient to start planting stuff outside though, however tempting it may be on the milder days. There's a lot we can get on with indoors - enjoying the anticipation before the work becomes too urgent!
One thing which really helps to ensure indoor fruit pollination is to grow single flowers as early food for insects! As I mentioned last month - flowers are vital for attracting bees into your garden - as well as many other beneficial insects which help with both pollination and pest control. I've often mentioned the little permanent ,mini gardens, which I grow at the end of the tunnels - in the corners either side of the doors - where space is so often wasted or taken up with junk. I also have flowers planted in the middle at the sides too - and anywhere else I can tuck them in. These little 'mini gardens' have flowers all year round to attract bees etc. and mini pond habitat to attract frogs. They also have piles of large stones - little mini cairns - for ground beetles etc to hide in. Ground beetles are voracious predators of slugs.These little mini ecosystems are vital in helping to achieve a natural ecological balance within the tunnels which ensures that I never have any pest problems. I also allow clumps of nettles to grow here and there - these play host to an early appearing aphid - specific just to nettles - which are the favourite prey of ladybirds that are just waking up in spring. Growing row upon row of green juicy vegetables - without a flower in sight either inside or outside - is not a natural environment. They make your crops a target for every hungry pest in sight!
Why would any self-respecting pollinating bee or pest controlling hoverfly visit your vegetable garden if there are none of their favourite flowers and food plants there to attract them? They have to go wherever they can find nectar and pollen or they may die. It's only common sense that if you're starving hungry and have to find food for energy within a few hours or die - you'll head for somewhere there's plenty of food on offer - you won't go to the gym or the solicitors will you?!! If you don't have anything flowering in your tunnel - you can bring some in in pots of flowers - hellebores, perennial wallflowers (like 'Bowles' mauve'), miniature narcissus, crocus, primroses, perennial Iberis or candytuft, etc are all good insect attractants. Feverfew and Hesperis (dames violet) are also flowering now. In fact anything that flowers now is useful - the only requirement is that they must be single flowered - It's impossible for bees and hoverflies etc. to reach the nectaries and pollen in double flowered plants and at this time of year in particular - they may waste precious energy trying to find food and then may die if they can't.
Orange tip butterfly on Orychophragma in early spring a few years ago
Despite the cold nights things are already starting to put on a surprising amount of growth. Joy Larkcom's beautiful Chinese brassica, Orychophragmus Violaceus (bit of a mouthful!), which the Chinese call the 'February Orchid'(much nicer), is living up to it's name and opening it's first flowers. Seeing it in Joy's County Cork greenhouse a few years ago completely stopped me in my tracks - it was absolutely stunning in early March! I just had to have it - and she was kind enough to give me some seed. It has quite large flowers for a brassica, which are that lovely soft lilac-pink colour of sweet rocket. Sadly no scent though - but nevertheless the bees love it and it's a firm favourite with endangered orange tip butterflies, as this photograph from spring 2011 shows. So it deserves a place in any garden just for that reason. It would certainly be worthy of a place in any flower border. I've picked lots of leaves over the winter, and they're pleasant tasting in a salad, with a slightly 'cucumbery/cressy' flavour - not very strong and have quite an interesting texture. The flowers are really pretty in a salad too, again they have a slightly 'cress-y' taste but they look so lovely it's almost a shame to eat them. I'll be saving seed again this year as it's very hard to obtain and I find it germinates best from fresh seed - but I do know that currently Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork have them.
The beginning of February marks the mid-point of winter - half-way between the shortest day and the spring equinox.
It's also the time when the ancient Celtic calendar marked the Festival of Imbolc- or the 'Feast of Lights' - which celebrated the returning of light to the earth and the beginning of the end of winter. An important day, this pagan celebration of light - which was seen as being both healing and life-giving. In Celtic times people rejoiced to see the sun returning just as we do today - but they understood how dependent they were on nature - an awareness that many of us seem to have lost now. They knew how vital the sun was to their lives and just how much they depended on those primitive seeds they had harvested so painstakingly the previous autumn and guarded so carefully all winter. They were totally in tune with the rhythm of the seasons and the forces of nature. Those of us today who are gardeners or nature lovers still feel the rise of that age-old visceral thrill of anticipation, and experience the same sense of celebration at the anticipation of longer days and delights to come. It truly connects us to our roots, both physically and metaphorically.
My two late 'rescue' dogs - Flotsam and Jetsam - were real sun-worshippers! Immediately even the weakest rays of sun showed they would rush outside and arrange themselves to maximum effect against a south facing wall. Just like eager tourists dashing for the sunbeds - in order to catch every available scrap of precious sunlight! Our two new rescue pups do just the same! They love to be outside all day if the weather's fine - occasionally tearing around playing and then flopping down onto their bale again! I hate to think of all the poor creatures that are left on their own all day, shut in up houses away from sunlight. All creatures have a desperate need for light and an innate sense of just how important the sun is. This particular animal (me!) makes a point of spending some time every day outside in the light, no matter how busy I am in the house. The sun feels surprisingly warm on one's face sitting in the polytunnel even at this time of year. The fast-growing chicks have been enjoying it for the last couple of weeks in the polytunnel, and now since their move to their 'grown-up' quarters they are luxuriating in the frosty sun in their warm scratching pen/conservatory! As for me - I love to sit in it - but I find I can rarely sit for very long as there's always some needy job that catches my eye!
In the last week or so there's really been an amazing surge in the growth of some of the plants - despite the cold weather! Plants know what time of year it is from the light just like all of Nature does - and they are ready and primed to start their yearly cycle once again. All the tunnel salads have really responded to even the small amount of increased light! The Oriental salads are positively burgeoning - the watercress in particular - growing at least six inches in a week! It's such a wonderfully reliable salad all year round, just needs regular watering - not running water - contrary to what some say. The only thing that makes it unhappy is being very short of water, which makes it flower. Then it becomes stringy, tough and very peppery - but bees really love the flowers though! If you only grow one salad - then do try growing it! It grows like a weed, from just a bit of stem stuck in a jar of water, comes top of the list for healthy nutrients and is chock full of immune-boosting, cancer-fighting phytonutrients such as sulforaphane. My watercress, like my kefir, is something I rely on and have kept going for many years. I was so thrilled to be able to gather lots of it's luscious leaves yesterday for a lovely fresh-tasting salad. My hens also really enjoy disposing of any old salads lingering in the fridge. There's never any food waste here!
Fruit trees suitable for polytunnel growing.
This morning I noticed a tiny hint of movement in the buds on the peach trees planted in the ground in the polytunnel - despite the low temperatures we've had recently. I'm so looking forward to their luscious fruits again and meanwhile carefully eking out the last of the frozen and dehydrated ones. Peaches, along with grapes, strawberries and of course figs are very easy to grow in polytunnels if you have enough space. My two 7 year old peach trees provide masses of fruit every summer now. I love peaches and it's well nigh impossible to get organically grown ones. I always cut up the excess and freeze or dehydrate them for smoothies, sorbets or other treats. I think that peaches are the very best fruit tree to plant in a tunnel if you have space for only one tree - they're usually self-fertile and are easily kept within bounds by correct pruning. If you forget for a year, you can hack the hell out of them and they'll still come back for more - but if you aren't brave enough and don't prune them - they'll quickly outgrow any polytunnel or greenhouse and seriously threaten the roof!
The really great thing about growing peaches in a tunnel is theydon't get peach leaf curl - so don't have to be sprayed with any nasty fungicides. One of the other great things about peaches is that because of the way they are pruned - you can keep them to what ever height and width you want. So as long as you have roughly 15ft or 3m of width - you've got room for a productive peach tree. It's vital to prune them properly though - and remember that they mostly fruit on the previous year's new green growth, as I described in this January's Fruit Garden Diary. Soon both Lidl and Aldi will have bare root fruit trees on sale again. At around a fiver each - they're fantastic value and in my experience are very good quality. Bare-root planting is always best with any fruit tree and I talked about that last month too. They always establish far better than anything bought in a container. The vital thing to remember is to always leave a minimum of 4 in. or 10 cm between the bulge of the graft union on the stem and the top of the soil. if you don't do that you will lose the dwarfing properties of the root stock.
Other trees, particularly cherries, can be an absolute disaster, unless you have a lot of time to fuss over them - particularly in the usually damp-ish atmosphere of the average tunnel here in Ireland. They really only work well grown on very dwarfing root stocks in the specialist fruit tunnels which I've seen in Herefordshire/Welsh border - where many of my family live. Even then they need a lot of regular pruning to keep them under control. Specialised fruit tunnels have sides which can slide up, and tops that open up too - so that you get maximum air circulation and also good pollination when you need it. I'd love a specialist fruit tunnel - but sadly the finances won't stretch that far - so like most people I try to do as much as I can in one! It's so windy here that one might not be successful anyway! Over the last 35 years, I've tried all the latest dwarfing root-stocks for sweet cherries, even the 'minarette' ones, and none of them really work unless you are constantly pruning, snipping and fussing to keep them within bounds - something I really don't have time for. It's also difficult as you can only prune cherries at certain times of year - and this also happens to be the busiest time elsewhere in the garden. So take your eye off the ball at all and you'll find the cherry has lifted the roof off your polytunnel. Believe me - I've tried!. I would never recommend planting one in a tunnel. They seem quite innocuous for a year or so - and you might think - what's she talking about? But believe me - when they think you've taken your eye off them - they can take off like rockets! I've tried them in tubs too - and they're not that happy in those either for very long. On the other hand - Morello cherries, which are pruned in a similar way to peaches - can work fairly well in pots for a few years - but you'll never get huge crops from cherries in pots - and huge crops are what I always aim for! I'm a greedy fruit fanatic and the dark, sour or Morello cherries are also one of the best fruits for anthocyanins which are proven to lower inflammation and ease arthritis.
A reminder to order seeds now - if you want a tunnel full of healthy veg next winter!
A neighbour came to look at my tunnel the other day, and was surprised to see how great a variety of things there were to eat at this time of year. He has a small tunnel - and wanted to know how he could do the same next winter. It's really only a matter of remembering to sow seeds at the right time. Late June or July is the best time to sow many of the chicories, chards, oriental veg. etc. otherwise they don't have enough time to grow before the days really begin to shorten - when growth of many things slows dramatically. Summer is not always the most popular time to be anticipating winter though, much nicer to enjoy sunbathing instead! But gardeners must think well ahead if they want to produce food to be as self-sufficient as possible all year round food. So do remember to order seeds nowof things like claytonia, chicories, endives, Swiss chards, leaf beets, sugar loaf chicory, Chinese cabbages, lambs lettuce, pak choi, winter radishes, winter lettuces, watercress and landcress (you'll find a delicious soup recipe for these last two on the recipe page). Stupidly - many garden centres tend to take their seeds off sale once summer gets under way. They think that gardeners won't want seeds then - but REAL gardeners, growing real food do! So make sure you have them.
I am constantly amazed at the number of people who only get round to clearing up the remains of last year's mouldy and disease-ridden old tomato and cucumber stems or other crops now! They could have been eating delicious home-produced salads and other veg all winter......not only are they completely wasting precious and expensive cropping space for at least one third of the year - but they then wonder why their lovely summer crops almost immediately get hit by pests and diseases as soon as they plant out this year's crops.This is because the spores of fungal diseases like botrytis etc will be flying around the minute they go to clear up the mess! Any protected cropping space is so valuable - and often so hugely expensive to put up initially - that every inch of it it should be earning it's keep all year round!
How to afford what some call the 'luxury' of protected polytunnel cropping?
Several people have said to me in the past -"It's all right for you - I don't have a tunnel - I can't afford one - so I don't bother reading the bit about greenhouses and tunnels, because I can't do it!". - Well do you know what? For a start - you could actually grow many of the lower growing crops in a large polythene cold frame - that's what I did - long before I had my first small polytunnel. If you work out how much you spend all year round on vegetables and fruit - particularly now with food prices rising - and then compare that against the price of a small tunnel - where you could grow a huge amount of it yourself - I think you would be surprised at just how quickly it would pay for itself! Not to mention the convenience and added health benefits of absolute freshness, or being able to garden in any weather - even at night after work to de-stress!! Some of the DIY stores sell plastic-covered greenhouse frames very cheaply now - for less than €100. But if you really don't have the space for a greenhouse or polytunnel, or can't afford one, you may have a large glass porch, or you could make a polythene frame easily and very cheaply, sit it on a concrete path and grow in containers if you don't have any soil to grow in - so there's really no reason why you can't grow even a few winter salads at the very least! In something that size you could also grow bush tomatoes, peppers or aubergines in the summer. I did that very successfully when I first started gardening years ago, making up my own frame from recycled timber and polythene, and I promise you that if I can do it - then anyone can! DIY is most definitely not my thing! I grew my best peppers and aubergines ever in that rickety old recycled frame! It lasted several years too - I was very proud of myself! So please don't use the "I can't" excuse - that is, unless you don't even have so much as a path to your front door!
Winter salad beds in the tunnel - Endives, land cress, ragged Jack Kale, lettuce etc.
One thing I can absolutely guarantee, is thatwhen it comes to polytunnels or greenhouses - what I call my'law of handbags'applies.That is - no matter how big your handbag, greenhouse, or freezer - it will NEVER be big enough for everything you want to put in it, once you've experienced it's delights!!
So always buy the biggest one you can possibly afford - you will bless every inch of it I promise you! I'll be making a new 'grow frame' this year, for hardening-off veg seedlings to be planted outside later. More protected cropping space is always useful here because it's so windy - and in late spring, when the tunnel is literally bursting at the seams, it's a great halfway-house for hardening off plants to grow completely unprotected outside later on.
Will you have 'Extra early potatoes' for Easter?
Your extra early potatoes could already be up about an inch or so if you planted them as I described last month in pots. Make sure they're covered every night with fleece - even if you're not expecting frost - just in case. In the middle of this month, they may be about 10cm/4-5in. high, then you can plant them out carefully, keeping the root ball together, into a tunnel bed, covering with a double or even treble layer of fleece if severely cold nights are forecast. Or you can leave them in their pots. You'll be eating these in mid-late April! You can also plant well sprouted seed potatoes directly into a tunnel bed any time now, again covering if necessary. These should be ready to eat in May, roughly in about 10-12 weeks, depending on the variety. As mentioned in previous diaries - I've always found 'Lady Christl' to be the very best for really earlies in the tunnel, good flavoured, it's by far the quickest to 'bulk up' - one can often find usable potatoes underneath it after just 8 weeks - if you're impatient like me and do a gentle, exploratory 'finger-dig', leaving the rest to grow on undisturbed! 'Duke of York' or 'Red Duke of York' is next best for earliness (and also the best flavour of the lot), 'Mayan Gold' is only a few days after them - planted at the same time - and of course has an unsurpassed flavour - 'Apache' is a delicious early too and then 'Sharpe's Express' - 'Annabelle' is also not bad. I've tried all of the other earlies - including 'Rocket',Swift and 'Premiere' and quite frankly they were utterly tasteless compared to any of the ones I grow. Flavour is a very subjective thing however - and let's face it - given enough butter almost anything tastes good!! 'Mayan Gold' seems to be generally available now in Ireland (I smuggled mine in via my daughter's backpack years ago)! Try it and I can guarantee you will be as rapturous in singing it's praises as I am!! Never boil it or it falls apart because it's so floury - steam or roast it instead. Mayan Gold is also energy saving as it actually cooks far more quickly than normal varieties - in about half the time!
Water only if absolutely necessary in the tunnel at the moment. Doing it in the morning is best if you can - as this allows any surface moisture to dry off before evening. If you're covering crops with fleece it also helps if the soil surface dries off a bit during the day or fleece tends to absorb more. I watered 3 days ago - for the first time in 3 months! Plants were wilting in the sunshine - which is getting a bit stronger now. Also ventilate as much as you can whenever possible, to keep the air moving and avoid the atmosphere becoming too damp - which encourages fungal diseases. Keep an eye on weather forecasts for very strong winds though - you don't want your polytunnel taking off into the next parish - (a story there - tell you sometime - I'll never forget losing a polytunnel in hurricane 'Charlie' in the mid 80's!). Growth of all plants will suddenly start to increase in the next week or so - thanks to the light - so you can increase watering accordingly when you need to.
Also it's important now to continue scrupulous housekeeping! Tidy up any yellowing, rotting or diseased leaves etc. and also the remains of finished crops. Don't leave anything hanging around that could cause disease!
Waking up our soil friends after the winter
If there's not much worm activity in your soil generally - then do a pH test. Worms like a pH of about 6.5 - 7 and if your soil Ph is right and worms have plenty of green food to eat - then they should be lively and pink - not sluggish and pale. If you find your soil is a bit too acid then add some calcified seaweed to gently raise the pH. You can't go wrong with this, as it's very gentle and also contains lots of other valuable micro-nutrients and trace elements. Then lightly scratch over the ground, add some nice well-rotted compost and perhaps a few handfuls of seaweed meal which worms also love. If you don't have compost then a handful per square yard of a general organic fertiliser like 'Osmo' will add more nutrients but if you've got time before the next crop planned for a particular space - maybe 6 weeks - then sowing a fast growing green manure is a really good idea. Not only does it help all the biological activity in your soil but it also adds humus which makes soils more resilient and helps them to hold onto moisture like a sponge. Even claytonia - not usually used as a green manure, is brilliant. The worms go mad for it - it's like crack cocaine for them! This will help to kick start all the biological activity in the soil as it warms up - giving the worms, microbes, fungi and soil bacteria some TLC and a welcome gourmet breakfast, just when they're starting to wake up. Interesting fact - did you know that there are more billions of microbes, soil bacteria, fungi etc. in just one teaspoon of soil - than the total number of people who have ever lived on this earth? If it wasn't for them - we wouldn't even exist!! So learn to love your microbes!
Organic growing feeds the soil and all the vital microbial life it contains with compost and animal wastes just as nature does. It doesn't directly feed the plants with synthetic chemicals. That's the most important thing to remember - because if you by-pass all the microbes and funghi that evolved to interact with plant roots symbiotically and produce their by-products which keep plants healthy, you will ultimately produces unhealthy plants. A healthy, vibrant, living soil grows healthy, vibrant, nutritious plants. Healthy plants make healthy food for people. This is particularly important to remember in a polytunnel, where things tend to be magnified, things happen a lot faster, and we are totally responsible for the growing environment.
Time to start sowing early seeds in modules
To make sure I have something to plant as soon as the winter crops are finished both in the tunnel and outside, I started sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you cansow now are in the 'What to sow in Feb.' section, so I won't repeat them here. Things like onions, leeks, beetroot etc. can be multi sown in the modules - in 3's or 5's - depending on how many you want in a clump - or how big you want your onions (less in a clump for bigger onions) and they're planted out later without thinning. These will push each other apart as they grow and develop quite normally. You can do the same with summer spinach, chards and 'baby leaf' or salad mixes. Rather than use an expensive propagator at this time of year I germinate everything near the back of my range cooker - which keep things at a steady 65-70 deg F/16-20 deg C. As soon as the first seedlings are showing they need good light, so then I put them out in the polytunnel, on a roll-out heated mat which provides very gentle bottom heat of about 50 degF/10 deg C - or just above during the day - and is very economical to run. This is all most things need to grow on nicely without forcing. In another 2 weeks in the warmer propagator I shall sow my aubergines Bonica F1, (the very best and most reliable one) these develop quite slowly at first and need a long growing season. I'll also be sowing my earliest tomatoes - Maskotka, Latah and John Baer. These are always ripe in the first week or so of June. I can't wait for ripe tomatoes again! Talking of which - there may be some very exciting news soon on the tomato front - but can't reveal it yet!!
What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?
Occasionally there are seedlings that develop they're first seed leaves or cotyledons as they are known - but after that they don't grow any more new leaves. These are known as blind seedlings. In cases where you may only want one plant per space - like lettuces or hybrid calabrese - it's normal to thin seedlings to one per module, but only do this after they have clearly developed their first 'true' leaves - not the seedling/cotyledon leaves - as 'blind seedlings they will never develop 'true' leaves and grow on. This is quite common with brassicas and if it happens you could waste space on a seedling which will never develop any further - so don't thin them too early! With calabrese seed in particular - which can be expensive - it also wastes seed and money! I've never seen any of the 'so-called' experts telling you this - they always tell you to thin as soon as you can handle the seedlings! Over 40 years of experience (OMG can't believe it!) does actually teach one a few useful things!
Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots
Sprouted broad beans sown in 500g yogurt pots
Sprouted mangetouts sown for pea shoots and pods
At this time of year - I always soak my broad beans and peas for a couple of hours before then sprouting them on damp kitchen paper on a plate covered with cling film and put in a warmish place. I always get the best germination this way. It saves the seed sitting in cold wet compost for too long and possibly rotting. They sprout in about 2-3 days and then as soon as the 'radicle' or main tap root appears - I then sow them in large pots as you can see above (I use recycled 500 ml yogurt pots - they're the perfect size!). 3 broad beans to a pot or a small handful of peas (don't count them) per pot. I don't thin the beans or the peas as it's totally unnecessary - I've tried doing it over the years but the plants produce just the same crop per plant - so obviously crop more per sq.ft/m if on a deep, raised bed. Thinning them after germination is not only totally unnecessary, but is also time-consuming and wastes valuable seed. These potfuls will be planted out about 30cm/1ft. apart when big enough.
I am always amazed at just how much better the germination is with home-saved seed. I got 100% germination of the yummy Crimson Flowered Broad Bean as per usual (good job as we've just finished the last from the freezer!). Beans and peas are the only things I cover with organic peat-free seed compost after sowing - everything else is covered with vermiculite - which promotes good air circulation and drainage around the seedling stem, virtually guaranteeing no 'damping off' disease - as long as you are careful with your watering. After sowing anything - only ever water again from underneath. This is easy to do by sitting the tray or module in a tray of water for a few seconds. And as I've often said before - if you do happen to overdo it by mistake - and we all do it occasionally - don't despair and leave them to rot in cold wet compost! It's very simple - just sit the tray of seedlings on a newspaper for 1/2 hour or so which acts like a wick to draw out the excess. All seeds need is a good seed compost, a little thought and plenty of TLC to grow - it's not rocket science!
Despite all the years I've been gardening - I never cease to be surprised, delighted and full of wonder at Nature's miracle of a tiny seed and it's determination to grow. That perfect little pre-programmed parcel of DNA - full of history and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And - best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food!
Do you know someone actually complained to me a few years ago that there's too much information in my blog?? I suppose these days everything is presented in small bites - which often leaves one with not enough information to do things properly - so then you think it's your fault when it doesn't work! Luckily many others disagree and really appreciate it - so for it's for those nice, appreciative people that I write it! I try to put on new, improved and relevant stuff each year - depending on the latest research. Although there's no substitute for experience - and you never stop learning in gardening - every year is different. I hope you find my experience useful.
I can remember only too well what it was like many years ago - trying to find out how to grow chemical-free food for my very sick child! You couldn't even buy organic vegetables and fruits then! Although there is much more availability of organic produce now - it's not only much cheaper, more satisfying and far fresher if you can grow it yourself even if it's only salads - but you can also have a far wider choice of produce and nutrients by growing your own food. If you want to grow a lot of things then you need all the information to be successful. Very often gardening advice in magazines seems to have been written by people who either haven't actually done what they're talking about - or are complete novices and are just repeating stuff from old gardening books almost verbatim! That won't do any more - our climate is changing and also soil science is moving on and we are better informed than ever. Despite that though - we should never assume that we know it all - Nature doesn't give up her secrets easily!
Early spring has already arrived in the tunnel - and I couldn't possibly garden without one now!
As I've been saying ever since I got my very first tiny one - about 38 years ago now - 'If I only had a small garden - I would cover the entire space with a polytunnel'. I definitely think there should be government grants for back-gardeners to put them up! Just think of how much they'd save the health service with all that gentle exercise, fresh air, light and healthy chemical-free food! It's just what the doctor ordered! It's truly wonderful to be able to walk into the tunnel and feel the gentle background warmth and dryness when the sun shines at this time of year - it's so full of hope. Every time I open the door and walk into that other world, I thank the Garden Gods once again for the blessing of such a snug and richly-productive space to grow things in.
As Fionnuala Fallon so beautifully put it in her Irish Times article about my polytunnel in November 2010 - "....it was a bit like walking into the wardrobe of C S Lewis - not quite Narnia perhaps, but definitely a very different universe....." - Indeed it is! There's a link to her article below:
(Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)
February Contents: FoodResilience in uncertain times - thoughts on temporary future proofing of our food supplies before Brexit.... The propagating bench is where all the gardening action is currently.... General advice on Seed Sowing.... Seed Sowing in Modules....The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost.... Details on seed sowing.... Improving Soil for Planting - especially in New Gardens.....General February advice.....My 'Ad-Free' Blog Policy
Lush, fast-growing mixed Oriental salads in a large pot - are easily grown in 8 weeks if sown nowMy 'stepladder salad garden' and recycled skip bag 'raised beds' fit onto a path or into a small area
Food resilience in uncertain times - thoughts on temporary future-proofing of our food supplies before Brexit
As I write - there are exactly 8 weeks to go before 29th of March when 'Brexit' happens and Britain will be exiting the EU with perhaps many unforeseen consequences. You'd have to be living on another planet not to be aware of that by now! We live quite close to the border with Ulster here (roughly about 50 miles or 35 minutes drive) and I normally shop up there in Newry about 4 times a year, for organic items which either aren't available, or are far more expensive down here in the South. As a British person who has lived in Ireland for over 40 years, in some ways I have a unique perspective on the whole Brexit situation. Infuriating and perplexing as it is - although I have very strong views on it, I'm not going to comment much on the politics of the mess we all appear about to be landed into very soon, on both sides of the Irish Sea! I must say though that it's particularly upsetting when one hears such things as the news I've just heard on BBC Northern Ireland - that after Brexit, children with congenital heart disease will no longer be able to travel south to Dublin for life-saving surgery.
Brexit will have REAL effects on REAL people's lives, and in some case those effects could potentially even be tragic - yet how many of those few politicians there clinging onto personal power actually care?This despite the fact that the majority of those living in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, because they understood as only they can - that it was the safest option and that even though it may not be ideal from every perspective, it's better than the alternative - which could possibly be going back to a Northern Ireland which everyone here thought was gone forever. We still don't know what kind of Brexit the UK parliament wants, or what form it will take - and neither apparently do they - or so it seems! But it does seem increasingly likely that many aspects of our lives will be thrown into chaos - even quite possibly endangering the hard-won peace which we've enjoyed here for the last 20 years - since the Good Friday Agreement. Unless one has experienced it - it's very hard for anyone to understand the feeling of dread when encountering border checks - with unknown groups of men on the road carrying weapons, perhaps in the dark on winter evenings - who could be from either a police force or some terrorist group. Even very recently - I still experienced a little of that stomach-churning feeling of dread again, when I got lost trying to find the hatchery in County Armagh, just north of the border, where I was to pick up my day-old chicks. It was getting dark, I was alone in the car, I was lost, one of my front tyres was getting soft, and all of the mobile network was down on that particular day, so I couldn't even call for directions! Familiar place names on almost every signpost I passed leading off the new motorway onto the narrow, unlit country roadsare still a grim reminder of well-known, often tragic incidents that took place during 'The Troubles'. Even though I kept telling myself not to be over-imaginative, and keep calm - those names are forever indelibly printed on the minds of anyone who lived through those dangerous times here - let alone those who were personally affected by them. It makes me very angry to think that this whole Brexit thing is happening mostly due to a few self-serving, power-hungry politicians - and some voters who were gullible enough to believe their lies, with promises of everyone having more money and more control over their lives - when it's now becoming increasingly apparent that quite the opposite is true!
In respect of food - Brexit will undoubtedly affect every aspect of our lives here in Ireland and in the UK - especially in terms of food availability, but to what extent, we don't yet know. One of the topics on last Sunday's interesting Food Programme on BBC Radio Four highlighted just how dependent we are on fresh food coming from Europe - both in the UK and Ireland. This is especially the case with supplies of organic fruit and vegetables, which obviously can't be stockpiled unlike packets of processed foods.Memories are still fresh here of last year's panic-buying of fresh bread, which disappeared off the shelves completely during the long spell of snow - and also of the shortage of imported Iceberg lettuce and other salads here and in the UK in early 2017, due to bad weather in Spain and Portugal.Over the last few months I've seen many warnings in the media about fresh produce in particular being short after Brexit finally happens on March 29th, with vendors saying that chaos will ensue in the event of a "no-deal Brexit" - resulting in produce on lorries being backed-up at ports, unable to enter the UK.
Much of the fresh organic produce in supermarkets from January until May or June is now imported from southern Europe. All fresh produce like polytunnel-grown broccoli and spinach (two in particular which come from Spain, Portugal and Italy) - may be in very short supply or even non-existent before the supply chain situation normalises again, or fresh produce grown in the UK is in season once more. In Ireland, it may not be in such short supply after Brexit, as there are alternative routes like Cherbourg, rather than produce travelling through Calais to the UK and then on to Ireland, as most fresh veg deliveries do currently. But it may still take a little longer to reach us by a different route, coming direct from France rather than through the UK, so it won't be quite as fresh even if it is available. But with so many unknowns, and with 40% of all the fresh produce in the UK coming from the EU and a similar amount imported into Ireland, perhaps it makes sense for each of us to consider just how resilient we are individually -, in the event of some fresh foods or other food supplies perhaps being in short supply for a few weeks?
My main concern now - like many of you I'm sure - is to be able to continue to feed my family the organic food which we've eaten for over 40 years.We try to be as self-sufficient as possible here in many things, but due to degenerative disc disease - I'm no longer able to do some of the tougher jobs, like handling weighty sheep, which I did years ago. As many of you will know, I now concentrate on rearing poultry, which are lighter and far are easier to manage. If necessary - we could survive on chicken without buying any other meats, as we would also have our own eggs. We only eat meat or fish perhaps 2-3 times a week here anyway, eating vegan or vegetarian the rest of the time - but we do like to eat some red meat - perhaps once every week or so. All the meat we eat here is organic, higher welfare - and it is enjoyed as the very special treat which it is - just as it was when I was growing up. Chicken then was always a home-reared cockerel - or capon - as it was known then - which had spent a wonderful life foraging in our orchards before eventually being a very special and thoroughly appreciated Sunday dinner. Most chicken consumed nowadays is the cheapest, most taken for granted, most intensively reared meat possible, and probably much of it is probably wasted. This year I'm rearing my own again, as I mentioned last month, and I know that nothing will compare with them. Any meat which I now no longer rear myself - we buy from an organic butcher - Coolanowle Farm Meats in County Carlow - who deliver to farmer's markets in Dublin regularly and do mail order. Organic grass-fed meats generally shouldn't be affected by Brexit - except in those supermarkets buying meat in the UK. When it comes to buying in chicks or other animals from Northern Ireland for rearing however - new regulations may well apply after Brexit - so it might be a good idea to inquire about those if you're thinking of doing so.
Any organic concentrate feeds needed for poultry and other livestock could also possibly be an issue after Brexit, again until supply chains have once again normalised. Most organic feed is milled here, but may include some ingredients coming from the UK - and those will of course have to be re-certified, as current EU equivalence of standards will no longer apply, which will mean a lot of extra paperwork and possible delays for months. I intend to make sure that I will have at least a couple of month's supply of organic hen food as a back up just in case of any delays in the system. This is something I've always done as a matter of course anyway, since my days as a commercial organic producer, as an insurance policy against feed not being available for whatever reason. If you are a commercial certified organic producer - you are not allowed to substitute conventionally-grown livestock feed for organic feed in the event of a shortage. If you had no choice but to do that due to welfare concerns if no organic feed were available for whatever reason - then you would lose organic certification for those animals. I wouldn't want to do that anyway, as I don't want to feed my hens genetically-modified ingredients or Glyphosate - and then by proxy - naturally us!
In terms of other fresh meat or dairy products which we don't produce ourselves - butter and milk would be our biggest concern, as we can source good organic cheese here in Ireland from The Little Milk Company - who make a wonderful range of award-winning, organic cheeses. I learned the hard way to always be prepared for any emergencies, as we were snowed in for 3 weeks during our first winter after we moved here 36 years ago. Luckily a very kind neighbour drove through the snow on his tractor to fetch milk from the nearest small town 7 miles away, or we would have had none at all for at least a couple of weeks. Now I always make sure that we have enough milk frozen to be able to survive without a trip to the shop for at least 2 weeks. I think most people not living in the country would find that quite strange, in the age of a convenience store on every corner and in almost every petrol station - but we don't have those out in the country here. Even our local village store, which doesn't sell any organic products, is 2 miles away. Anyway I try to keep our carbon footprint and any shopping trips to a minimum, so we only go about once every 10-14 days to buy organic milk and always have some frozen just in case of emergencies!
I'm always aware of how lucky we are compared to those who are totally dependent on shops for all their daily food needs - but at the same time, it has taken a lot of hard work to become relatively self-sufficient in some foods over the years. I'm always so grateful for the hard work of those who produce what we can't.So many people seem so removed from the reality of where their food comes from now - that I think many would find it impossible to understand the necessity of always being prepared for any contingency. However, having been brought up on a small farm in the UK, by parents who went through World War Two and who experienced rationing, probably made me aware at a much earlier age of just how valuable food resilience is. It was really brought home to me again recently listening to the extremely worried Guy Watson from Riverford - the UK-wide organic veg box scheme, who had recently bought a farm in France specifically to supply his customers during the so-called 'Hungry-Gap' from late winter to spring, when little fresh produce is available in the UK. His business could well go under because of Brexit and the delays in establishing equivalent organic certification etc. which will undoubtedly be the result. I could perfectly understand when he said in Sunday's BBC Food Programme that he is I quote: "Almost too angry to speak - to be told by people who have NO idea how their food is produced that this is Project Fear makes me incandescent with rage"! Then I was too - after hearing another comment from a British food writer living in Portugal, saying that "if farmers went out of business - then it was a good thing, and their own fault!"... Simply unbelievable ignorance from someone who is, as far as I'm concerned, little better that a parasite living off our food system! Perhaps some people may have to face the reality of just how precarious food security really is after Brexit? If so - then it might be no harm - and perhaps might make them appreciate hard-working farmers just a little more, instead of taking for granted the freely available produce which shoppers are always able to 'harvest' so easily from off supermarket shelves? Here endeth the rant!
Imported store cupboard staples which we don't grow ourselves - such as organic flour - may well also be in short supply here in Ireland after Brexit, as there are only three flour mills in the entire island of Ireland - and two of them are actually in Northern Ireland! I make bread roughly 3 times a week as a matter of course, so I always need to know that I have enough flour and dried yeast in the cool larder to see me through for at least the next four months. At certain times of year here - spelt flour in particular can be in short supply, especially when it gets close to harvest time in summer, when supplies of the flour milled from the previous year's crop may begin to run short. Only you will know what your staple pantry foods are though - so it's up to you what you wish to store or stockpile just in case of shortages. While I don't think there's really any need to panic buy - all I would say is that it might be sensible to at least have a couple of months supply of things which you feel you can't do without, can't make or can't grow yourself, such as dried pulses, nuts and seeds etc. cereals like wholegrain rice, oats and barley, dried fruit, sea salt and perhaps sauces such as organic soy sauce etc, cider vinegar, herbs and spices imported from the UK and any other such things. Keep all those things dry and cool and as long as they have a decent use by date on them they will be fine. Most things will in fact keep far longer if kept sealed and cool - only perhaps losing a few nutrients at worst, but otherwise perfect.
As far as fresh veg and fruit goes - having the polytunnels is an absolute boon, because they mean that we always have some sort of seasonal veg available here especially salads, even in winter, and also plenty of fruit and veg like peas and French beans grown the previous year and stored in the freezer.For anyone who eats a lot of fruit and veg which may possibly be in short supply - then perhaps this is might be a good time to try your hand at growing a few salads in containers for the first time? Even if it transpires that salads aren't in short supply, they will still be jolly useful and will save you a lot of money!Being a practical person - I personally ind that doing anything rather than just waiting and worrying about a problem, is always the best course of action, and far better than doing nothing. It works for me - and usually pays off! That being so, I thought it might be a good idea to make a list of some really easy, fast growing salads and other veg, which anyone could grow - as those will be the first things to be hit, if supplies from Europe are either delayed or non-existent.
So, at the end of this month's 'What to sow in Feb', I thought it might be helpful to write a short piece suggesting some fast-growing things you could sow now, to ensure that you will definitely have some fresh salads and other veg within 8 weeks - just in time for Brexit! If you scroll down to below the usual list of what to sow, it's entitled - "How to Brexit-proof your veg supply! Easy, fast-growing veg to start now.......
All of my suggestions can be grown in greenhouses or polytunnels, and if you don't have on of those - they can also be grown on patios, balconies or on paths in tubs or other containers, or even in window boxes - if they're protected with fleece, if frost threatens. All of my suggestions can be sown inside the house now - and grown on as seedlings either on a windowsill, outside in a polytunnel, or against a south-facing wall in a cold frame again with frost protection - then planting out when they are large enough. You don't have to spend a fortune on containers - anything will do if it has drainage and can hold enough soil or compost - all you need for most veg, especially salads is a depth of about 15 cm or 6 inches of compost for really good growth. Below there's a description of exactly how I sow my seeds and why, which I hope you'll find helpful.
The propagating bench is where all the gardening action is currently!
At the moment, soil is still saturated outside in most places - either having been snow covered or even flooded, that it's impossible to touch any vegetable beds, whether raised or not, without ruining the soil structure, apart from the other reasons below. Nothing likes growing in a compacted soil except the odd weed! As a consequence - all the gardening action here is taking place on the propagating bench pictured above in the polytunnel - where there's lots of things which were germinated on the back of the range in the kitchen and are now growing on in the frame on the heated mat at about 50degF/10degC, ready to be planted outside or in the tunnel later.
On the bench pictured above I have two cheap Lidl cold frames sitting on a roll-out heated mat - which is a bit like an electric blanket. It keeps things at a 'just warm enough' 50 degF. The mat sits on a recycled door supported by trestles. To cover then at night I roll out double fleece and a large piece of recycled bubble wrap. So as you can see - it's not very hi-tech but it's very effective!
General advice on Seed Sowing (there will be more details to follow in Polytunnel and Greenhouse diary)
If you're impatient to get an early start, you can steal a march on spring and sow a few early seeds now if you have a warm light enough windowsill indoors, or much better still a heated propagator in a greenhouse or polytunnel where the light will be better. You can sow your seeds now in pots or modules for planting outside later on - there's a list on the "What you can sow" page. Even if the 'gardening itch' hasn't got to you yet this year and you don't want to start quite this early - then it's a good idea to have everything ready to go when you do. I love sowing seeds - it's such a hopeful and positive thing to do - it's an investment in the future, short or long term, that pays off in abundance. A great many of the things that need to be sown in the next few weeks we'll be eating this time next year.
This is the start of the most important time of year for seed sowing - and the same advice applies whether you only have a cold frame or just a warm windowsill. At the moment the soil is saturated everywhere - far too cold and wet to attempt to sow anything outdoors - and even by the end of the month I doubt if it will be much better unless the weather improves a lot. There's no point wasting expensive seed by sowing it into cold wet ground. It's not really until early March that any sun is strong enough to even begin to warm the soil at all for sowing - and when it is you'll begin to see weed seeds germinating, which is always the best guide. If the soil's warm enough for them - then it's plenty warm enough for some of the the hardier crops to germinate. I sow nearly all my crops in modules now though - as that allows me to get ahead whatever the weather, which means I can plan better, and it helps to make the most of valuable growing space. Obviously the most important thing to do is always adapt any guidelines to suit your own local climate and soil. That can vary hugely depending on exactly where in the country you live - and often even in individual gardens in the same area. For instance - early spring can arrive in the very north of Ireland up to three weeks later than in the warmer south - and the same goes for the UK. Even within a few miles it can vary surprisingly. Where I live now - 400 feet above sea level on a south west facing slope in the teeth of the prevailing SW wind - the season is at least ten days later than where I lived 35 years ago - down near the sea only 9 miles away.
Sowing most things in modules all year roundwastes far less seed and I know I can be more sure of the results! The only exception to this would be root crops like parsnips or carrots - which are really much easier to sow direct in the ground. I only sow these into my recycled 'loo roll middle' modules if I want to make a really early start - or if their allotted space isn't free yet. As I mention later - doing this really makes the best use of your space, as the minute you have a crop cleared - you have another ready and waiting to be planted. By sowing in modules you're not spending time waiting for seed to germinate in ground which early in the year may be far too wet and cold. Carrots and parsnips like quite a warm seedbed and can be very slow and even rot if the ground is too cold. They can also take up to three weeks to appear and with carrots - the tiny early seed leaves are so fine that they're quite difficult to see - so often slugs will have eaten them before you've even noticed they were actually germinating!
If you're planning to sow any crops early outside perhaps in March, and their planned space is free at the moment - then it's a good idea to cover it with some black polythene now (it should be covered anyway if you've been following my advice!) Then you can uncover it every so often and clear up any slugs which are lurking around just underneath and get ahead of them too! You'll be amazed how many you'll find hiding under there - they won't bother going underground if they can hide in the dark somewhere damp and snug and they think they're out of sight!
If you leave soil uncovered, as some people advocate - the slugs also just hide underground or around edges of beds. They've evolved to hide from hungry birds and hedgehogs - not hungry gardeners! So be clever and outsmart them - it's always a good idea to trap and dispose of as many slugs as possible before you actually start the growing season - that gets you well ahead ahead of the game! Please don't be lazy and thoughtlessly use slug pellets - they kill all slug-eating wildlife too and traces of the poisonous metaldehyde they contain are increasingly being found in our drinking water as well! If you have ducks they're the very best slug hunters of the lot - they seem to have slug radar in the tips of their beaks - and they'll even eat the really big Spanish ones like rubber tyres which hens won't eat. But beware - as ducks are also extremely fond of anything edible, luscious and green - so don't let them near any lettuces etc. Also be careful if your soil is a heavy clay as they'll pack it down with their webbed feet - causing compaction, 'souring' and acidification - so don't leave them on any patch of ground for too long. After you've sown crops - a strip of black polythene, or a piece of slate at various points along the bed will give any remaining slugs a place to hide - so that you can then go along every so often, scoop them off and dispose of them - or cut them up with sharp scissors and leave them for wildlife to enjoy! When you've got rid of most of the slugs, then you can put some clear polythene on to the bed. This will allow the soil underneath to warm up so that it's all ready. If you see any weed seeds germinating at this point - a flame weeder can be very useful for burning off any tiny seedlings to make what's known as a 'stale seedbed' - which is perfectly clean on the surface and ideal for carrots and other small seeds.(If you're of a nasty frame of mind - a flame weeder's also great for barbecueing slugs!) Remember - weedkillers aren't just toxic - they don't actually kill weed seeds, so they're pointless poisoning!
Seed Sowing in Modules
(This applies to all vegetables, herbs and flowers, whether they're for planting outside later, or for under cover - whatever the time of year.)
It may seem a bit fiddly sowing things into modules like plug trays, pots, or seed trays, but it's what I call my 'guaranteed one-step method to perfect plants'! This method of sowing means you don't have to handle them again until you actually plant them out. Seed germination is far more reliable in the better conditions. I do most of my sowing into modules all year round now. It means I'm not waiting for a patch to be free before I can sow seeds - and I can have something ready to go straight into the ground the minute any crop is cleared - that way I get loads more veg. out of my space. In essence what I'm doing is continuously overlapping crops. By not taking up ground just waiting for seeds to germinate - over the course of a year I gain several extra weeks of growing time out of my ground space and I can fit in another quick growing crop. I've been doing this for years since I first started off in a small garden and it's an even more valuable way to grow things if you only have a small space.
Module sowing also involves far less handling of the seedlings and avoids the risks of 'pricking out' seedlings from large seed trays - the less you handle them, the less chance there is of wasting seed through possible damage, which can cause setbacks, fungal diseases or even death. The only time when I would sow a few seeds into pots or small seed trays might be when seeds need a much higher temperature for germination - things like aubergines or tomatoes. I otherwise wouldn't have enough space for everything in the small heated propagator - because I grow so many. The other really great thing about module sowing is that I can do all my seed sowing inside on the kitchen table - in the warm! I keep all the 'doings' neatly on a grow bag tray under the table - then whenever I have five minutes - I just pull it out and sow something! For me, this also means that things are far more likely to get sown at the right time. I don't have to plan to set aside a whole day to do it all at once - making it much easier to fit into a very busy life! Remember - you can catch up on everything else - but if you don't sow the seeds at the right time - there's no catching up on that. Time waits for no man! (or woman!)
Planting out modules when they're ready also means that the plants are already growing strongly, are bigger and as a result better able to withstand the occasional nibble from any slugs or other pests without being completely destroyed. And there's always one or two that escape my early scissor forays! I often get questions from people who think they bought bad seed and it didn't germinate - but usually the reason seeds don't appear is because either the soil was too cold and wet in early spring so they rotted, or they dried out in summer, or slugs ate them as they came up! Sowing into modules avoids all those problems. Bad seed that doesn't germinate at all is thankfully extremely rare. Whatever pot or module you choose to sow in is up to you, there are masses of things which can be recycled for this purpose, and as usual the choice is only limited by one's imagination! The important thing is to make sure they're clean, have good drainage holes in the bottom and that the young plants will come out quite easily, without disturbing the root ball if you gently push them up from the bottom - otherwise you lose the whole point of modules - which is to avoid any disturbance which causes setbacks!
Just a word on using loo roll middles as pictured above. I find these brilliant for long rooted things like very early carrots and parsnips because they can be planted out intact as they are - completely avoiding root disturbance - but I don't find them quite as good for other things like lettuce or other leafy crops which have a fine root ball - I think this is because the cardboard rolls are so high in carbon - which needs nitrogen to break down naturally - so it tends to rob this from the surrounding soil or compost as it does so - and also possibly any young plant that is growing in them.
The other thing to remember about using cardboard tubes like loo roll middles is that they MUST be planted with the cardboard of the loo roll BELOW soil level - if exposed to the air they will act like a wick, drying out and shrinking - evaporating moisture from around the young plants ans fine roots with possibly disastrous results! The same goes for using paper pots. I get a lot of questions about this from people who have tried i and had disappointing results - but I've never seen anyone mentioning the danger of this happening. I know it does take a little extra compost sowing this way, but sowing into modules also means I don't waste expensive seed - which more than balances out the small cost of the extra compost used. It also means I have larger plants ready to go without losses to slugs. That again also means that I can plan the use of space much better - planting out neat, attractive-looking rows, instead of perhaps having unsightly gaps! I really love that kind of instant potager gardening. It's very satisfying to stand back and look at the results!
The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost
It makes sense to use a good proprietary organic peat-free seed compost - NOT a multipurpose compost containing peat! A good peat-free seed compost will have been specially formulated to be suitable for tiny seedlings for their first few weeks when their tiny hair-like roots are very sensitive. Many seedlings dislike a high nutrient content in composts - so using one specifically for seed sowing is really important - otherwise too high a nutrient content in the compost could inhibit germination, giving disappointing results. I never found those 'seed & potting' multi-purpose peat composts good for that particular reason when I had no choice but to use them many years ago. They also tend to attract root-eating soil pests too - because all composts containing peat do that! I haven't used them for many years as I only use an organic peat-free compost now.
Peat is only a natural medium for plants which grow in bogs - and it should stay in the bogs where it belongs! Using it is a very selfish choice! It supports enormous biodiversity and also acts a very effective carbon sink. It should not be be dug up for the convenience of thoughtless gardeners who are just looking for the cheapest option - especially when growing your own food actually saves so much money anyway! In terms of damage to the planet and accelerating climate change - using peat certainly isn't a cheap option eventually! Any short term financial gain from using cheap easily available peat is wiped out many times by the loss of important habitat for biodiversity, and also the inevitable flooding caused by reducing the land's water-holding capacity. Bogs act like enormous sponges - capturing rainfall and slowing up huge volumes of water that would otherwise immediately run off the land surface, overwhelming natural drainage systems and flooding not just farmland but also peoples houses and gardens.,
As I've mentioned previously - I use a really good, peat free, certified organic compost. This is available in Ireland from Fruit Hill Farm - (call them for local stockists - getting one bag by post is expensive!). It's also available from White's Agri, at Ballough, Lusk. The compost is produced by Klassman in Germany, from composted organic green waste. It's utterly brilliant and is the very best compost of any sort that I've found in over 40 years of growing. It's also available in the UK, and it's worth investigating if you live there. There are a quite a few other peat-free organic composts available there now too - but I haven't tried them, so can't recommend them. I would always prefer an organic compost - as those containing artificial fertilisers don't produce the most healthy plants in my experience. They are far more likely to attract aphids and other pests as the plant's immune defence systems aren't as healthy. Once you've used the Klassman - I promise you won't use anything else! (I wish I had shares in it!) .It's the best compost of any sort that I've ever used. Whether you're organic or not - believe me - this compost is worth every cent! Plants really thrive in it - I think possibly because it contains a good range of beneficial bacteria, having been made with organically grown green waste, composted specifically for this purpose. But whichever brand you choose, don't use a potting compost for sowing seeds - it will be far too high in nutrients that inhibit germination and burn the roots of the tiny seedlings as soon as they emerge. They may then be sickly, or possibly even keel over and die! I grow a lot of rare plants - many of which are fussy and the seed expensive. I can't afford to risk wasting seed. These days no one can - so always go for a reliable, good quality seed compost - and choose peat free preferably - if you care about the environment.
In addition - make sure it's this year's freshly delivered batch of compost too! Not old, saturated compost that's been sitting around outside in the garden centre all winter since the previous year! That would be stale, will have lost many of it's nutrients and may well harbour moulds and diseases. I always make sure that I have a couple of spare bags put by in a dry place so that I have plenty for early sowings the following year. Also don't use garden soil for sowing in pots - it's false economy - especially if you're a beginner gardener. It will contain weed seeds and perhaps pests too, and the texture is unlikely to be suitable for sowing small seeds in pots or modules. I know good compost isn't cheap - but actually most bags these days cost no more than two or three packets of seeds and you won't need a huge amount. If you're careful a little will go a very long way, and you'll get far better results. You'll avoid wasting expensive seed and precious time too.
Another point I'd like to mention here is that although some gardeners in the UK don't like using British produced peat composts - some of them don't seem have a problem using Irish extracted peat. I just don't understand that 'NIMBY' attitude, because it's every bit as damaging to the environment and to biodiversity, and releases just as much climate-changing carbon which affects the whole planet. So please have a re-think if that applies to you! I think it's a bit like thoughtlessly throwing away your rubbish out of the car window and ensuring that it becomes someone else's problem!
Remember the piece of advice"Whatever else you don't get time for - always sow the seed - you can catch up on everything else except that". - One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given - well worth remembering - and another good reason for sowing in modules so that you're not delayed by the weather or by waiting for another crop to be finished. This is often something that's really hard to remember in the middle of summer, when you're enjoying an abundance of glorious vegetables! If you don't sow many things in June, July and August - you'll have very little to eat in the winter! Don't spend ages waiting around to get ground perfectly ready either, particularly in a wet year, or you may find it's then too late to sow the seed. Sow the seed first, in modules if necessary, and then catch up with all the other jobs later while your seedlings are growing on nicely somewhere else, until they're big enough for planting.
Details on seed sowing
It's stating the obvious to repeat that most seed these days is expensive - a little care will make your seed go a lot further and therefore your money too!My apologies to all you 'old timers' out there like me who know all this stuff - but maybe you may actually do it differently - and there's no harm in reassessing the way we do things occasionally is there? Gardening is an occupation where you never stop learning, that's what makes it so interesting.
1. First fill your modules, pots or whatever with good seed compost, firming it gently but not ramming it down too hard. Then make suitably sized small depressions in the top of each one with the end of a old pencil, pen, or whatever's handy. Seed differs in the depth it prefers to be sown, so consult your seed packet on this one, there isn't enough room here! Generally I find a depression of about 1/2-1 cm is suitable for module sowing of most things depending on the size of the seed. A very rough rule of thumb though is to sow at about twice the depth of the seed. As some really fine seed like celery or Nicotiana prefers to be sown on the surface and not covered at all - If you're going to sow very fine small seed it's a good idea to water the containers before sowing, to avoid washing tiny seed either too deeply into the compost, or alternatively washing it completely out of the compost! Some brands of seed composts can be quite difficult to wet if they've become exceptionally dry - so when sowing anything it's probably a idea good to moisten all composts a bit first - and letting any excess drain away.
2. Next, after you've prepared your modules, before you even handle the seed packet make sure your hands are absolutely clean and dry! Don't attempt to open the packet with dirty wet hands from preparing your compost, soil or whatever! Unless you're going to sow all the seed at once, which is unlikely, you need to take care that the atmosphere around the remaining seed in the packet is as dry and clean as possible. Most people with average-sized gardens won't need to sow a whole packet of seed at once - despite what the packet tells you! (obviously they're trying to sell seed!) When you've taken all the seed you need, squeeze as much air out as possible, seal with sellotape, write on the date it was opened, and store somewhere really cool and dry. Most seed except carrot and parsnip will last well for at least a couple of years this way. People always say "but the experts say store them in the fridge" - all I can say is those 'experts' must have nothing else in their fridges - or have dedicated seed fridges! Since when were most household fridges absolutely bone dry? But then perhaps yours is a bit tidier than mine! Frankly - I'd sooner tidy my polytunnel any day than my fridge!
3. When you're opening the packet of seed, make sure that all the seed is shaken down to the bottom first. Then slit it open with a sharp knife or with scissors rather than just tearing off the top - this makes it much easier to do up neatly again afterwards. The seed may also be in a 'stay-fresh' foil packet inside the paper packet, so open that carefully too, then when you've finished, re-seal afterwards in the way described. It always says on the packet "Do not re-seal" - pay no attention whatsoever to that! Seeds will just absorb atmospheric moisture far more easily if you don't re-seal them properly - then you'll have to buy more seed because it won't germinate nearly as well!
Lettuce - sown 2 per module - ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.
4. Tip a very small amount of seed - slightly less than you think you'll need - into the dry palm of your hand or onto a saucer and carefully sow the amount you want into each module. Never put seed back in if you've tipped out too much into your hand, unless your hand is very clean and dry! I sow lettuce, brassicas etc. in two's or three's thinning to the strongest one when the seed leaves (cotyledons) are fully expanded and there's one 'true' leaf just showing, then you can judge which is the strongest, or if any are 'blind'(which can sometimes happen with cabbage family/brassicas in particular) - then pull the others out very gently and carefully. Beetroot or chards can be sown singly - they are multi-seeded - producing several seedlings in a clump from just one lumpy seed, which you don't have to thin too much unless you want to - I never do - I normally leave three chards in a clump! They grow perfectly well as normal - and I'm greedy! Some modern F1 varieties of beetroot are 'mono-seeded' - these are useful if you just want one seed per station and bigger roots eventually - but the seed is usually much more expensive and I don't want massive roots. I prefer medium sized or baby beets to pickle or roast - so I use normal varieties and I leave them in clumps of 3 or 5. They will push each other apart quite happily as they grow and find their own growing space.
I sow my onions in 3's, 5's or 7's according to what size I want them to grow to. The more you sow into the module, and the closer you grow them on, the smaller the onions will obviously be. Three seeds to a module sown in early to mid March will generally give me onions of around 4-5oz - a medium size which I generally find are the most useful for the kitchen. Red Baron onions I sow in 5's as I like smaller whole red onions for roasting. They're planted out later about 20-30cm apart in late March or early April. They will then push each other apart quite happily as they grow, giving you a much bigger, more reliable crop. Early carrots (a small pinch) and parsnips (in 3's) can be sown into loo roll or 1/2 kitchen roll middles and easily planted out carefully using a long trowel later. Peas and beans can be sown in large yogurt pots - as shown on the polytunnel page and here - also 1/2 milk cartons, fruit punnets etc - all with good drainage holes made in them. You can see how I sow mine in the polytunnel diary as well. Some people sow into old half drainpipes but I find they're too shallow, they don't have much root room, then if planting out is delayed by bad weather, as it often is at this time of year, plants may get a setback and won't crop as well as they should later on. The roots can often go along instead of down.The RHS recommends shallow drainpipes with holes drilled into them - but again delays can be a problem and the roots may start coming through the drainage holes - making it harder to slide them out easily and possibly tearing roots off when you try to slide them out. The peas and beans pictured above here are growing in a variety of recycled containers in mid-February
5.Cover the smaller vegetable seedswithvermiculite, which is available in all good garden centres now in small packs (if it's too much, split it with a friend - it lasts years as it's sterile and you don't need that much). This promotes really good drainage and air circulation around seedlings which is vital and usually avoids nasty 'damping off' diseases, which can otherwise be a big problem with early seedlings in particular (but never in peat-free composts). Sit the seed tray, pots or modules in a tray of water for a few seconds (new cat litter trays are a good size for standard seed trays, and much cheaper than something similar sold in garden centres!) but don't let the modules or trays get saturated. If by mistake they do - then a good tip is to sit them on a folded up newspaper with a bit of kitchen paper on top, which acts like blotting paper to draw out excess moisture - newspaper on it's own doesn't work quite so well. Don't forget that if things are too wet - even if they're warm - they're far more likely to rot. Bigger seeds like peas and beans can be covered with compost and then watered from above initially. I put my early peas and beans onto damp kitchen paper on a covered plate or tray somewhere warm to germinate them first. Usually the back of my range cooker where I can keep an eye on them. This is particularly good for French beans later on in spring - which can be very prone to rotting if sitting in wet compost for too long. I then put the sprouted seeds into a pot in the usual way and cover them with seed compost. I then water them lightly at first, again making sure I don't saturate!
6.Cover the seed tray or modules after sowing by putting in a clear polythene bag, under a sheet of clingfilm or glass to keep them moist and stop them drying out, and put them in a suitably warm place. Check the optimum germination temperature on the seed packet - as not everything likes to be too warm. This particularly applies to lettuces and spinach. Then check every day for germination, and as soon as they appear, uncover them immediately and put them into good light - but not strong sunlight as this could burn them and kill them very quickly. If they're in the house on a windowsill, turn them round a bit every day so all the seedlings get equal light to prevent them getting etiolated (or drawn up and spindly), which weakens them and makes them much more prone to disease. You could also make a light reflector of tin foil fixed to a couple of barbecue skewers at the back of the pot as I used to years ago! At night then bring them into the room before you close the curtains otherwise they could be frost damaged. If they're in a cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel outside, shade them lightly from very bright midday sun - which can be surprisingly strong through glass, even at this time of year. Again, do make sure they're protected from frost at night with fleece suspended over them - not resting on them - or newspaper. Wire hoops are useful for this, also recycled old freezer baskets, a propagator lid or cloches etc.
7. Always water trays of young growing seedlings from underneath when necessary - sitting them in a tray as described above, using clean, ambient temperature water if possible. Watering them from above with a watering can again encourage damping off diseases. I keep clean rainwater in a barrel in the tunnel for watering, which is usually not too cold. Seedlings don't enjoy sitting in a freezing cold bath any more than you do! And they enjoy rainwater best of all. Like all plants, they didn't evolve to appreciate chlorine, or anything else that may be in tap water!
8. After germination, grow on seedlings of tender veg. like tomatoes etc. at a slightly lower temperature but still in a warm light place- where they won't get chilled if it's cold at night. A roll-out heat mat which you can put on a greenhouse bench is convenient for this - or if you're good at DIY - you could make a cheaper large area of gentle bottom warmth by using soil warming cables buried in sand. Be careful that propagators don't overheat, get them set up and going for a few hours before you start sowing your seeds, because just as too little warmth can damage seedlings - so can overheating. It can can seriously damage their cropping potential. From March onwards all small seedlings will need some shade at midday under glass or in a tunnel - fleece also makes a good temporary sun shield. A small max-min thermometer is well worth buying, they're far more useful in the garden than a soil thermometer, and cheaper. As I've already said - you don't need a soil thermometer out in the garden to tell you when the soil outside is warm enough for sowing - all the weed seeds germinating will reliably tell you that!
Improving Soil for Planting - especially in New Gardens
I find the two things people get most screwed-up about are making compost perfectly and having perfect soil. Perfection is actually required in neither! If you're starting off on a new patchlike many people I've spoken to recently - you'll obviously need something to plant your modules into!Be realistic! Soil doesn't need to be a perfect seedbed for just planting into. Also remember that plants want to grow! Given a decent start, they'll often surprise you and grow really well in even the most difficult ground. If you're in despair because your soil is badly compacted and lumpy - perhaps in it's first year or so after builders have left it in a state - then just break it up a bit, and make some 'planting pockets' in it. Put a little potting or garden compost into a planting hole to plant in - just like planting into a pot - but in the ground instead! This makes your compost go much further too! When you've done that, then use organic mulches like grass clippings in between the rows which will gradually break down and be pulled in by worms. Green manures are also useful - they improve soil and keep weeds down as well - killing two birds with one stone. You don't have to pile on tons of manure. It's unnecessary, may be far too high in nitrogen leading to unhealthy growth, can be wasteful of nutrients and could cause pollution, particularly with our current rainfall! It may also emit nitrous-oxide - a climate-damaging greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than CO2! Anyway - in the real world - most back gardeners find well-rotted organic manure hard to obtain. Non-organic manure can contain all sorts of nasty things like animal worm treatments (not good for soil life), weedkillers and also straw-shortening chemicals. Non-organic mushroom compost will usually contain the same! These toxic agricultural chemicals can damage your soil, your plants and your health.
The very best way to improve soil is always to grow things in it! I know this sounds like a bit of a daft contradiction - but as long as you've just broken the soil up a bit and it will drain reasonably well - you'll be amazed just how quickly even virtual subsoil will respond to some TLC! I've proved it! Seaweed meal (ground laminaria seaweed - not calcified seaweed) is really helpful on damaged soil and it works astonishingly fast. You'll find it far more cheaply in agricultural feed merchants than garden centres - 25 euros for a 25 kg. bag. Garden centres charge at least double for it! It's brilliant for encouraging all the microbial life in the soil to multiply quickly. and also encouraging heavy, sticky clay soil to 'flocculate' (or in other words stick together to you and me)! That helps it to drain better. Seaweed meal is even used now on the sides of new motorways to get soil ready for being planted - and I must say I've seen plenty of new gardens that looked like motorways after the builders have left!! Where my new polytunnels are looked like that a few years ago!
To improve really badly damaged or compacted soilI would use a combination of organic mulches and seaweed meal. Then I would grow potatoes in 1/4 of it, maybe peas and beans which aren't too fussy in another 1/4 - planted in pockets as I've said - and then perhaps cover the rest for now or again plant in pockets - perhaps growing something large like courgettes or pumpkins through black polythene with a nice organic mulch underneath, later in the summer, to encourage the worms to help you!. There you have the beginnings of your four-course rotation! And the soil microbial life and the worms will just gradually do the rest! Very deep cultivation isn't good for any soil life either - it really doesn't appreciate being turned upside down every year just as it's warmed up and got used to a nice bit of fresh air and sunshine, any more than we would! Leave it near the surface - where it all evolved to be. Each kind of microbe or fungi prefers it's own level - but most live in the top few inches or so. A little bit of light 'scratching around with a fork' doesn't hurt it at all - in fact introducing the extra oxygen can rev all the microbial life up a bit in spring because it does actually need some air. But all that macho, nightmare double-digging stuff just buries it so far down that it takes ages to recover and fight it's way back to the surface again! It also destroys worm burrows which help drainage, and the fungal hyphae (or threads) which break down and recycle carbon, releasing nutrients and helping plants to grow. If you keep doing that every year like some people I know do as a matter of course - your soil will never be truly healthy because you're giving all the soil life a very hard time! Obviously you may need to break up new, possibly compacted soil initially by cultivating the surface or to loosen any possible compaction of the subsoil by sticking a long fork in and just gently lifting a little to help improve drainage - but don't bring subsoil to the surface by double digging.
After that - minimum work for maximum output has always been my preferred method. I like to make life as easy as possible - but I don't call it 'no dig' because it isn't - In reality there is actually no such thing! It's just an attractive idea that sounds good! Minimal dig is how nature does it - with the occasional scratching or rooting around by birds or large foraging animals - like us - or pigs!
You don't need to worry about expensive soil tests for micro-nutrients! In a new garden or allotment though - just do a soil pH test first. That's really all you need to do - there's no need to over-complicate things. If the pH is right - then plants can help themselves to whatever they need, aided and abetted by their symbiotic microbial friends in the soil! You can buy a small, easy to use test kit complete with instructions from most garden centres or DIY stores now. A soil pH of 6.5-7 is what most vegetables prefer. If you need to raise the pH of your soil, you can adjust if necessary by adding either calcified seaweed - which contains calcium as well as valuable trace elements, ground limestone, or Dolomitic limestone - which contains magnesium. All of these have a much gentler action on the soil than hydrated lime. Lime is best added in the autumn to vacant beds after legumes (peas & beans) - where next years brassica (cabbage family) crops are to grow. Never add lime to potato beds before planting - it can cause potato scab. Potatoes prefer a slightly acidic soil. Never add lime at the same time as manure either - as that can cause a reaction which 'locks up' nutrients so that they become unavailable to plants - this shows in a yellowing of the leaves called 'chlorosis'. This can often be a problem in old gardens, which may have been limed routinely every year without doing a pH test to see if it was actually needed. Calcified seaweed is the only kind of pH-raising agent that I would ever use if necessary just before planting a crop. Tomatoes seem to particularly appreciate it. Whatever type of garden you're starting off with - it's always good to get a rough idea of the soil pH anyway. Once that's right - plants will be able to help themselves to the food they need - helped by the worms and all the other vitally important microbial life in the soil which breaks down nutrients into a form that plants can absorb. Worms and vital soil bacteria don't like acid soils - so getting the pH right is also very important for them too. Out of interest - acidity is why spaghnum moss from peat bogs was often used as an antibacterial would dressing during the First World War!
Worms and other soil life are also encouraged by growing green manures, by adding organic matter like compost, and by using organic mulches. Don't be tempted in a new garden to use a glyphosate the so-called 'total' weedkiller to get rid of weeds before you start - there is a huge body of evidence that shows glyphosate actually kills aquatic life like frogs and soil microbial life. So if you use it you would be killing off the things that actually help you, by making nutrients available to plants! It has also been shown to persist in soil and to be taken up by plants growing there afterwards - despite the makers disingenuous claims to the contrary! Quite apart from that - even if you don't care about the environment, or poisoning yourself, your pets, soil and local water supply - glyphosate doesn't actually kill weed seeds! They'll germinate as soon as you cultivate the soil at all! So not only is it a very dangerous chemical - but it's also a hideous and expensive waste of money! If you've got too much ground to cope with then just cultivate a small bit first - and either mow the rest, keep some chickens or other livestock on it, or cover it with some grass clippings, compost or well-rotted manure and then a light-excluding waterproof mulch. That will get the worms working furiously - which hugely improves the condition of the soil and also prevents and kills weeds by excluding light. When you uncover it in a few months or a year - you will be astonished at the transformation! Roundup (glyphosate) won't do that for you - you'll just end up with a dead, lifeless soil - incapable of growing genuinely healthy plants! As I'm always saying -let Nature do the work - it's free - and only too willing to help if you encourage it a bit!
Don't be tempted to use non-organic mushroom compost anywhere you're growing food - it may seem like a nice easy option but it will almost certainly contain very nasty and extremely persistent pesticide residues which I've already mentioned - which can last for many years in the soil. It also has a very high pH - so it can be really bad for low pH plants like Rhododendrons or blueberries causing 'chlorosis', 'locking up' of vital nutrients and stunted yellowing growth. Use mulches of grass clippings or leaf mould instead. And while on the subject of soil - something else I'm always going on about - but it's worth repeating because I see people doing it all the time - in fact I've seen many pictures of people proudly displaying their so-called 'clean' soil on twitter! It hurts me to see them! Leaving bare soil uncovered may well give you a nice surface 'tilth' to sow into and it may look lovely and organised - but it's incredibly thoughtless and also selfish!
I will repeat this again! - PLEASE - Do not leave bare soil uncovered at this time of year! Doing so causes pollution, loss soil and of valuable nutrients and also emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases!
General February advice
If you buy things like rhubarb, asparagus or Seakale roots in those plastic packs in garden centres - pot them up in a nice free draining compost immediately you get them home as they're expensive and may well rot in the packets if you wait until outside conditions are suitable. Then you can plant them out in a few weeks when the soil is warmer.
'Chit' seed potatoes in a cool, frost free, light place if they're for planting direct outside in March. 'Chitting' means getting them to start sprouting shoots. Some varieties like 'Pink Fir Apple' may be reluctant to do this, so if you find it a problem, you can fool them and get round this by putting them in a slightly warmer place, like under the kitchen table, and covering them so that they're in the dark. They'll start to sprout very quickly this way. Then put them back into a light, cool place again so that the shoots don't get too long and brittle. Short stubby shoots will be stronger than long spindly ones - and less vulnerable to damage when you're planting out later straight into soil as opposed to compost. I start off all mine in pots now so length of shoot doesn't matter, and then I plant them out like herbaceous plants a bit later in spring. This way they start into growth far quicker and I get bigger crops before any blight strikes - which these days is getting earlier. This also means I can grow for the very best flavour - I don't like the taste of any of the so-called blight-resistant ones. We don't eat potatoes every day here, so quality rather than quantity is what I aim for. The pot-grown potatoes 'Mayan Gold' & 'Lady Christl', started off in the warm and pictured here in mid-February a couple of years ago in polytunnel - are almost ready for planting.
You can plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers outside now if the soil's not too sticky - or again alternatively into pots to plant out later. They're a really useful winter vegetable that are dead easy to grow anywhere, so they're great for breaking up rough ground like you might have on a new allotment. They're also very nutritious - and extremely good for the immune system as they contain something called Inulin - a prebiotic fibre that can really rev up the good bacteria in the gut - with occasionally somewhat anti-social results! As they're tall they also make a very good windbreak - ironic that! In a mild autumn they also have very pretty yellow flowers, which are good for picking, being a member of the sunflower family. 'Fuseau' is a good, less knobbly variety, very widely available now. They're delicious as a Dauphinoise, raw in a salad, oven roasted, used almost raw, like water chestnuts in a Chinese stir fry, or made into soup. They're also almost impossible to lose - so be careful where you plant them, you'll have them there forever, unless you have a few pigs to root them up! They love them!
(As an aside I couldn't believe it a couple of years ago when I saw a gardening writer described as 'organic' actually recommending the use of glyphosate to get rid of Jerusalem artichokes! And another very well-known 'organic expert' who had Unwins 'GrowSure' seed which is pre-treated with fungicide among his seed packets - his seed box was pictured in a gardening magazine! I wouldn't dream of using those! No wonder people are confused about what is allowed in organic growing!)
As I mentioned in the sowing details - you can also still plant 'spring planting' varieties of garlic too. Or if the soil is too wet - just pop them into some modules to root or pot them up into small pots for future planting.
My 'Ad-Free' Blog Policy
This isn't a money-making site, I don't have any product to sell and all the information in it is freely given, in the hope that it will be useful to readers. It's the sort of advice that I would have very much liked to have been able to find, when I was just beginning my gardening 40 years ago.
Also please note - that I don't have/or want any ads. or so-called 'editorial pieces' (just basically ads in another form!) from other sources on my website. I have been asked many times to take them in return for a fee - even from companies whose ethos I might generally approve of - but I always refuse. This is not meant in any way as a criticism of those people who do accept them. That is their choice and we all have to make a living - but I prefer to have the freedom to speak my mind frankly and to voice my own opinions without the possibility of being influenced by what an advertiser or potential sponsor may think.
As a result my blog may look a little old-fashioned compared to some - but fancy websites with bells and whistles cost money. Many people have told me that they actually prefer it this way though, and that it comes as a nice change! The only concession I have made to modernity was to join Twitter a couple of years ago, which a lot of people had asked me to do over the last few years - so I finally relented! I have to say it's fascinating - though it can be time-consuming!
If you're a new reader you may have noticed that I can be pretty outspoken at times too - but I do my research! If I recommend any product then you can be assured that it's always something that I've found useful myself - usually over several years. I don't accept 'freebies' or discounts of any sort in order to promote other people's products either - so please don't send me any - or you'll be disappointed!
Another reason I don't accept ads. is that I personally find them intensely annoying popping up all over the place, often totally unrelated to the content of the site. I also hate to read something that may look interesting and then find out halfway through that actually it's actually promoting a product! It's impossible to know then whether what you're reading is actually an honest and impartial opinion, so I'm afraid I tend to be a little cynical about that and usually leave those sites immediately! Perhaps I'm a little old-fashioned - but to me, my integrity is worth far more than money.
I think that useful information garnered from long experience, and truly objective, honest opinion are important. That is what I try to give readers of my blog and I hope you will continue to enjoy it. I want to say a big thank you to all the people who have emailed or tweeted on Twitter to thank me for my advice! I'm sorry if I don't always have the time to answer you all individually - but it does makes all the work really worthwhile. Your gratitude is so very much appreciated - and is great motivation to do even better! Thank you for paying me the great compliment of reading it!
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)
Seeds of hope. Home-saved non-F1 hybrid Heritage seeds that will provide plenty of food for us, bees & other vital beneficial insects all year
This month - in a heated propagator - you can sow*:
For tunnel/greenhouse growing later - Early tomatoes, aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, calabrese/broccoli, celery, celeriac, physalis (Chinese gooseberries) and dwarf French beans (for very early cropping in pots). Also half-hardy annual flowers like nicotiana, which need a long growing season.
Early sowing in warmth will gain you a couple of weeks in most cases - but bear in mind that all of these will need warmth for quite some time yet though - After the initial higher temperature germination in a heated propagator, they will then need growing on with a minimum bottom heat of around 50deg.F/10deg.C - in a draught-free space, perhaps on a hotbed or a roll-out heated mat, protecting with fleece if frost is forecast and potting on when necessary to avoid any setbacks, then gradually hardening off and finally planting out in the tunnel as soon as the late winter/early spring crops are cleared from late April/early May onwards.
In more gentle warmth
(At approx 10deg.C - either on a roll out heated mat with adjustable thermostat or in your house, putting out into greenhouse or cold frame after germination when good light will be needed.
(*Bear in mind that most propagators on the market are set to approximately 20 deg.C - or slightly warmer, unless they have adjustable thermostats):
For planting out in the tunnel - or outdoors under cloches later:
You can sow brassicas such as early summer cauliflowers, summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts and the new varieties of 'summer purple sprouting' broccoli, lettuces, perennial veg. like Welsh onions, globe artichokes and seakale, spinach, spring onions(scallions), early leeks and bulb onions, shallots, early peas, broad beans, kohl rabi, white turnips, land cress, rocket, salad mixes, watercress.
Now is also a good time to sow bee-friendly, fast-growing hardy annuals like limnanthes, calendulas, convulvulus tricolour, borage etc. - to provide early flowers for attracting beneficial insects like hoverflies into the tunnel to help with pest control. Early flowers will also provide a welcome early meal for bees - which are vital for pollination of early flowering polytunnel fruit trees like peaches. Provide the food they need and they'll keep coming back, as bees quickly learn where reliable sources of food are and communicate this knowledge to the rest of their fellow bees, clever things - a mutually beneficial relationship for them and us!
Directly into soil pre-warmed with cloches, or in pots/modules in the tunnel without heat:
(covering on very cold nights with fleece):
You can sow more hardy crops like broad beans, carrots, kale 'Ragged Jack', Black Tuscan and other kales for baby leaves, Ruby chard and 'Bull's Blood' or McGregor's favourite beetroot for high anthocyanin beet leaves, pre-sprouted mangetout and early peas, for both pea shoots and podded peas -(pre-sprouting in warmth ensures faster germination which means seeds are less prone to rotting and mouse damage), lettuces, herbs, (not basil yet - it's too cold) mixed leaf salads, oriental mustards and salad mixes, rocket, summer spinach etc. These will all crop before June in the tunnel or greenhouse.
Planting half the modules inside and the other half outside under cloches is a good way to spread cropping times. Other hardy crops like beetroot, kales and chards can also be sown in modules now for planting outside under cloches later. Remember - even most hardy seeds won't germinate below a soil temperature of about 45degF or 7degC.
Another tip - lettuce and spinach seeds prefer to be fairly cool for the first 24-48 hours, as higher temperature can trigger dormancy- so don't sow these in too much heat. I always sow them in my kitchen at normal house temperature, there I can also keep an eye on them and uncover as soon as they start to germinate. I then transfer them out to the polytunnel so that they have really good light, protecting them at night if frost is forecast.
Small seedlings will need protecting from frost with fleece if it's very cold. If you can provide these conditions then almost everything but the most tender crops can be sown in suitable modules in mid-late February for planting out under cloches later - but don't grow them on with too much warmth or they will be too soft and 'leggy' as light levels are still relatively low.
Keep an eye out for mice which are very partial to pea and bean seeds and will even dig up and eat the seeds when the plants are already a couple of inches high, as I know to my cost!
All of these things could be germinated anywhere warm and then grown onin very good light on a windowsill if you have room - but do bring them inside the room at night if you close the curtains, or they may get chilled on cold nights. And remember that a south facing window may be too hot even at this time of year. One well known journalist in the west of Ireland told me he puts his tomatoes under his Velux office window in good light after germinating them in the warm - a great idea! I couldn't work out how he'd got them so early when he wrote complaining that my advice on side shooting tomatoes was far too late for his plants - his Pantano Romanesco had already gone completely bonkers by May!! That particular beefsteak variety needs even more severe discipline than most - but the exceptional flavour makes it well worth the extra trouble!
It's muchtooearly yet to sow most melons and cucumbers. These are very fast growing - taking only about 12 weeks from sowing to harvest. The only exception is watermelons - the larger types of which need starting off in mid-late Feb. as they need a long growing season to be successful. The small 'Sugar Baby' will still crop well in a warm polytunnel if sown in March. Watermelons are also very tender, susceptible to even the slightest frost and are actually damaged below 50deg.F/10degC. - so unless youhave a heated greenhouse, (and who has in these carbon-conscious days?) they'll be far too big before it's warm enough to plant them out in the tunnel or before their allotted tunnel space is vacant. Potting them on into larger pots and placing on a 'roll out' heated mat to provide bottom warmth is a much more energy efficient option. I find it's best to wait until at least mid March for sowing most of the cucurbitaceae family - they can then grow on quickly without any check. Five years ago I tried sowing the delicious yellow courgette 'Atena' very early as an experiment - sown on 23rd Feb. and grown on in gentle warmth, it was planted into large pots in the west tunnel in early April and was given extra protection with fleece on cold nights. It gave a really early crop in early-mid May. I now do this every year - it's definitely well worth doing to get some delicious early courgettes!
As soon as the ground is in reasonable condition you can plantJerusalem Artichokes. If it's still too wet you can plant them in 2 litre pots for planting out in a few weeks.
You can also plant shallots, onion sets and garlic either in the ground or again in pots if it's too wet - but you must choose varieties of garlic which are labelled as suitable for spring planting - such as 'Christo'. If you plant 'autumn planting' varieties now they will just produce one single bulb rather that splitting into individual cloves which is what you want.
If you have well sprouted seed of any variety of potato you can plant some in large pots or directly into the tunnel soil now. These will need protecting from frost at all times. First early varieties are obviously best as these will bulk up quickly - giving a crop in about 10-12 weeks in late April or early May depending on variety - those grown on in pots from planting to harvest will also be slightly earlier than those planted out in the tunnel borders.
Don't attempt to sow anything outside into cold wet ground yet! If you haven't done so already - get cloches or a polythene cover out onto vegetable beds outside now to dry them out and start them warming it up. If your ground hasn't been covered all winter - it could take weeks to dry out after all the wet weather we've had. Another reason why ground should always be covered in winter - apart from the soil-loss, damage and possible pollution aspect!
I always use a good, well drained, organic peat-free seed compost for all my seed sowing. If you're not using organic peat-free then make sure you use a seed compost - rather than an multi-purpose compost. These may contain far too much chemical fertiliser if not organic, which can either inhibit germination of seedlings, or even burn and kill emerging roots!
*JUST ONE MORE THING - Always open seed packets with clean dry hands - not 'garden muddy' hands! Most seed will last for ages if kept really dry and cool at all times. I find that a dry cool room is usually far better than most domestic refrigerators which can be too damp. (the exception is celery, carrots and parsnips, which tend to have reduced germination when more than 1 year old) Sow seed little and often - preferably in modules if you have room - it's far more time and cost-effective than sowing in rows and transplanting. It also avoids wasting seeds as it avoids root disturbance and possible damage or setback when 'pricking out' from seed trays - or from slugs eating vulnerable tiny seedlings.
P.S. WHEN SOWING SEED - IGNORE THE SEED PACKET'S ADVICE WHICH TELL YOU TO SOW THE SEEDS ALL AT ONCE IN A ROW OR IN A SEED TRAY as this can waste seed - REMEMBER - THEY WANT YOU TO BUY MORE!
Happy seed sowing everyone! May all your seeds be successful!
How to Brexit-proof your veg supply! Easy, fast-growing veg to start now - which guarantee you a Brexit-proof harvest in just 8 weeks! (Here are some of the fastest - there are many other ideas in the general 'What to Sow Now' list for February above, which can be started now to crop later - such as baby carrots, chards, beets and perpetual spinach beet)
Loose-leaf lettuce, salad mixes and lettuce mixes.These are widely available in many seed ranges, but are very cheap (often less than half the price) from DIY chains). Good sources of organic loose leaf lettuce seeds are Brown Envelope Seeds here in Ireland, and Real Seeds UK.
Endive and chicories for baby leaves
Broccoli Raab - small broccoli-like flower buds
Oriental veg or salad mixes - usually available as either spicy or sweet mixes.
Mizuna, Mustards, Tatsoi and Texsel Greens
Kales for baby leaves
Radishes can be sown in modules inside now and planted in pots or sown direct in pots.
Peas for pea shoots
Scallions or spring onions
Collards or loose-leaf cabbages
Watercress can be grown very easily by rooting some shoots in water from supermarket salad bags. Just remove the lower leaves, put in a jar of water for a few days an they will grow new roots from the stems. Then pot them up in some organic peat-free compost, keep frost-free anywhere in reasonable light and they'll be producing plenty of lovely new shoots for salads etc. by the middle of March.
(For baby leaf lettuce or cut and come again use - DON'T cut the whole head with scissors as usually recommended. Doing this slows up growth a lot at this time of year as the plant needs it's leaves to photosynthesize - just pick one or two leaves from each plant, as this won't affect growth too much and the plant will repay you by providing a harvest for longer.)
You could sow all sorts of seeds as microgreens - just as we used to sow mustard and cress as children on damp kitchen towel in small containers - these will be ready to harvest about a week to ten days after sowing. Any veg or herb seeds can be used for growing microgreens and they are often far higher in nutrients than their full-grown counterparts.
You can also sprout seeds like sunflower, amaranth, peas, mung beans, alfalfa, fenugreek, mustard, kales etc. - these can be ready from 2-3 days. Soak for a few hours or overnight in jars, cover with muslin held onto the jar with rubber band to avoid losing them down sink when draining, and be sure to rinse and drain them well regularly - twice a day or more, to prevent possible mould or disease.
It goes without saying that using organic seed for either sprouting or microgreens is best, as apart from being far more healthy and vigorous - non-organic seed may be pre-treated with pesticides!
Buy potted herbs in supermarkets, split them up and grow on in pots (see my How to grow Basil article here: )
Some supermarkets sell growing lettuce in compost cubes in their veg departments. These aren't organic, but if you plant them in organic peatfree compost and cut off the tops immediately - then the leaves that grow afterwards will be as good as organic!
An excellent, fast-growing, salad potato is Lady Christl, and is the fastest potato to bulk up. Seed tubers can be started now in pots and you could be harvesting new potatoes from these in as little as 8 weeks!
Apples should store for at least 6-8 weeks in a cold place or the salad drawer of your fridge. Granny Smith are the best for this, sweeter apples like Gala or Pink Lady don't store as well.
Plant buying - if you plan to import any plants from the UK
I would advise doing so as soon as possible and certainly before March 29th, as many nurseries may not yet have the right paperwork in place and also the costs of inspections and phytosanitary certificates will undoubtedly increase after then. Currently all plants throughout the EU have plant passports which apply EU-wide - but this will change with regard to UK-grown stock immediately after Brexit.
(Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)