Whether you want Vertical Veg, High Rise Herbs, Stellar Salads or even Strawberry Steps - the Sky is the Limit with my Stepladder Garden!

My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - 2014
My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - 2014
 
Have you ever thought that you might like to grow a little bit of your own food - but thought you couldn't because you don't have a garden? Or perhaps you want to grow some healthy salads so you can have them super-fresh all year round, instead of buying expensive bagged salads already several days old - saving on the household budget at the same time? Do you think you don't have enough space? Well guess what? If you have a stepladder you're not using - then you have loads of space! 
 
 
Even if all you have is a path to your door with just room to walk - or only a balcony - then you do have room to grow something! Using the space-saving stepladder method I invented years ago, when I didn't have a garden - you could have a very attractive and productive small vertical garden for growing salads, herbs, strawberries and other good things to eat all year round. If the stepladder's rather practical looks bother you - believe me - when it's covered with abundantly growing plants it's virtually invisible and you will hardly be able to see it! The pictures of my stepladder garden have always been so popular whenever I've tweeted about them on Twitter, and so many people have asked me about it, that I thought I would write about it to tell you exactly how I made it and what you can grow.
 
 
First - you need a stepladder with broad enough treads to be able to hold suitably sized boxes for growing the plants in.  Any box or pot that fits onto the treads and is deep enough to hold a minimum depth of 15 cm of compost is perfect. I find those large, loose mushroom boxes from the local supermarket are just the right size. They recycle those - so you can do it for them free if you ask nicely! If there are drainage holes in the bottom of your box - place a drip tray underneath, or failing that - put a piece of polythene inside the bottom, extending about 5 cm up the inside, to prevent water from draining down onto the plants below. Those rectangular cat litter trays available cheaply in the pet section of most supermarkets make very effective drip trays, which fit neatly on the average stepladder tread. You can put a box with a drip tray on each step, and then on the ground in front of the last step you can put either a large pot, or another box, on a plant saucer or drip tray.
 
 
To fill the boxes I use a mix of 1/3 soil and 2/3rds organic, peat-free compost. The soil helps to retain moisture and also provides soil life like microbes which are important for keeping the plants healthy. After initial planting and watering in, most Mediterranean-type, hot-weather herbs like thyme and marjoram won't need too much attention other than occasional watering - but other plants such as salads may need watering daily, or even twice daily, in hot weather as they can dry out quickly. It's easy to remember to water them though, when you're picking delicious food from them daily.  As they are so productive grown this way - the plants will exhaust their food supply fairly quickly in the small boxes - so after they've been cropping for a month or so - I then feed them about twice a week with a good organic plant food like Osmo, which provides naturally-made nutrients and I find excellent.
 
 
You will be amazed at the amount of healthy food that you can grow like this and just how much money you can save!  It's so flexible and easy that you can change what you're growing every year - or several times a year - whenever you like. Many plants are more than happy to grow this way as they have better light and good air circulation. Along with another large pot in front at the base - perhaps growing a few edible flowers like Nasturtiums or Calendulas - it can look really stunning and provides a lot of growing space. It's also a very convenient, 'no-bend' way for those with back or other problems to harvest produce - because the plants are always within easy reach for you to pick them. If you have a source of cheap stepladders - you could even have several and make a bank of them against a wall - giving you heaps more vertical growing space than you would have by growing just on the flat, in the same amount of space as the small stepladder footprint!  
 
 
Most stepladders are far cheaper than any of the undoubtedly smart but very expensive wooden structures you can buy for growing in. These can cost anything upwards of 200 euros and may also be treated with toxic wood preservatives! My re-purposed stepladder method is easy, cheap and productive - and if you need the stepladder for anything else - just remove the boxes for a few hours! If you don't already own one - you can buy a budget stepladder quite cheaply and the recycled boxes cost nothing! Set that against the price of buying any organic strawberries or salads (or even non-organic) - and the stepladder will be paid for in only a few weeks!  
 
 
Side view of the stepladder garden planted with strawberries, starting to ripen. The alyssum attracts pollinators
Side view of the stepladder garden in 2015. planted with Albion strawberries, starting to ripen. The alyssum flowers attracts pollinators
 
So what sort of things can you grow?
 
 
Fresh strawberries are always a firm favourite. If you grow alpine, 'perpetual', or 'ever-bearing' types which fruit for months, you could be picking delicious fruit from early May to the end of November in a warm spot against a sunny wall or in a glass porch. This year - I have Alpine strawberries on my stepladder garden - they've been producing their beautiful tiny flowers, which bees and butterflies love, since mid-March and they have been producing delicious fruit since early May. There's been a veritable waterfall of deliciously aromatic, small strawberries that smell of scented strawberry jam and taste like Heaven!  
Alpine strawberries can be grown easily and cheaply from seed sown in early spring and will start to produce their exquisite-tasting fruit in mid-summer from seed, but you would be able to pick fruit from the larger 'perpetual' varieties of strawberries much sooner. Many good online fruit nurseries such as Ken Muir now supply cold stored 'plug' plants of excellent perpetual varieties like Albion by post for most of the year. These arrive well-rooted in small convenient containers - ready to romp away as soon as they are planted. You could be eating these within just a few weeks! 
Strawberries really seem to love growing this way - because they get more light, warmth and really good air circulation, so they tend not to get moulds or diseases caused by damp. They also hang down very conveniently to pick and are naturally totally free from any possible slug damage!
 
 
 
I've experimented with this method of growing all sorts of crops successfully over the years - so here are a few more ideas.
 
 
The smaller culinary herbs are all happy growing this way - last year I had parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme steps. You could even grow your own tomato salad, with small varieties of bush cherry tomatoes on each step and a large pot of basil the base! Baby cucumbers and chili peppers also enjoy the extra warmth and light - producing a huge amount of fruits if you can sit the stepladder in a sunny porch. If you have enough space either side - you could also grow taller upright varieties of tomato in containers pushed half underneath the steps, and tying them up to the sides of the stepladder for support. 
 
 
Spinach, Oriental salad mixes, Mizuna, rocket, baby leaf kales and chicory, pea shoots, radishes and other salads can all be sown directly into the stepped boxes, or you could buy a few module-grown plants to plant if you don't want the hassle of sowing seed. These are all very happy - producing huge crops if kept well-watered. Super-healthy, nutrient-dense watercress can easily be grown from shoots gleaned from mixed salad bags and rooted in a jar of water. Planted into a deep box watercress grows extremely well if kept constantly damp. You could even grow smaller varieties of carrots which I tried successfully one year. (You can see some old scanned-in photos of those from over 30 years ago at the bottom of the article) It's a fantastic and fun way to grow lots of healthy food - whether you just have a tiny patch or no garden at all!
 
Why not try growing something this way? If you do - you'll find the only way is up - for your health and your savings! The sky is quite literally the only limit - or your imagination! What are you waiting for?
 
Alpine strawberry Reugen already cropping well on my 'stepladder garden' Stepladder garden on path many years ago! High Rise Herbs!
Alpine strawberry Reugen - cropping well on this year's version of the 'stepladder garden' Stepladder garden on path many years ago! High Rise Herbs!
Rocket, red veined sorrel, celery leaf in stepladder garden with lettuce on next step above & pea shoots on step below 24.4.14 Carrots growing in a recycled mushroom box on one of the steps Watercress is very happy and productive in a large box in consistently damp soil
Rocket, red veined sorrel, celery leaf in stepladder garden with lettuce on next step above & pea shoots on step below 24.4.14 Carrots growing in a recycled mushroom box on one of the steps Watercress is very happy and productive in a large box in consistently damp soil
 
 
 (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.) 

Totally Terrific Tomatoes - My Suggestions for Easy, Delicious Varieties and The Basics of Growing Them.

Pantano Romanesco - the best beefsteak tomato for a delicious Caprese salad.

Pantano Romanesco - the best beefsteak tomato for a delicious Caprese salad.

 
For our Tomato Special to be broadcast on his Late Lunch Show on 13th April on LMFM Radio - presenter Gerry Kelly asked me if I would pick out my top 5 varieties to recommend to listeners.  As he knows very well that I'm addicted to them and not given to doing things by halves (to put it mildly!) - he also knew this would be no easy task for me! There are so many wonderful varieties out there - both older heritage ones and more modern - and they all have their different qualities and personalities. It was a very tough call - but I eventually managed to discipline myself to actually recommending six!  
 
 
There are many things to consider when choosing a variety that is just right for you and - everyone's taste is different. The main considerations though should include ease of growing, disease resistance, suitability for the climate in your garden and your particular part of the world, time of cropping, cropping potential, ability to resist splitting when ripening, suitability for the amount of space you have and whether you want to grow in a cold frame outside, in a greenhouse or a polytunnel. There are also the important culinary considerations - such as their taste and texture when eaten fresh, suitability for cooking, freezing or dehydrating. With literally thousands of varieties to choose from, the choice can be bewildering for beginners and experienced growers alike - and often also very disappointing if one chooses on the basis of the seed companies catalogues! They naturally want to promote the varieties which they own the breeders patents on - but I find that those are often be disappointing and may be unsuitable for our climate. If that happens to you - then you've wasted a lot of time, effort, space and often money - on growing something that doesn't make your taste buds tingle, your mouth water and make you feel glad to be alive - as any good tomato should!
 
 
With anything upwards of 10,000 varieties - some estimate 25,000 - of both heirloom and hybrids to choose from where on earth do you start?  Tasting some of those grown by a tomato growing friend can sometimes help, or going to tomato tasting days. (Regarding those - I mention the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival later)  I've probably grown around couple of hundred different varieties over the 40 years I've been growing them both commercially and for our own use now. Each year I try one or two new ones and compare them with my old favourites. I grow around 20 or so really top ones, that have it all, every year - and some of these I've grown for many years. First and foremost my number one consideration has to be flavour and texture. After that comes diseases-resistance. There's no point growing the very best flavoured tomato in the world if it doesn't like your climate and goes down with disease after producing only one or two tomatoes! We don't have the best climate in Ireland for growing tomatoes - on average during the summer we get far less sunshine and are about 10deg C cooler than most of the UK, especially the south-east. Tomatoes prefer bright light, warmth and lots of sunshine to crop really well - not the endless low cloud and grey drizzly days that often pass for much of our summer. So they can be a bit of a challenge here! I only recommend varieties that I will have grown for several years, so if I recommend a variety - then you can be pretty sure that it should be reliable and grow well for you no matter where you live - as long as you give it the best conditions you can. 
 
 
I tend to sow my tomatoes any time from the end of February to mid April - so I'm also confident that you should get a pretty good crop from all of these varieties if you sow them now - but don't delay. I always grow mine from seed unless I'm specifically asked to trial a particular variety. Some varieties take much longer to produce any crop - as many are varieties that need a longer growing season and are more suited to hotter continental conditions which we don't have here. I haven't recommended any of those. To get the very best tasting or unusual varieties you will normally have to grow your own plants from seed as they're rarely available as plants. If you don't want to grow them from seed though - there are now many companies selling the more common varieties online. 
 
 
Please believe me that you don't have to be an experienced gardener or do everything perfectly to be able to grow a few tomatoes - so do give them a try if you haven't grown them before. If you do - I can promise you that you'll be richly rewarded. It's not rocket science! Tomatoes are such good-natured and obliging plants they do their best to grow and produce a crop whatever you do to them!  There is just nothing to compare with the satisfaction of picking your first, sun-warmed tomatoes grown by your very own hands and biting into their deliciousness! No shop-bought tomato will ever give you that!
 
 
Varieties
 
 
Bush/cherry - 
 
Maskotka - This little treasure is always without fail my earliest to ripen fruit, has a terrific flavour and is available from several seed companies, including Mr Fothergill's. I haven't tasted any other bush variety as good. Well worth growing if you've never tried growing tomatoes before! It's such an early variety that you'll get huge good crops this year from seed. A bush about 45cm/18ins high & wide - it fits into a very small space and grows happily in a bucket-sized pot.
 
Upright (standard/cordon) cherry
 
Blush - You'll have to grow this from seed but it's well worth it! Fantastic taste. Teardrop shaped cherry/plum.
 
Sungold - I've seen this variety available as plants in several places. Delicious but can split so don't leave too long on plant.
 
 
Upright classic medium sized (standard/cordon)
 
 
John Baer - again a very early medium-sized red variety, good cropper and one of the best flavoured classic medium round types - you'll get a good crop this year from seed sown now. 
 
Moonglow is a lush, dense-fleshed, fab-flavoured, apricot-coloured variety which is a huge cropper - the fruit varies in size between medium classic and beefsteak. It's available from several seed companies.
 
 
Beefsteak
 
 
Pantano Romanesco - The very best flavoured beefsteak that is easy for the home gardener to grow. I've written about it in this month's issue of the Irish Garden. One taste of this with mozzarella, basil & olive oil & you're in the Med. wherever you are! It's tomato heaven!
 
There are pictures of all these varieties - and some more great varieties in my 'Tomato Report 2017' link here:  http://www.nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/548-tomato-report-2017
 
 
My basics of Tomato Growing - a shortish guide!
 
 
Composts and sowing temperature
 
 
I always sow my seeds in an organic, peat-free seed compost at minimum temperature of 60 deg F/16 deg C - but a bit warmer is better. Not on a sunny windowsill or they may cook! I fill small 3 in pots firmly with compost - but I don't compact it too much. I sow 4 or 5 seeds into those, making a small hole about twice the depth of the seed for each one with the end of a pencil or biro, then afterwards I cover them with Vermiculite. This is a natural mineral which promotes good air circulation around seedling stems - I use it for covering all seeds - but with tomatoes you could get away without using it and using just a light covering of the seed compost instead. Vermiculite is available from most garden centres and DIY stores and lasts forever. Sometimes I sow into individual small modules, using a similar method. Then I water them gently and cover with a polythene bag until they germinate. After germination I uncover the seedlings immediately and move them into good light, to avoid them becoming 'etiolated' or too long through lack of light, as this can make them more prone to diseases.
 
 
I use a peat-free seed compost which is available from Whites Agri at Lusk, north Co Dublin or from Fruit Hill Farm by mail order  - if the bag's too big for you - you could share it with a couple of friends - but it keeps fine for 2-3 years if kept dry & cool. Using a compost specifically for seed is important, as a multi-purpose one may be too high in nutrients which can damage seedling roots - this is especially the case with chemical-based composts. In the UK SylvaGrow is a good organic peat-free compost used by commercial organic growers there and also by the RHS. It recently came top of Which Magazine Best Buy awards list. 
 
 
While germinating in the propagator and for a few days after they emerge - usually after about 4-5 days - keep the young seedlings shaded a little from the strongest of the midday sun. This is easier in a greenhouse as you can use a shading product like 'CoolGlass', in a polytunnel you could cut a small piece of fleece to cover the propagator - this will still allow good light to reach the seedlings. They also need to be protected from draughts. Although they like bright light and don't like to be too cold - they don't want to be cooked either - which can happen in a small greenhouse or tunnel very quickly on any clear sunny day, no matter how cold it is outside. I find an additional cheap cold frame on the greenhouse or poytunnel bench very useful when they come out of the propagator after the first week or so, as this gives extra protection to the young plants for a few weeks depending on when you sow them. For my earliest sowings - I also have a warm heated mat like an electric underblanket - which goes on top of the bench under some polythene and this gives an even gentle warmth to the plant roots. It's very energy efficient as it has a thermostat and only usually switches on when it's very cold at night.
 
 
Potting on
 
 
As soon as they're big enough to handle, usually when they have their first small pair of true - or adult leaves, I separate and pot on seedlings into a good organic peat-free potting compost. I use an organic peat-free potting compost because it gives the bigger plants more nutrients and everything they need to be healthy, including micro-nutrients beneficial microbes and micorrhizae - they are normally made by a composting process which encourages these to develop naturally and are a more healthy medium for all plants. A peat-based, just containing chemical nutrients, won't give you those. The good organic peat-free composts also tend to be better drained in my experience. A non-organic compost just gives you chemicals and peat! We shouldn't be using peat because digging up bogs destroys habitat for a huge amount of biodiversity and it also emits carbon - accelerating climate change. It's not a natural growing medium for anything except bog plants! When you're potting on the size of pot is not critical but don't over-pot by putting in too large a pot at first, as tomatoes hate sitting in wet compost!  A pot the same size as a paper cup or just slightly larger - with drainage holes in the bottom - is fine for plants until they're about 6 inches high. If you're not ready to plant them out then - you can pot them on into something bigger and feed if necessary - with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo - if for any reason planting is delayed.
 
 
Watering seedlings/young plants in small pots before planting out
 
Water seedlings when the compost starts to look or feel a little bit lighter & dry out a bit. Water with ambient temperature water - not freezing - if possible, by sitting in a container of water for just a couple of minutes - but don't saturate them! This ensure that water reaches the roots where it's needed. Often people just pour a little into the top and it may not reach the roots.
 
 
Soil  
 
Tomatoes are happy in any reasonably well-drained soil with a pH - or soil alkalinity - in a range of about 6 - 7. You can use a cheap kit to check this if you feel your soil pH may be too high or if it is too acid.  This normally shows as a yellowing of plant leaves called 'chlorosis' which indicates an imbalance of nutrients when soil is either too extremely acid or alkaline for most plants. Testing for pH isn't usually necessary though, unless you have seriously over-limed your soil, or used a lot of peat in it. If other plants are growing well and look healthy - then tomatoes will be happy in that soil too. Manure pellet fertilisers can also lower the pH of soils. I wouldn't use these as they aren't organic, may contain traces of GMO feeds and Glyphosate weedkiller. They will also have come from factory-farmed poultry! 
 
 
 
Planting and Supporting plants
 
 
The first thing to say is that I hate grow-bags!  I get more queries and complaints about these than anything else with regard to tomato growing problems! They don't have enough room for a good root system, so they don't give you healthy plants and automatically limit the amount of crop you will get. They also tend to dry out very quickly or get waterlogged. If you don't want to use a peat-free organic potting compost and you have some grow bags that you want to use, then take the compost out of the grow bag, empty it into a large pot or tub and add about 1/3 it's volume of good garden soil into it. This saves on compost & also helps to retain more water - which gives the plant more resilience.
 
 
I grow taller cordon varieties in the polytunnel border - either by tying them up gently to tall bamboo canes or by twining them around strings where I have crop support bars in my larger tunnel. Your tunnel needs to be pretty strong for this as when you have lots of trusses of fruit developing on plants - they are very heavy!
 
 
I grow all the bush varieties in large pots - usually 15 litre pots - or large bucket-size, as the fruit hangs down conveniently over the sides. Growing in bucket-sized pots or tubs avoids the fruit getting dirty by resting on the surrounding soil or being eaten by slugs! A 1/3 soil - 2/3rds potting compost mix works well, with an extra small handful of organic granular fertiliser and another of seaweed meal. Or alternatively - you could re-purpose a stepladder for the summer and grow them in large square containers on the steps! Growing in pots is also a good method if you've grown tomatoes too often in the same soil and it's become what's known as 'tomato-sick'. This is when there is a build up of disease-causing pathogens and nutrient deficiencies. This is another reason I get a lot of queries. The only normal remedy for this is to completely change all the soil to a depth of 18ins or 45cm! Growing a green manure mustard called 'Caliente' can help to remedy this problem if it's not too bad, as it produces bio-fumigant isothiocyanate gases when chopped and dug in after growing for around 6 weeks - but obviously you don't have time for doing that after the end of March. 
 
 
Don't plant too early - tomatoes need a temperature of about 20-12degC to crop well and they also need a warm soil. I normally plant out into the polytunnel border when the flowers are just opening on their first truss - depending on the weather. This is usually around early to mid-May here and that works fine for me. If plants get frosted, they literally turn blue with cold and may get a severe setback. Cover individual plants with horticultural fleece to protect them at night if necessary. I plant the bush ones in the bucket-sized tubs a bit earlier, usually mid-late April, as these large pots tend to be warmer for the roots than soil - especially if they're black and attract solar heat. 
 
 
You can grow tomatoes in a greenhouse, polytunnel, or even in a sunny porch for the best crops - but NEVER outdoors here in Ireland if you want more than just one or two tomatoes! You'll always get people who say they've grown them fine outdoors - but their idea of a good crop and mine would be vastly different! I don't like wasting time or money! You won't get a good crop of tomatoes outdoors here - our climate is far too damp and we get blight very quickly, as soon as conditions are right. This can now be anytime from early June onwards depending on the weather. It seems to strike earlier every year.  Blight loves warm, damp, humid conditions and the spores are always present in the air waiting to strike as soon as the weather warms up. You may well get away with growing a crop outdoors in the drier parts of the UK, Europe or other parts of the world where blight is less prevalent. 
 
 
Make a hole, adding some good garden compost or worm compost if you have some - ojust a small amount of very well-rotted manure if you have it and lightly fork it in. If you don't have either - add a small handful of a good organic fertiliser like Osmo general granular fertiliser and a very small handful of seaweed meal - again forking in lightly. Be very careful with manure. If you get it from a non-organic farm it may contain pesticides, weedkillers that can seriously affect plant growth or possibly residues of worm treatments that can adversely affect soil life. You don't want to eat these in your tomatoes either! You're much better off using your own compost if you have any, or worm compost made from kitchen waste, which is far higher in nutrients and also contains lots of beneficial microbes. It's like rocket fuel for plants! After that you can mulch plants - more on that later.
 
 
I plant all my plants at a distance of about 60cm or 2 feet apart - not the usually recommended 18 inches - as this gives far better air circulation and is another organic method of preventing fungal diseases like blight developing, which is more likely to happen in close, muggy conditions.
 
 
When planting into the ground or into a container - bury the plants more deeply than they are in their pots, even up to the first set of true leaves. This promotes more roots to form higher up, growing out from the stem. It means that the plant can access more food. Also dusting the bare roots and the planting hole with a small amount of a beneficial micorrhizae preparation such as Rootgrow helps the plant to access more food - as the beneficial funghi in it forms a mat of fungal threads called hyphae which interact with the plant's roots helping it to access more food. That's what is known as a symbiotic relationship. As science is learning more about soil life now thanks to modern microscopy - we're learning that for the healthiest plants possible - you need a healthy living organic soil, with all the soil life that nature intended and originally put there. To a plant - the soil acts in the same way that our stomach does for us. Agrochemicals kill much of that soil life in exactly the same way that antibiotics kill many of the beneficial microbes in our own gut. That then affects their immune system just as it does ours!
 
 
Planting a few single-flowered annuals like french marigolds, tagetes, annual convulvulus, alyssum or any single flower between plants and on the ends of rows will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies which help with pest control. It's very important that these are single flowers - not the double French marigolds one often sees recommended.  Insects and bees can't access the nectaries of double flowers! If your plants and soil are healthy and you grow lots of flowers in your greehouse or tunnel - then you shouldn't see any pests! Pests are usually a sign of soft, sappy growth on an unhealthy plant - often caused by using too much manure or chemicals used planting - which promotes soft, sappy growth that insects like greenfly love. Occasionally you may get whitefly on bought-in plants - if so there are biological controls available online. In just the same way - diseases can be a sign of bad growing conditions. Plants need healthy food and lots of fresh air - just like us!
 
 
Mulching
 
Mulching between plants helps to retain water, keeps moisture in the soil and stops roots getting too hot as the temperature rises from mid-summer onwards. Keep any mulch about 4-6 inches away from plant stems or it can rot the stems.
 
Bare soil loses both water and nutrients very quicklyIf soil is left uncovered and bare in summer - worms also go much deeper to avoid dryness and high temperatures, which they don't like. You want them to stay in the upper layers of the soil, processing organic matter to make plant foods available for your crops and adding beneficial microbes. Worms actually dramatically increase the potash, phosphates and other nutrients available to plants.  Mulching between plants to keep soil cool and moist is really therefore a must for the best crops. Worms are vital to the whole ecology of soil and are some of your best co-workers! Any sort of organic matter can be used as a mulch - grass clippings (untreated I should add) compost, comfrey leaves, in fact anything that will help to retain moisture, keep roots cool and increase worm activity. You could even sow a green manure like red clover between plants after planting, which helps to increase beneficial bacteria and makes soil nitrogen more available to plants. These can sometimes get a bit rampant though and can start to reduce air circulation, if you're not careful to keep them trimmed fairly low. So if you're growing tomatoes for the firs time I wouldn't use them. Mulching is easier instead.
 
 
 
Care - side-shooting and stopping
 
 
This is something many people get very confused about and I must say it took me years to work it out when I was just starting to grow them! Bush varieties are called 'determinate'- or in other words - they're determined to be bushes! (Check the packet details again before you start to remove side shoots!). Don't take off side-shoots off bush varieties - they're meant to be bushes!  Actually - all tomatoes are naturally bushes - but some are more amenable to training. The varieties that can be trained more easily are called 'indeterminate' varieties - or in other words in plain English - you make up their minds for them! With these upright, cordon or indeterminate varieties - start to take out the small side shoots as soon as they're big enough to pinch out cleanly, or the plants will put energy into those and they'll fruit later. They will also become a tangled, disease-prone mess! (Pantano Romanesco is a bit enthusiastic at doing this bless it - even occasionally making new shoots on the end of flower trusses which should also be cut off - but all is forgiven when you taste it!)
 
I usually 'stop' plants, by taking out the tip of the plant two leaves beyond the last truss which has set, when it has set about 8 trusses - or basically whatever I can reach!
 
If you want a few extra new plants - you can even root some side-shoots! A great way of getting free plants to save money!  Let one or two of the lower side shoots develop to about 10cm/4inches long. Snap them off carefully - pushing first one way and then the other sideways - they should come out neatly and easily at the junction of stem and plant without tearing the plant. This is easier in the morning when the plants are more naturally turgid - not in the even or the plants are more likely to tear. At this leaf axil/junction most plants have an extra amount of natural plant hormones that promote rooting. Tomato shoots can then easily be rooted just in just a jar of water on a sunny windowsill - no need for faffing around with cutting compost etc.! This is how I kept a Rosada cutting going over last winter 2016/2017. I took it from my best plant in late September - after the Tomato Festival - stuck it in a bottle of water on an east-facing windowsill and it's now already grown into a sizeable bush, flowering for a couple of weeks and producing it's own side shoots! I would normally grow it as a cordon - but leaving it to be a bush, which tomatoes are naturally - means I can take lots of side-shoots to make new plants! Happy days!
 
 
Feeding & watering 
 
 
I water the plant in well when planting and then after that, I only ever water between plants.  When they're growing - cold water from a hose at the roots gives plants a set back, they prefer a warm even temperature - not a freezing cold shower! Do NOT water every day - but only when soil starts to look a little dry on top beside the plant and this depends on the weather and whether you have mulched them or not. Don't let the plants dry out completely as this can cause something called blossom-end rot - a nasty black spot at the end of fruits, where the fruit may start to rot. This is caused by poor calcium transport to the plant by erratic water availability.
 
 
I've seen some people recommending that you water every day - apparently whether the plants need it or not!  This can be an absolute disaster for plants!  Always keep an eye on plants and if you're in doubt - just scratch around a little with your finger about an inch or so down in the soil beside the plant. If it feels very dry, then water. When you do water - then only water when really necessary and soak the soil thoroughly between the plants - not at the roots. Over-watering affects their flavour as dilutes it - and serious over-watering may even cause roots to rot!. If not over-watering but still just giving a little every day - this encourages shallow rooting with roots too near the surface. You want the plant's roots to go as deep as possible. This makes them more resilient and helps them to access more food, helping them to support bigger crops. If plants are in containers - water from underneath if they're on a grow bag tray or large saucer - or water very well around the outside of the container. Any that then drains into the drip tray or grow-bag tray will usually be taken up again fairly quickly. 
 
 
Remember - over-watering reduces the flavour of tomatoes, can split the fruits just as they're ripening, causing disease and crop losses - and if excessive too often - can even rot the roots. 
 
I start to feed weekly with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo as soon as the first truss of flowers has set and is developing tiny fruits.  You won't get magnesium deficiency using Osmo organic tomato food. This can be a problem with chemical-based tomato foods. As plants get bigger and are developing heavy crops of several trusses - then I may feed at half strength at every other watering - especially if they're in containers and more dependent on me for extra nutrients. 
 
 
Harvesting
 
Not usually a problem - but allowing them to ripen fully is best if you want the very best flavour. Some varieties can tend to split very quickly when ripe or if watered when too many ripe fruits which have 'set' their skins are still on the plants. This tends to vary in different varieties.  Sungold can tend to do this more than some others - so pick it as soon as it's ripe. Pick when warm or at midday for the best flavour in tomatoes. Picking with the calyx or flower stalk still on the top of the tomato - just snapping it off from the truss - means that the tomatoes will keep far longer. You never see the calyx left on in shops, as this is a dead give away as to how fresh the fruits are! They tend to dry out and shrivel after a couple of days so they're always picked without them!
 
Storing
 
Never ever keep tomatoes in the fridge - it absolutely ruins their flavour.  Even shop-bought tomatoes may develop a bit more flavour if left out at kitchen temperature for a few days. Although they're usually pretty tasteless varieties to start with - having been bred for travel-ability and long shelf-life - not for the best taste!
 
 
Any tomatoes we don't eat fresh in many and various ways - I preserve by making into sauce and freezing in handy portions, semi-dehydrating and freezing, or just throw into the freezer whole if I'm in a hurry! Again varieties all differ in how good they are for dehydrating and for other methods of preservation. More about that later in the year in our mid-summer edition of 'From Tunnel to Table'. My very popular 'Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce' recipe, which you can even make with tinned tomatoes, can be found here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes/372-totally-terrific-tomato-sauce-from-tunnel-to-table-recipe-for-august  - That's all for now!
 
 
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)

What's The Crack About Eggs?

 1. Hens enjoying looking for juicy bugs in one of their large grass runs  2. They have a lovely snug house & hay-lined nest boxes to lay their eggs - not cruel wire cages!  3. Result - Happy hens & the best organic eggs on the planet. Pure & healthy - the perfect food!
1. Hens enjoying looking for juicy bugs in one of their large grass runs  2. They have a lovely snug house & hay-lined nest boxes to lay their eggs - not cruel wire cages!   3. Result - Happy hens & the best organic eggs on the planet. Pure & healthy - the perfect food!

Hen chat with Gerry Kelly on the Late Lunch Show - on how to have the healthiest eggs ever!

Hens are healthier when they enjoy a variety of vegetables - just like us! Hens enjoying their breakfast of bolted lettuce - too bitter for us to eat but they love them!
Hens are healthier when they enjoy a variety of vegetables - just like us! Hens enjoying their breakfast of bolted lettuce - too bitter for us to eat but they love them!
Sylvia dustbathing  upside down to clean her feathers! Nigella says thank you for visiting!
Sylvia dustbathing upside down to clean her feathers! Nigella says thank you for visiting!
The hens really love their warm, soft, hay-lined nest boxes! And this is the result - delicious poached eggs for a healthy lunch.
The hens really love their warm, soft, hay-lined nest boxes! And this is the result - delicious poached eggs for a healthy lunch.

How to Grow Brilliant, Bold & Beautiful Basil -  for your best & fastest-ever crop!

 (And how to harvest and preserve it too)
Basil looking lush and ready for it's first harvest Two rows of Basil beside French beans - split supermarket pots on left, module sown on right
Basil looking lush and ready for it's first harvest Two rows of Basil beside French beans - split supermarket pots on left, module sown on right
Basil is possibly the one herb more than any other that most people want to grow, but many find it difficult. It's really not - when you understand it! Basil is a sensitive soul. Like most of us - all it needs is a little warmth, TLC and understanding - and then it will repay you in spades! It's always been one of my most important summer tunnel crops - I freeze masses of it every year which lasts us right through until the next year's starts to crop. It's a herb with such a 'feelgood factor'. We love to use it in pesto sauce for pasta and for pizzas, or for tomato sauces made from our frozen homegrown tomatoes, in herb oils for salads etc throughout the winter, or even in desserts, bread & cakes! It's sacred and revered in many cultures as a health-promoting with antibiotic and antiviral properties. I'm positive it keeps winter colds away, particularly combined with the amount of garlic I use in pesto! But even if it doesn't - it tastes fabulous and is such an aromatic, mood-lifting reminder of radiant summer sunshine - even in the greyest depths of winter!  
 
As with all crops, organically grown basil will be naturally far higher in good phytonutrients than non-organic. A Newcastle University study published in July 2014 found that organic crops were an average of 69% higher in these health-promoting natural plant compounds, and concluded that eating organic fruit and veg was actually equivalent to eating an extra 1-2 portions of them a day! So it's medicine really - of the most delicious and irresistible kind!
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I was one of the first certified commercial organic growers in Ireland over 30 years ago and I used to grow a whole tunnel full of basil every year. Basil has a wonderful aroma - but believe me - by the time you've got half-way through picking a whole tunnel full - the scent of it is pungent and extremely nauseating! I supplied the Dublin food Co-op back in those days, a few shops and I also had my weekly organic box delivery scheme in Dublin. It was always the most popular herb I grew - even then I never had enough of it to go round and had a waiting list!  Basil was rarely if ever available in supermarkets then, particularly if grown organically - and organic still isn't. Even now, some of my early customers call me every summer to see if I might possibly have a surplus - although I grow just for ourselves now and no longer sell any produce. A couple of months ago, after one of our monthly 'From Tunnel to Table' radio features - Late Lunch Show presenter Gerry Kelly, who is also a keen gardener, asked me how to split up supermarket basil, after seeing some which I'd done in pots here. Growing supermarket-bought basil is something that I've been asked about a great deal over the years when giving talks on organic gardening, so I thought it was time I gave it an article all to itself. It's such a wonderful plant it certainly deserves the five star treatment! 
 
Commercial organic growers are of course never allowed to use any non-organic basil or any other plants to grow on for producing organic crops - they must not even have non-organic plants on their holding. The rules are very strict - I know that as I was one of the people who helped to formulate and put in place the Irish Organic Standards back in the mid 1980's. Under the terms of their licence, growers must raise all their own plants from organic seed. When I eventually gave up commercial growing though, I was able to have a bit more fun with my gardening - experimenting with various methods of getting the very earliest crops of many of my favourites. As a consequence - I developed this method of growing the very earliest basil from those pots you can buy in some supermarkets. The little bit of non-organic compost they will have been raised in is soon remediated by potting them on into a good certified organic one - so the tiny amount of fertiliser that may be in the small supermarket pot doesn't bother me too much. The same goes for any possible - but unlikely traces of anything else - one has to be pragmatic here and a healthy, living organic soil can actually deal with a certain amount of non-organic material! Basil also grows so fast in the warm summer weather that it very soon outgrows any leafy area that may have possible small residues once it's being grown organically  It's much more energy-efficient to raise basil plants this way early in the year too. Home gardeners could never afford the winter heat and vital bright light that commercial herb producers use to get really early crops. It can help to give you a head start on the season - which needs to be as long as possible here for the amount of basil we use all year round! 
 
There's still time to use this method now even in July to get a really good crop before autumn weather puts a dampener on them. In fact it's a great way to grow a large amount of basil very quickly and cheaply at any time of year - as it skips about 4-6 weeks of growing time, particularly in early spring. It's also good for people who may find growing from seed a bit of a challenge. It's generally Sweet Genovese Basil that you see on sale in supermarkets - and I think it's the very best one for the classic Pesto Genovese. For the more unusual kinds of basil like the Giant Red Lettuce Leaved one you can see below though - you will still have to rely on specialist herb nurseries for plants, or grow your own plants from seed.
 
 
Buying pots of Basil from the supermarket for splitting
 
Below are some step-by-step photographs I've taken over the last 3 months - illustrating exactly how to do it. I wanted to just clarify a few extra points here that room in captions doesn't allow! I've tried to make this as comprehensive as possible, without being too lengthy - but forgive me if I've either gone on too long - or left anything out! When you've been doing it as long as I have it's easy to take some things for granted!
 
It's best to start off with a good-sized potful of the smallest seedling plants you can get. This is firstly because they will obviously have less time in non-organic compost but secondly because they tend to split up and move a lot more readily when still fairly small. Where to buy? Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's sell the freshest and best potted basil I've found, in decent sized pots. Some other supermarkets sell plants in smaller pots, but often those plants are taller, have been on the shelf for some time and haven't been looked after too well - either under or over watered from the top - which basil hates. Those generally don't transplant as happily as smaller ones. M&S pots are generally smaller and will give you 4 -5 good clumps, depending on how they split. Sainsbury's pots will usually give you 6 clumps - as the pots tend to be larger and the seedling plants are often slightly smaller than M&S ones too, which I prefer.
 
As soon as you get the plants home, release them immediately from their straight jackets - those suffocating plastic sleeves they've been in while on the shelf in the supermarket! They will immediately relax and breathe a sigh of relief! Then put them somewhere draught free - in good light and give them a drink if they need it - by sitting them in a shallow saucer of water for a couple of minute and then draining. Never, ever leave basil sitting in water - it's the surest way to kill it fast as it rots the roots! When you split the clumps up you will obviously have to water them around the stems initially, in order to settle the compost in around the roots. But after that - never water from the top again. Definitely do not give a 'thorough drench' it as I saw one 'expert' recommend and don't use a watering can from above either as I've seen some others recommend. Always waterbetween plants that are planted in the ground - never direct a cold hose at the base of the stems - another sure way to kill it. How often? When it needs it is the answer! You can't prescribe a once or twice weekly watering any more than you can organise the weather sadly! It just needs a nicely moist, but not wet soil. If it's too wet & cold it will start to turn yellow and die - if it's too dry it will be tough and run up to flower quickly, instead of producing those lovely lush leaves you want. This is something you'll just have to learn to play by ear.
 
When dividing - always be careful not to handle basil by the stems as they bruise easily and this can potentially cause disease. Use an 'open' claw like hand around the actual root ball, just below the stems. Turn the pot around - look for a gap where it seems likely to split readily and ease it apart very gently.
 
For initial potting up I use a good free-draining peat-free certified organic potting compost. Klassman-Deilman certified organic peat-'free potting compost is the one I prefer as it's made from composted green waste grown specifically for it and it grows really healthy plants. It's free-draining too and I never lose plants in it. I also use their seed compost for raising all my seeds - it's thoroughly reliable and since I discovered it I never lose even sensitive seedlings and basil can be a bit like that in early spring! Immediately after splitting and potting up shade it for a couple of days with fleece, or put it in a shady but warm spot as it may wilt a little at first, but will soon establish new roots and relish it's freedom.
 
If raising basil from seed I always sow into modules which avoids too much handling such as 'pricking out'. I sow very shallowly and then barely cover the seeds with vermiculite. This promotes well-drained conditions and really good air circulation around the base of the seedling's stem - so they never suffer any 'damping-off' problems. Again I always water the seed tray from below by sitting it in water for a few minutes and then covering with polythene until it starts to germinate. As soon as it does, it must be uncovered immediately or it may damp off. It needs a warm propagator for germination, and then the same temperature for growing on in the warm for a week or two before gradually acclimatising to normal greenhouse or tunnel temperatures. 
 
Where to put it for growing on after potting up? Basil's never really happy on a windowsill for very long. They're generally either too scorching hot and dry it out too quickly - or they don't have enough top light. The plant will keep stretching for more light and eventually become stressed. Stressed plants tend to be far more vulnerable to greenfly and wilting diseases. Outside it's not that happy either as it hates wind and rain. Giving plants the conditions they like is the secret to keeping them happy. Think sheltered Mediterranean gritty slope or sunny Ligurian hillside - and that's a bit closer to what it likes. Not really north-west European gloom or soggy soil!  It might be happy in a warm and sheltered town garden with free-draining soil, or in a large well drained pot in a sheltered sunny courtyard - but if you want to be sure of growing the very best basil, particularly if you want a lot of it, then a polytunnel, greenhouse or tall-ish cold frame with good ventilation is essentially the best environment for it in our climate. 
 
Planting out. When the roots have filled the pots, a couple of weeks after the initial splitting and it's ready to move on - you can then either pot it on into larger pots - about 3 clumps to a 10 litre pot is what I use to crop it in, or plant the clumps into warm, rich, nicely moist soil in your tunnel - about 45cm/18inas apart. Imagine what you would like if you were a basil plant - give it that - and it should take off like a rocket!
 
Harvesting. *Never wait until you want to use basil to harvest it! Always harvest it as soon as it's big enough to use, or it may run up to flower, and become stringy, tough and tasteless! Never allow flower buds to develop unless you want to save seed from a plant. Pick shoots as they become long enough, when the plants are about 15cm/6ins high or so. Always pinch off shoots cleanly with sharp fingernails, or scissors if you want to be 'finnicky' and you don't have many plants. Take the shoot just above a pair of leaves, where there will be more shoots waiting to develop as soon as they are stimulated by picking the shoot above them. It's a bit like pruning. Remember - basil wants to make flowers to perpetuate itself - you don't want it to! It's also necessary to pick some of the larger leaves from the inside or from around the outside of the plant as it becomes bigger - as this promotes good air circulation and prevents possible disease - which can happen in large clumps of plants. Again - pinch off - don't tear them off. Never denude the plant totally though, or you may kill it. It needs it's leaves to photosynthesise so it can make food to grow. Also pick off any yellowing leaves whenever you see them - they're doing nothing for the plant by then and may cause disease if left. (*My article on 'when is the best time to harvest your produce' is a relevant read - it tells you why early morning is the best time to pick your produce.)
 
Preserving basil. Although it's nice to have some basil preserved in oil for salad dressings and drizzling, I think it's wonderful aromatic qualities are best preserved by freezing as fast as possible. You can always make herb oils and pesto in winter when you have more time. Immediately after picking, I lightly wash and dry it, spin it dry in a salad spinner and then freeze it loosely in a large bag as fast as I can. After it's frozen I just pick up the bag - give it a jolly good shake and bang it about a bit (a bit of creative visualisation can be amusing here!).  And there you have it - ready chopped basil! Then squash as much air out of it as possible and 'double bag' it. It keeps beautifully in the airtight freezer bag - preserving that just-picked aroma and flavour. I just dip into the bag full whenever I need to make a pesto or something - no faffing about with tiny separate bags - life is too short! Just a sniff of the open bag in winter is enough to transport you back to summer! (Make sure the bags are strong and won't split when doing this to prevent tragedy - frozen basil stems can be sharp and pierce bags easily!) 
 
1. A nice pot of healthy basil, plenty full enough & ready to split 2. Sit the pot in saucer of water for few minutes for a drink
1. A nice pot of healthy basil, plenty full enough & ready to split 2. Sit the pot in saucer of water for few minutes for a drink
3. Turn pot around & look for a gap in plants where it will split conveniently  4. Split root ball gently into 2
 3. Turn pot around & look for a gap in plants where it will split conveniently  4. Split root ball gently into 2
   
 5. Split the halved potful into 2 again. You now have 4 clumps  6. Fill a pot with compost & make a wedge shaped hole
 5. Split the halved potful into 2 again. You now have 4 clumps  6. Fill a pot with compost & make a wedge shaped hole
 7. Pot up clump filling with compost to same level as it was originally. Firm gently & water in.  8. Do others -You now have 4 new pots full
 7. Pot up clump filling with compost to same level as it was originally. Firm gently & water in. 8. Do others -You now have 4 new pots full
 9. After splitting, shade for a couple  of days with fleece  10. You now have 12 new full pots of basil from 3 originally - ready to plant out
 9. After splitting, shade for a couple  of days with fleece  10. You now have 12 new full pots of basil from 3 originally - ready to plant out
11. Pot nicely filled - roots ready to explore further 12. Remove pot and plant clumps 45cm/18ins apart at same level as top of compost in pot - no lower.
11. Pot nicely filled - roots ready to explore further 12. Remove pot and plant clumps 45cm/18ins apart at same level as top of compost in pot - no lower.
 13. One week on - already growing well despite cold nights. Module raised plants sown  in mid April planted on right of them. Huge difference  14. Basil seedlings sown in organic compost mid April. Pictured 3 weeks later ready for potting on
 13. One week on - already growing well despite cold nights. Module raised plants sown  in mid April planted on right of them. Huge difference  14. Basil seedlings sown in organic compost mid April. Pictured 3 weeks later ready for potting on
 15. Bushy clump of split supermarket pot in foreground, already harvested twice. 2 module sown clumps not yet harvested at rear.  16. A rare Basil - Giant Red Lettuce Leaved - has a deliciously sweet warm cinnamon flavour & leaves big enough to cover my hand!
 15. Bushy clump of split supermarket pot in foreground, already harvested twice. 2 module sown clumps not yet harvested at rear.  16. A rare Basil - Giant Red Lettuce Leaved - has a deliciously sweet warm cinnamon flavour & leaves big enough to cover my hand!

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