The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in December - 2019

 

Contents:  Beneficial Bedfellows - Nature loves Diversity!.... There is no healthy life or a healthy planet without a healthy soil!... Early propagation in my Polytunnel Potager last year!.... Despite low light levels now - there's still plenty of healthy food to eat in the polytunnel..... Lovely luscious leaves.... Midwinter tunnels.... You can start sowing seeds again in late December.... Good housekeeping keeps down disease - so keep clearing up any rubbish!....Looking after biodiversity is important - even in a polytunnel! 

 

Sweetcorn 30th September this year - pollinated and swelling nicely. Interplanted with 'Scarlette' Chinese cabbage Interplanting lettuces like loose-leaf & little gem with different times of maturity & types of growth gives a longer harvest Late polytunnel celery, interplanted with landcress & red Lollo lettuce. 20th Sept
Lettuce 'Little Gem' interplanted with baby leeks in containers Leeks interplanted with lettuce which will be harvested before leeks mature Pumpkins & squashes interplanted with sweetcorn - mid June polytunnel



Beneficial Bedfellows - Nature Loves Diversity!

 

A few years ago I worked out that if you spend an average of 25 euros a week on organic vegetables that you could be growing yourself - then even a medium sized polytunnel will pay for itself quite quickly.  In practise that means if any size of polytunnel doesn't pay for itself within roughly 2 years in terms of produce & money save on the food budget - then it's not being properly utilised!  So suing every inch pays off.  The latest soil science also shows that keeping the surface of soil covered at all times either with a growing crop or with other plants such as green manures like clover - or even just a mulch, benefits the soil and the plants, as it increases the activity and diversity of all the soil organisms like bacteria and fungi which benefit the health of the plants.

 

Luckily this is something I've done for many years, as I started off my organic growing originally in a tiny garden - needing to grow as much of our own food as possible for my allergic first child.  So I learnt very quickly how to get the most use out of every inch of my space - and intercropping or interplanting or overlapping crops is the best way to do it. That was over 40 years ago - these days some people claim to have invented it and have given it the hip new name of 'Polyculture' - but basically it's exactly the same thing!  The crops can be annual, perennial or permanent such as fruit bushes or trees. It doesn't really follow any rules except the obvious one of rotating annual crops which I still stick to - as it makes more sense to me from the point of view of using the soil in a diverse manner - not depleting the same nutrients constantly, and also for avoiding diseases and nematodes which can build up if you grow the same crop every year in the same space.

 

I see a lot of articles promoting this way of growing now, some from authors who may not have even done it judging by some of the things they recommend growing together!  There's nothing like experience to teach you what works and what doesn't - but it's mostly common sense. Intercropping tall plants with lower-growing, shade loving ones always works really well - as long as the plants you use enjoy the same growing conditions, such as the type of soil needed. The combination I see constantly cited is the famous native American Indian 'Three Sisters' combination - of sweetcorn, climbing beans and squashes grown together. It may work well in the hot, sunny and dry conditions of American prairie summers - but doesn't work here. It may look impressive for a couple of weeks to show admiring visitors but that's about it!  You might get small crop but you won't get a good crop from any of them, and depending on the year - you may get a lot of disease. Growing tall plants together doesn't work in Ireland as they need plenty of above-ground space for air circulation etc.

 

Good air circulation is something that's even more vital in a polytunnel, no matter what the time of year, otherwise disease can set in rapidly in the often damp air. Over the years though - I've found that growing crops and flowers all mixed up together is definitely the way to get the best out of the tunnel, and including lots of flowers for beneficial insects in the mix as well means I also have edible flowers all year round, and all the pest control I need - because Nature appreciates the natural diversity and does it all for me!  The photos above show a few examples of combinations of crops which I have used a lot for many years, both in the polytunnel and outside, and which work very well for me.  You may come up with lots more combos of your favourite crops - it's fun to experiment - and Nature will thank you for it!  

 

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

 

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

 

There is no healthy life or a healthy planet without a healthy soil - it should be World Soil Day every day!

 

The two contrasting pictures above show an example of how any soil can be healed - even one so seriously degraded that it is almost devoid of all life! The picture on the left shows the totally exhausted and lifeless soil which I started off with here 39 years ago - so badly degraded and impoverished by over 20 years of 'industrial farming' and poisoned with Glyphosate and other agri-chemicals - that not even weeds wanted to grow! The picture on the right shows a lump of that very same soil, which I had carefully saved an example of, sitting on a bed of the soil which I now have - a vitally alive, healthy, carbon and humus-rich soil full of the vital microbial life that keeps both plants and humans healthy. I knew by the time we moved here - from my own seven years of organic gardening and also by watching how Nature works - that soil can be restored to healthy life gradually by feeding it with natural plant wastes and composts. I'm not superwoman, I'm now partially disabled and don't have any help here. It won't take you 39 years - it can be done! And from the moment you start to heal your soil you will become part of the solution - and not part of the problem. The health of the entire planet - as well as the health of all biodiversity including humans - depends on a healthy soil that contains all the active microorganism in it which can sequester carbon, storing it in the ground. The healthier soil is - the more effective it is at doing that. Without a healthy soil - we can't grow healthy crops full of the vital nutrients - vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients - which our bodies evolved to eat in order to keep us healthy.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Trying to reduce our carbon footprint can begin at home - because we all have to eatl! We can't turn back the clock - but we CAN ensure a future infinitely better than it otherwise will be if we do nothing. I know that as gardeners or even just as consumers we can all do something. Act globally but think locally is the mantra of the Green Party. As co-founder of our local Fingal Green Party - that has always been my mantra too, and being a practical person - I find it helps to physically do something when I'm stressed-out from worrying about bigger issues which I can't personally control. 

 

Organically-managed soils have massive potential to capture and store carbon - and the more we support organic agriculture - the greater the chance is that our children will have a viable future on this planet, which is the only home we have. I believe that if only half the resources had been put into inventing technology to deal with the challenges we face with climate change that have been put into space exploration - we could have halted the steep rise in the greenhouse gases and already have the problem if not fixed - then at least it's rapid progression halted. Instead of that scientists seem increasingly fascinated by childish fantasies of space exploration. (Landing on Mars is a total denial of the problems we face while the world is burning up - quite literally as the disastrous fires in California this year proved).

 

Early propagation in my Polytunnel Potager last year! 

   
   
New arrivals - the chicks at only one day old Chicks only 4 days old but growing so fast - I'll soon have to make their nursery enclosure bigger! The males have a white spot on their head
New arrivals - the chicks at only one day old last December - so cute! Chicks only 4 days old but growing so fast - I soon had to make their nursery enclosure bigger! The males had a white spot on their head as baby chicks



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

 

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

 

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

 

However, the more I thought about it - the less happy I was with buying day-old female chicks from the only source of them here in Ireland. It is a hatchery which although good, was routinely discarding the male chicks, which is normal practice for any hatchery providing female laying hens for the commercial egg-laying sector.  As male chicks are usually approximately 50% of all those hatched, this means that on average, 50% of the chicks are just wasted - either thrown into a bin or ground up in a roller - often without being gassed first in some instances! That being so, when I called to order them, I asked if it would be possible to have some of the male chicks, which would otherwise have just literally been thrown away! This is something which I've never done before, and I knew there was a distinct possibility that they wouldn't make much of a chicken - but I felt I must try it purely as an experiment!  We've been programmed in recent times to expect a buxom, large-breasted chicken, but whatever they look like, and however skinny they are - they'll still be chicken! As I remarked to my son - whatever kind of chicken they end up looking like - they'll still have skin, liver and bones - upon which he said "Aw..ww.... Mu..m" - having just returned from admiring the seriously cute, day old chicks!... 

 

Having reared organic broilers for many years and compared them to the much racier-looking Rhode Island Red cockerels that my father used to rear - I was realistic and knew that these laying hybrids weren't going to look like your average supermarket chicken. But neither would they taste like them either!  However little meat they produced - it would taste damn good and will be totally organic - even if it only made soup! In the Far East where chickens originated - they don't look like supermarket chickens either. They race around the jungle villages doing what chickens naturally do - looking very lean and fit  - but they still provide nutritious meat and bones for the people who raise them! My 'skinny hybrid chickens' were going to have the happiest, most pampered life here that any chicken could possibly have, and when their time to be useful had come, they would be gently removed from their perch in the middle of the night when they're naturally dozy, and dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible - so they wouldn't know a thing about it.  Perhaps 'skinny hybrid chicken' could become a fashion statement like 'skinny jeans'?  A sort of badge of ethical omnivore-ism - to counteract some of the more vile vegan criticism I got on Twitter!  For me - if they were just going to make enough of something edible to justify the cost of their feed - then I would be more than happy and would have proved a point.

 

As an ethical omnivore, eating only higher-welfare organic meat - even if only 2-3 days a week - I believe that a system which discards half of all stock bred simply cannot be justified on welfare, environmental, or sustainability grounds. While organic production doesn't generally have to justify it's methods - I believe that ALL meat production, whether for organic or any other system does. Quite apart from the fact that we should constantly strive to improve standards of all organic production - for animal welfare reasons alone this is something which we must take a hard look at and seriously improve. Anyone who eats meat is now under constant attack from some of the militant, more recently 'converted', what I call 'fashion-vegan' elements of society. While I despise some of the more uninformed 'fashion-vegans' - those who openly don't care about the environment or pesticides  - which frankly I find astonishing given that all pesticides are routinely and cruelly tested on animals!

 

I feel that they do actually have a point though when it comes to the case of animals which are industrially-bred, but then routinely discarded as they are considered non-viable for commercial production. When I posted the first picture of my chicks with my comment about this on Twitter - I was thrilled to discover that there is now a firm in the Netherlands who have very recently started rearing both male and female chicks of a new, dual-purpose hybrid chicken which I hadn't heard of, for commercial, state of the art, environmentally sustainable production. They have done a deal to provide chicken to Lidl - so it must definitely be cost-effective!  Although their chickens are not organic, as they are fed on some conventional food waste. I think that this really is something that organic production should be emulating.  As long as the chickens have plenty of space to do everything they need to in order to be healthy and happy, as they seem to have in this system - even if they can't be moved constantly to fresh ground as I do my small flock - green food could be grown elsewhere to provide that missing element of their feed. Seeing the pictures of it reminded me somewhat of the system I used to use to raise my organic broilers in one of my polytunnels years ago - but much more hi-tech! The chickens loved lazing around in the warm dry sunshine and venturing outside for a snack whenever they felt like it - it was like the chicken equivalent of the Riviera! 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I loved watching my little 'Christmas presents to me' growing!  I could sit watching their antics for hours - especially in the first few days - when like toddlers they try to do all the things that 'grown-up' hens do, like preening their feathers - then wobble and fall over!  But most especially - I loved knowing that each of the hens would have the best life possible, and provide me with at least 1,000 eggs each during their lifetime of 3 years or more, and also that the cockerels would have a lovely free-range life until they were ready for the table. In fact - they made wonderful table birds, with a totally different flavour and texture of meat than normal even organic chickens. It was much darker and more like the texture of fillet steak or duck - but tasting of chicken.  

 

The hens have really thrived, each of them laying eggs almost every day since last April, and have more than earned their keep. They really are the best hens I've ever had anddeserve being treated like the princesses they are!  I gave them a broccoli birthday party today as they are one year old, and it's their favourite food!  So our egg security is hopefully assured for the next few years!  Especially with new reinforced runs and some effectively 'fox-proof', solar-powered electric fencing! I may get some more of the cockerels for producing 5 star chicken meat next autumn - depending on what happens over Brexit!  If it happens before then, I won't be able to up to the North of Ireland any more to the hatchery - such a tragedy for the few chicks that I would have saved from being dumped at birth, and given a lovely life for a few months. My son has threatened to go on strike if I get any before that, as the ones I got last year started crowing at 3 a.m. last April and it was a while until we had them all finally gone because I had broken my ankle baldy in mid-March!

 

 Hens first birthday broccoli party!

 Hens first birthday broccoli party!

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

 

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

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

 

 

 




 


 

Lovely luscious leaves


  
 


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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 
 
 
 
Midwinter tunnels
 

Midwinter tunnels

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

 

You can start sowing seeds again in late December

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

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

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

 

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

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

Looking after biodiversity is important - even in a polytunnel! 

 
 
The tunnel is a lovely sheltered place to sit and relax and get one's recommended daily 20 mins of daylight - even in the very depths of winter. Particularly if all the cheery Christmas crowds and constant 'muzak' get a bit much! Definitely 'in heavenly peace' I can't bear shopping centres at Christmas - or in fact at any other time!  At midday on a frosty but sunny day one can almost believe it's spring - with a few winter pansies, cyclamen, primroses or perennial wallflowers in full bloom, wafting their scent around you - and the birds singing while waiting for their turn on the feeders just outside the doors!  Hellebores in pots are already flowering. I have my chair arranged so that I can watch their antics.  A robin always appears hopefully as soon as I venture inside - he's expecting me to start hoeing! Growing mini-gardens full of wildlife friendly flowers and herbs at the ends and in the corners looks lovely and doesn't cast any shade on crops. It creates a far more natural environment - attracting in all manner of beneficial creatures. A few days ago on a still, mild day - there was even a brave bumble bee in there - so I was glad there were some flowers for her.  Adventurous bees are so grateful for any winter flowers.
 
 
One of the most important items to have in a polytunnel is the comfortable seat in a sunny spot at one end! There, you can sit and make plans for next year - dreaming of all the abundant and delicious riches to come - snug as you like in the winter sun! Who needs a carbon-guzzling expensive winter sun holiday when you can have a sunny and productive polytunnel instead? - Not me!!
 
 
  
Many people lose interest in the winter and leave their tunnels full of the sad, dead and disease-ridden remains of last summer's crops! Doing this is just storing up trouble for next year! A tunnel or greenhouse is a very expensive investment - every possible inch of it should be used positively and productively all year round!  
 
 

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

  

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

What to sow in December - 2019

Pink kale microgreens for winter salads.

Pink kale microgreens for winter salads - so easy to sow nutritious microgreens all year round even in a small space

 

Inside or in the polytunnel

 
 

On the kitchen windowsill you can sow sprouting seeds - or 'microgreen' baby salads. They're super-nutritious and easy to grow in small trays of organic compost or paper towels - just as we all used to grow mustard and cress as children. Seeds such as sunflower, red amaranth, beetroot, basil, broccoli, kale, radish and of course mustard and cress etc. are all suitable and if they can be started now, may be ready for Christmas salads and garnishes. 

 

Sprouting seeds in jars is also very easy to do, and sprouted seeds are a highly nutritious and healthy addition to winter salads. Make sure you use organic seeds which won't have been treated with any pesticides. Also make sure that you rinse them thoroughly and regularly though, particularly if you have the jars in a warm place - preferably rinse them at least 2/3 times a day with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or disease possibly building-up. 

 

'St. Stephen's' - or 'Boxing Day' has always been the traditional day for sowing giant exhibition onions and pot leeks - if you're into those!  I prefer mine a bit smaller and tastier! Although it's a very neat way to avoid the washing up perhaps - and cold turkey might be a bit more appealing after an hour or two outside!  Or alternatively - you could actually sow them on a table somewhere in the house. They take 2-3 weeks to germinate and won't need any heat by being sown in the house, which saves energy that you would otherwise use by putting them in a propagator. They only need to go out into good light when they have germinated.

 

If you're absolutely desperate to sow something this month and have a greenhouse or tunnel with a heated mat or propagator that provides very gentle bottom heat - no more than 50 deg F/10 deg C - then you could in theory sow suitable types of winter lettuces like 'Winter Gem' (little gem type) and  'Rosetta' - (a reliable indoor winter butter head) Seed of these F1 hybrids is very expensive and you don't get many in a packet - so sowing individually into modules is definitely the safest, most cost-effective method. Sowing individually in modules also gives seedlings better air circulation, avoids any damage from 'pricking out' seedlings causing possible 'damping off disease'. Having larger plants in modules for planting later also reduces the risk of slug damage. Wait another couple of weeks though, germinate them in the house and when put out into your greenhouse or tunnel, the light will produce better seedlings.

 

Frankly, the light levels are so poor now that it's really not worth risking expensive F1 seed! - Those sown in another month or so will easily catch up, be much healthier and far more sturdy, because light levels will be higher. Commercial growers would obviously give these seedlings artificial light and heat - but I don't think that any lettuce grown with so much artificial heat and light is worth the resulting climate changing greenhouse gas emissions - particularly if we get a sudden very cold spell. You could try a few cheap lettuce, oriental salad mixes or other salad leaves like rocket if you want to, or even broad beans or peas in pots if you haven't done any yet - germinating inside in gentle warmth initially and then putting them out into the light as soon as they've appeared. Realistically though, you're not really going to gain very much if anything at all by sowing right now - wait until the very end of the month or early January 2019 - then plants they stand a far better chance of successfully growing on and being healthy and productive. Most things are barely 'ticking over' right now. In another month - with light levels increasing they will start to grow far better even though it'- will still be cold. 

 

Far better instead to spend your time instead making a really good cropping plan, comparing the catalogues, ordering seeds and seed potatoes. Popular varieties always sell out quickly. Sorting pots and seed trays into sizes and cleaning them is also a great job you can do now to be prepared for seed sowing later.

 

Outside

 
You can sow any perennial tree or shrub seeds that may require stratification (frost exposure) in cold weather outside. Many hardy seeds need a really cold spell to germinate. Some will germinate surprisingly quickly. Make sure you protect them well from any hungry rodents!
 
 
It's well worth trying trees and shrubs from seed - many germinate far better from fresh seed than they will from any you can ever buy from catalogues.
 
 
Garlic cloves can still be sown/planted now both outside and also in tunnels, greenhouses or cold frames, for a really early crop of big bulbs next year - most varieties need some cold weather for good root development. Thermidrome and Cristo are my varieties of choice to plant before the New Year - both are strong-flavoured. The only one I've ever grown really successfully from a spring planting though, is 'Cristo'. 
 
 
Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from this year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres. Do NOT use supermarket bought bulbs which will most likely be unsuitable for this climate or may even carry in diseases like onion white rot. This can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and be spread around the garden on your boots!  For the same reason I don't use onion sets outside in the garden at all.
 
 
If you want some extra early onions - then grow some sets in pots or containers. That way they'll be even earlier than they would be if grown in the ground and if you're unlucky enough to get any diseases you can just throw the compost into the food/green waste recycling bin - rather than spreading it around the garden! I grow all my onions from seed sown in early March - this avoids the possibility of onion white rot. There is some evidence now which suggests that garlic may gradually adjust to local climates - so if you find one when you're on holiday that you like and fancy growing it - then plant it in a pot the first year to make absolutely sure it's healthy - and later on plant it out in the garden. Always make sure it has really healthy looking green leaves - not yellow and stunted, twisted or yellow spotted which would indicate virus infection.
 
 
Similarly, if you see any evidence of disease or virus on any bought in garlic or onion sets pull them up immediately and dispose of in the food recycling bin - not onto your compost heap! 
 
 
St. Stephen's Day was also when many of the old gardeners used to plant their shallots. I prefer to wait a couple of months because onion white rot is encouraged by low soil temperatures combined with wet weather, and if I'm buying in shallots sets I want to minimize that risk as far as possible. They can also be started off in pots just like garlic, planting out later for extra big clumps at harvest time, or grown on in containers.
 
 
The seed catalogues are arriving through the letterbox now - I read them eagerly by the fire in the evenings. Although I prefer a catalogue that I can have in my hand - the choice available online is almost limitless now.  Some serious self-control and realism is needed to curb my wildly over-optimistic 'plantaholic' tendencies! They're all just so tempting, that moderation is extremely difficult!  I discovered a website actually selling 600 varieties of tomatoes some years ago - OMG! I left the site after about 15 minutes of painfully groaning...."I want that one - and that one - and that one"!  Hard to believe that I swore 7 years ago that I never, ever wanted to grow tomatoes again (or at least not for a very long time) after growing almost 50 varieties for the Tomato Festival in the difficult 'summer' of 2012! Then having to cook all of them afterwards for the freezer - I'd really had enough of them by that stage! But the problem is, there's always that enticing possibility that I might just find an even better one!...... A bit like childbirth I suppose  - it's amazing how quickly one forgets!!  But seriously - do get your seed orders done early now - before Christmas. Growing your own has never been more popular and the best varieties, or those recommended in magazines - not always the best varieties, but often those the seed companies want to push - will sell out quickly.


You may have your own favourites that do well in your particular local climate and conditions. Although each year I try a few new things, or new variations of old favourites that look as if they may be promising - as a rule I generally only recommend varieties that I've grown successfully for at least 3 years, as that generally gives me a good idea of how they'll perform. So many of the seed companies and garden writers who review the catalogues live in the south of the UK - where temperatures and conditions there are normally very different to here in Ireland!  Prices tend to vary a lot too - some varieties can vary by as much as €2 a packet - so it's worth doing comparisons and shopping around!  You'll kick yourself if you order something and then discover it's far cheaper somewhere else!  It's surprising how costs mount up when you're doing a big seed order. 
 
 
Sharing an order with friends is a good idea too - since seed companies often put far too much seed in the packets sold for amateur gardeners - who on earth needs between 200-400 seeds of celery for instance?  Or 300 cape gooseberry seeds! Couldn't they just reduce the amount and reduce the price correspondingly?  Particularly so, since seed of some things like celery, carrots, parsnips etc, don't keep for very long - losing their viability very quickly once opened. If you're on holiday in Europe - it's ell worth seeking out a garden centre and looking at the seeds available there. A few years ago on my last holiday abroad (I haven't had a 'fly to' one for over 17 years now - it's hard to justify the carbon) I found seeds incredibly cheap - just €1 for massive 'grower'-sized packets! Make sure they're varieties you recognise though - or said to be early-maturing ones, as some may need a much warmer climate then ours in northern Europe. Not worth wasting space for a whole season on something that produces too late to ripen, or to crop well - if it crops at all.
 
 
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.

Keeping Back Garden Hens for Organic Egg Production – the Basics

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Some housing options: 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 FEEDING

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

What breed of hen is best?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

What equipment will you need apart from housing?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomato Report 2017

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

Bush varieties

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

Tomato 'Maskotka'

Tomato 'Maskotka'

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

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

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



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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cherry and cherry plum varieties

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Urgent message for all fans of Rosada F1Tomato!

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

How to easily make an affordable home wormery

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

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


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

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

How to Mend Damaged Polytunnels

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

'From Tunnel to Table Autumn Special' A Polytunnel walk in the East tunnel.

Gerry Kelly & I chatting about seasonal crops & planting for winter - in our 'From Tunnel to Table' Autumn Special
 
As it's late autumn and so many people have asked me about winter polytunnel crops - this month I've decided to depart from my usual format and share the notes with you which I always send to Gerry Kelly before our programme on LMFM Radio - which aired last week. Gerry then chooses what he wants to talk about. The notes are a full run down of what's in the tunnels right now - which I've slightly amended to make them more intelligible (I hope) because Gerry is used to my notes by now - but they're still slightly in shorthand compared to my usual style of writing!  I think they do give a flavour of what's going on in there at the moment though. As time for adverts always tends to cut down on our air time too - a lot tends to get left out - which is a pity but can't be helped!  I will put the more usual stuff on the blog in the next few days. You can listen to our chat and the more 'ad lib' programme here:  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/listen
 
 
Polytunnel - general comments
 
Firstly - as I'm always saying - this garden isn't a show garden it's a food-producing garden. It never has huge swathes with neat rows of crops as 1. I no longer grow commercially and 2. I never did plant like that!  It does however grow plenty of food for my family - with enough spare to often share with friends and also for wildlife. It's therefore always a work 'in progress'!  If you came to see it - you would probably be hugely disappointed - as it looks far from perfect!
 
 
Autumn planting is well under way in the polytunnels - it's sad to see the end of summer but we're looking forward to some great winter food not just for us but also for any bumblebees that will venture out on mild days. I have lots of flowers planted for them too.  With lots of flowers all around the polytunnels to attract in bees & beneficial insects - that's why I almost never see any pests. The hoverflies, frogs, sparrows and other small birds that come in, because of the insects attracted by the flowers, are a very effective army of pest controllers.
 
 
All the flowers in the polytunnels also lift my spirits in winter - a time when many people feel a bit low. Many studies have shown that spending some time outside every day with gentle exercise, even in winter, is good for our mental and physical health. So a spot of gardening in a nice warm, dry space, with some colourful flowers to look at, bees buzzing and birdsong to listen to as well, is just what the doctor ordered and something we really need in the middle of winter!
 
 
There are also clumps of nettles in odd corners which provide nettle aphids which are very valuable early spring food for ladybirds. Those aphids are specific to nettles and don't live on anything else - but ladybirds are so grateful for them when there's little other food around, as they can eat all sorts of aphids! When the ladybird larvae have chomped their way through the nettle aphids - which are normally the earliest to appear every year - then there is often other food for them to eat. Or at least I think there must be - because I rarely see any aphids around after that! Some butterflies also over winter on the nettles as chrysalises which then hatch out in spring.
 
 
Just as I do in the garden outside - I try to make my polytunnels as natural an ecosystem as possible - just mimicking nature in miniature really - because everything in nature is connected - with everything living depending on everything else. In that way it all works well in a wonderfully evolved symbiosis - or mutually beneficial relationship - which helps me to grow all of our food as naturally as possible - without any pesticides.It's a sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" situation!  (ps - This is an aside not in the programme notes! -  I was furious a few years ago when a very rude visitor remarked behind my back to his wife on seeing all the nettles - "that if this was his garden - he would do a bit of weeding"!  Unfortunately for him my son was at the back of the party I was showing round the garden and heard that remark! With hindsight now I laugh about it as he was demonstrating not just his bad manners in return for my hospitality - but also showing his total ignorance of how nature works. Not surprising I suppose though - for someone who sold a lot of pesticides!!!
 
 
 
Walking in at the south end - the propagating/potting tables on either side of the door 
 
 
Lots of veg seedlings still sitting around in pots or modules waiting for the last of the summer crops to come out before they can be planted. Things like multi-sown Ragged Jack kale - this is a useful way of sowing for lots of things to be cropped as baby salad leaves. As I always save my own seed of this and many other salads - I can be generous with the seed. Lots of things can be sown this way - especially things like fast growing Oriental salad mixes and spinach - which by the way can still be sown now. (These can also be left to flower early next spring to provide welcome early pollen and nectar for bees.) You have to be careful with multi-sowing things like lettuces though - as these need slightly better spacing and air circulation or they can get diseases caused by damp. I always sow three to a module with these - to make sure I have them - and then thin them to just one seedling per module as soon as they're large enough to handle without damaging the others. There are also peas sown a week ago in pots (to avoid mouse damage) - for a late crop of pea shoots - these are Oregon Sugar Pod which is a good variety for doing this in winter. The leaves are tasty and it seems hardier than most. 
 
 
There is also garlic sprouting in modules - a variety called Lautrec which I've wanted to try for a while. I always start garlic off like this if I don't know the source of it - then if it looks virused or diseased I don't plant it. When it's sprouted - if it looks healthy then I shall plant it in a container for this year. (I found this in the Avoca shop in Dunboyne. They sell a great variety of organic veg there & also have a lovely garden centre & cafe if you're in the locality.) There are also some tomato cuttings I rooted in water a few weeks ago - these will be potted on now and brought into the house in the next week or so before frosts, where I hope they will come through the winter and be very early next year as the Rosada did last year.
 
In addition there are also some Violetta and Red Emmalie potatoes for Christmas - up out of the way of marauding mice on a small stepladder - (last week they dug up and ate some of the Red Duke of York I had planted earlier!) They are both second-early varieties which usually do well. Mice can't reach them up there! It's what's known as the organic 'barrier method' of pest prevention!! 
 
 
Middle S.E. Bed on right
 
 
All the beds have moved round in their yearly rotation so this bed is now winter lettuce - mostly a great variety called Jack Ice a lovely crisp variety like a non-hearting Iceberg type lettuce - this means it's more nutritious as all the leaves are green - not blanched and white like an Iceberg lettuce!'  Also Red Oak Leaf lettuce in the middle. It's all inter-planted with a garlic variety called Morado - an organic high-Allicin producing variety which I got from Fruit Hill Farm which is available online. Allicin is the strongly-smelling active ingredient in garlic which is very good for our health - boosting our immune system and circulation - and keeping away colds & flu. The garlic will continue to grow on after the lettuce has all been harvested in early spring and will be harvested as soon as it produces usable bulbs in late spring/earl;y summer and our stored bulbs are finished. Green garlic - with the leaves still green - has a delicious flavour. I think the garlic may also even possibly help to keep root aphids away.
 
There's celery planted at the door end where it is slightly lower and cooler, as this was planted while the weather was quite warm and kept well-watered. I only grow a few plants and only ever cut sticks as I need them - I never cut whole plants. This way there's always outside sticks available for cooking throughout the winter - with some more tender, inner ones for salads. At the other end of the bed near the middle of the tunnel there is purple Perilla - a lovely spicy herb with an indefinable curry/basil/anise/lemony taste which is fabulous in salads and other dishes. I always leave it to do it's own thing and seed itself where it likes. I then dig up any seedlings I want as for some reason it's very difficult to grow from seed and does it far better itself!
 
 
Inter-planting is something which I've done for 40 years now. A few years ago someone re-named it polyculture - but basically it's the same thing! I first discovered it was a great way to grow things when I only had a tiny garden - and as I've already mentioned - I still plant every part of my garden and even the polytunnels like that. Just like a tiny garden that I have to cram as much as possible into! It makes the most of the available space by growing something very upright that will crop later in between something like lettuce which is harvested earlier. Then there are also the perennials - like grapevines and peaches in the tunnels too. 
 
 
Far right S.E. bed - side of tunnel
 
I'll be sowing a green manure called Phacelia in this bed next week to improve it's fertility and humus content - as it tends to dry out quite quickly. This is a much better way to improve soil fertility than just lashing on masses of manure! Too much nitrogen unbalances the nutrients in soil and can cause some important soil bacteria and other soil life to die out. When it's cut down and forked in lightly early in the New Year, the worms will gradually work it in - magnifying it's nutrients and turning it into moisture-retaining humus. 
 
 
Left-hand S.W. bed
 
This is all brassicas - the cabbage family - broccoli, Chinese greens etc. this year - this bed will be tomatoes next year as they follow on well from brassicas. 
 
 
It's important to plan your rotations well even in a small polytunnel as this is another good way to prevent a build-up of pests and diseases. Growing veg in rotation means making sure that you don't grow any veg family in the same spot more than once every four years. With things like the tomato family (solanaceae) sometimes this can be a problem as there's so many of that family that we want to grow - tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, potatoes etc - I overcome this by growing some of them in containers - especially peppers and aubergines which seem to do better in containers - I think that's because the roots are warmer and the drainage is much better.
 
 
Growing right next to path here where it's easy to pick anytime is watercress - a plant that most people don't realise is actually a member of the cabbage family - this is one of the mainstays of our winter diet. It's higher in healthy nutrients than any other green veg - lovely raw in salads and also great for soups and sauces - it's so versatile that we use it a lot. 
 
Next to that is the multi-coloured Pak Choi called 'Vibrant Joy' (from Real Seeds) with very tender juicy leaves - again great in salads. Next to that in the middle of the bed is the Chinese Cabbage Scarlette - a fabulous-coloured, sweet-tasting new variety I grew for the first time last year - very high in phytonutrients. It's great in stir fries and salads. 
 
On the left of these will be Green Magic broccoli - coming on nicely in modules now and soon to be planted. That will crop until late April/early May.
 
To the far left of these at the side of the tunnel waiting to be planted are lots more plants and seedlings in pots and modules - looking a bit of a mess really!
 
 
Middle tunnel 
 
The last grapes are ripening - a late seedless variety called Flame. These are trained at 1m high along the sides where they don't shade anything & produce huge crops.
 
 
Top right middle bed
 
Courgettes - yellow Atena & a green one Ambassador (some of which we eat in the pizza recipe for the programme) - these have been cropping well since early May and should go on another few weeks unless we get really cold weather. I always plant two varieties to ensure I get good pollination (explained in programme) After they come out I have a terrific winter spinach called Viroflex (again Real Seeds) - growing on in modules which will crop until next April and some more lettuce. If they're still cropping I shall pot the spinach on into small pots.
 
 
Far right N.E. bed
 
This will also be brassicas - multi-sown Ragged Jack Kale to provide baby leaves for salads or stir fries all through the winter and then delicious flower shoots like broccoli in spring. Currently there is some green oak leaf lettuce cropping there and also some loose-leaf winter 'collard' cabbage to harvest after Christmas. There's also some late-sown purple sprouting broccoli - all still growing on in modules at the moment. Both are much more productive in the tunnel in late winter as we can be very windy here. As I have eight beds in the polytunnel - a four course rotation works well in here.
 
 
Left middle bed
 
 
All the tomatoes have gone now and have been replaced by Ruby Chard Vulcan - another very nutritious mainstay of our winter diet. This is planted either side of the bed with Sugar Loaf chicory down the middle.  The hens love the outside leaves of this and we eat the smaller middle leaves and hearts in salads all winter until April. There are Welsh onions to provide tasty salad and stir-fry green onions planted between the chard - and again this bed is also inter-planted with garlic. 'Layering' and 'inter-planting' crops again.
 
 
Far left bed 
 
Here the brilliant bush tomato variety Chiquito is still ripening late fruit - this is wonderful for cooking and also freezing for cooking over the winter. We're eating some of this in the sauce which is an ingredient of today's recipe.
 
 
Top end
 
 
Poor Gerry missed the hundreds of peaches!  We've had a phenomenal crop - the best ever! I spent about 4 weeks dehydrating a crate of them every night during August and early Sept. The older branches will be pruned out next week - I haven't had time to do this yet - then the younger green shoots which will carry the crop next year will be pulled down into a horizontal position. I do this while the shoots are still pliable and before the buds start to swell each year. 
 
 
Just worth mentioning here is that peaches grow really well in a polytunnel or greenhouse because they never get peach leaf curl which is caused by rain washing fungus spores into the buds as they open in spring if they're growing outside. They're easy to keep as small as you want them to be too, as they have to be pruned every year to take out the older growth. Peaches fruit best on the younger green wood formed the previous year. I wouldn't be without them - they're a real treat and with organic peaches at least €1 each even in the height of summer - we harvested about €400 worth this year! I've now got masses of semi-dehydrated peaches in the freezer
 
 
Already I'm thinking ahead to next year's crops. It's a good idea to buy seed or order online as soon as the new catalogues come out - some varieties sell out quickly & with Christmas in between it's so easy to forget to do it!
 
 
Our recipe used some of the last of the courgette glut - new courgette recipes are always great to have at this time of year because anyone who grows them has a glut sooner or later!  You can find the recipe here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes
 
 

Totally Terrific Tomatoes - Health Benefits, Growing, Cooking, Eating & Preserving. My talk for TTTomFest17

 

 
Do you know that every single year the entire human race eats half it's own weight in tomatoes?  This astonishing fact was revealed to us by Dr. Matthew Jebb - Director of our National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin - during his fascinating and entertaining talk at the 2016 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival'.  Not only are tomatoes clearly a vitally important crop in economic terms - given how many are consumed globally - but when you look at all their many and varied health benefits they may well also be responsible more than most other fruits and vegetables for maintaining our health too!  Can you imagine a life without tomatoes and all the wonderful dishes we can make with them? Imagine a curry or Bolognese sauce without them - or even just bog-standard good old tomato sauce on your burger and chips? I certainly can't!  A life completely devoid of tomatoes would be unthinkable - and for me they are the absolute essence of summer!
 
 
It was for this reason that I came up with the idea of holding the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012 - as a way of not just celebrating their enormous and fascinating diversity but also to show how vitally important it is to preserve as much as possible of that genetic diversity. In the future, some as yet unknown disease may possibly threaten the survival of all tomatoes as a food crop - and if we have preserved their varied and valuable genetic diversity, there might just possibly be one gene - in one particular tomato variety somewhere - which could be resistant to that disease. This gene could then possibly hold the key to the survival of all tomatoes, as it could then be used to breed a new race of disease-resistant varieties. That's why genetic diversity really matters both in scientific and economic terms.  In terms of our everyday lives though - it also means that we have a delicious and diverse kaleidoscope of tomato colours, shapes, textures and flavours to choose from - all with a wide range of scientifically proven health benefits!
 
 
 
So why exactly are tomatoes so good for us?
 
 
Tomatoes are very high in health-protecting, carotenoid plant phytonutrients. The most important of those healthy nutrients is Lycopene - tomatoes are the richest dietary source of this. It is a very effective antioxidant phytochemical that can protect our body's cells from oxidative damage and from many degenerative diseases such as heart disease, premature aging, skin cancer and eye cataracts. It is also well known for it's protective action against many other cancers including kidney and prostate cancer.  
 
 
Although cooking does reduces the vitamin C in tomatoes - this heat processing can dramatically increase the bioavailability of beneficial lycopene by up to 164%! This is especially the case when combined with a natural oil or fat. So It's important when eating or cooking tomatoes to use olive oil or some other natural fat, as this increases our ability to absorb the valuable lycopene and other healthy carotenoid nutrients such as vitamin A.
 
 
Interest in the health-protecting effects of phytochemicals is growing and new phytochemicals are being discovered almost daily. There's now a great deal of interest in a relatively recently discovered compound called Tomatidine. Scientists at the University of Iowa have found that this can stimulate muscle growth and has potential as a treatment for muscle weakness due to aging and injury. So don't worry if you have lots of green tomatoes left at the end of the summer. Although they're far too acidic to eat raw - you could use them in cooked dishes as an effective anti-aging medicine! Fried green tomatoes is one famous example.
 
Tomatoes contain many other healthy nutrients - here's a chart showing the main ones:
 
 
Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), red, ripe, raw, Nutrition value per 100 g. (Source: USDA National Nutrient database)
PrincipleNutrient ValuePercentage of RDA
Energy 18 Kcal 1%
Carbohydrates 3.9 g 3%
Protein 0.9 g 1.6%
Total Fat 0.2 g 0.7%
Cholesterol 0 mg 0%
Dietary Fiber 1.2 g 3%
Vitamins  
Folates 15 µg 4%
Niacin 0.594 mg 4%
Pyridoxine 0.080 mg 6%
Thiamin 0.037 mg 3%
Vitamin A 833 IU 28%
Vitamin C 13 mg 21.5%
Vitamin E 0.54 mg 4%
Vitamin K 7.9 µg 6.5%
Electrolytes  
Sodium 5 mg >1%
Potassium 237 mg 5%
Minerals  
Calcium 10 mg 1%
Iron 0.3 mg 4%
Magnesium 11 mg 3%
Manganese 0.15 mg 6.5%
Phosphorus 24 mg 3%
Zinc 0.17 mg 1.5%
Phyto-nutrients  
Carotene-ß 449 µg --
Carotene-α 101 µg --
Lutein-zeaxanthin 123 µg --
Lycopene 2573 µg --
 
 
 
 
When cooking all my tomato dishes - or anything else requiring onions - I also only ever use organic red onions. These have by far the best flavour and are proven to be far higher in important antioxident phytonutrients than the white varieties of onions. Interestingly, some very recently published research by our own scientists here in Ireland - at Teagasc and UCC - proved that after a study of several years in all weather conditions - organically grown onions are in fact a massive 75% higher in these important antioxidant phytonutrients than conventionally grown crops! The same naturally applies to the garlic that we use in tomato dishes.
 
 
In addition to using oil or fat - I always use plenty of freshly ground, organic black peppercorns when either cooking with tomatoes or eating them fresh.  Organic peppercorns have the most incredible aroma and really bring food alive - giving it a fabulous flavour!  Whole black peppercorns are also now known to contain important phytochemicals such as Piperine & Terpenoids. Exciting new research is now investigating these naturally occurring compounds for their apparent ability to stimulate our digestive tract - thereby increasing our absorption of the healthy nutrients in tomatoes.and all other foods - as well as stimulating better absorption of many pharmaceutical medicines. As with all plant foods that we eat - organically-grown plants have been scientifically proven to be around 60% higher in all health-protecting phytochemical compounds - so the more you can add to your food the better! (If you can't find organic black peppercorns in your local supermarket - they are easily available online and well worth any slight difference in price) 
 
 
How I grow Totally Terrific Tomatoes: 
 
 
I've been growing tomatoes organically in Ireland for over forty years now and I never grow tired of their endless variety. They are such a generous fruit that even beginners can easily grow them and achieve decent crops. Each variety has different qualities and every year I'm excited by the possibility of finding an even better one for a particular use - whether it's for eating fresh, cooking, freezing or dehydrating. Below are links to my comprehensive blog post on how I grow them and also to my 'Tomato Report' - which I update at the end of the tomato season every year:
 
 
 
Here is the link to my Tomato Report - these are the varieties which I have found grow well in Ireland in a polytunnel, in our less than ideal climate and which in my opinion have the best flavour. If they grow well and taste good here - then they will do pretty much anywhere - trust me!:
 
 
 
 
Recipes - here are links to some of my most useful and popular recipes:
 
 
My now famous Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce - the easiest, most useful and versatile tomato sauce you will ever make! If you don't grow tomatoes - just like eating them - this sauce can easily be made with tinned or bottled tomatoes with equal success. Also on this page is my easy and delicious version of Aubergine Parmigiana - using TTT sauce. : http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes/372-totally-terrific-tomato-sauce-from-tunnel-to-table-recipe-for-august
 
Roast Ratatouille 3 Ways (including tomatoes - including a useful and easy pasta sauce recipe, combining Totally Terrific Tomato sauce with Roast Ratatouille from the freezer for times when you want a convenient ready meal because you don't feel like cooking!      http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes/367-roast-ratatouille-4-ways-from-tunnel-to-table-recipe-for-july
 
 
My methods of Preserving Tomatoes:
 
 
Whether you grow your own tomatoes or buy them in a shop - the first rule of storing tomatoes for just even a few days is NEVER to keep them in the fridge! I always feel like screaming when I see this done in shops! It absolutely ruins their flavour because it stops the action of the compounds that contribute to their flavour and also stops them ripening any more. Always keep them above 10 deg C/55 deg F and below 29.5 deg C/85 deg F as below or above those temperatures stops them ripening. If you keep them out of the fridge at normal kitchen temperature - then even if they are the usual not-so-tasty, shop-bought tomatoes which are usually picked slightly under-ripe - they should go on ripening a bit more. Placing them in a bag with a brown over-ripe banana may also help if they are very unripe, as the banana gives off ethylene gas which triggers ripening in all fruit. (Works for avocados too)
 
I don't make jams or chutneys with tomatoes here because these generally require a lot of sugar to make them.  We try limit our consumption of added sugars here to an absolute minimum - eating as few insulin-stimulating highly processed carbohydrates and free sugars as possible, within practical limits.
 
 
Freezing:
 
 
Apart from being frozen cooked, as sauces, roast ratatouille etc, you can also actually freeze all un-cooked tomatoes without blanching, either whole small cherry types or larger ones like beefsteaks simply cut into pieces. Just clean and dry them - cut out any bad or woody bits from the stalk ends and loose freeze them on trays. You can then bag or box them up later when frozen - which is very convenient for just taking a few out at a time. This is a very useful way of preventing waste when you're too busy to make sauces - as you can freeze any good bits of tomatoes, throwing away just any bad bits - rather than wasting the whole tomato because it may have a bad spot. As with many other fruits - the action of freezing on the plant's cells makes most of their important phytonutrients such as lycopene much more available and more easily absorbed by our bodies. It does reduce a small amount of the vitamin C but this can easily be replaced from other sources, or by adding more fresh tomatoesor lemon juice to pasta sauces at the end of cooking - which gives a nice freshness to dishes.
 
 
DO NOT REMOVE SKINS before freezing, even if you don't like tomato skins! If you then want to use frozen tomatoes for cooking in sauces, just thaw them, pour off any water that results during the thawing process as this usefully gets rid of some of the water they contain - so will reduce their cooking time. Then simply blitz them to a fine puree in a blender before adding them to your other ingredients. As I've mentioned before - the skins and flesh immediately beneath them contain most of the nutrients in tomatoes - and if you're blitzing them well in a food-processor or Nutribullet - these are very finely ground. In addition to the nutrients the skins contain - they are also a very useful source of important gut-friendly fibre and hidden in a sauce I promise you won't notice them!  Whole cherry tomatoes can also be used straight from frozen for adding Roast Ratatouille, Roast Mediterranean Peppers and other dishes calling for the addition of whole tomatoes. Once they're cooked - you won't notice any difference. If you insist that you must remove the skins for some dishes - these slip off very easily when the frozen tomatoes are run under the tap for a few seconds! Don't wast them though - re-freeze them for blitzing into other dishes like stews and soups to add flavour and nutrients!
 
 
 
Dehydrating:
 
 
I'm a big fan of dehydrating many fruits and vegetables - it's a terrific way to preserve the goodness of your summer crops for use in winter - but I never dehydrate anything to 'paper dry' stage as most people do, as doing that destroys far more nutrients and also flavour. Instead I semi-dehydrate to what is known as 'soft-leather stage and then freeze them - otherwise they wouldn't keep safely, without developing food spoiling organisms, for more than a few days. Dehydrating effectively reduces their volume by more than a quarter, so it makes it easier to find space to store them in the freezer - and gives far more delicious results. It also increases the lycopene content. My favourite tomatoes for dehydrating are Rosada, Chiquito and Incas. I don't dehydrate any fruits or vegetables to a completely 'paper-dry' state which I think ruins the flavour of fruits in particular.
 
 
There are many books out there now which recommend dehydrating to a totally dry state in order to store fruits and vegetables - but as I've already said - this can reduce their nutrients and another thing that they all fail to mention is that the variety of fruit - especially in tomatoes - has an enormous bearing on their resulting flavour when dehydrated.  Not exactly rocket science one might think - even common sense?  This makes me wonder just how much experience of dehydrating some authors really have!  I've been doing it for many years and have experimented with processing dozens of varieties of tomatoes this way.  I have found from often bitter (!) experience that dehydrating tomatoes naturally concentrates all of the various elements of their flavour. This means that not all varieties of tomatoes are good for dehydrating. If a tomato has a deliciously mouthwatering acidity to balance it's sweetness when eaten fresh - any acidity will tend to concentrate on dehydrating. In some varieties this acidity can dominate the taste very unpleasantly after dehydrating - completely ruining them!  I'm thinking here of tomatoes such as Sungold or Maskotka - which have a deliciously mouthwatering taste when fresh - and even cook very well - but dehydrating makes them almost inedible and certainly not enjoyable to eat!  The reverse is true of paste tomatoes such as Amish Paste and Incas or some of the black-skinned, high-anthocyanin tomatoes such as Indigo Rose - which tend not to have the strongest flavour when fresh. The taste of these varieties hugely improves on cooking and they also dehydrate extremely well - their often rather bland taste intensifying a great deal. I always find that it's well worth do a small 'test run' of any new variety which I haven't dehydrated before - no matter how delicious it may be when fresh. This is easy to do when you're processing something else and it can save an awful lot of waste and heartache!  My absolute favourite tomatoes for dehydrating are Rosada, Chiquito and Incas. These are always reliable and give very good results. Some of the larger beef tomatoes are quite good too - cut into quarters and dehydrated skin side down on the dehydrator sheets.
 
 
To prepare tomatoes for dehydrating - I remove any stalks, wash, dry and halve them - even the smaller cherry plum varieties. I try to ensure that I process similar sizes together.  If some are a lot smaller they will dry quicker and may be spoiled - so I will put smaller nes on one tray so that I can remove them a it earlier than larger ones of the same variety from the dehydrator. I space them out as evenly as possible on the dehydrator trays and process at a temperature of 135 deg F - usually for an average of about 14 hours. This usually semi-dehydrates to what is known as the 'soft-leather stage which I prefer. This depends on how large the pieces are but I find it generally takes an average of 14 hours. I then loose freeze them and bag them up later - this is because as I only semi-dehydrate them to preserve more of their flavour and nutrients - they otherwise they wouldn't keep safely for more than a few days being still a bit moist - even if stored in oil. 
 
 
I've found very few books which give any useful instructions for using them from a dehydrated state - so again I've experimented a lot over the years!  My method of semi-dehydrating reduces their volume by more than a quarter, so it makes it much easier to find space to store in the freezer - and because it also concentrates their flavour so much they are even more delicious!  I like to use them either simply thawed and added chopped to salads or re-hydrated slightly in extra virgin olive oil. I also add them to pizzas and all sorts of cooked dishes to bump up the flavour. They can also be cooked, very gently straight from frozen, in olive oil. This results in an incredibly deep-flavoured tomato salsa or sauce which makes a sensational addition to traditional fried breakfasts, a filling for omelettes, or an accompaniment to many other meals! You will never find that fantastic flavour from any shop-bought fresh tomatoes - either in winter or summer!
 
 
I use a Sedona dehydrator. Excalibur is also a good brand. I chose the Sedona because the drying compartment can be reduced in size by closing off half of it when processing smaller amounts. That saves energy and is more environmentally friendly - even though most of my electricity now comes from wind energy. Although at this time of year the dehydrator tends to be chock full most of the time! If you're a dehydrating novice, starting with one of the much smaller and cheaper models is perhaps a good idea - although they don't give such good results, some are only around €40 and will give you some idea of what you can do and if you like the results. Oven-drying is possible on a very low setting - but I've never had much success with it. Most ovens are too warm and also waste a lot of energy doing this - especially if leaving the door partially open as recommended. They use a great deal more energy when compared to a dehydrator - for doing the same task but with not quite such successful results.
 
1. 'Rosada' tomatoes -  halved and spaced out on the mesh sheet ready for dehydrating. 2. The same 'Rosada' - 14 hours of gentle dehydrating later. Semi-dried and succulently sweet!
1. 'Rosada' tomatoes -  halved and spaced out on the mesh sheet ready for dehydrating. 2. The same 'Rosada' - 14 hours of gentle dehydrating later. Semi-dried and succulently sweet!
 

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