Contents: Sets versus Seed - Why it pays to know your onions! Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is easy if you grow it yourself!.... Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!.... Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - A daft idea!... It's the season of firsts - but also gluts!.... Soil is more precious than Gold!.... Splendid spiralisers!.... Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now.... Carry on composting!.... Drown perennial weeds.... Keep mulching....
1. Multi-sown onions 'Golden Bear' & 'Red Baron' - in module tray hardening off before planting out 30th March
2. Multi-sown Golden Bear onions in clumps of 4 or 5 - pushing each other apart to form medium sized bulbs.
3. Multi-sown red and green onions starting to die back and ripen in late August - only a few have bolted,
4. Multi-sown Onions ripened, harvested and drying off well in the polytunnel. 17th September. They will keep for months
Sets versus Seed - Why it pays to Know your Onions!
The end of July and beginning of August is the perfect time to plan for one of next year's most important and nutritious culinary crops - onions. Seed companies are just starting to advertise next year's seeds and sets now, and as I'm always saying - planning really pays off. Recently on social media I've seen a lot of pictures of onion crops being incorrectly harvested, long before they are ready, while the growing tops are still beautifully green and the 'neck' of the onions is still thick. Often the gardener has actually bent the tops over while they are still growing well. It's such a pity to see this, when a few more weeks growing would have given the crop a chance to die down naturally, drying off gradually from the top down, and bending over as they do - with the necks narrowing and the bulbs becoming ripe enough to dry off and store for months. Many of the crops I've seen have clearly also 'bolted' - producing tall, hard flower stalks which are pretty much unusable in the kitchen as they're so tough and woody - unless one spots them very early on and uses them immediately for some onion flavouring. Most of those crops have been grown from 'sets', which are basically just immature onions, grown to a small size, with growth then artificially halted and the tiny bulbs heat treated to prevent them from 'bolting' or running up to flower after re-planting - which isn't always effective.
While planting these sets is undoubtedly easy and quick, and will give you slightly earlier crops - 18-20 weeks to harvest, as opposed to 20-24 weeks for seed grown crops - sets can be unreliable and may come with a host of problems.So what are those? First, from experience, I find that sets are much more sensitive to the fluctuating weather conditions which we seem to be experiencing more frequently with climate change. They're more sensitive to sudden heatwave and drought, and less frost-hardy than onions grown from seed, with many more likely to bolt. This is the same whether the sets are organically grown, or if they are conventionally, chemically grown with pesticides and fungicides. Even when grown in the well-drained conditions they like - in a cool, wet year, onions from sets are also far more prone to diseases like downy mildew and neck rot than those grown from seed. The worst disease of all that onion sets may bring in is onion white rot - something you really don't want in your garden! This will infect any members of the onion family, even ornamental ones, which are grown in the same soil within 15-20 years, and can even be carried around on your tools and boots! Chemically-grown sets are far more likely to bring this disease in, despite being treated regularly with toxic fungicides which leave residues in the sets. This is because conventional growers don't have to worry about crop rotations, and may grow plants destined for sets in the same soil for many years, resulting in that soil becoming unhealthy, and if not infected, definitely lacking in biodiversity and trace elements. Certified organic growers can't do this, as they have to agree under the legal requirements of their certification agreement to provide cropping plans for their holding for inspectors approval every year, and they can also be spot-checked at any time without prior notice to check if they are following their plan and doing things correctly. Organic soils are also far more healthy and contain more biodiversity, so any plants grown in them will naturally be much healthier, having the ability to protect themselves better from disease.
In general I prefer to grow onions from seed - multi-sowing them in March in blocks or modules of organic, peat-free compost, for planting outside in April. As I don't want huge exhibition onions - just a usable size for the kitchen,I tend to sow 5 or 7 seeds to a block, without thinning - the higher number of seeds giving smaller onions. But if I want some really early onions in the spring to guard against my stores running out - I plant some 'autumn planting' sets in well-drained, peat-free compost in large tubs, which means that I can vary their cropping time by growing some inside and some outside. These can be planted quite close together, about 10 cm (4 in.) apart giving medium to large bulbs which push each other apart as they grow. Growing sets this way also means that any diseased sets can be yanked out immediately they're spotted, with any compost surrounding the roots, and put into the recycling bin. - NOT the compost heap! My favourite red onion variety is Red Baron, and my favourite white or yellow onion is Golden Bear. Organic seed of both of these reliable and tasty varieties is quite widely available now. Organic sets are also available if you prefer those, or want to grow an earlier crop in tubs. I shall write more on growing multi-sown onions early next spring.
Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is so easy, more healthy, fresher and more delicious if you grow it yourself!
One of the greatest joys of growing your own organic vegetables is being able to eat seasonally and rediscover how really fresh organic vegetables, untainted by chemicals, should taste. I believe it satisfies a very deep-seated need in us - and that's not surprising since humans evolved to eat food grown by nature, in its purest form possible, in an unpolluted world - each type of food in it's proper season. I think that all year round availability of everything has ruined many people's anticipation and enjoyment of food. It's lost much of it's excitement and has become almost boring! These days you can find vegetables and fruits from the furthest corners of the globe on supermarket shelves which are all particular varieties chosen for productivity, uniform appearance, ability to travel without bruising and for long shelf life. They're sadly not chosen to taste fantastic and to be as nutritious as those you can pick fresh from your own garden. They are often picked long before they are ready to eat, and are devoid of most of their natural taste and nutrients. They are mere commodities, conveniently packaged into whatever form makes them the most commercially profitable for the 'pile it high and sell it cheap' supermarkets! Low cost food seems to be more important to some people than food quality - but you get what you pay for! It's definitely worth growing a few vegetables yourself if you possibly can - even if you only have the smallest patch of ground, a tub outside on a path or a window box.
Increasing numbers of scientific studies suggest that long-term consumption of a diet high in a wide variety of colourful plant phytonutrients - 'eating the rainbow' in other words - offers protection against the development of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases.The healthy exercise and fresh air that gardening entails is also good for us - both physically and mentally! Only organic food, free of man-made synthetic chemicals, grown in it's natural season and then harvested at it's absolute peak, can ever have all the properly-developed nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. I would also suggest that chemically-grown produce and processed foods have ruined people's taste buds - so that they have become dulled, less sensitive and discriminating. Taste is very often tied to nutrition in fruits and vegetables. Many of the aromatic compounds which actually give fruit and vegetables their wonderful array of flavours are in many cases the very same ones that give them their health-protecting phytonutrients. And of course, as I'm always pointing out, studies by Newcastle University some years ago proved that organic fruits and vegetables are up to 70% higher in such valuable phytonutrients.
Just how wonderful is it that you can grow and eat so many things that are not absolutely delicious but are actually good for you? We vegetable gardeners are so lucky! Far luckier than those unfortunate people who are restricted to just buying and eating the often days or weeks old produce they can find in shops!
Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!
Potatoes are one good example of a colourful veg that packs a very powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits. In the last few years, many scientific studies have found that the antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients in purple potatoes like those pictured above, combined with other compounds they contain, can lower blood pressure and actually even kill cancer cells in the lab! That's not the only reason I'm such a big fan of them though! They look utterly fabulous and taste fantastic too! What's not to love as they say? Happily a lot more people now seem to be interested in the stunning looks and health benefits of the blue and purple potato varieties. This was very much shown by the huge reaction on Twitter when I posted a tweet about the very attractive but rare variety Peru Purple. That's why I decided to write about a few of the ones which I have personal experience of. As you will know if you're a regular reader - I never write about anything unless I can write from my own personal experience.
I found my very first purple potatoes, Truffe de Chine - about 40 years ago in Harrods Food Hall in London of all places - which used to be a treasure trove of unusual vegetables then. They were such an exciting find - I'd never seen them before!Since then I've discovered that upmarket veg shops are always well worth investigating for interesting things to possibly grow if you're in London, or any other large, ethnically diverse city. It's amazing what you may find!
I got my original elephant garlic bulb in a small fruit and vegetable shop on First Avenue in New York of all places, many years ago on a rare holiday - long before I decided that I didn't want to fly anymore and contribute to climate change. My very rare holidays or short trips anywhere have always included visits to the local food markets and shops, to see what treats I can find to save seeds or tubers from! If my children are on holidays they are always instructed to do the same! To me, such shops are just like sweet shops are to children, or handbag shops to some 'fashionistas'!! I can never resist that childlike urge to try to grow anything different from pips, seeds or tubers. I grew Cucamelons and Kiwanos that way many years ago - long before anyone had even heard of them. I find it hugely amusing that certain 'celeb veg writers' have apparently only just now 'discovered' them! I've been growing them since before many of them were even born - as I've been a keen 'food tourist' for years!
I've always grown for taste and nutrients rather than bulk, and being an artist, looks are also important for me. After all - we eat with our eyes! As I've already mentioned, both looks and taste are often linked with nutrients.We don't need to eat potatoes 365 days a year - in fact they could become boring if we ate them every day - rather than the treat they are when you grow only the very best-tasting varieties. Food should never be boring - it should be a joy! I like eating tasty potatoes but we don't eat them more than two or three times a week at most - due to their high carbohydrate content. By the way - I never, ever boil potatoes - I always steam or bake them. Boiling potatoes means that you are pouring many of their valuable nutrients straight down the sink! That means they're also losing much of their flavour - which you can see very clearly if you boil the purple ones - as the water turns bright blue! We also always leave the skins on when eating any potatoes. Not only are many of the nutrients actually in or just beneath the skin - but again there's lots of gut-healthy, satisfying fibre in them too - so it's incredibly wasteful not to eat them!
Purple Majesty is an interesting and delicious variety that makes large tubers. This is the particular potato which featured in the blood pressure reduction study. Unfortunately a problem with plant breeders rights means that you can't get Purple Majesty seed tubers here in Ireland. So I'm afraid that being a bit of a rebel - I've always ignored that legal restriction! I've saved my own seed tubers for about 15 years now from some which I originally bought in a Northern Ireland supermarket about 10 years ago, and I've grown them ever since. As long as you don't sell them - that is perfectly legal! And as long as you always ONLY save tubers for seed from the healthiest plants - you can keep your stock healthy so you won't have problems. Purple Majesty is a main-crop variety which really benefits from my method of starting tubers off early in pots. This gives them the longest season possible before the dreaded potato blight hits. As soon as I see evidence of blight I take off the tops, cover the bed with something waterproof and they keep really well for months that way, as long as you don't have slug problems. They also keep well in normal cool storage if you do have slug problems. Purple Majesty retains its colour and phytonutrients well when cooked, has a lovely floury texture for making mash and a fantastic, 'nutty', sort of 'baked potato' flavour - despite being a relatively new introduction compared to some. It's so far proven to be the highest in antioxidants of all purple potatoes and is one of the best tasting varieties too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years. It bakes, fries and steams well - and makes a lovely fluffy mash.
Salad Blue is another potato which is a great masher and baker too.It is an early maincrop heritage variety, thought to have been bred in Victorian times. It's recently become very popular again and well deservedly, and is fairly widely available online. It also keeps very well in storage, after growingin my particular way. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots to give them a long season - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using this method and I never need to use any spray for blight - even copper-sulphate. Fruit Hill Farm in County Cork had it again this year.
Violetta is a deep purple, second-early variety. It's the earliest of the purple varieties to be ready here, and it crops well both in the polytunnel and outside. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some of the non-organically grown Violetta which I tried seven years ago from a well-known Dublin food shop - but I've since found that growing them organically, without the chemicals that make them absorb more water, really makes a huge difference to the taste! I got my original seed tubers from Tuckers Seeds in Devon, who used to sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and were good about sending to Ireland - but sadly they no longer sell online and are now only open to customers at their shop in Devon. Violetta is delicious steamed and eaten with lashings of butter - when it has a nice 'waxy' texture. It's good cold too, in tortillas and potato salads. Sadly it doesn't mash well or make good scalloped potatoes though, as it absorbs a lot of oil when cooking and doesn't crisp up well. It's not a bad baker though.
Attractive Vitelotte Noire after steaming
Vitelotte Noire - (otherwise known as Negresse or Truffe de Chine) is a very old heritage variety which was first recorded as being sold in the early 19th century, in the markets of Paris markets - but it is thought to be originally far older than that.Also a maincrop variety which is fairly late to bulk up - it is a salad type with a similar long shape to 'Pink Fir Apple' but not as knobbly. It has very dark purple flesh sometimes marbled with a lighter colour and has a wonderful flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket vegetable shops. Vitelotte is more resistant to blight and other diseases than many other potatoes - so it is well-suited to organic growing. This was that first potato that I found among the tempting exotic-looking displays in Harrods Food Hall all those years ago. I've been growing it ever since and have passed it on to many people. One of my favourites, I love that I'm growing history too.
Peru Purple, steamed, chilled overnight & scalloped in olive oil
Peru Purple is extremely rare and currently only available from seed banks such as The Irish Seed Savers Association or possibly other keen potatophiles - which is where I obtained mine. It's well worth growing if you can find it! It is very pretty with a deep red-purple skin, and is a slightly lighter colour, marbled with white inside. Although I've found virtually nothing about this particular variety online - (only that purple potatoes originally come from Peru!) - it seems to be a maincrop cultivar. I can certainly vouch for the fact that it makes the most deliciously fluffy, pale mauve mash. It also makes absolutely THE most fabulously crispy scalloped-potatoes ever! It quickly crisps and browns on the outside while staying light and fluffy on the inside. This is an aspect of their cooking qualities that I'm sure you'll understand I naturally felt that I had an obligation to research extensively on your behalf! It will definitely make fabulous oven fries or crisps......but more research will undoubtedly be necessary to investigate this! It definitely deserves to be far more widely known and grown! If you have it - share it - that will ensure that it not only survives but thrives!
A much newer variety which I grew for the very first time last year, looks set to become a firm favourite, is Blaue Annaliese, and I can tell you I'm already completely hooked! A hybrid between Violetta, which I've talked about above, and another purple variety - it was selected for its excellent disease-resistance from its breeding trials and was launched in 2007. It's now late July - there is blight everywhere and so far it is looking beautifully healthy again. despite being in the polytunnel, as I couldn't get any ground ready outside early enough due to my ankle problems - so finger's crossed! It's tubers are such a gorgeous deep violet/indigo- blue colour that they're almost black, so are clearly very high in healthy anthocyanins. They look absolutely stunning cooked too, and have a lovely sweet, almost chestnutty taste. I think it certainly has the most vigorous and healthiest-looking foliage of any potato I've ever grown, but clearly likes plenty of room! It's already smothered the Peru Purple which was 4 feet away! In future I shall give it an entire bed to itself, where it's wandering, far-reaching roots can't get mixed up with any other varieties. Although it is a maincrop variety rather than a first or second early which are more suitable, I held back some tubers from my spring planting to plant in the next week or so as an experiment for Christmas potatoes. I shall report back. Seed tubers were available this spring from Fruit Hill Farm in Co. Cork. https://www.fruithillfarm.com/seeds-and-propagation/organic-seed-potatoes/gourmet-potatoes/blaue-anneliese-organic-seed-potatoes.html
Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - A daft idea!
Purple Majesty left showing its violet-purple flesh colour - with the deeper-coloured indigo blue-black Blaue Annaliese on right
Blaue Anneliese looking healthy and vigorous - taking over an entire bed!
While talking of polytunnel potatoes I want to knock this misconception on the head once and for all! I NEVER keep my polytunnels closed to prevent blight at this time of year - because it doesn't! In fact if anything, it positively encourages it! As always - I write this blog from 45 years of personal experience - not from something daft that I've read in a book! You cannot possibly keep a tunnel so airtight that it doesn't allow any air in. And anyone who grows in a polytunnel can tell you that when they are closed, even on a dull day with no sun at this time of year, they can feel like a sauna - especially in Ireland with our higher air humidity, even if the soil in the tunnel were to be so dry that nothing would grow in it! I've grown in a lot of different-sized polytunnels for many years now, starting off with a tiny, 6 ft by 4ft, 'Garden Relax' polythene-covered greenhouse in my very first garden 44 years ago. I now have 2 large, quite high ones with good air circulation - but I can still confidently say that THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO WAY YOU CAN SHUT POTATO BLIGHT OUT OF A POLYTUNNEL! Blight spores are always circulating in the air at this time of year, and all they need are the right conditions to germinate and grow on either potatoes or tomatoes. Those conditions are humidity and warmth, both day and night for 48 hours - and keeping a polytunnel closed day and night for that length of time at this time of year does precisely that!
Careful hand watering of potatoes, ONLY when necessary, in a polytunnel or outside, and NEVER, ever, watering from above or wetting the foliage are key to avoiding blight in hot, dry weather. Automatic watering systems often encourage blight by over-watering and never allowing the surface of the soil to dry out. That's one of the reasons why I hate them, as I mentioned in the polytunnel blog this month. OK - I know standing and watering plants is not everyone's most favourite occupation, but not only is it a lot cheaper than an automatic system - but it allows you more control and also gives you time to really see what's going on with your crops. And that observation and knowledge is what makes the difference between being a really good gardener and just an adequate one.
It's the season of 'firsts'....
Nothing ever tastes quite like that very first bite of truly seasonal produce at it's best - whether you're a new gardener or if you've been growing you have grown your own food for many years! The first strawberries, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas...etc. One of the simplest, most satisfying and most joyous pleasures in life is to be able to cultivate a garden, and to produce as much of your own food as possible - while at the same time helping all of the other creatures that are part of Nature, just as we are. Our garden here has not just been a source of sustenance for many years - but also a source of great joy, health and peace for the soul.
This picture here was taken in 1983, of some of my first summer's produce here at Springmount. It was proudly displayed on the then kitchen table. It gave me such a great sense of achievement back then - and a feeling that no matter what life threw at us - we would survive it all and feed ourselves well! .... I still hope that will be the case for many more years to come - but in the future with the erratic weather of climate change - that is definitely going to be more of a challenge!
I could already clearly notice the effects of climate change beginning to happen here 36 years ago. But few wanted to listen then, and many denied it - when something might still have been done to mitigate its worst effects!In September of 1992, just after the first Rio Earth Summit that June - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. It was given by Alan Gear - then chief executive of the HDRA (now re-named Garden Organic) - the local Irish group of which I organised at the time. His lecture was entitled 'The Road From Rio - Where Do We Go From Here'. His warning was stark - act NOW or it will rapidly get worse, and all of Nature, including humans, will bear the consequences of our inaction! Even then it was clear that soil was part of the solution - and increasingly science is showing this to be more true with every passing day.
Restoring soil carbon through regenerative organic agriculture, by gardening organically without using climate-destructive peat products, or by supporting organic farming, are the best chance each of us has to truly be able to do something personally to help mitigate climate change. The soil was so bad when I started growing here, after years of chemical agriculture destroying all of its carbon, that it was almost like lifeless concrete when it was dry - and like sticky glue when it was wet! It is so much better now after 38 years of minimal digging, constant mulching and loving organic husbandry that I can plant just with my hands - I don't need tools! It is now completely transformed, and it is so wonderful to sink one's hands into it, with its vibrantly alive community of creatures and microbes - truly plugging into the earth and the source of our earliest beginnings. Is it any wonder that it benefits our mental health just to feel it and to inhale beneficial microbes like Mycobacterium Vaccae - which has been scientifically proven to cure depression? It is so sad that so many people never get the chance to experience that.
There have been many changes here since those early days. The children have grown up, various people - some much loved family, assortments of animals, and momentous life events have all come and gone. But one thing never changes - that is that my enthusiasm and desire to learn from mistakes and successes, to constantly look for good new varieties or better selections of old ones and ways to do things even better so that I keep improving the soil with every year that passes. Also to find easier ways of growing that will allow me to continue my gardening even after accidents have left me partially disabled and now less able to do many things. Experiments continue. That's the wonderful thing about gardening - and why it holds such a continuing fascination for me. One never stops learning and no one ever knows it all, no matter how long we do it. Nature doesn't give up all of her secrets easily - but if you work with her - the rewards are plentiful.
Take good care of your soil - it is more precious than Gold!
Gold can't grow food either! We didn't evolve to eat commodities grown with chemicals in the poisoned, impoverished and lifeless medium that conventionally farmed soils have become.Neither did we evolve to eat foods grown in chemical hydroponic solutions, with artificial light where the plants are fed with fertiliser (also often fungicidal) solutions and deprived of all the vital symbiotic bacteria & fungi that are present in a living soil which they need to produce all their proper nutrients! To be healthy and productive - soil and all it's microbial life needs to be replenished, encouraged and protected constantly. That's what Nature does.
We cannot keep taking crops from soil without helping it to regenerate all those natural things it needs. Soil is a living community of microbes - or it should be. In some parts of the planet - soil has just become a completely lifeless, carbon-depleted dust which simply holds up plants while they're fed with chemicals. It has so little organic matter left in it that it erodes, washes away or blows away very easily. We can't keep taking crops from the soil and not replacing all those elements that made them - any more than we could give up real food and just live on vitamins and protein supplements! Soil loss is also becoming more and more important from an environmental, as well as from a food growing perspective, as it traps carbon dioxide and is a massive carbon sink, so it is absolutely vital to mitigating climate change. Only a healthy, living organic soil can do this!
If you would like to know more about how us gardeners can restore soil and by doing so help to mitigate climate-change - here's a link to the soil talk which I gave at our National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin in 2016:
The soil gave us our past and nurtured us. We now hold its future, and ours in our hands. We must use it more wisely. If we keep taking more and more from it without giving anything back, what we are actually doing is robbing our own future - and so are the multinational manufacturers of these planet-polluting chemicals which are destroying it! They don't care about the future of our children - or even apparently theirs! Their only concern is big profits now!
The season of Plenty - but also gluts!
There is no more delightful and satisfying sight than a really well organised and productive vegetable garden at this time of year. It's so satisfying to stand back and look at everything after a hard day's work. The whole garden has a summer carnival atmosphere about it - like a glorious celebration of Nature's abundant generosity. We're surrounded by masses of delicious vegetables - so many luscious things to choose from that we could have several different ones in gluttonous portions every day! Mother Nature has pressed the 'fast forward' button and everything is growing so incredibly fast that it's hard to choose what to eat next!
Of course with seasonal growing and eating - gluts of many fruits and vegetables can naturally sometimes become a problem. It's always a feast or a famine!One minute you're dying for that very first taste of something - then all of a sudden there's far too many! It's a good problem to have though. In these times of fast rising prices for so many things, and even food shortages lately due to COVID19 - it's not just a good feeling to be as self-sufficient as possible in most things. but also sensible. Particularly with the other uncertainty brought about by the forthcoming Brexit - but I won't start on politics! When under pressure I tend to try to find positive, practical side ways to cope! This is when it's so useful to have a freezer - particularly since we're not that into chutneys or jams, all being high in sugar! Priority for eating fresh has to be given to those that perhaps don't tend to freeze quite as well as some others. Most things freeze well, but some veg need cooking first.
Courgettes, which we've now been eating for over a month from the tunnel, don't freeze well raw but do freeze very well as a component of my caramelised roast red onion ratatouille, which is totally addictive, incredibly useful, and a brilliant standby to have in the freezer (if it makes it that far - because it's so delicious cold it's hard to resist! You can find it in the recipe section). It's a terrific way to use up too many courgettes - something which always happens! They freeze very well cooked like this and are so useful to have put by to use as a side vegetable or to throw into sauces.
Broccoli is another brilliant freezer candidate which always seems to be all ready at once - particularly the more productive F1 varieties like 'Green Magic' from Unwins - my all year round favourite.I pack the small individual florets into recycled plastic take-away boxes. Donated by other people I hasten to add! We don't eat Chinese takeaways - but it's amazing how many so-called healthy eaters do! I'm not complaining though, I'm only too happy to do their recycling for them - one box holds two portions of broccoli very nicely. That way they don't get smashed up in the freezer. There's no need to blanch them before freezing quickly either - it just wastes nutrients! They are perfect if tipped straight into fast-boiling water from frozen when you want to use them. I always sow a late crop of 'Green Magic' calabrese this month for planting in the tunnel in September - this will give us useful pickings all through the winter if covered with a bit of fleece when a very hard frost threatens.
Some crops like climbing French beans, broad beans and peas, I tend to grow specifically for freezing - firstly because they obviously don't grow over winter in the polytunnels but also because they are mostly unaffected by several months in the freezer, and make a very welcome change during the darkest months of the year. They are mostly 'squirrelled' away for winter suppers, after enjoying the novelty of the first few platefuls of fresh ones. It can be hard to keep up with filling the freezer as well doing all the garden jobs that all seem to need doing at once, but it will be so welcome during the long winter months when organic vegetables and fruits are scarce, expensive, depleted of nutrients and without much variety, unless they've come from God knows where, along with a massive carbon footprint! . It feels so good in the depths of winter to enjoy a bit of the summer's sunshine - captured in the harvest from your own garden!
Things like pumpkins or winter squashes that will store for a long time overwinter are also a major priority crop here. They don't need valuable freezer space either, just a cool dry place. With careful ripening they can often be stored right up until next year's are sown or even later - increasing in vitamin A while in storage. So they are a very valuable winter staple. On the subject of pumpkins and squashes - unless you're entering giant pumpkin competitions you don't want huge ones, so encourage fruiting side shoots to form by pinching out the main shoot after 4-5 leaf joints. Then each of the side shoots produces flowers and that way instead of just one huge pumpkin - I get 3 or four good sized ones which store very well for the winter. Last week I had my first major basil harvest of the year, grown in the tunnel as it's far too windy here to do well outside. To me - my vegetable garden is far more important than money in the bank. It's so comforting knowing that I have a really good range of foods preserved for the winter. In fact. even if I had oodles of money - I could never buy most of the things that I grow.
A few years ago I discovered another fantastic way to use courgettes - and I promise that I could never have believed that their taste could be so utterly transformed just by the way they are prepared! I first read about them in Domini Kemp's column in the Irish Times Magazine. They looked fun so I bought a cheap 'Lurch' model just to try it - half expecting it to be rubbish! I couldn't have been more wrong! Fabulous 'courgetti spaghetti' in an instant - but watch your fingers!! 4 years ago my June 'Tunnel to Table recipe was Spaghetti Courgetti with Pesto and it was really delicious (in the recipe and 'listen' sections if you want to try it). The 'courgetti' are also delicious, just very simply stir-fried with a clove of garlic and some soy sauce - from the taste you would think you were eating a whole Chinese stir-fry, they're just fantastic! The very best way to cook them in my opinion though is in my Creamy Courgette and red onion Gratin - also in the recipe section. It's my most popular recipe ever! Everyone loves it and now we don't have enough - something that's never usually a problem at this time of year!! Another of my recipes - my Lemon Courgette Cake - is I think is my best cake ever! It keeps brilliantly, getting better over three or four days (if it lasts!) and also freezes fantastically well. I don't know why some people make fun of spiralisers - they clearly haven't tried them properly - they're brilliant! I wouldn't be without mine now!
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!
Talking of the winter months- it's now that we need to think about next year's 'hungry gap'! Difficult I know - with everything growing so quickly and so much staking, watering, weeding and mulching etc. to be done! It can be difficult to remember that a great many winter and late spring crops take almost a whole year to grow. Some, like Brussels sprouts and leeks, should have been sown a couple of months ago. At the same time as storing some of the tender vegetables for a bit of winter variety - we have to think about planting the hardy ones that will be the mainstay of our diet then. This may seem an odd time of year to be thinking about winter veg, when we hope we still have a lot more summer to enjoy - but it's just a reminder that if you don't think about them right now, then come winter or next year's spring 'hungry gap' you won't have any! You need to plan now for what's going to follow on after your summer crops - both outside and undercover - and then make sure you have the seeds or the plants that you will need.
From mid-June to the end of August is when most of the seeds need to be sown for many things like chicory, oriental veg., winter lettuces etc. If you sow them from now on in modules using organic seed compost - you will have them ready to plant as soon as early summer crops are over - thereby making the best use of your growing space. If you haven't already sown things like leeks, kale and purple sprouting broccoli for growing outside - then garden centres should still have good plants at the moment - but get them as soon as you can because plants that are still hanging around in a month or so may have become starved or root bound in their modules and won't produce good crops. There's lots more info. on what to sow now and next month for winter and also quick growing crops to mature this autumn in the sowing list for this month. There's also still some sowings to be done of vegetables that will mature in the autumn. Some, like Chinese cabbages and radicchio, actually prefer the shortening, post-solstice days. If sown before then they'll often run straight up to seed in the late summer heat (we hope!). Again there's a lot more suggestions in my 'What to Sow' section of the blog.
Cabbage damaged by root fly on right
It's time to transplant winter brassicas like Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflowers, kales and cabbages to their final winter cropping quarters if you already have the plants - the bigger and more well established they are before the autumn - the better your crops will be. Don't forget to put brassica collars around the stems to keep off the cabbage root fly and also to suspend netting above them to stop the cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs on them. If you just rest the netting on them, the butterfly will still manage to lay her eggs onto the topmost leaves! I find that carpet squares are best for making brassica collars, as they are flexible and don't shrink. I tried to make some from old, paper backed carpet underlay but when they dried out a bit one had shrunk so the root fly got in - you can see the result here! You could still sow some kale, if you can cover them with cloches later on - these won't make huge plants but can still be well worth picking as 'baby' leaves, even if we get a cold autumn. Kales will also do very well over the winter in a polytunnel and will be far more productive than they ever would be outside. If you didn't sow any brassicas, a friend of mine bought some very good organic plants online last year, so you could try that - or visit one of the good local garden centres who are worth supporting in these days of big DIY multiples. You can also sow spring cabbages and swedes - I find sowing in modules under fine netting best, to avoid any pests, and also seedlings possibly getting smothered by weeds, as can easily happen with everything growing so quickly now.
Keep sowing lettuces and other salads little and often - I sow a few lettuces in modules each time I'm planting some out- this keeps up a regular supply, as I never like to be without the makings of a good salad. There's lots of great lettuces to sow in July. I grow 'Little Gem' baby cos because I love their crunch and I also grow a lot of the loose leaf types like the wonderful Jack Ice too - as they can crop for months, particularly in the spring and autumn if you keep them well watered, just picking a few leaves from each plant every time you need some. They're really useful in an ornamental potager, as they're very attractive and picking a whole head of lettuce does tend to leave rather a hole in one's planting pattern! Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is always a reliable one for this, very colourful, disease resistant and full of antioxidants, the seed is cheaply available everywhere now - and is often given away free with gardening magazines. 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino are my favourite loose leaf winter lettuces now, but 'Fristina' (pictured) and 'Belize' are also very tasty, bolt-resistant green ones, which both have nice firm leaves and are nicely 'crunchy' in the middle, not 'floppy' as some of the loose leaf types often can be. I've found that 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino also overwinter really well in the tunnel, are very disease resistant and also slow to bolt. 'Cherokee' is a really good crunchy leaved Batavian which everyone remarked on last winter/spring - wanting to know what it was. Nymans is a great red Cos variety. Like a lot of the red lettuces - it seems quite hardy, has a lovely flavour and eventually makes nice crispy hearts in spring, after picking a few leaves from the outside over winter. All of these benefit from cloche protection later on in autumn if outside rather than in a tunnel - more to prevent excess wet than cold.
'Sugar loaf' chicory - Pain de Sucre is another old favourite standby for sowing now or up until mid August that will grow well all winter both outside and in the tunnel - making nice big, tightly wrapped, blanched hearts like cos lettuces in late winter and early spring - and with slightly more bitter outside leaves that make a great late winter tonic for hens. Early July sowings seem to make the biggest hearts - so don't delay sowing it!.
One winter veg I would also never want to be without, no matter what, is Ruby Chard - and now is the perfect time to sow it for good winter crops, before the end of July. I particularly like the variety Vulcan - I've found that it's far better in terms of productivity than any of the other coloured chards, which tend to run up to flower very easily at the slightest excuse. It's very easy to grow and much more bolt-resistant than those as long as you give it plenty of root room and keep it well watered in hot weather, especially in polytunnels in spring. It has equal standing ability to the plain white stemmed one - and of course it's far more nutritious than that, having a lot of the phytonutrients I mentioned earlier, due to the red colour. We think it tastes better too.
Carry on composting!
Keep collecting compost material, mixing it up well as you do, particularly if you're incorporating grass clippings which can be very wet and slimy put on in an anaerobic, unmixed layer.Their very high-nitrogen green sappiness needs to be balanced with plenty of high carbon, brown and more stemmy stuff, or ripped up newspapers, cardboard etc. Keep your compost covered, so that it heats up really well, destroying any weed seeds and breaking down the plant material quickly. You could fry an egg on my compost heaps at this time of year! - The hotter it is - the better! It's easier to get the heap to heat up if it's fairly big. Compost bins are OK but don't heat up so much. They're very useful for keeping rats out though if you have a lot of fruit waste which tends to attract them. A very hot heap also puts them off, and by the time it cools down - everything in it should be well broken down and not so attractive to them. I use old pallets to make my compost bins, they allow air in at the sides, and then I cover the tops and front with heavy gauge black polythene silage cover. This also keeps the rain out and so keeps all the nutrients in the compost where I want them. I'm always astonished to see 'experts' on TV not covering compost heaps - haven't they heard of nutrient loss, 'run-off' and pollution? Uncovered compost may still make a good soil conditioner - but most of the nitrients will have been completely washed away, wasting all the valuable soil-enriching fertility, polluting groundwater and emitting climate-change accelerating Nitrous Oxide!!
Drown your perennial weeds!
I don't put perennial weeds like docks, scutch (couch) grass and mares tail onto the compost heap, as it wouldn't kill them - I reserve extra special treatment for them in order to recycle the nutrients they've robbed from my soil!First I put them in a black bin bag in the sun to wilt & cook for a week or so, then I put them into a large barrel of water beside the compost heaps, with about half a bucket of chicken manure to get them festering nicely! Or you could alternatively use HLA - 'household liquid activator' as the wonderful late Lawrence Hills euphemistically called it! (use your imagination - the final insult to a weed!!) This is added to throughout the summer and by the following year everything has rotted nicely, any fibrous plant material remaining can at that stage go onto the compost heap with the rest of the now benign liquid being used as a liquid feed, diluted about 10-1. Warning here - cover this when it's festering - the smell is appalling and attracts horse flies like a magnet! It's actually very good for seeing off unwanted visitors though. Just invite them to admire your compost heaps and give it a really vigorous stir while they're standing beside it - it works like magic!! Don't get it on your hands though - or you won't get rid of the smell for a fortnight! The same goes for comfrey, borage and nettle feed - much the best when all mixed together in a large barrel - as the high nitrogen nettles help the high potash comfrey to break down quickly, the borage supplies valuable magnesium, and they make a nice balanced feed for most things when diluted to the colour of weak tea after a few weeks, when the smell had mostly gone.
End of brassica bed planting of Nasturtium, Tagetes & Viola, to attract beneficial insects.
The first runner beans will be flowering soon - but you won't have any problem with pollination if you've been encouraging bees and other pollinators into the garden by growing lots of flowers among your vegetables as I do.It makes the 'potager' or kitchen garden look beautiful too, and flowers such as Nasturtiums and violas are also edible and can be used in salads.
The value of mulching
Talking of runner beans - it's important to keep them evenly moist at the roots as any dryness at the roots encourages the flower buds to drop. A good mulch now will help to etain moisture . Grass clippings are brilliant for this - also keeping weeds down. As I've said so many times before - always mulch on already damp soil, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the direct stem area to avoid possible rotting, and watering in well as soon as you put fresh grass clippings on - to avoid any burning of the roots by the high nitrogen in the clippings.
Keep mulching everything you can, as this stops evaporation, saves on water, protects the soil surface from heavy summer rain (I wish!), encourages worms and keeps the weeds down by excluding light. Plants and worms love mulches rather than bare soil. A nice cooling mulch keeps the worms working in the upper layers of soil - rather than disappearing lower down, away from the dry summer heat. That means they're making more plant nutrients available to the roots of crops. Worms like green food - it's much better for them than newspaper or cardboard, although they do need carbon too. I know a lot of people use newspapers under grass mulches, but all I can say is they can't have very many birds in their gardens! I tried that years ago around shrubs and fruit bushes, but the birds here had one helluva time scratching them up everywhere looking for worms! The garden quickly resembled the local rubbish dump - so I just use grass clippings on their own now! They still get scratched about but don't look so bad and after a few days they fade to a nice light brown colour!
Don't use massive mulches of manure - doing that promotes soft growth that's far more vulnerable to both diseases and slugs! It also buries too deeply and suffocates many of the vital organisms that live in the top layers of the soil, which plants need to be healthy. The majority of soil-dwelling bacteria need oxygen to survive and do their job of interacting with plant roots. If you make life hard for them, you make it much harder for them to do their job. Lashing on tons of non-organic manure can also contain chemicals which can unbalance the population of soil bacteria. This is something many people don't know. In every layer of soil there is something that specifically evolved to live in that particular place. Leave it where it evolved to be - don't make life hard for it!
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and over 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.)
Topics for July:Growing New Potatoes for Christmas..... Polytunnels should be available on prescription!..... A Polytunnel can be your alternative to a 'Mediterranean' holiday in Summer!.... Holiday time and watering plants..... Rough guide to watering/feeding Tomatoes in containers & in the ground..... Side-shoots on Tomatoes.... Pollination of Tomatoes..... Other Tunnel Crops..... Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads......Thinking ahead to late autumn and winter crops
Potato 'Lady Christl' pot-grown for new potatoes at Christmas
Potato Apache - pot-grown for new potatoes at Christmas
Growing New Potatoes for Christmas
You can use any variety of potatoes to plant for Christmas and New Year potatoes, as all of them will grow, but first and second early types are the most reliable ones to count on being ready for Christmas - other varieties may be later cropping, but will still be welcome.If I'm saving some of my early spring crop from the same year for doing this - I dry them off in the sun for a few days - don't worry if they go green, that won't matter. Then I put them in the fridge to chill them for a week or so to fool them into thinking that winter has arrived and they're having their 'dormant period'. I don't wait for them to 'chit' or sprout then - I just plant them about 10 cm deep in 3 litre or larger pots or tubs, in organic peat-free potting compost - and they then think it's spring and simply romp away! Potatoes are always keen to grow whatever the time of year, bless them - as anyone who has ever accidentally left a forgotten bag of them half-finished at the back of the veg drawer will know very well!
After you've planted them in their pots, keep them outside for a few weeks somewhere where they'll get really good air circulation, but not where they will get too hot- perhaps in the shade of a north facing wall - but definitely not in full sun. Plenty of good air circulation is key to avoiding late blight. Also key is only to water only into the top of the pot or from underneath. Never spray overhead with water - as wetting leaves encourages blight in warm humid weather. Then bring them into the polytunnel in autumn as soon as any frost is forecast - again ensuing good air circulation. From then on always cover them at night with fleece just in case. Be careful not to over-water, or they may rot at this stage, as in mid to late autumn they won't be growing as strongly any more. Just keep them barely 'ticking over' then until Christmas - never letting them get completely dry. It may seem like a bit of a faff I know - but at Christmas your new potatoes will be such a treat - and you'll be so glad that you went to the trouble of planting them!
Alternatively - tubers for growing Christmas crops are available from most garden centres now and can be planted without chilling - although these may not necessarily be the best-flavoured types. These are just tubers which have been kept in cold storage from the same seed tuber crops that suppliers would have been selling for planting earlier this year. I do this every year with tubers which I've saved from the previous year in a cool room, and held back from spring planting in the current year. By now they may look pretty shriveled and often have very long sprouts on them - often 30 cm or even a foot long! But long sprouts aren't a problem - they will still grow! I just lay them on their side and wind the long sprouts gently around the pots - usually using 3 litre pots or larger for these Christmas crops. They soon take off like rockets, as they're so delighted to finally be planted! Either way works just fine. In fact - you could even buy a variety of salad or other potato which you happen to like from shops or farmers markets, and treat them in exactly the same way I do my homegrown ones, leaving them out in the light for a few days, then chilling for a couple of weeks in exactly the same way, and then planting. Do make sure they're organic though - then you can be absolutely sure that they won't have been treated with the toxic, anti-sprouting chemicals which conventional, chemically-grown crops are. Apache, Lady Christl and Red Duke of York are ones that I love to grow for Christmas as they are early/second early varieties and have wonderful flavour. Red Duke of York can be quite susceptible to late blight in September though, so needs care in growing.
If the variety you have chosen isn't a first or second-early one, and isn't ready in time for the festive season - then just as long as you don't let them get damaged by frost, and keep covering them at night with some fleece - then they'll just keep growing on after Christmas, through a few more weeks until they are finally ready. I've often done that depending on what variety I'm growing - and in fact they'll be even more welcome in a dismal, dark January than they will be at Christmas - when there are so many other goodies to eat!
Is there anything as wonderful as this time of year in the garden? If the glorious abundance of healthy foods that surround us everywhere now doesn't excite you and make you grateful for Nature's generous abundance - then you're a lost cause as far as organic, real food gardening is concerned!
Polytunnels should be available on Prescription - they are so beneficial for Mental Health!
Many doctors are now prescribing Nature's medicine for people with mental health problems, but none as far as I know are prescribing polytunnels - despite the fact that they can provide all -weather gardening and healthy organic food all year round!
Most kinds of gardening can be challenging at times - especially when you have any sort of movement-limiting disability, but having an area which is accessible in all weathers like a polytunnel can make it very much easier! Having a polytunnel means that even if you're in pain or just don't feel like doing anything on that particular day - you can still get your daily dose of sunlight and Nature watching, even if it's lashing with rain! This is especially so if you plant your polytunnel as I do - with lots of flowers, herbs and fruit, as well as vegetables - which attract bees and other beneficial insects, frogs, hedgehogs and birds all year round. I make a point of sitting in there for at least 20 minutes at sometime during each day. But usually the sitting doesn't last very long - there's always something which needs doing - especially at this time of year.
One of the reasons I started this blog was because I wanted people to know that no matter what your problems - if you're really determined to grow healthy food, it's still possible to find a way! It's often just a matter of thinking laterally - and finding another way rather than giving up and saying "I can't"! I refuse to say that, and I always prefer to get on with things no matter what my problems - because I feel that doing anything rather than just sitting and complaining is far better and more positive - no matter what one's situation.
This year, just like last year - I've seen so many people complaining about being 'locked down' due to COVID19 - how bored and stressed they are, how much they are missing socialising with other people and how it's badly affecting their mental health. Very often they say that because of that they're eating cake, chocolate or crisps, or finding themselves at the bottom of a bottle of wine - but believe me - I've 'been there and done all that' many years ago. I have the ultimate Tee Shirt - with probably more excuse than many! NONE of those are the answer to any problems and will only make them feel worse! So although I'm not a fan of complaining about personal problems - I thought I'd share just a little bit more about my life experiences with you, in case you might think my life has all been easy!
Before we moved here, I spent 5 months in 1980 unable to walk due to a fall, on top of which I contracted viral meningitis and was seriously ill. Luckily my children didn't catch it, and I think the only reason that I did was because my immune system was already at an extremely low ebb, low due to taking so many painkillers, serious antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications for my spinal problems. These are drugs which no matter what problems I've had since - I have refused ever to take again! They gave me a stomach ulcer on top of already serious problems - which I cured purely by natural means - as I also did the M.E./Chronic Fatigue/Post-Viral syndrome which I suffered from after recovering from the initial viral meningitis infection. I think the meningitis may have been brought in by my doctor, who was visiting another unfortunate woman on the same road who had caught it, and who I learnt afterwards, sadly subsequently died from it. Anyway, I spent the time I was unable to move very much reading everything I could lay my hands on about soil, and potager gardens and no-dig, raised or deep bed gardening, so that I would somehow still be able to garden and grow my own food - even if I was confined to a wheelchair. I also read anything which was available at the time about natural health cures, as I had plenty of time!
Luckily I very slowly recovered, but what kept me going through that awful time and kept me sane were the dreams, hope and inspiration I found in those gardening books! As I got better, although I'd been an organic gardener for about 5 years by then, we had sadly moved from our first house and I had no garden to speak of. So I experimented and learned even more about how to grow a huge amount of organic food just in tubs and strong carrier bags - even though I could often do little more than 10 minutes activity before almost fainting and having blackouts due to the ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I was suffering from. That time was good practice for what unfortunately followed only 2 years later, after we moved here - when once again I was in severe pain and unable to do anything, after simply bending down to undo a very stiff bolt on the bottom of a stable door, something which when I straightened up from doing it, left me with rapidly progressive weakness in my left arm, serious pain from nerve damage, and needing cervical spine surgery to remove pieces of collapsed discs which were pressing on my spinal cord and impacting on nerves originating in my cervical spine area. It was probably the final straw for my spine which had already been damaged time and again from many years of falling off horses (or them falling on me!), which had culminated in the 5 months flat out in bed, after which I was banned from ever riding again, which was a severe blow. So I had to face the fact that I was never going to be able to fulfill my lifelong ambition to be a Grand Prix dressage rider! That undeniable fact was pretty heartbreaking to deal with, as I'd ridden ponies and then horses since before I could walk.
Up to that point - horses had been my life - with growing organic food for my severely allergic child as a necessary side occupation. But once again gardening saved my mental health from severely deteriorating. Over the next 20 years or so, thanks to a wonderful neurosurgeon who performed surgery which cured my severe cervical spine and arm pain, I even became a commercial organic producer for a time, also fulfilling my other ambition to become a sculptor (with a little success). But throughout - although progressive and debilitating degenerative disc-disease was gradually making things more difficult - I was constantly finding new and easier ways to do things, so that I could continue to grow our own food, which was my first priority. I've always treated whatever life has thrown at me as a bit of a challenge - saying to the fates "OK - whatever you throw at me - I will NOT be defeated, and will damned well find some other way to do it!". I won't bore you with any more about all the various other accidents etc along the way - including three life-threatening car accidents - none of which were my fault! Suffice to say - that I think I can say with authority that there is always a way to do things if one is determined enough! Well done if you've got this far!
Fast forward to 2021 - and although the left ankle which some of you may know I broke badly in 2019 has healed brilliantly - all through natural healing, for the last year things have been made really difficult once again by me having to spend most of it on sticks due to the planned reconstructive surgery for a very old injury to the other right ankle, exacerbated by hopping about on it after breaking the left one! This had been postponed due to COVID19. Anyway, despite being unable to do very much - I've still managed to do a bit of gentle planting and clearing and also writing this blog four times a month. It's surprising how much one can achieve even if sometimes you only have half an hour's 'standing time' as I call it - as long as you just make a point of doing it every day. I know from experience that it makes one feel so much better to achieve that. It's also wonderful to be able to go out every day and pick some fresh veg for our meals.
The tunnels are both looking a bit hectic right now! You won't find bare soil and neatly weeded rows of anything anywhere! In the bigger east tunnel, along with the few crops like lettuce, spinach, watercress and kale which I had left over from last autumn until last month, I still have the other perennial fruits and veg that I grow, which means that there's always something to be found for a meal. There's peaches ripening now, sorrel, perennial Welsh and Egyption Walking Onions, garlic, Red Leaved Dandelion (a chicory actually), Vegetable Mallow (like spinach), watercress, herbs, self-sown Nasturtiums and Glin Castle perennial kale to pick. I'm also sneaking off a delicious few of the incredibly vigorous and healthy-looking Bleu Annaliese potatoes - which were planted quite late, on 21st March inside, purely because I wasn't able to clear any space outside. They've taken over an entire bed in the tunnel, completely smothering the extremely rare Peru Purple potatoes which had been planted 3 weeks earlier - so I don't mind stealing any of their tubers that I can find just under the surface! Grapes are looking very promising too, and the blackberries which keep returning from the remains of those growing in the spot where I put up the new polytunnels 13 years ago, are fruiting deliciously in the fruit tunnel right now. I've never been able to completely eradicate them - so now we've reached a sort of uneasy truce! I allow them to form early fruit on the canes that keep coming back - and then I cut those right down the minute they've finished fruiting - when the rest of their siblings outside have started ripening their early ones! That way I get a longer season of fresh fruit and they produce new shorter growth after this month, which they will fruit on next year, and don't become too dangerous!
The early French beans Cobra are already cropping, mangetout peas and runner bean Moonlight are only a couple of weeks away from cropping - despite being sown late due to my ankle problems delaying the clearing of winter crops. Although most people grow those outside at this time of year - we always get severe gales in August which flatten them, just when I hope they'll start cropping. They'll be fine in the polytunnel and they will also go on cropping much later than any grown outside, so worth doing. There are also figs, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and potted mulberries ripening.. And of course there's always lots of flowers for the all important wildlife - that look after the pest control for me. I also have Maskotka tomatoes ripe in the smaller and warmer fruit tunnel (or west tunnel), gherkin baby cucumber Restina is producing delicious baby-sized cucumbers, and early Atena courgettes are cropping so well.
Also in the bigger east tunnel, I'm saving a lot of my own seed again this year. I hadn't done so of some crops for a couple of years, but the unavailability of several varieties last year, and some seed companies running out completely of others, due to the sudden rise in popularity of growing your own veg during the pandemic, reminded me that it was time to do so again. This will ensure that I will have plenty of seed of all my staple crops like winter spinach, lettuce, purple carrots, kale and celery! Potatoes I save each year as a matter of course, as many of those I grow are rare and can't be obtained anywhere. As you may know I start all of my potatoes off in pots now, and each year I hold back a couple of pots to save for seed tubers, when I'm planting the rest. I've found that to be the most successful way to ensure that I don't lose them. It's such a satisfying thing to know one is reasonably self-reliant - particularly when Brexit is affecting supplies of many things both in the UK and here in Ireland.
A Polytunnel can be your alternative to a 'Mediterranean' holiday in Summer!
Protection from the elements and warmth, even on cloudy days in summer, means that with the almost Mediterranean climate in a polytunnel at this time of year - you get so much more in return for the work you put in compared to growing fruit and vegetables outside. As I've already said, they're a great 'uplifter' on a grey gloomy day and also an incredibly cost-effective method of food production - no matter what size they are - if every inch inside is used as efficiently as it should be. They're also a way of keeping us gardeners sane when the weather's against us! Inside a polytunnel it can feel more like southern Europe - especially on a sunny day or even when it's so foul that you wouldn't even put a cat out - which can often happen in our Irish 'summers'! Mine certainly feels like that in most summers - a Mediterranean banquet! It's a real feast of colours, scents and tastes - of tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, courgettes, French beans, melons, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, figs, lemons, oranges, blackberries, cherries, cape gooseberries and grapevines literally dripping with fast-swelling, emerald bunches. The list goes on - with scarlet geraniums, nasturtiums, feverfew, orange marigolds and many valuable herbs like Perilla dotted about wherever they can be squeezed in, attracting insects like butterflies, hoverflies and with the constant hum of happy bees. I also grow some flowers in big pots which like hot dry conditions too - like some of the most richly-scented but slightly more fussy roses that don't flower well outside here - like Emporeur du Maroc - which really hates our damp weather. Its scent hits me when I open the polytunnel in the early mornings at this time of year. It flowers in the polytunnel for months, repeat-flowering well, and it's wonderful for using in recipes especially for making Rose Petal Syrup. With the scent of the citrus blossom, lemon verbena and Jasmine filling the air too - it's really like being in another country altogether! Who needs Mediterranean holidays? I personally think that money is far better spent on a polytunnel where you can grow healthy food and enjoy relaxing in sunlight almost all year round! It's absolute heaven - and I can't bear to be away from mine for very long!
Things grow so incredibly fast in the almost tropical atmosphere that it can be all too easy to let yourself become a 'polytunnel slave' (a willing one in my case!) and rush round all the time watering, tending and harvesting. There just seems to be so much to do and so little time - even if you're up well before 6 am and working until it's dark! It's definitely necessary to relax in a chair in the sun occasionally though, admire it all and just enjoy the moment - something I try to do for at least a few minutes each day no matter how busy I am. I've never seen organic peaches or grapes for sale anywhere other than on very rare occasions in farmer's markets and even then they're imported from a long way away - with a huge carbon footprint and a horrendous price - but they're easy to grow once you know how. At this time of year if you have a tunnel - you can bite into gloriously mouthwatering, properly ripe tomatoes warmed by the midsummer sun, with just a hint of a basil leaf. Or perhaps pick a few cherries and raspberries for a pre-breakfast snack, then sink your teeth into a lusciously yielding peach running with juice. I feel really sorry for all those poor souls who have to buy their fruit laced with chemicals, plastic wrapped, picked half ripe, bred to have skins tough enough to withstand the rigours of travelling hundreds of miles across Europe or from further afield to reach the customer's plates days, or sometimes even weeks later!
I know I'm still so lucky to have two large polytunnels to enjoy gardening in - I used to have four when I was producing organic crops commercially. Now it's a bit of a luxury to be able to grow whatever I want and to have fun experimenting with exciting new crops - rather than being tied to the same old purely commercial crops. But do you know something - they're still not big enough - I could fill at least four more polytunnels and still need more covered space! I would love to have a dedicated vine tunnel for instance. Or even a cherry tunnel! Just as the old walled gardens had their vine houses many decades ago - and a fig tunnel and a citrus tunnel and.................! The problem is - I could do with a few assistant gardeners as well! Especially now - since my ankle problems, which are really slowing me up! Ah well........a polytunnel is also definitely a place to dream in. And dreams are free!
They may not be the most beautiful structures in the world from the outside - but polytunnels are like people - it's what's on the inside that really counts! The more traditional greenhouses are very beautiful things architecturally speaking I'll grant you - and who wouldn't want to own one? But they're also an expensive luxury item! Not only that - but as I've already said - being on a windy site here I lost three greenhouses, before I gave up and decided that the only way I would ever be able to grow anything in the teeth of almost year-round south-westerly gales was in polytunnels! They may be slightly less attractive - but they're around half the price. Still not a cheap item - but I've proved over many years that any decent sized tunnel, if used properly all year round, will pay for itself in about 2-3 years. There's quite a lot you can do inside not only to improve their rather utilitarian looks, but also to attract in all sorts of beneficial insects and bees, to keep pests away and pollinate your crops. Sometimes my tunnels are so full of butterflies they feel like a butterfly farm - and people actually pay to visit those! If the many treats inside are eye-catching enough - one tends to overlook the less than beautiful surrounding structure. What I call my 'Polytunnel Potager' can look really stunning inside all year round with the addition of many flowers and herbs growing alongside the vegetables! Not only that - it's a far more natural way to grow anything. Nature doesn't do acres of bare soil between neat rows of vegetables. In a polytunnel - just as in Nature - diversity is strength!
As I've already said - at this time of year, if the voluptuous abundance of your polytunnel doesn't make you feel smugly satisfied, or if seeing a friend's productive one doesn't make you long to own one yourself so that you too can grow all manner of good things - then you are a totally lost cause! There really is no hope for you!!If you don't have one, but are just thinking about it - then do go and have a look at one owned by a good gardener now, and just imagine how much money it could save you - because it really will! A polytunnel can fill your freezer and keep you in salads and a huge variety of other super-fresh, super-healthy vegetables, fruits and herbs all year round! Granted - polytunnels can be a huge amount of work - but they're really what you make of them - that's up to you. You could just grow perennial crops instead of changing them 3-4 times a year with the seasons, or mix perennial and annual crops as I mostly do .
Holiday time and watering plants
If you must go away on holiday - I've always found mid-October to be the very best time for a polytunnel owner. By then you've had the best of the summer and early autumn crops, and your tunnel should already be fully planted with crops to see you through the winter. These crops won't need too much tending or watering in October unless you're going away for weeks - as the weather's cooling down a bit. The tunnel needs much less fussing over at that time of year, and instead of the usual deflated feeling when you return from holidays - because of nothing to look forward to except long, cold, miserable grey days - it's nice to be able to look forward to continuous all-weather gardening, eating fresh salads and other delicious treats every day throughout the grey winter days!
On the other hand - watering can be a huge problem if you go away in high summer. A few years ago I had a query from someone who'd spent a fortune on an automatic watering system for his polytunnel, got it all properly set up and went away with the family for a couple of weeks. He came back to find all the tomatoes blighted and everything dead poor man! I honestly think they're a complete waste of time and money for home gardeners, who want to grow a broad range of different crops in their tunnels, all with differing requirements. I personally think they just encourage disease! There is no automatic watering system that can ever be a substitute for the gardener's observation and care. Even if you have the same one crop throughout your tunnel - there's still no guarantee it will work properly anyway. I have a friend who hates watering and spends ages fiddling about with hers! She could have watered her tunnel ten times over in the time she spends faffing around with all the bits and pieces!
I always think it's rather unfair of people to ask non-gardening neighbours, or even experienced gardening friends or family, to attempt to look after their polytunnel or greenhouse in the height of summer unless it's very small. Things can go badly wrong so very quickly. You've lost a whole summer's crops if they do - and perhaps good friends too! It's far too much of a responsibility. In the autumn most holidays are far cheaper anyway. If you can't afford one because you've just spent hundreds of euros or even a thousand on a new polytunnel - then instead of feeling deprived - just congratulate yourself instead for making a clever investment that will give you huge returns for many years to come! Most holidays cost far more than a small polytunnel - which unlike a holiday will bring you joy and good health every single day, all year round for many years - and also a comfortable place to sit in warm sunshine even on a frosty day in midwinter. (You won't believe this - but I promise you I have a friend who even has an old sofa in hers!)
I made a decision many years ago to not fly anywhere any more, due to its carbon footprint - but only to go to places where I could go by car. It's far more carbon-friendly than flying to some crowded, noisy, garish and utterly pointless holiday resort! I used to love visiting the quieter parts of the Mediterranean many years ago, where I used to pick up lots of ideas for food and planting - but even those are far less quiet nowadays. I have a confession to make here - my very rare holidays now are usually spent taking off in the car for just a couple of days and visiting gardens - or the best nurseries either here or in the UK - hunting for unusual fruits or 'jungle' plants - my secret addiction! I used to manage sometimes to combine this with work, in the form of my portrait sculpture - but sadly I can no longer do that now either since smashing my right shoulder in 2013! Although my right arm's still ok for not too heavy gardening - I now no longer have the perfect control and reach necessary for very finely detailed portrait work. Luckily my gardening, especially in the polytunnels, more than satisfies my creative urges now.
At this time of year, I usually get up around 5.30 and do all the watering, feeding and side-shooting etc. of tomatoes before 9 am - as then it can become far too hot to hang around for long in the tunnels. Then mid-morning and mid-afternoon I damp down the tunnel paths with plenty of water so that its evaporation helps to lower the temperature a little and keeps the air moving. I'm having to water the tomatoes and aubergines in containers twice a day at the moment. They're doing well though - and the aubergines in particular thoroughly enjoyed the recent very hot days of last week. 'Bonica F1' is the variety I always grow now, after trying many other varieties over the years. It's always the best performer whatever the weather does in our 'summers'. We often get low grey, cloud for days on end here up on a hill not far from the coast. That is death to most aubergines - but not this one. As long as you're careful to gently pull fading petals away from the end of the developing flowers just as they start to fade to brown after the fruit has set - it always produces it's huge fruits. If you don't do this - they often start to rot. Do try it next year if you haven't tried aubergines before, or had no luck with them. Bonica is thoroughly reliable and came top in the RHS trials of aubergines a few years ago.
For a 'tomatoholic' like me - THE TOTALLY TERRIFIC TOMATO FESTIVAL, which I founded in 2012, was the perfect excuse to go a bit over the top a bit on the tomato front! It was also a great way to trial new varieties and compare them with my tried and trusted 'old reliables'. When one is sowing tomatoes in March it's impossible to know what the summer will bring in terms of weather - some may hate cold nights - while others may be less fussy. In May again this year, temperatures were so hot that the developing plants were quite literally 'fried' at the top - looking as if someone had blasted them with a blow-torch! They were curling up their top leaves and looking 'fern like' - almost as if they had been sprayed with weedkiller. A lot of people have asked me about this leaf curling. It's the extremes of temperatures affecting the plants. Unfortunately in a polytunnel you have less control than in a greenhouse where you can apply shading paint to the glass. Even if you have one of those expensive, side opening tunnels, the sun can still scorch the tops of plants when it's at its most intense. If any tomato variety can withstand those extremes and still produce a really good-tasting and worthwhile crop - then it's a pretty good one in my book! I'm growing most varieties both in the ground and in pots so that I can compare which do better in one or the other, or both. The ones in pots do need quite a lot of watering at this time of year or they can get stressed pretty quickly.
As tomato crops everywhere are starting to develop their fruits now - I'm getting a lot of questions about feeding and watering them. People always want to know how often you should water but there's no absolute rule. It's impossible to say - because you should only water when they need it - and every tomato plant and situation is different. It's something you just have to learn to 'play by ear'. Every garden situation is different too - depending on how you're growing things, whether they're in the ground or in containers of commercial potting compost or in the soil. It also depends where your greenhouse or tunnel is situated - whether it's in a very sunny spot or partly shaded and even how big it is. This is especially the case with a polytunnel - as smaller tunnels can tend to have less air circulation. So these are just very general guidelines. Every year is different too - the weather obviously has a huge influence on how often things need watering. This year in May and early June, I sometimes had to water containers twice a day because of the heatwave.
As with most gardening - it's all about common sense and observation really - getting to know your plants, playing it by ear and noticing their needs daily in order to get the very best crops. Oddly enough - even different varieties vary in how you can get away with watering them. Sungold for instance, will split immediately if you water it just a bit too much when it has already 'set' it's skin and is ripening - but Rosada won't - unless you absolutely flood it! It's much more good-natured and far less temperamental. Individual varieties can all vary in their water requirements. Just like people - they're all different! You can't possibly make hard and fast rules - every tunnel, greenhouse or garden varies. Never just water a bit every day as a matter of course - that can lead to over-watering, and also cause roots to stay far too close to the surface, rather than going deeper to search for water and nutrients. Give plants a good soaking at night when watering in warm weather, so that it doesn't evaporate quickly as it would if watering during the day. And in the autumn do the reverse - if plants really need watering - then do it in the mornings - so that damp cold air isn't hanging around at night which can cause disease.
Rough guide to watering and feeding Tomatoes in containers.
I get a lot of questions about this. I grow some of my tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in 10lt containers on grow bag trays. This is because I only ever use a quarter of the 'in the ground' ground space in my tunnel for the tomato family - which also naturally includes peppers and aubergines. In the tunnel - just as in the outside garden - I always operate a strict minimum four course rotation. Many people say there's no need to and don't bother for a few years, getting away with it for a while - but without doing that you can encounter soil problems like diseases and nematodes sooner or later. The containers I use are either recycled empty coleslaw buckets from the local deli, which I cut drainage holes in around the base - or sometimes 12 litre containers which I get from the local horticultural supply shop very cheaply compared to the DIY multiples! They are a similar size to the average large bucket. I start to feed with the brilliantOsmo organicTomato Food (which is high potash and encourages fruit production) as soon as the first truss has set. Why is Osmo so brilliant? Because you will never get magnesium or any other sort of deficiency when using this feed - and as it's also organic, it's safe to use and totally natural. When Dermot O'Neill came out to look at my tomatoes a few years ago for RTE's Mooney Show - he was amazed at how healthy my tomatoes in containers looked and how much fruit they were producing!
When plants are in containers - the roots are restricted and they can't forage far to find their own food, so they're obviously totally dependent on you.I start feeding as soon as the first truss has set, I then use the tomato feed at every other watering - half strength (i.e. at one watering I feed at half strength, and at the other watering - I just use plain water.) I keep a water butt at tunnel temperature in the tunnel for watering the tomatoes - so that I don't use freezing cold water directly from the hose. Plants don't enjoy cold showers any more than people do! I don't water automatically - I play it by ear depending on how dry the growing medium is. I use a fifty/fifty peat-free and garden soil mix which I find best cushions the plants against heat or any variations in watering - I'm only human! Consistently just moist is the key - neither being permanently soaked and sitting in water - nor alternatively bone dry with the compost shrinking away from the side of the containers. I don't like to feed at full strength all the time as I feel the roots are more vulnerable but if I think something is looking just a little hungry - I will sometimes feed at full strength once or twice. The Osmo feeds are very gentle as they don't contain synthetic chemicals but just natural, safe plant foods and won't burn plant roots - so you can feed at full strength if necessary, just as long as the compost is moist first.
It's fine to water into the top of the container top as long as you don't do it right against the base of the stem. This avoids possibly causing rots where the base of the stem joins the roots especially in cold weather. This is always a vulnerable spot - particularly with aubergines and peppers. Always water around the edge of the container if possible - letting it drain through into whatever the plants are sitting in or on - they should usually soak this up over the next couple of hours if it's not too much. I sit my buckets on grow bag trays and if the plants haven't soaked up all the water after a few hours - I would tip it out. I never leave them sitting in water in the trays more than overnight - and only then if the plants have dried out a bit too much - but I try to prevent that. As I've already said - you sort of have to 'play it by ear' and get a 'feel' for it. I will often lift the edge of the container to feel it's weight before the plants get too big - over-watering is death to all plants in containers. If the top looks dry-ish but it still feels quite heavy, then it's probably ok for water but don't forget that the plants will make it feel heavier as they get bigger. If I'm not sure, I'll sometimes just scratch the surface of the compost to feel it. If the top is very dry and the container feels a bit light then I know that water is needed immediately. Sometimes the compost will look a bit lighter in colour too - depending on the make.
I never let plants get really parched to the point of almost wilting with the compost shrinking away from the sides of the container - this makes it far harder to re-wet any compost and can also make them drop their flowers or fruit. Drying out too much or erratic watering can stress the plants very badly and makes them far more vulnerable to physiological problems like 'blossom end rot' - which is caused by poor calcium transport in the plant tissues due to lack of consistent watering. Erratic watering also makes them much more attractive to pests like aphids and red spider. Stressed plants are always more vulnerable. Just like you and I - their immune systems are affected too, and they may not always be able to mobilise their defences as fast as they can when growing in ideal conditions in soil in the ground.
I know it does seem like a lot of trouble but when you get used to it, it becomes routine and is well worth it.You will have terrifically healthy crops of delicious tomatoes this way. Last year I grew about 70 plants in containers - mostly getting 8 fabulous trusses of fruit per plant. They certainly repaid all the TLC! All the expert books say you can only get 4 trusses from tomatoes when growing in containers. I do love to prove all those so-called 'experts' wrong! Successful organic growing is all about understanding your plants' needs, anticipating and preventing any possible problems. Proper old fashioned good gardening in other words! There's no substitute for knowing your plants!
My 'Tomato Report' gives information on the soil/organic potting compost mix I use in my containers. Many Garden Centres now stock all the Osmo organic feeds etc. and Klasmann Deilmann organic seed and potting composts - they're also available from Whites Agri, Lusk. Co. Dublin and Fruithill Farm in Cork. I wouldn't use anything else now - even for ornamental plants - all plants love it and grow very healthily. It's worth every cent of the extra expense! It's also well-worth knowing that I'm not destroying all the vital and wonderful biodiversity in bogs in order to grow my plants - which is what peat users are doing!
Tomato plants growing in the ground
These are much easier to deal with, as because the roots aren't restricted - so they're naturally far less vulnerable to fluctuations in watering.The same rules still apply though, of not watering directly against the base, not using freezing water from the hose and not letting them dry out completely. In the ground plants only need feeding about twice a week with the high potash Osmo Tomato Food - but again it depends on your soil and how fertile it was at planting. If I think plants are running out of steam and the leaves are maybe starting looking a bit 'yellowy' then I would give them a boost with the Osmo Universal feed which stimulates growth - but if they're growing in the ground and it's reasonably fertile - this shouldn't be needed. The last thing you want is too much lush leafy growth, which can cause disease if too crowded. If you only have a small number of plants to feed though - it's possible to make a fairly balanced feed from comfrey, nettles and borage stuffed into a water barrel. It stinks to high heaven - but is very effective! It's impossible to make enough to feed a lot of plants regularly though.
Side-shoots on Tomatoes
Last month when talking about side shoots - I forgot to say that all tomato plants constantly keep trying to outwit you - as they are really genetically programmed to be bushes in actual fact - so they go on trying to be those by producing more side shoots all the time even where you've already taken lots out. This is how they perpetuate themselves in the wild - by 'flopping' shoots over and 'walking' along to a new spot. You just have to be strict with them - otherwise they can very soon become a tangled, disease ridden, unproductive mess! You must keep having a good look every couple of days to spot any more which will develop.
I look over the plants every day, as I can guarantee I'll miss the odd shoot because I grow so many plants. Don't just do it once a fortnight, as I saw one gardening 'expert' journalist recommending recently in a local newspaper - they could be 60cm or 2 feet long by then at this time of year! The journalist in question, who shall remain nameless, is obviously not an experienced tomato grower! As you can see from the pictured examples here - which I left deliberately, to photograph -in just a week they can be very long, wasting the plant's valuable fruiting energy and seriously reducing air circulationif you leave them there! On the continental beefsteaks in particular, especially 'Pantano Romanesco' and occasionally even on cherry types, they may also make new 'side shoots' - like the ones pictured here, on the end or even the middle of flower/fruit trusses, so check there too and nip out immediately if necessary, otherwise they can attract moisture and set up ideal conditions for disease.
1. Side shoot developing on end of flower truss.
2. One week later - flower truss with new shoot on end getting much larger.
3. Same flower truss, after remedial action with secateurs!
Air circulation is absolutely vital to tomatoes especially, particularly all the continental beefsteaks, which can rapidly go down with botrytis (grey mould) and also blight at this time of year in very humid, damp conditions.Ventilating as much as possible, even on dull or rainy days, is most important. Leaving doors shut can even hinder pollination of flowers, as too high a temperature can actually damage the plants and the bees can't get in either! My tunnel doors are always open every day - unless there's a howling gale blowing from the wrong direction. And if the temperature on a very hot day still gets too high - then 'damping down' the paths, not the plants, will help to reduce the temperature by water evaporating - keeping the atmosphere 'bouyant' and the air moving.
Unlike conventional chemical growers, organic gardeners don't use synthetic systemic fungicides - although some occasionally use surface, copper-based ones. I never have done as I have a very heavy clay soil and any copper-based product is specifically restricted for use on clay soils, both in the UK and Ireland, due to the fact that copper can build up in them over years of constant use. I am amazed that anyone would still recommend spraying tomato plants with water - apparently in order to help pollination! That's rubbish! I've even seen people recommending that you spray with garlic if you see aphids! It's totally unnecessary and as I mention again later - wetting tomato foliage encourages diseases like blight.
As I'm always saying - aphids are a sign of stressed plants which have probably been grown with too much manure or synthetic chemical fertiliser, which makes them far more vulnerable. Now I know some of the old 'conventional' text books used to recommend spraying with water many years ago - but then they also used to recommend all sorts of nasty fungicides like arsenic or nicotine too! Our knowledge has moved on a bit since then, and cultivating plants organically means first and foremost giving plants the optimum conditions they need to promote healthy growth - that can mean taking a little bit more trouble occasionally but it really works. The old-fashioned 'fire brigade' mentality - of reaching for the sprayer for a quick fix whenever something goes wrong - instead of preventing it in the first place - doesn't have any place in an organic garden. I know it's a bit challenging trying to give everything the best conditions you can when you're growing so many different crops in one tunnel - but it is achievable with a little thought and care
Pollination of Tomatoes
Don't mist over tomato plants as I've already said! Tomatoes don't like the same humid conditions as cucumbers. Misting them frequently with water produces just the sort of damp conditions which are ideal for encouraging blight. Blight and other fungal spores ideally need a fine film of moisture on the leaves in order to germinate and multiply rapidly! All that is really required for good pollination is the right temperature, with even soil moisture at the roots, and encouraging pollinating insects into the tunnel to do their job, by growing flowers to attract them. Many of the more enlightened big commercial growers now use bees and even flies to pollinate crops in their vast greenhouses - something that crop research stations have always done. As I'm constantly saying - just grow lots of single, nectar producing flowers among your crops, both inside and outside, and you won't have any pollination problems.
Tomato 'Maskotka' in a 10 litre bucket
Other Tunnel Crops
Cucumbers and melons are also growing really well in large containers now. Again, fruiting much earlier than those in the ground - by a couple of weeks. I'm experimenting a lot more again this year with containers, I have far more growing experience now than I had 39 years ago when my whole vegetable garden was grown in containers for two years, while renting a house en route to where we live now! That year I grew 45 lb of Runner beans on wigwams in recycled Marks and Spencer carrier bags (they were the strongest!). The other cucumbers are doing nicely in the ground, they're at the side of the tunnel where they don't get draughts and it's a bit more humid - they and melons are just about the only plants that really love sauna-like conditions! But even though they like warmth - they must be kept evenly moist at the roots - if they dry out at all at the roots and the air is humid they'll get powdery mildew very quickly - particularly as the air gets colder at night in autumn.
Aubergine 'Bonica', first fruits just set, in 10litre buckets on staging mid June
Aubergine 'Bonica' pictured here is growing in the same 10 litre buckets in a well-drained peat-free compost/soil mix and have just set their first fruits.I'm always careful to watch the flowers after they are just set - and when they start to fade I gently pull the browning flower downwards away from the calyx as that's where rots can set in- which is one of the main problem with aubergines in our climate. The other problem is stem rot where the stem joins the roots at the top of the compost. I avoid this by planting them slightly mounded up in the buckets and never watering against the stem but always around the outside of the bucket.
Pumpkins planted either side sweet corn, trying to take over tunnel
The yellow courgette Atena which I always grow as part of the cucurbitaceae rotation in the tunnel is already starting to produce well. They will go on until early November with luck, the last few weeks under fleece. French bean 'Cobra' is as delicious and reliable as ever, and also Calabrese 'Green Magic'. It's really important to keep on top of picking all of these, and also watering regularly. If the plants dry out for too long in hot weather or if the pods, fruit or shoots get too big, that sends a hormone message back to the plant to say 'job done - we're on course to produce seed' and the plants will stop producing any more.
If you're growing early sweetcorn in the tunnel, when the plants start producing pollen give them a bit of a shake every day - wait until about midday if possible when the atmosphere has dried out a bit - so that the pollen dusts around nicely - it's often too humid first thing in the morning just after the doors are opened. Even if you've only got one plant in your greenhouse as one questioner at one of my recent talks said she had - it will still pollinate better if you do this. I always shake the outside plants too if there's no breeze to do the job - but that's rarely the case here on my very windy hill!
My tunnel sweetcorn 'Lark F1' will be planted between pumpkins as usual- Queensland Blue, Jumbo Pink Banana, Golden and Blue Hubbards, Hokkaido etc. They are some of the best dense, deep orange fleshed ones for really long term storage and I won't ever risk the entire crop outside again in case we get yet another poor summer. They are too valuable for the winter larder. I will at least be assured of some then whatever the weather. I am being really strict with them though - and keeping them under strict 'house arrest' - pinching out all the shoots at four leaves or they would take over the entire tunnel. I've planted more outside too. The sweet corn is sown 2 or 3 to a pot and not thinned, then planted out 60cm/2ft intervals in a row. That way they pollinate each other well even though they're in a row rather than a block and produce at least 2 delicious cobs per plant.
If you're growing sweet potatoes, they don't want too rich a soil starting off otherwise they just produce masses of foliage - not tubers. They need similar soil to carrots, deep and well drained. They just get a light dusting of seaweed meal when planting and mulching with moisture retaining grass clippings to prevent weed growth. After that they only need watering occasionally to prevent them drying out. Like Oca and Yacon they don't start to produce their tubers until August - so from then on they get fed weekly with a high potash tomato feed - I use the Osmo food for them too. If you want to try growing them it's still worthwhile planting them now - and if they're a bit hungry in their pots by now just give them a liquid feed just to encourage them, then plant as above. Once you have good varieties you can keep tubers from your own crop each year and propagate slips from them.
Luscious looking - but not quite ripe just yet.
The early peach on the north-east side at the end of the tunnel is covered with a fleece curtain, fixed with clothes pegs, once the fruit starts to change colour - as the rapidly ripening fruit screams 'eat me' at every blackbird within ten miles! There's always one or two in there doing a 'recce' - but no matter how gorgeous they look, they never touch them until they are just ripe - just when I say to myself "I'll pick them tomorrow" - I can almost guarantee they'll have a go at them. They seem to have a radar for ripening fruit! It doesn't seem to matter what netting I put up at the doors either - they always manage to ruin a few if I don't do this, but hiding them hiding them generally does the trick! The peach on the other side of the door doesn't ripen until early September. I bought both trees from Lidl - one just marked 'peach' and the other 'nectarine' from Lidl 12 years ago. Magically one turned out to be a yellow-fleshed early peach and the other a late white-fleshed one - serendipity at work! Couldn't have planned it better! They're due for their summer pruning now, when they've finished fruiting. Leaving one or two good shoots to develop at the base of each branch to bear fruit next year. All other new shoots will be removed completely to let in air and light.
Buried treasure - ripening peaches under wraps away from birds!
It's really important to prune tunnel-grown peaches properly, otherwise they quickly become an unproductive mess, taking over the entire tunnel, as they can make five or six feet of growth in a year. That happened to me many years ago when I didn't know how to prune them properly and the tree almost went through the roof! Practical experience is always the best teacher - you never forget your mistakes! The most important thing to remember is that they always fruit on the new green shoots made the previous year. Mine are trained as sort of half fan/half bushes or 'fushes' at the north end of the tunnel either side of the door, with roughly 9ft or 2 & 3/4m of width each, a space which is often wasted or full of rubbish in many tunnels. There, they are in full sun, but don't cast any shade on anything else, don't get peach leaf curl as they are protected from rain, and produce over 100 peaches every year! With my mini-gardens of flowers and perennial herbs like thyme and oregano at their feet they look good all year round and not an inch of space is wasted.
Some of the figs are ripening their early crop now - the necks of the fruit have weakened and fruits have started to 'flop', now drooping downwards, they will need another few days yet. Brogiotto Nero and Sultane are the earliest - but Rouge de Bordeaux won't be far behind and then all the others will follow. I wait until I can see the first fruits starting to crack at the 'navel' end - that means they're really ripe. There is nothing more disappointing or wasteful than picking an unripe fig - they are so precious. It's what the Italians call the 'Breba' (overwintered) crop that is ripening now, and this autumn's main crop is just developing as smaller figlets on this year's new green shoots. Figs are very reliable in large containers - withstanding even really low temperatures in winter for short periods. I've got over a dozen varieties now with a range of ripening times. With even non-organic figs around one euro each in shops - they're well worth growing, very nutritious and dead easy. They are much more productive in a tunnel - really appreciating the extra warmth and shelter, where many varieties will crop twice a year.
While I'm on the subject of fruit - don't be tempted as I very stupidly was a couple of years ago by those lovely juicy-looking grapes trained as bushes in containers, which some of the garden retailers have at this time of year - the dead give away if you look at the label is that they usually have Italian wine names on them! They are grown in massive nurseries somewhere like Sardinia or southern Italy, and are totally unsuitable varieties for growing in Irish gardens - or even Irish greenhouses - we just don't get enough light and sun. If you only want vine leaves for 'Dolmades' that's fine - but they won't ripen their wood enough to produce decent grapes outside in our climate! I've also seen 'Muscat of Alexandria' for sale everywhere recently - that will do well in a warm greenhouse here - but not outside. Even in a greenhouse or tunnel it won't ripen until mid-late October or even November and is completely useless outside - but the labels don't mention that - if the importers even actually know! Mine is in a large tub, which I think hurries it up a bit - and it is utterly delicious, with a juicy muscat taste - in late OCTOBER! You could possibly ripen it in a warm porch too. Keep grapes under control (see June). I'm feeding all my grapes and figs in containers with every other watering now as the bunches of grapes are developing very fast. Never let them dry out completely, or the grapes shrivel and stop developing. The vines in the ground are all fed with tomato food once a week.
Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads
It's worth taking some new cuttings of watercress now, to produce nice plants for September planting to give good winter crops.It's by nature a creeping plant, and as soon as it's shoots are 4-5 in/10cm long - it starts to produce lots of roots at every leaf node in order to root itself into the soil. This is a great thing for grateful gardeners who may be short of salads - because as soon as you cut off those rooted side shoots and replant them they take off like rockets - and you will have a metre square bed of watercress in no time at all! It's a terrific plant for the damp, shadier parts of the garden or tunnel polytunnel which many other plants don't like. If you can buy a nice bunch, or a very fresh bag of watercress, choose the healthiest looking shoots, take off the lower leaves which may rot quickly in the water and infect the stems, put them in a jar of water for a few days and they will quickly start to produce roots. You can then pot these up in organic potting compost and away you go! When they're big enough - plant them out in really fertile, moist soil.
Contrary to popular opinion - watercress doesn't need running water - and indeed is not safe growing in damp mud or running water in a stream, as it may act as host to the tiny snail which can pass on liver fluke - not something you want! Keep the plants well watered after planting though, or they will become tough and too peppery, particularly at this time of year. Also pinch off any flower buds you see developing, or they will flower and set seed, which stops them producing the lovely lush growth you want. Watercress is a brassica, so needs to occupy that spot in your rotation, but is otherwise mostly trouble-free and hugely productive all winter. I keep watercress growing indefinitely by propagating plants like this. I always keep a pot of newly rooted shoots in a shady spot in the tunnel or outside in summer and then I propagate more for the winter from those. Mine just goes on from year to year. Even more plants for free - nothing better!!
Think ahead to late autumn and winter crops
I've already mention Christmas new potatoes above and I'm sorry to spoil the summer party further, but if you don't think about autumn and winter crops now - you won't have very much!Many of these are better sown outside in modules now and brought under cover later on, as it's far too hot in tunnels at the moment. See my 'What to Sow Now in July'list.
It's also time to order saffron bulbs now as they will need planting by the end of August. If you like living dangerously - you could wait until the beginning of August - when they're often discounted hugely so that seed/bulb companies can get rid of them. That's how I got mine originally. They're quite hardy and will grow outside, but they like to be baked in summer. Not only that - in my experience, we never get dry enough autumns to collect the saffron's valuables styles as it's always far too wet here! So I grow mine in the tunnel now - you can even grow them in well drained containers. Good drainage and a summer baking is all that they need. If you live in the drier climate of Essex you may be able to grow it outside. Saffron Walden was named after saffron - it grew well there in the Middle Ages. It's worth taking a bit of trouble with it as it's so expensive to buy. The ultimate in cheffy 'one-upmanship' is a risotto made from your very own homegrown saffron!!
Hearting chicory Sugar Loaf or 'Pain de Sucre'
Don't forget that forcing chicory needs to be sown in the next week or so - or it won't be big enough to force for chicons in the winter. I also grow the very reliable 'Sugar Loaf' chicory,which folds up it's huge outer leaves all by itself and makes lovely crunchy, light green 'cos-like' hearts after Christmas - not too bitter, delicious and very welcome healthy winter salad. It grows exceptionally well in the tunnel too - and the hens love the outer crunchy green leaves in late winter when there's not much in the way of green foods about for them.
Swiss chard also benefits from being sown before the end of July for winter cropping in the tunnel,it's well worth sowing into modules outside soon, to plant in the tunnels later - where it's incredibly productive until the following late spring.
Now is also a good time to sow another crop of carrots now as they should miss the later hatching of carrot fly. An early, fast-growing variety such as Nantes is good they'll produce good sized sweet roots in the autumn
(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.)
Remember, always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else, but if you don't sow seeds on time - you may have lost your chance. This is especially important for any late autumn and winter crops that need starting off now!
Ruby chard Vulcan - one of the best winter crops in the polytunnel or outside.
Hearting chicory 'Sugar Loaf' or 'Pain de Sucre' - another winter standby in the polytunnel or outside
*Also very important* - If you haven't got seeds of winter vegetables you will need then get them as soon as possible, as many garden centre shops take their seed displays down this month, and online may also be sold out. Things are calming down a bit on the seed sowing front now - but many crops that need sowing now need sowing as soon as possible, if you want to get decent crops over the winter. With light levels decreasing, growth of many crops slows up dramatically towards the end of this month. After that, only the faster-growing autumn crops will reliably give you a good crop before the winter, and growth of overwintering veg like chicory and chards will also be much poorer. Remember that plant growth is governed by light - not warmth.
Seeds to sow now for late autumn & overwinter protected polytunnel crops:
Sow outdoors in pots or modules, for planting later on in the tunnel or greenhouse when space is freed up and the tunnel or greenhouse is cooler:
Calabrese*, kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green or red curled and Ragged Jack, Florence fennel, beetroot, kohl rabi, Swiss chards**, early peas, dwarf broad beans, Sugar Loaf chicory**, basil, coriander, dill, plain leaved & curly parsley, and sorrel. Covering while outdoors with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche will give young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also from scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain.
In the polytunnel, if you have any vacant space after clearing early summer crops, you can still sow:
Dwarf and climbing French beans, or early varieties of peas such as Kelvedon Wonder, and fast-growing dwarf broad beans such as Express or The Sutton - to crop in late autumn* (otherwise sow in pots or modules for planting later when space becomes available). Sowing in pots and modules helps to make the most of valuable tunnel space as it means that you can have large plants ready for planting as soon as any early summer crops are cleared.
Seeds to sow outdoors for autumn and overwinter crops:
In modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:
Beetroot, brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', carrots, cabbages ('Greyhound', leafy collards and non-hearting spring types**), overwintering spring-heading cauliflowers**, peas* (early dwarf vars.only now), Florence fennel, 'Witloof' chicory (for winter forcing), sugar loaf chicory, radicchios, endives, salad onions, claytonia, landcress, lettuces (Lattughino, Fristina, Winter Density, Jack Ice, Cherokee, all good varieties), kohl rabi, 'Hungry Gap' kale (for spring cropping), radishes, rocket, Swiss chards and leaf beets, perpetual and summer spinach, summer white or yellow turnips, Chinese cabbage, Choy Sum, Pak choi, mizuna, mustard 'Red Frills' and other oriental leaves, Chinese kale (Kailaan), lamb's lettuce (corn salad), salad mixes, herbs such as parsley, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, buckler-leaved and French sorrel.
Also sow some single, quick growing, annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, nasturtiums, phacelia, etc. to attract beneficial insects like hover flies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (which is a brassica so watch rotations) and Phacelia, to improve the soil, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground cleared of early crops that won't be used for 6 weeks or so, or which needs improving. This is also the best time of year to sow all types of hardy herbaceous perennials, biennials and wildflowers. Foxgloves, primulas and hellebores in particular germinate really quickly and easily if sown as soon as this year's seed is ripe.
Again - sowing into modules means that you will get maximum crops out of your space by always having something ready to plant wherever there is room - bigger module-raised plants are also more resistant to slugs and other pests. Sowing a wildflower meadow mix in seed trays or modules is actually a far more reliable method of establishing a new meadow than trying to sow directly into grass where there is too much competition from other mature plants and also many pests. These can be planted out in patches later.
(*Early July only, ** mid-late July)
N.B. At this time of year, it is best to sow seed modules in the evenings, or in the shadeif possible -
Germination of many seeds can be badly affected or sometimes even completely prevented by very high temperatures - this applies particularly to lettuce and spinach seed which can become dormant if sown at too high a temperature. You don't want to 'cook' your plants until you're ready to eat them!
Once again - don't forget that all growth begins to slow down progressively from the end of July onwards due to the decrease in daylight length. So in order to get a worthwhile, continuous winter harvest of some varieties, you will need at least one and a half times as many plants of leafy crops in particular, than you normally would need for summer crops.
!! A warning - If you are collecting seed from plants. - It's a great time of year for saving all types of seed from your own plants - but be careful! Many kinds of plants - particularly Hellebores and Euphorbias - have irritant toxic sap which can give you very severe and extremely painful burn-like blisters on the ends of your fingers and hands - as I know to my cost! To be on the safe side - always wear gloves when collecting seed from any plant - even if they're not well-known to actually be toxic - you never know what you personally may be allergic to!!
Topics for June/July: Fruit growing in a time of climate change..... The first fruits of summer..... Can you have Strawberry Fields forever? .....Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?..... Raspberries..... Cherries..... Looking after Container & polytunnel fruit.... Summer citrus care.... Don't worry about the cream!...
Self-pollinating plum 'Guinevere' planted last year has set a great crop having luckily just missed the severe frost
Fruit growing in a time of climate change
Judging from my experience of the last 40 years of watching the increasingly erratic weather patterns undoubtedly associated with climate change, growing many varieties of fruit will become increasingly difficult in the future. As not all types of fruit will produce reliable crops any more due to unpredictable extremes of weather and I think that definitely the most sensible thing to do is to hedge one's bets by growing as wide a variety of health-giving fruits as possible. I think every year will be slightly different. The erratic weather will often mean that there will be some years in which some varieties of tree fruits like plums and apples which flower early in the year, swelling their fruits in gentle spring rains may be a disaster - as they have been this year. Some of the plums in the recently planted plum orchard were an absolute picture after the unseasonably warm weather in March brought them into flower far too early - but I had high hopes that they would set some fruit - especially the Damson 'Blue Violet' and the plum 'Guinevere', as they are both self-fertile, but appreciate another tree flowering at the same time. The Damson however was fully open just as we had that severe frost of -6 deg C in early May - so that was sadly done for! What a difference just one unseasonably cold night can make - in some cases wiping out any chance of a crop from some trees for another whole year!
The 'Guinevere' plum mostly escaped the worst as it wasn't fully open until a few days later - so has set a good crop for a young tree which I may thin some more if I'm not feeling too greedy! I planted both of them last year, having acquired them from the wonderful Frank Matthews nursery in Herefordshire - via Johnstown Garden centre here, so I haven't tasted either yet. My only regret now is that I didn't get at least two Guinevere before Brexit finally ended the chance of getting any more fruit trees from the UK - as it looks like being a reliable-cropping variety with an upright and compact habit - ideal if you only want one tree..It's also said to keep much better than other plums in cold storage, which will extend its season of use for a few weeks - definitely a plus.
This year many of my apples were also badly affected by the severe frost in May despite good weather and plenty of bees when they first came into flower. Egremont Russet, one of my favourites, was the worst affected being literally frozen solid by that late severe frost. Some of its too tender new growth was completely killed off and I shall have to prune back all of the damaged and dead growth this month to fresh new growth. Normally in July, after the fabled 'June drop' - which the old gardeners always talked about, they would select and thin the remaining fruits. This year I won't have that task - there will hardly be any to thin - and almost none at all on some trees!That means that those few that remain will be so precious that I shall cover them all with the small netting supermarket vegetable bags which I get some friends to save for me - they are brilliant for deterring the Blackbirds and Magpies which greedily peck at all the fruits as soon as they notice them changing colour! The Guinevere plum is all green at the moment and quite difficult to see on the whole tree, as the picture above shows, but it will also have to be completely covered as soon as it starts to look like ripening, with a new netting-type sturdy fleece I got from Fruit Hill Farm - I just hope the weather won't be too windy once the tree is covered, or it will act like a sail! But as I said previously, the weather can be very unpredictable now - so fingers can only be crossed! . I feel sorry for the poor birds which are just as desperate for healthy food as we are - but there are plenty of fruiting shrubs which I planted for them in the woodland strips surrounding our 5 acres years ago, and I can't give them everything!
Last year - at the end of May on examining the apple trees in the new orchard, I found that due to cold, wet and windy weather at pollination-time, some had pollinated badly and were bearing very few fruits, whereas other varieties which flowered slightly earlier, had obviously missed that and had set many fruits. I was very worried though, and rightly so it transpired, knowing that since March we'd had a complete drought - and you can't water an entire orchard - even if there wasn't a hosepipe ban! You'd need your own water supply or lagoon - actually we did have our own water supply for our first few years here. The hill we live on - appropriately named Spring Hill on old maps - has many springs which never ran dry even in the hottest summer - including a sparklingly clear one at the rear of our land where it separated our 5 acres from our neighbour. It was so clean when we first came here that we often had eels travelling up it from the estuary a few miles further down the coast. Sadly, as I've often mentioned here on my blog - since our intensive farmer neighbour bought the land adjoining us, about 10 years afer we moved here - that water supply has now gradually become so polluted with pesticides and artificial fertilisers that it now resembles a lifeless open sewer - so cannot be used for watering anything any more, and we had to fence it off so that livestock could no longer drink from it!
Looking at the trees in the middle of this month - I found that almost all of the trees carrying fruits had already dropped them - with at most only 5 or 6 fruits on some - and none on others! Unfortunately it seems to be the later-ripening, long-keeping varieties which keep to Christmas or even early spring the following year that seem to have been the most affected.Many of these would all have flowered at around the same time, and are the varieties which I rely on to fill my winter apple store. This is why it's so important to choose your varieties carefully if planting a new orchard or even just a tree or two so that you have a good range of trees that not only overlap their flowering times and will pollinate each other - but also have diverse ripening times, depending on your needs. We had wonderful crops from the new orchard for three of the last five years, and also from the old orchard on the other side of our 5 acres, near our boundary. There were almost no apples in the old orchard last year, and this year there are none! The trees that are carrying the most fruit this year are a few earlier ripening ones which won't keep more than a couple of weeks, Red Devil, Charles Ross and the slightly later Christmas Pippin (which only just about keeps until Christmas!).
I try to be philosophical and not too down-hearted though, and to always find something to cheer me up and encourage me to keep going - even in the most disappointing of circumstances. This year, yet again, it's the Sea Buckthorn which is looking fantastic - the berries so crowded along the branches that they reminded me of swarms of bees when I looked at them a couple of days ago. Although the picking and processing is without doubt the least fun and most painful of ANY fruit, even blackberries - they're also one of the most healthy, and are chock full of nutrients, so I'm always glad to have them in the freezer for immune-boosting and incredibly delicious winter smoothies tasting like a cross between Seville oranges and mouth watering orange sherbet. I always compare picking and processing Sea Buckthorn to being a bit like childbirth - absolute hell at the time but with very enjoyable results afterwards!
Fruit growing has always been a long-term investment - but many years ago when I planted my first orchard, that investment was a far more reliable one. Now it is much less certain, and I believe that the only way that we will be able to grow enough fruit to supply a healthy diet in the future will be to rely on growing as wide a diversity of cultivars of different fruits - not to rely on huge mono-cultures of any one specific cultivar of cherry, apple. plum or whatever the type of fruit may be. Only that way can we ensure at least some fruit - whatever the weather may throw at us throughout the year! If we grow a wide variety of fruit - even despite lack of rain or severe unpredictable frosts - we may have some fruit - but not the reliable seasonal supply we used to be able to rely on.
Just as farming needs to revert back to being the sustainable, organic, diverse, carbon-fixing systems of many years ago, before the age of vast, chemically-grown, carbon destroying mono-cultures - so horticulture needs to change too, including fruit growing. Only that way will we be able to continue to reliably grow food into the future.
Above is a bowlful of the early mixed berries and cherries that we're enjoying from the polytunnel right now before the outside ones are ripe. There are raspberries Erika, Joan J and purple one Glen Coe, Tayberries, blackberry Reuben, Alpine (or wild-type) strawberries, also Albion, Mara des Bois, Gento and Old White strawberries, and Morello cherries. I grow a wide variety in the polytunnel so that there is almost always something to pick no matter what the weather is like outside - or how ingenious the birds are!
Some of the more exotic top fruits like figs, potted dwarf cherries and early peaches are just starting to ripen now too - a little later that most years due to the lateness of the season - and it's really beginning to taste like high summer now! The ever-reliable perpetual-fruiting strawberries were the first fruits to produce berries in early May - but we've been eating fruit of all kinds for several weeks now as you can see above. The weather has been really hot during the days for most of the last few weeks - although the nights have been very cold. Some nights have been really chilly, and today the weather is windy. Luckily though - with the protection of the polytunnel all the berry crops in pots will continue to crop well if kept well-watered - so they are definitely worth the space they take up! The peaches are looking promising too. Keeping all fruit well watered and mulched will be most important in hot weather now - as the first thing to go is the fruit if plants are stressed by any dryness at the roots. Due also to the good summer last year - there are a lot more bees around too - doing their vital job of pollination. As I'm constantly saying - growing flowers for bees and other pollinators is a good idea everywhere in the garden, including and especially in the fruit garden. Without bees - we wouldn't have a lot of fruit or nuts such as peaches, apricots, almonds and raspberries, to name just a few. Bees are vital to almost 3/4 of our food supply, so we need to encourage them and look after them by not using pesticides, particularly now that they're in serious trouble, being in decline in many areas.
Tunnel-grown strawberries Albion, Gento, Christine & Malling Centenary - which have been cropping since early May
Can you really have Strawberry Fields forever?
Perpetual Strawberry - 'Malling Opal' - 63g!
Well maybe not forever - but certainly from May until November if you grow some of the perpetual (or ever-bearing) varieties in a polytunnel!I ordered 'cold stored' runners of a new variety of 'perpetual' strawberry - from Ken Muir's Nursery last month by phone (I like to try at least one new variety of something each year). The beautifully established plug plants (with flower buds!) arrived quickly by post (you can't beat that) and are now already settling into their new home! They will fruit very soon - not too long to wait to try a new variety!
Apropos the 'buying local' principle by the way - I always try all the Irish nurseries for plants first (more in hope than expectation!) Usually they have very little choice of varieties. The - 'couldn't care less' - "You can put your name down, and we might have it if we remember it next autumn" - which I've had from some nurseries is an attitude that doesn't really do it for me! Helpful, efficient, informative and knowledgeable (rare) service is so much better if you want people's return business! So many of the nurseries don't even sell the varieties that are best suited to our climate!
I grow several different varieties of perpetual strawberries, as they're far better value for the space they take up than the summer fruiting varieties which take up just the same amount of space but only fruit once. The flavour of the perpetuals is just as good if not better. After the first flush of fruit in June (or earlier in the tunnel), they'll take a break for a couple of weeks, then continue flowering and fruiting all summer and autumn until the first frosts. In the tunnel they never seem to stop! They're great value for money and really earn their space. All the varieties tend to differ slightly, both in cropping potential and flavour - 'Gento', the old strawberry I mentioned above was bred in France in the '60's and sadly is not available commercially any more but 'Mara des Bois', which was bred from it - softer but still with a fabulous flavour, and it's widely available. 'Albion' is another good fruiter with a great flavour which even freezes well - thawing without falling apart - and 'Everest' is good too. One I got a couple of years ago - 'Malling Opel' - seemed a bit of a shy fruiter at first, but it's settled down nicely now into regular cropping, has a great flavour and is just enormous! Unusually the berries will hold a long time on the plants once they look ripe - and actually develop an even deeper flavour the longer you can bear to leave them! The same goes for many of the more modern varieties - which tend to be firmer and keep longer as they've been bred for travel-ability and shelf life. They don't all have the best flavour though - so what's the point? As I always say - looks aren't everything! Growing your own allows you to choose the variety and also to pick it at maximum ripeness for the very best flavour.
Early varieties of summer strawberries should all be cropping well now. It's really important to keep them up off the ground with a good old fashioned mulch of straw, even in dry weather. This keeps them clean and keeps the air circulating around the fruit - helping to prevent grey mould (botrytis) disease. If you do find any fruit which is diseased then pick it off straight away, or it will infect everything else very quickly!
Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?
Some people say you should replace strawberry stocks after three years but personally I think that's unnecessary if your plants are healthy. It's perfectly alright to continue to propagate from healthy plants. This year my old favourite Gento seems even better than ever - thoroughly rejuvenated and enjoying the five star treatment it's now getting in the east tunnel and the last few weeks of hot weather! It has been producing wave after wave of huge delicious fruits and has been flowering continuously since early May! The most important thing with strawberries is to ONLY EVER propagate from the most productive plants which are fruiting well, with perfect looking, healthy leaves - not twisted or blotched with yellow, which might indicate virus. Then you can't go wrong. It's also a good idea to move them to fresh ground every 3-4 years.
We've been enjoying the first of our strawberries from the tunnels for over a month now.We had a taste testing recently and decided that meltingly delicious Gento was still definitely tops for flavour - with Albion coming a close second, Mara des Bois next, then Malling Opal and the much vaunted old French variety Gariguette after that. Christine and Malling Centenary came last - good flavour but not that sensational - and I want sensational in strawberries! Malling Centenary is the one set to replace Elsanta - which I don't grow because I think it's completely tasteless - sadly that's the one sold in many garden centres! Malling Centenary is summer fruiting - but a huge cropper with a pretty good taste and also good disease resistance.
Gento is an old variety I've mentioned before - which was bred in France in the early 1960's - and my stock came as runners taken from plants growing in the garden where I grew up over 40 years ago. I took some runners from the plants growing in the kitchen garden there, when my now grown-up children were toddlers - and the plants I have now are the much-propagated offspring of those original plants! I would hate to lose them - they're such a lovely connection to that magical garden, every inch of which I remember so well and visit so often in my daydreams. Most of it, including the 6 acres of wonderful diverse orchards which I played in as a child and where I saw my first Robin's nest. are now sadly lost forever under a ghastly housing estate - like so many other long lost old gardens!
Most people are unaware that conventionally-grown strawberries are one of the most intensively sprayed crops you can possibly eat! I always have the horrors when I see people taking children to pick strawberries at conventional 'pick-your-own' farms on TV programmes, knowing the awful;toxic chemicals they are sprayed with - none of which have ever been tested as the combinations in which we actually eat them! Children are far more susceptible than adults to chemicals before they are teenagers, as they ingest more in relation to their body size, they are still growing and their developing organs are far more affected.
In organic gardening and farming, good husbandry and good housekeeping take the place of the fungicides and pesticides used regularly as a matter of course in conventional chemical growing. Keeping one step ahead of any possible pests and diseases is the key. Keep an eye out for any slugs too - they'll hide under the straw if you use it and come out at night for a strawberry supper if they get the chance! My early variety of choice now is Christine, which I think tastes every bit as good as the old variety Royal Sovereign - the flavour 'yardstick' for the last century or so. 'Christine' is very disease resistant and reliable, and forces very well in pots, so I usually have a good succession from early May onwards, first in the tunnel and then outside (barring accidents!!). I always take runners from strawberries I want to force every year, growing them on outside in 2 litre pots for the rest of the year, and then bringing them into the tunnel in early February. As always when propagating anything - I make sure to take runners only from the heaviest cropping and healthiest-looking plants!
Strawberries must also be securely covered against marauding blackbirds now - who like Goldilocks always like to try tasting a few before they find one that's just right! As a result, they can do a lot of damage very quickly - so l check the netting covering them every day - to make sure there are no chinks where they can sneak in! Do make sure though that the netting you use is large enough to allow bees in easily though, so that they can pollinate all fruits, or you'll have very poor crops. The really big bumble bees can get stuck in very fine netting poor things, and life is tough enough for them right now! Without bees - we wouldn't have any crops or be around ourselves for long either!
The enormous delicious fruits of autumn raspberry Joan J
The early crop on the 'primocane' types of autumn fruiting raspberries (which crop again on last autumn's fruited canes) is just flowering now outside - and in the fruit tunnel, the pots of 'Joan J' brought in earlier on to bring them forward are already ripening their huge delicious fruits. As soon as the old canes I left on from last year have finished fruiting, all of them will be cut back down to the base and the plants fed, so that they can concentrate all their energy into the new canes already developing which will fruit this autumn and again, lower down the canes, in early summer next year. I grow the excellent large, tasty varieties 'Brice' (red), 'Allgold' (yellow fruited), and also 'Joan J' - a new variety which Joy Larkcom recommended to me when she was staying here a few years ago - she thought it tasted as good as the variety 'Brice', which I already had in the garden. Actually I think it's even better. It's a huge cropper, with big, firm fruits that freeze exceptionally well. I've been growing it for about 6 years now and I love it. Last year I potted some up in 10lt pots and they fruited really well last autumn. We even had a few for Christmas! They're now carrying a huge early crop which is just starting to ripen. The experiment was definitely a great success.
I love experimenting - that's what makes gardening interesting, and how you find new ways of doing things.The old kitchen gardeners of centuries ago were masters of extending the seasons at either end. I often see 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' recommended, (rather than the newer and far better Brice and Joan J), I tried them both years ago and neither were anything like as good as those I've mentioned. I'm actually sorry I ever planted them, as they've both become very invasive weeds in the garden!! I keep digging them out wherever I find them and planting them down in the wood for the wildlife but I just can't get rid of them!) I love the good tasting summer varieties too - but like strawberries - if you've only got room for one row of raspberries, then it makes more sense to grow one of the newer autumn fruiting ones - they have just as good a flavour and are so much better value for the space they occupy since they produce fruit twice a year if you feed them well and prune them my way.
When it comes to pests - if you've done your homework properly and encouraged a good balanced environment for attracting birds and beneficial insects into your garden - then you shouldn't really have much of a problem. The odd greenfly - if you can find any -is easily dealt with by a sharp jet from the hose, but I've hardly seen one all year so far, as the huge population of birds are absolutely desperate for food for their fledglings, and are constantly patrolling the garden searching for insects. Due to a few bad summers for insect breeding - apart from last summer - food supplies may be short - so if you keep feeding the birds, with peanuts (in a feeder) and meal worms - either dried or fresh, it will encourage them to stay in your garden and they'll help you keep potential pests down - rather than going further afield.
Diseases, as I've already mentioned, are normally avoided by good cultivation techniques - giving plants optimum growing conditions, good air circulation and good hygiene practices by that I mean keeping an eye out for any rotting or diseased fruit and disposing of it immediately. Consistent - rather than erratic watering also helps to keep plant stress down, feeding properly and also mulching - to retain moisture, keep roots cool and stop any competition from weed growth. Fruit like gooseberries can suffer from powdery mildew if they become dry at the roots but growing the newer, more disease resistant varieties like 'Invicta' can help.
Look after fruit in containers and polytunnel fruit
If you have any kind of fruit in containers - keep plants consistently and evenly watered or any developing fruit may drop off. The first thing any fruiting plants do if they're stressed is to ditch their fruit! This can often happen with figs about 2-3 weeks after they've gone short of water - and often you don't remember why they're now dropping fruit. Constantly just moist, not saturated or very dry, is the key with them. It's also a good thing to feed them weekly with a good quality, organic, high-potash liquid tomato feed. If you don't have your own comfrey/nettle feed, or are not sure of it's consistent quality, then it's worth buying a good balanced proprietary organic brand such as Osmo liquid tomato feed - which I find excellent for everything. Being short of the correct nutrients will also stress the plant and could potentially affect next year's fruit bud development. If you're planting permanent fruit in containers of whatever sort - always make sure there's good drainage and leave enough room at the top for watering and mulching.
If you're growing grapes keep pinching out the fruiting shoots two leaves beyond the developing bunch on each spur as the shoots grow, and any sub-laterals growing off those shoots to one leaf beyond their base. One good sized bunch per spur is enough for the vine to develop and ripen properly if you want decent sized dessert grapes of seeded varieties - but you can let the seedless ones carry two bunches per spur. Give them a weekly feed now, whether they're in pots or in the ground. Tie in any non-fruiting leading shoots, particularly on seedless grapes - you'll be depending on those for next year's crop!
Figs confined in pots need feeding at every other watering now as the early 'breba' crop is developing and so are tiny young autumn figlets. Don't let them dry out completely and wilt or they will immediately drop developing fruitlets. The overwintered crop of figs on some varieties is starting to ripen now - I can't wait! I'm almost tempted to say these are my favourites too!....Oh hang it - I just love all fruit! The same goes for peaches, which are developing fast now, the early ones being almost table-tennis ball sized now.
The golden berries/cape gooseberries now ripe on last year's overwintered plants come ready-packed by Nature in their own, protective little 'designer' paper cases! Cape gooseberries are actually tender perennials and are worth trying to keep over winter if you have room for them, in order to get an early crop. I'm also growing a new variety this year, from The Seed Coop - called Schonbrunner Gold. Although it was only sown on the 20th March - it's looking very healthy and vigorous, already flowering and I'm very pleased with it. Once they start to produce fruit, the productive bushes will keep on flowering and fruiting all summer and autumn in the tunnel. They'll be ripening from late July/August onwards, and the fruit will keep in their little paper cases for months in the salad drawer of the fridge.
Summer citrus care
Lemons in pots can stand outside during the summer in a sheltered spot out of the wind. They're flowering at the moment and the bees will help to pollinate them. Don't forget to water them and give them a high nitrogen liquid feed like nettle stew - mixed with rainwater (not tap water) every fortnight. On TV some time ago we were shown some miserably 'chlorotic'-looking yellowy-leaved lemon trees - the proud presenter didn't mention that they are actually lime-hating plants like rhododendrons - or perhaps he didn't actually know!
All citrus trees are starting to make a lot of new growth now - the small, soft, brownish-red new shoots also carry the beautifully scented flowers. The older leaves may be looking a little yellowish after the winter - particularly if you've used tap water at all for watering them - which they hate! You can remedy this mineral imbalance by using an organic feed like Maxicrop seaweed and sequestered iron feed, which is widely available. Lemons can be incredibly productive if you look after them well - and they're not complicated to grow - just treat them like rhododendrons or other ericaceous plants. Scale insect is the worst pest - and can be easily dealt with by using an organic soap spray - but NOT when the soft young shoots are developing or you will burn them. The soap works a treat as it coats the scale insect all over so then it can't breathe through it's skin as it normally would, so it suffocates and dies. Scale insect can badly weaken the plants and make 'honeydew' which encourages 'sooty mould' to grow - disfiguring and again weakening the trees by blocking photosynthesis. Small infestations can also be dealt with by painting gently heated and then cooled, liquid coconut oil onto each insect - a time consuming but very effective job for a wet day!
From now on I also give mine a weekly feed of Osmo Universal Organic plant food - mixed into rainwater. This is a balanced feed and I find it works very well on lemons, or anything else where you want to promote growth or that needs a bit of a boost. It works very fast too. Don't use a high potash chemical tomato food on lemons as they don't like them.
Don't worry about the cream! Just enjoy the bountiful harvests of summer
The latest scientific thinking on that is that all dairy products are actually good for you! I always thought they were anyway! And of course all organic dairy products, including cream, are naturally far higher in good Omega 3 fats than non-organic, so that means they're even healthier! The fat in dairy products is where most of the nutrients are. If you're worried about all the calories - then just work them off with all that weeding and mulching!! Actually though, I think creme fraiche is much nicer than cream anyway - it's even better for you than ordinary cream - as it's also probiotic, and especially so if you make it at home more cheaply using kefir grains. Try making an ice cream with just strawberries, homemade creme fraiche or yogurt, a little sugar or organic Stevia drops and a dash of lemon juice - it's heavenly! Yum! That's for when you get fed up with them straight, or dipped in melted 99% dark chocolate of course - and that's not just healthy - but it's positively medicinal in fact, with all the healthy polyphenols in the dark chocolate!!
Really the best thing about growing your own organic fruit is that you can eat it properly ripe and still warm from the sun - while it's super-fresh and mouth-wateringly good! - Enjoy!
(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.)
Topics for June: Strength in Diversity means strength in Adversity.... Keep Sowing Healthy Salads....There's still time to sow flowers for pollinators.... Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it.... Keeping diseases and pests at bay..... Dealing with slugs and leatherjackets..... Mulching cuts down on Watering..... Other jobs.... Keep the ground busy - don't waste an inch of growing space!.... Saving money by taking cuttings of veg plants.... Making high-rise, raised (or 'no-dig') beds.... What can you do about spray drift?
Flowers mixed with vegetables - in the biodiverse French 'Potager' style. Brassica bed planted with Nasturtiums, Tagetes and Viola
Strength in Diversity means strength in Adversity
Growing a diverse range of flowers, herbs and other crops in your potager or vegetable garden increases the range of biodiversity not just above ground, but also in the soil.This will become increasingly important if we want to be more self-sufficient in an uncertain world, where we can no longer rely on the weather and reliably predict what will grow well at any time of year. We try to be as self-sufficient as possible here - growing a wide range of crops which means that there's always something to harvest no matter what happens. If one crop is a disaster - then usually there are several other alternatives to harvest, even in winter. Research also shows that having that broad range of plant biodiversity increases the chances of crops either not being attacked by pests or diseases, or of recovering from them more quickly and easily. .
I've always been a big fan of French potager-style gardens that mix flowers, fruit and herbs with vegetables. They have always seemed a far more natural and beautiful way of growing things to me, because that's the way Nature grows things - all mixed up together, without lots of bare soil. At the moment I'm seeing lots of lovely photographs of other people's vegetable gardens on Twitter. Many are incredibly neat, tightly-controlled and very tidy-looking with their neat rows of vegetables, with lots of weed-free soil between the rows, but to me some of them look incredibly sterile and sad - almost like mono-cultures - with bare soil everywhere! Now I know that some chaps tend to think that planting flowers with your veg is a bit 'girly' but it's not! There's actually a very good scientific reason behind it - quite apart from the fact that it looks beautiful! If you don't have flowers that produce nectar and pollen - then why would any self-respecting beneficial insect visit your plot to lay its eggs? Nature isn't that stupid or altruistic - insects need food as much as we do!
The added extra of planting flowers for bees and other insects is that not only does this help with pest control - thereby making your garden more productive - but it also makes the vegetable garden look even more decorative.In my opinion, contrasting flowers make rows of delicious vegetables look even better! This is particularly important in a small garden where you may not have enough space for separate areas. I often used to visit the late Rosemary Verey's beautiful potager garden at Barnsley House, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. It was an inspiration, as are dear Joy Larkcom's wonderfully delicious-looking books. One day I hope to make it to see the potager at Villandry. If only there were 48 hours in every day! I think that nothing looks prettier or more satisfying than a neat, productive garden full of good things to eat, interspersed with flowers and fruit trees! The only problem is - picking them spoils the nice patterns - but we have to eat!
Keep Sowing Healthy Salads
Stepladder salads by my front door last year - planted standing on one leg!
I'm always saying that the most important thing you can do every day is to eat a green salad - picked as fresh as possible, early in the morning when all it's valuable phytonutrients are at their highest levels. I like to have a range of ingredients, so that I have the broadest range of nutrients possible. Last year due to my broken ankle, I didn't get my early summer salads planted in the outside beds, as I couldn't stand to prepare the beds obviously! But - determined not to be defeated - while my daughter was here helping, I got her to bring what I call my step ladder garden around to the front door which I could just hobble to - so that I could plant some salads on it that I would be able to harvest every day after she was gone. I was amazed it's still holding together (famous last words!) as I bought it about 25 years ago now and have been growing stuff on it ever since! The two lettuces I planted - Lollo Rossa and Cosberg - have done really well. I'm picking a few individual leaves every day, that's the best way to get a long harvest from lettuces if you only have a small space. My step ladder garden takes up less than 1/2 a square metre space, even with a couple of pots either side for tomatoes or other salad vegetables, it's something you could do even on a balcony, so it's well worth doing. I'm so glad I did! It's been through many variations over the years, and if you want to copy my idea - there's a link here to a blog post I wrote about it a few years ago, with lots more ideas :
This year, even though I still haven't yet had the surgery to correct my ankle problems due to COVID19 delays - I've somehow managed to get two of the potager beds in the kitchen garden planted with a range of lettuces, celery, chards and other salads, with broccoli, leeks, parsnips, kales and other veg for winter. None of those would do well in the heat of the polytunnel at this time of year. It's so important to have all those fresh salads - as emerging science is showing that eating the healthiest diet we possibly can is the best defence we currently have against the effects of all diseases.
There's still time to Sow Flowers for Pollinators
Don't forget that if you haven't yet sown annual flowers to attract beneficial insects and bees and other insects like hoverflies - you can still buy them in garden centres. Any nectar and pollen producing flowers will do, and perennials like Scabious, verbena Bonariensis and nepeta are also good, and especially herbs like Thyme and Marjoram. But don't forget theymust mostly be single-floweredor they're not much use to insects! It's also important to ask the garden centre if they've been grown using neonicotinoid insecticides in the compost. The garden centre staff may think you're a 'barmy green' as I was described recently - but if you explain that most of the food we eat is actually provided thanks to pollination by bees - and that they're seriously under threat from these poisonous insecticides - then they may start to listen. If you don't mention that - they will think that this issue is something they needn't concern themselves with, because the customer doesn't care.
Many plants have bee-friendly labels on them now - but there is actually no legal definition for 'bee -friendly' and the plants labelled as such can still be grown using bee-damaging pesticides!These pesticides can also transfer by leaching into the surrounding soil where you plant the flowers, killing a lot of beneficial soil life including useful ground beetles and centipedes. You don't want to kill them - and neither do you want to eat veg grown in soil which contains those chemicals! It's really good to know that by growing so many flowers with my veg - that I'm not just doing it because it looks pretty - but I'm helping bees and other beneficial insects to survive!
Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it
I keep a sharp eye out for potato blight now, as conditions will be ideal for its development over the next few days, with warm weather following the recent torrential rain. If you got your seed tubers in early by starting off 1st and 2nd early varieties off in pots, as I do every year now - you should already have a decent crop under them already though. First and second earlies only need 10-12 weeks to develop a reasonable crop - and obviously after that any increase in the weight of the crop is a bonus. If we get a dry early summer, unless it's very humid we may not get blight until July - but after that it's mostly a given! I avoid early blight every year using my 'pot-planting' method. I know a lot of people just can't get their head around starting off potatoes in pots because it's not the way things were always done. But why not? It's easy enough to do on a garden scale, and no different to planting lilies or dahlias! Many other crops are started off this way and people don't have a problem with that! With climate change we will have to learn to 'think outside the box', be flexible and adapt our methods if we want to produce crops without harmful chemicals - although even those are becoming less effective now. Even permitted organic sprays such as copper sulphate can be harmful too, and can build up in the soil if overused, particularly in clay soils. It's severely restricted now under organic standards. I've never used any sprays whatsoever here for blight on potatoes but still get good crops, by growing them my way.
Planting potato plants with nice root balls and small developing tubers in April.
Even early blight doesn't bother me now though - because in a normal year, all my potatoes are already flowering and developing their tubers nicely. I normally plant the outside crop in mid April in the way you can see here. They were all started off in early March and by then were already well developed plants with a good root ball. After planting I always give them a good watering and then a heavy mulch of grass clippings which keeps the moisture in and weeds down - making sure to leave the stems clear of mulch which could rot them. After laying down the mulch I then water again - to ensure that no fumes are given off as the clippings don't heat up - which can burn leaves. The heavy mulch seals the surface, blocking out light so that weeds don't germinate and also stops the water evaporating too quickly - creating too humid an atmosphere around the plants and possibly encouraging blight. I then don't water again until the flowers are open - because this is the time when they start to develop their tubers. Less watering means less possibility of encouraging blight - so the best time to water is when you know plants will need it most.
Blight spores are in the air everywhere all the time, waiting for exactly the right conditions - warmth and high humidity. Really good air circulation and low humidity conditions are the keys to avoiding it as long as possible. That, and growing more resistant varieties - like those pictured below - of which a few are being bred now. Sadly though they don't always have the wonderful flavour of the varieties I grow. There haven't been too many nights of frost since my potato plants were planted, so luckily I've only had to cover them a couple of times with a double layer of fleece to protect them from frost - there's no damage at all and they're growing really well. I always take fleeces off first thing in the morning as air circulation is so important to keep disease at bay. Despite hailstone the size of marbles in early May - there was no damage and they were looking really beautiful, but this morning are looking somewhat battered and bowed by the torrential rain overnight. They will recover though - but I shall now keep my eyes peeled for those first signs. Someone told me a couple of years ago about a really daft idea they had read somewhere - which was - "to cover the plants with polythene at the first sign of blight in order to stop it getting to the plants"! That's definitely the best way to reduce air circulation and the best recipe for encouraging blight as fast as possible that I've ever heard!! You can't shut blight out - any more than you can stop plants breathing!
Innovator flowering - a blight resistant cultivar called Albert Bartlett Russet in UK
Potato Tibet flowering - the most blight resistant potato I have ever grown.
As soon as I see any signs of blight on the Red Duke of York - always my best blight indicator, then I cut the haulms (tops) off all the plants immediately and cover that part of the potato bed with black polythene to stop any of the fungal spores washing down through the soil and rotting the tubers. Red Duke of York is always my blight indicator, being more susceptible than most - so it's always the first to be hit. After that I keep a careful eye on the other varieties in the bed and as soon as I see any sign of the 'tell tale' black blotches on the leaves, I do the same with them. Using this method - I've been growing enough potatoes to feed the family for most of the winter every year for the last 30 years or so - when I gave up direct planting of seed tubers at the traditional time of mid-March. Combining that method with my 'extra early' mid January planting of tunnel crops - which I wrote about earlier this year - it means that I usually have my own potatoes all year round, depending on how many of the family and friends there are here to eat them! If you're growing in raised beds as I do - you can even leave them in the ground for months then - they keep far better this way unless you have a massive slug or rodent problem. I don't normally lift the remainder of the crop until frost is a possibility, then I store them stacked in slatted plastic trays, in a cool frost-free shed, loosely covered with black material to keep the light out, but still maintaining good air circulation.
New strains of potato blight have developed over the last couple of decades and become far more resistant to the chemical fungicides used by conventional chemical farmers. This is why many non-organic, commercially grown crops are sprayed often 20 times or more with chemical fungicides - quite apart from all the toxic 'cocktail' of other chemicals they are treated with. These include 'dessicants' - like glyphosate-based weedkillers which are used to spray off the foliage before harvest in order to make it easier for machines to harvest the potatoes). Even blight sprays aren't effective enough some years though - in that case farmers often then don't even bother lifting the crops because it's not economic - and they just plough them back in. Sometimes not for months though - leaving them rotting in the ground, and this just leads to even more blight proliferating in our mild damp winter climate here in Ireland! That creates the perfect conditions for the evolution of blight resistance - and the smell of rotting crops is disgusting around here sometimes. I am convinced that this practice combined with increasing use of fungicidal sprays has contributed in a major way to the development of more resistant strains of blight over the last few decades.
I am also convinced that the amount of chemicals the general population is consuming now if they're eating these crops is going to cause a 'Tsunami' of health problems in years to come. Many scientists are beginning to worry about this issue too. Just this week some new evidence emerged about fungicides that are routinely used on many crops. Many think that fungicides are less harmful - but recent research has found that they induce changes in gene expression in mice similar to those in people with autism and neuro-degenerative conditions like Huntingdon's disease. This could partially explain the increasing incidence of such diseases. They're certainly not what I would want to eat - which is why I have grown all my crops organically for over 40 years, with no sprays whatsoever - not even organic ones like copper sulphate which are allowed under some organic guidelines! Growing potatoes my way, I find that I can grow enough potatoes to see us through the year without using any sprays at all. It's all a question of timing and TLC - but it's well worth it!
Keeping diseases and pests at bay in other crops
When it comes to diseases in other crops - constant vigilance and good housekeeping is the order of the day - especially so in salad crops like lettuce! Botrytis and downy mildew can spread like wildfire if you're not vigilant. Keep an eye on crops and pick off any yellowing, rotting or otherwise diseased leaves immediately! This is especially important in wet weather.
Conversely in dry weather - powdery mildew can often be a problem - especially when days are hot but nights can be cool. If plants are not well-watered and mulched they may suffer this in dry conditions, as it's caused by dryness at the roots . Most of the questions at every year's Irish Garden advice stand at the Bord Bia Bloom garden festival in early June are about that, as it is normally very prevalent at this time of year.
Dealing with Slugs and Leatherjackets
The scourge of wet weather - slugs - are a problem every year! They can be dealt with easily in a number of ways. By picking off, slate or beer traps, keeping weeds down among crops and keeping any grass paths beside veg beds cut very closely so they have nowhere to hide!My preferred method is snipping with scissors on my nightly prowl and also using pieces of slate along rows where they hide and can easily be scooped up daily to feed to the hens! I know a lot of people find the scissor method difficult at first - but believe me it gets easier - particularly if you've had something nice destroyed by them! The other good thing about that method is that they are still available as food for all the wildlife in the garden who are reliant on them for food. As I often mention - this garden is not just managed for our benefit - but also for the benefit of as much wildlife as possible. There are so many birds in this garden that I really don't know how they all manage to feed themselves! I rarely see pests though - so I guess that encouraging the birds, as well as other methods really pays off. I don't just grow veg - and I rarely have holes in my Hostas either!
If you have any beds or ground you're not using - growing a green manure will discourage those other pests - leather jackets - which will proliferate if you let grass grow on beds when they're empty. Leather jackets are the larvae of the Daddy Longlegs or cranefly! Leaving beds vacant and cultivating lightly a few times before putting in lettuce is good at getting rid of many. The starling population in particular love leather jackets and are incredibly efficient at clearing them up! It just proves once again the value of encouraging as broad a range of biodiversity as possible. At this time of year the entire bird population here is frantically rushing around from dawn until dusk, trying to find insects to feed their hungry broods. They are the best pest control you could possibly have, with the added benefit of free music!
Mulching cuts down on Watering
Courgette bed mulched with grass clippings showing how it packs down and knits together after 10 days - keeping weeds down
I've seen so many people complaining about having to water their veg gardens on social media recently, just before the massive down pours of the last couple of days (well we didn't have rain - but everyone else seems to have done!). At the same time - I'm seeing the photos they're posting of pale, dead-looking, carbon-deficient soil, especially on allotments - which is just crying out for a good mulch of organic material! Watering without mulching is a waste of water - as much of it just evaporates off into the atmosphere!
Keeping plants well mulched after you've watered when the soil is moist is vitally important now, as crops are growing fast and will soon become stressed if they dry out, which reduces the length and amount of their crop and makes them bolt or run to seed early. A good heavy mulch reduces evaporation so you will need to water less often. It also keeps plant roots cool. Containers can often need watering twice a day in warm weather - a bit of a drag I know - but if you want to grow stuff and have no garden - it can still be done! I even mulch those too if I have room - with chopped comfrey or grass clippings.
A good soaking and then mulching with grass clippings, compost or other organic material really pays off. As I've said above - always remember to keep any mulch at least a couple of inches away from the stems.Protecting all bare soil with an organic mulch helps to buffer it against drought, and as the worms gradually work it in, it naturally becomes humus, which acts like a sponge and absorbs more water. This is one of the reasons industrial chemical farming ruins soils, because it uses up soil carbon and humus, and doesn't return organic matter like straw-based manures and recycled plant wastes as farming did for hundreds of years, and as organic farmers still do now. The unnaturally chemically-fed soil gradually becomes just a lifeless dust. Without any added humus it's carbon store is depleted and so it doesn't absorb water. More and more hedges and field margins have also been taken out which would have absorbed water. Heavy rain then just runs off quickly causing flooding problems, pollution of rivers etc. That's what we suffered in many places this spring. Plants then also become stressed and sick - needing even more chemicals to keep them alive!!
Effective watering at the roots where it's most needed is the key, rather than just aimlessly splashing it about on the surface where it just evaporates - or even worse - on the plant's leaves!Timing is everything too. As I've already mentioned - potatoes, for instance, benefit most from water just as they come into flower, as that's when the tubers are really starting to swell.I always water everything by hand. It can be time consuming at times, but I prefer doing this because I grow so many different types of crops together, often 'catch-cropping', inter-planting or 'poly-cropping' (the latest 'buzz word'!) with salads or other fast-growing crops between rows of slower growing crops, which all need different amounts of water. I've tried various automatic systems over the years, but find they tend to waste water and never really do it as well as you would yourself. Doing it by hand also means you're really looking at your plants, getting to know them well and noticing any possible first signs of something going wrong - a few aphids perhaps, or a spot of mildew. Powdery mildew is often a sign that things are too dry at the roots. I find that courgettes in containers always suffer from this in particular - they tend to crop brilliantly for a few weeks - as my early ones in the west tunnel are doing right now. But then no matter how much you water, as the plants get bigger they will get mildew on the leaves. Those growing in the ground are far happier really - but again - if you have no garden - containers are the only option, so you can get around the problem by sowing another few, 3-4 weeks after the first ones, then when the first ones go beyond the point where they're still cropping well - the next ones should start cropping.
Water is a precious and valuable resource, not just for us humans but for all life, so don't waste it, save every drop you can. If you're recycling grey water, make sure you're not using chemicals like bleaches and disinfectants, and use it as soon as you collect it, as it can become a bit smelly if you store it! I prefer to use it for crops that are going to be cooked rather than salads! I think that all new houses should by law have to install rainwater harvesting systems, for uses such as flushing toilets etc. If you collect as much rainwater as possible like I do - Hoselock do a very useful and efficient water pump which you can use to pump water out of water butts and onto your garden, it saves a lot of back breaking work carrying water to where you want it as you can attach a lose to it. It comes out pretty fast though - so make sure you're aim is careful!
Keep the ground busy - don't waste an inch of growing space!
Have something ready to go in pots or modules so that you can plant it immediately any crop is finished and cleared. Things grow really fast at this time of year, so "gather ye rosebuds (or vegetables) while ye may"!- After the summer solstice, growth starts to slow up, in some cases quite dramatically! You should be starting to enjoy some of the rewards of your efforts this month - if you're lifting early potatoes, don't forget to save a few for a really early crop next year as it's difficult to buy them early enough in Ireland - and even if you order online they don't always come in time to get them sprouting before mid January. We've been eating new potatoes since mid April from the earliest plantings in the tunnel.
Virused 'Roseval' on the left, surrounded by other healthy plants
Make absolutely sure you only save seed potatoes from the very best, healthiest-looking plants. In case you don't know what a virused one looks like, here's a photo I took a couple of years ago - clearly showing the difference between a healthy looking plant and one obviously infected by virus. I would normally 'rogue' this one out as soon as I had recognised it was virused, as it can be spread to other plants by aphids and I grow a lot of rare old varieties, which I want to keep healthy. I deliberately left this one just in order to take a picture of the example for you - very noble! Aphids can spread any virus to other plants. I often get problems with bought in so-called 'certified' seed, but very rarely on any that I save myself, as I am super-careful about what I save. Always wash the potatoes you're saving, dry them off gently with kitchen paper and leave them in a single layer somewhere cool where air can circulate around them.
I'm sowing pumpkins, squashes and sweetcorn this weekend. A bit late due to my ongoing ankle and knee problems which can't be dealt with until the COVID19 pandemic is over. But I hate being without them, they grow fast, and the weather is so unpredictable nowadays. I sowed them on this date last year and they did really well, planted in the polytunnel. Usually by now any pumpkins due to be planted outside have been potted on as small seedlings into 2 litre pots and are by now nice big plants, with the roots just starting to show through the bottom of the pot. Never let pumpkins become pot bound - they don't grow on well if they get a check. As usual I will give them all a heavy mulch of grass clippings to retain moisture and keep the weeds down. When 4 leaves have developed I shall pinch out the tip of the plants to encourage them to side shoot from each leaf axil. Each one of the subsequent shoots should then produce at least one pumpkin each. If you don't do this, the plant may set just one fruit and then later ones further along the shoot may not develop properly. I'll be planting my celery, inter-planting between the sweetcorn plants for shade - which it likes.
Make sure you have the necessary seeds of winter crops like sugar loaf chicory, winter lettuces, lambs lettuce, land cress etc. - If you go to the garden centres next month looking for them - they won't be there - as I've learnt to my cost on several occasions. They seem to think that nobody sows anything after midsummer - so they send all their seeds back to the suppliers!! Or order them online. The Organic Gardening catalogue, among others, has a good range of winter cropping salads etc., most need sowing in July or early August at the latest. Jack Ice, Lattughino and Fristina are fantastic winter lettuces which are loose leaved, hardy and stand for a long time in spring. Jack Ice is a new one I discovered 3 years ago - from Real Seeds. It's grown really well in the tunnel for the last 3 winters and was quite hardy outside too. By the way, don't sow radicchio before midsummer as it can run to seed.
Keep up with successional sowing of salads - that's something that's so easy to forget when you're busy, but otherwise you can find you suddenly have a gap, particularly if we get another hot spell and plants go to seed. Even at this time of year I still sow into modules - that way plants are bigger, and much more resistant to the odd nibble from pests, or from bad weather..
Please don't use slug pellets - they're the thoughtless, lazy gardener's option and kill so much helpful wildlife. Would you deliberately poison a blackbird, a frog or a hedgehog? No of course you wouldn't! But if you use slug pellets that's exactly what you're doing! An early morning and an evening stroll with the scissors is far nicer! Don't forget to give slugs alternative places to hide too, like a slate or similar, placed on beds, where they think they're safe during the day - then pick them up and dispose of by your preferred method! You all know mine now! I don't like using beer traps, as ground beetles seem to be attracted to them too - and they are very beneficial insects, actually eating slug eggs and small slugs. As soon as I appear every morning with my first cup of tea to inspect the salad beds outside in the kitchen garden - my Robin friend is always waiting impatiently for me to undo the pigeon netting covering the beds, so that he can grab any insects oar tiny slugs which might appear. They never escape his sharp eye!
Keep your fleece on standby - don't put it away completely just yet! We often get the odd late frost in many parts of Ireland. The night before last it was only 2 deg. C on the bed where the potted potatoes are sitting - but at this stage mine were far too big to cover and as the beds are very raised and also on a slight slope I hoped any frost might slip down hill. Luckily no damage! Don't get caught out though if you're planting out tender things. Make sure they're well hardened off, watch the weather forecasts and get to know your particular local climate, as it varies hugely from the North to the South and South-West - and even in individual gardens in the same locality!
Saving money by taking cuttings of veg plants
You can save yourself a surprising amount of money by propagating some of your veg plants from cuttings - particularly those that can be expensive to buy in as plants or as seed - like F1 hybrid tomatoes. It's really easy once you know how, as you will see from the pictures here. Some things like overwintered chard can be cut down with a very sharp spade or loppers and will re-sprout from the base. This is particularly useful if they're just going up to seed and you don't have any to follow on for a while. You can still harvest some useful pickings from them in a week or so. I did an experiment a few years ago and kept some going for 2 years by doing this.
Even expensive tubers like Mashua, Yacon and Oca can be propagated by cuttings - just like dahlias. I first discovered this easy method of water rooting quite by accident many years ago on dahlias. I broke one and stuck it in a jar of water to see if the stem would flower - and it rooted! You just take the cutting about 6ins/15cm long with a very sharp knife like a craft knife (this is important to avoid bruising) cutting just below a leaf node. The stem must be solid not hollow - again to avoid rotting. If it's hollow then re-cut it further up, where it's solid. Put it in a jar of water for a couple of weeks, making sure it doesn't dry out. A north-facing windowsill is good for this at this time of year, as you don't want them cooking. Some will start to root within a few days and it's fascinating watching them develop. When you think they have enough roots, then pot them up in a small pot of seed compost and water well. The low nutrient in seed compost is a sort of half-way house between the water they were in and their future home and shouldn't burn the roots. The people who sell these tubers at vastly inflated prices won't like me for telling you this - but that's nothing new! Often the cost of buying plants puts people off trying the more exotic veg - and they can be great fun to grow!
Making high-rise, deep, raised, (or 'no-dig') beds
New raised/deep 'no dig' bed looking north
The re-development of the kitchen garden into a raised ornamental potager is ongoing and the new, higher raised beds are a complete joy to work!Made from two tiers of 7 inch planks, so that even when my back is dodgy, it means I don't have to bend and I can even sit on a stool or chair to garden if necessary. It makes my heavy clay soil so much easier to work, and will improve as more compost is added over the years. The plan is to hopefully complete half the garden this year - another four beds, depending on finances and my son's goodwill! (he barrowed about 3 tons of soil per bed, from the top paddock to the garden bless him!). Possibly a little ambitious - but one has to have goals! We used 7 x 2 inch planks, treated with an oil-based organic wood preservative from Fruit Hill Farm, with corner brackets and 3ft/1m lengths of rebar hammered in along the sides at intervals for support, which looks very neat and they won't rot in the wet ground. I'm now making a carrot fly frame to fit over the bed and looking for some nice finials for the corners. I'm always looking for some new way to improve the garden - I'll never be bored!
I used my own organic soil (organic for over 35 years) which was left over after digging out my new bigger wildlife pond at the bottom of the field(one of the best things I've ever done). I didn't lash on tons of composts, manure or even mushroom compost (horror!) as some advise! Doing that can seriously upset the balance of soil life and nutrients - and if non-organic, would also contain contaminants like pesticides and weedkillers used in both the production of the original straw and hay in the manure, and also any worm treatments or antibiotics used for treating animals. Mushroom compost is originally made from conventional, chemically-grown straw which is then dessicated with glyphosate pre-harvest. In addition - when being prepared for mushroom cultivation - the substrate is then also treated with soil sterilants like Methyl Bromide and organochlorine pesticides against destructive fungus gnats. I don't want those 'chemical cocktails' in any of the food we eat - combinations of which have been proven to be many times more toxic than the original chemicals individually! I prefer to be a little more patient and rely on nature's gentler less toxic way of doing things - mulching, composting and worms! It's much safer!
According to Garden Organic (formerly the HDRA) - the 'grow your own boom' has brought on a massive increase in the use of peat, weedkillers and other pesticides, and if you've been reading this blog for a while you will know as organic gardeners and people who care about the environment, that's something we don't want at any cost! It's not necessary for us to use pesticides in order to grow food! There ARE safer organic alternatives!
Keep up with hoeing the weeds if you have any bare soil. Mulching is better for soil though, as I said earlier, and if you weed well first, and then put on a thick light excluding mulch - that will keep weeds down effectively even after rain. Mulching also improves the soil - then making it much easier to get perennial weeds like docks out with all their roots intact - so they won't come back. If you're finding it hard to keep the weeds down on a new allotment or garden, as often happens at this busy time of year, then don't just give up and let them run to seed. Remember the old quote "one year's seeds - seven year's weeds!". Either cover the ground with black polythene or some other total light excluding mulch, or even better, keep mowing it and making compost which will improve the soil and save you money at the same time! The grass roots will break up the soil and if you sow some clover into it as well, this will fix 'free' atmospheric nitrogen, adding hugely to the soil's fertility when you cover it to start a 'no-dig' regime or dig it in.
Remember - it's always far better to cultivate a smaller patch really well, than take on too much and end up with an unproductive mess!
What can you do about spray drift?
This is becoming an increasing problem in many areas of Ireland and the UK where people living in rural areas are being directly affected and their air, gardens and even water polluted. At this time of year it's particularly bad. Two weeks ago there was spraying in a field to the north west of my boundary and there was some slight spray drift as the wind was in my direction, so I registered yet another complaint with the Dept. of Ag. here. A waste of time since they will not admit there is a problem - but at least I registered my complaint! Yesterday I'd just finished some work in the garden when I heard a tractor again in the next door field, and although it was still far too hot - I rushed to close the tunnels. Luckily for once the wind wasn't in my direction. I had a nasty incident a few years ago, when my garden and tunnels suffered serious spray drift contamination and I had to dump most of my crops - so if I hear a tractor these days I panic and rush out to see where it is. If there's any possible threat, I close the tunnels and cover all the outside salads with fleece. Currently that's all I can do - unless I'm prepared to have my produce privately tested at a cost of about 600 Euros and then take a court case personally against the farmer who is spraying - something that would take years to resolve, with enormous stress and at huge expense. In addition - as I no longer make my living from growing commercially - all I would be likely to recover would be the cost of the lost produce! They don't take into account any possible soil contamination as these products are currently approved for agricultural use.
One of the problems around here is some 'here today, gone tomorrow' farmers who rent land for tillage crops for just the year to grow a crop and then move on somewhere else.It's just rape and pillage of the soil! They obviously don't care about any chemical residues they leave behind, they don't care about the damage they do to soil or biodiversity and they don't even have to care even about being good neighbours as they don't live nearby! They certainly don't care about what state they leave the land in, because they have no investment in it's future. Their only interest is to make as much money as they can from it now and move on! It's almost got to the stage where I'm afraid to go out when the wind's in our direction - in case the spray-drift happens while I'm gone! I almost feel like I'm under siege here sometimes! It's all so different to how it was here over 35 years ago when we first moved here and were surrounded by species-rich old pasture abundantly full of wildflowers - now sadly all gone! Even our lovely crystal clear stream which used to support the young eels we often found has now been polluted and all life in it completely killed by agricultural effluent and all the uphill neighbour's grey water illegally being piped into it.
As I wrote this it was World Environment Day - do people not see the connection or do they really just not care? Sadly after my experience with our Dept of Agriculture a few years ago, frankly I wouldn't waste my time bothering with them again. They only came out here after 3 weeks of constant harassment, when they knew that I had already dumped most of the crops - and then said they couldn't find any traces of pesticides on the few bits that remained! They knew perfectly well that after 4-5 days it's difficult to find traces of the surfactants or adjuvants which make the pesticide coat the surface of the leaves more efficiently - despite the fact that at the time a friend & I still couldn't breathe in the tunnels or the garden 2 hours after the sprayers had gone from the field next door!.
These adjuvants have never actually been safety-tested at all as they were declared by the makers, Monsanto, to be 'non-active' constituents of the sprays. However there is a growing weight of scientific opinion now which believes that these chemicals are just as toxic individually, as the chemical which they are sticking to the plants - and that when combined, all the chemicals in the mix form 'cocktails' which are many times more toxic. The Department of Agriculture's waste of public money in paying a top official to visit here was purely a PR exercise because I was making such a fuss! However - I had registered my complaint.
Sadly there's very little you can do currently, except at least do what I did. Make a note of the wind direction and wind speed and log your complaint with your local environmental health officer and your Department of Agriculture. If some farmers are going to use chemicals then they should at least be used responsibly and to the absolute letter of the current law - whether I personally approve of them or not. Because the huge new sprayers are so expensive these days - many farmers don't have their own machines any more and use contractors to do the spraying instead. Those contract sprayers really don't give a damn when they do it - they still get paid for doing it! They just do it whenever it suits their work schedule, and then walk away with no penalty if they cause environmental problems, seemingly no matter what they do! You already know my opinion on the use of chemicals - but sadly we can't change the world overnight.
If some of us choose to grow or farm organically, we at least have a right not to have our gardens, produce, or even the air we breathe contaminated by chemicals which we don't wish to consume. If I was still a commercial grower I could have lost my organic certification and therefore my livelihood over that spray-drift incident - it is that serious. The sprays smell a bit like Jeyes fluid or creosote fence preservative. Remember - if you can smell it on the air - then that air you are breathing in is full of the aerosol particles of whatever is being sprayed - and you are being forced to breathe in cancer-causing poisons with absolutely no choice! Even when it comes to smoking we now have a choice not to frequent the same areas as a smoker - but we have no choice but to breathe in pesticide polluted air.Meanwhile the sprayer operator sits up high on his huge machine in an air conditioned cab - totally oblivious and uncaring!
Sadly if Boris Johnson has his way in the UK - pesticides currently banned there, but allowed in countries like the USA and Australia will be deregulated and that means that chemical farmers in the UK will undoubtedly use them - in order not to be at a disadvantage in any trade deal which will allows produce from those countries into the UK! The same will happen with GMOs or genetically engineered crops. If this happens, it could destroy UK organic farming because many organic farmers may lose their licence, if they are situated anywhere near conventional farmers and at risk of spray drift, or wind contamination of crops by GM pollen! This makes me so angry - because even more of the biodiversity like bees and soil organisms which we totally depend on for the pollination and growing our crops will be endangered. That means that our food security will be threatened too. There will be no going back if those pesticides and crops are unleashed on the UK. Of course - that's what pesticide companies counting on. For them it's all about profit - and those promoting this policy don't give a damn about the environment or our children's future! They won't have to deal with the fallout!
Sorry for the rant - but it's such a worrying time for those who care about the environment, biodiversity and food production in the future! I hope all your vegetable gardens are growing really well this mid-summer, and providing you with delicious produce. Savour each delicious mouthful and enjoy every single moment mindfully.
The many ups and downs of life over the years have taught me that you never know what's around the next corner. Little did any of us think this time two years ago, in 2019, that we'd be dealing with the current pandemic and that life would have changed utterly for so many of us, and sadly for some - forever. Carpe Diem applies more than ever.
(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.)
June/July contents: Hurrah - Tomatoes are almost ripe! Now we shall have 'Tomato Heaven' for the rest of the summer!... Dealing with aphids.... Heat Damage on Tomatoes.... Tomato feeding.... To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question?.... Carry on mulching.... Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife to help you with pest control..... A More Unusual Polytunnel Crop..... What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?.... We're never truly alone in a garden....
These Rosada plants leaning towards each other trying to avoid the intense heat last summer reminded me horribly of some of the tragic pictures taken during the Australian bush fires last year - which sadly may become more frequent with rapidly increasing climate change
Hurrah - Tomatoes are almost ripe! Now we shall have 'Tomato Heaven' - for the rest of the summer!!
Ripe Maskotka in early June
Maskotka is a reliable tomato that I would never want to be without, and it has been for many years the earliest tomato I've ever grown - always ripe during the first week of June if sown in early March - and I've tried lots! This year it's a bit later due to the freezing weather in May - but won't be long as it's already turning colour now! Maskotka is quite a large bush variety, which tends to spread out a bit over the summer, taking up a lot of ground space. Tumbler however is much smaller and more compact, and much more suitable for growing in hanging baskets and on my stepladder garden. Maskotka has competition though! Last year, the smaller bush variety Tumbler was a great success on the steps of my stepladder garden. The first tomato was ripe on 26th May! I didn't sow Maskotka until a bit later though, so a comparison was a little unfair! Next year I shall sow them both at the same time and compare the two for flavour and earliness. That's one of the things I love about gardening - the ability to always experiment and compare food crops or other plants, to discover which are the best varieties for growing in your particular location.
I also grow many other plants of the Solanacae family (tomatoes, aubergines etc.) so I haven't got enough room to grow them all in the ground if I want to stick to a proper rotation plan, thereby cutting down on the risk of disease or nutrient deficiency problems. That's why I'm growing 'Maskotka' and some of my other favorite tomato varieties in large pots again this year, which I've found very successful in the past. As this year sadly there won't be a Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, again due to the current pandemic, I'm mostly growing the tried and tested, best-tasting, reliable varieties which I've grown for many years, but I always row one or two new ones - just in the hope that I might find an amazing variety which might be better than some I already grow. I never seem to have any problems at all with the fruit setting on them, even when starting them off them very early, as tomatoes are generally self-fertile anyway, and again because I also grow mini-gardens at the ends of the tunnels either side of the doors, full of flowers and herbs that bring in the bees and other beneficial insects, if they need pollination the insects are all more than happy to provide their services!.
Tomato Heaven! Insalata Caprese - with (from bottom) John Baer, Green Cherokee, Ananas Noir & luscious buffalo mozzarella.
Dealing with aphids in polytunnels
The first thing many people do when they see aphids is panic and reach for a spray of something - even some of those who consider themselves organic!Doing that is often the worst thing you can possibly do! The first thing to understand about aphids is that feeding with artificial fertilisers or overfeeding even with nitrogenous organic manures encourages exactly the sort of soft growth that all aphids enjoy. It also reduces the plant's own ability to make it's own defences by depressing soil bacteria and fungi. Overfeeding - even with organic manure - can have a similar effect to artificial nitrogen. You may get very impressive-looking plants by lashing on tons of manure or compost the way that some 'experts' advise - but you won't have healthy plants. They'll make soft and sappy growth that is far more attractive to pests and also to diseases. I so often see these 'experts' being asked later on in the summer how to deal with aphids!
I rarely ever actually see any aphids here at all - and if I do it's a sure sign that something is out of kilter in the plant's growing environment. Problems can often be due to wild swings of erratic, often freezing weather and intense heat that we've already had again this year. It's something we'll just have to learn to deal with better with the erratic weather conditions which are caused by climate change. In the last month, my polytunnel has fluctuated between -3 deg Ce to over 40 deg C, and if I was putting up another polytunnel now - I would definitely install side ventilation, so that it could be cooled more with more ventilation. Without that - all one can do is have doors at both ends open all the time, mulch to conserve moisture and protect plant roots from heat, and also damp down paths several times a day so that the evaporating moisture keeps the air moving and cools it a bit.
Tomatoes in recycled 10lt buckets on grow-bag trays in the west/fruit tunnel - potted flowers between plants attract beneficial insects
Aphids on any plant are a sure sign that the plant is stressed in some way - often with a reduced immune response due to being overfed with high nitrogen fertilisers or perhaps manure. Some people are having problems with aphids at the moment as many plants have been stressed by the extremes of weather we've had again this spring. An attack by pests is almost always a sure sign of that or some other stress such as the wrong conditions perhaps on a house windowsill, maybe too hot or too crowded. So keep an eye on your plants. Look at them closely every day, particularly any young plants still in propagators. The very hot days occasionally over the last week will have encouraged greenfly and other pests to multiply rapidly, which could be a problem unless there are plenty of predators around. Because I grow so many flowers in my polytunnels to attract beneficial insects - which in turn attract all sorts of insect-feeding birds and other wildlife - I have a permanent army of pest-controllers such as sparrows, robins, wrens and frogs, who hunt in the tunnels all year round. It's fascinating to watch them assiduously searching in every crevice of the plants looking for insects to feed their hungry babies. And there's certainly plenty of those judging from the loud demanding shrieks from every corner of the garden!
If you don't have a feathered army of pest controllers and you have an infestation building up on soft young shoots - please don't panic and spray with anything! If there seems to be quite a lot then try just brushing them off gently first with a soft household paint brush or a pastry brush - particularly on plants like tomatoes where you don't want to wet the foliage - as that might encourage disease. Gently brushing with a small soft paintbrush often works well and buys you a bit more time while predators like hoverflies, ladybirds and wasps build up enough to deal with aphids. The gentle brushing also stimulates the plants to develop their own insect defences. Allow small birds like sparrows and wrens into your tunnels - they will help to gobble them up. Just hang large pea and bean netting on the doors & vents to keep pigeons or pheasants out. Put a peanut feeder near the open door of your greenhouse or tunnel as this will attract birds, and while they're waiting for their turn on the feeder they'll be encouraged to look for a few aphids as well. I know it's often quite hard to be patient and just trust nature - we've been so conditioned to believe that everything needs to be sprayed with something - even if it's only something natural!. I don't use any sprays of any sort whatsoever and haven't done for 40 years!
Nature doesn't always give you instant results - particularly in difficult weather - but try it and if it doesn't work you can always order a biological control like aphidius Colemanii - or ladybirds. They're not cheap though at about 40 euros for even the smallest amount you can buy! Whereas birds come free - with an additional entertainment factor!
The other great pest controllers are the members of the beneficial insect army. If you've got lots of insect-attracting flowers in your veg. garden and tunnel then they should attract plenty of predatory insects to deal with your pests. Flowering at the moment in the tunnel are borage, calendula (pot marigold), French marigold, feverfew, salad burnet, limnanthes (poached egg flower), phacelia, perennial Bowles wallflower, pansies, nicotiana, nepeta, scabious, sweet rocket and the herbs parsley and coriander which are flowering really well as well as Sweet Rocket and Nicotiana Affinis which smell heavenly at night - attracting lots of moths for the bats. I've seen quite a few wasps about this year too - and although they're aggressive little devils, they are voracious hunters of things like greenfly and caterpillars to feed their growing broods.
There are plenty of predators more than willing and able to do a good job of pest control for you given the chance - but if you spray with poisonous insecticides or even just an organic insecticidal soap spray - you will break the natural food chain by killing the good insects as well as the bad - including bees. And we all know how vital it is to help bees at the moment as they're so under threat of extinction from pesticides. Throwing the baby out with the bath water so to speak! I even use the organic soap spray for is for scale insect on my citrus trees if I get a very bad infestation - I discovered some time ago that melted coconut oil brushed onto the scale insects with a soft children's paintbrush works just as well as organic soap sprays and doesn't affect anything else. It stops them breathing - then they die and drop off.
Keep an eye out for the start of any diseases now. I try to run my eye over everything in the veg garden each day if I can and I pick off any fading or diseased leaves etc. immediately - before any disease can start or spreads. In the humid conditions of the tunnel this can happen very rapidly. With all the different varieties of tomatoes making a sudden spurt of growth after the hot weather they also need looking over for side shoots every day - so I take a bucket round with me and pick off any dodgy looking leaves at the same time. Sometimes a purplish colour and browning at the tips or bleaching between the ribs of leaves is actually damage caused by a nutrient deficiency - usually magnesium - which can happen if planting is delayed and things are kept waiting in their pots - this happened with some of my tomatoes this year despite extra feeding. These bits can become diseased later in damp conditions - so I always pick them off if they start to brown.
Heat Damage on Tomatoes
Every year some people ask me why all their tomatoes are curling up very tightly at the top - some looking quite 'ferny' with some of the leaf tips browning - almost as if they'd been sprayed with weedkiller! This isn't caused by a disease - it happens because of stress from very intense heat. Tunnels are generally wonderful but they are a bit more difficult to manage than greenhouses in really hot weather unless you also have side ventilation to reduce the heat build up. It's impossible to shade large tunnels unless you're a millionaire and have automatic outside shading. Shading inside is no good as it doesn't stop the heat and also stops air circulation. Greenhouses are easier as you can paint them with some stuff called 'Cool Glass' - it's a sort of whitewash paint which stops the heat getting through the glass. It goes clear in wet weather so doesn't stop light. My tunnels have been well over 40 deg C/100 deg F for the last couple of weeks when it's been really sunny. The best thing to do in that situation is to 'damp down' all surfaces like paths really well with water three or four times a day while it's so hot. The evaporation cools the air and keeps it moving and buoyant. Only the paths though - NEVER THE PLANTS - despite what I've seen some so-called 'experts' recommending! This just encourages diseases - particularly potato blight - especially in tunnels because they're so warm and humid - and this can attack tomatoes too.
The tops of many tomato plants curling up is always most obvious during the hottest part of the day - but if you look at them last thing at night - you will see some of them almost visibly relaxing and uncurling again - poor things! It's their only way to avoid some of the damage. Since they obviously can't run away, they have had to develop other methods. Although tomatoes like sun and bright light - they can't stand it if it's too intense - so they curl up to try to avoid leaf exposure and damage. As long as you keep damping down paths this will minimise damage as far as possible and it will have less effect. If you don't do this the overheating can cause serious long term damage. Leaves may turn brown and die back altogether, and flowers may drop - affecting potential crops and often killing plants completely. Some don't uncurl again though because they are irreversibly damaged.
Heat-damaged main tomato shoot on left with healthy undamaged side-shoot on right to be trained up as replacment main shoot
If you do have permanent heat damage to the tops of some tomato plants - this will become evident very quickly - within a few days or a week at this time of year. The leading shoot on the main stem can be so burnt, deformed and dwarfed that it will never recovers - although the rest of the plant may still be completely healthy. Often a side-shoot below the top will be unaffected by it and can quickly be trained up as an alternative leader - so although you may lose one truss of tomatoes close to the heat damage on the main stem - the rest will grow on fine later on and you won't lose too much cropping time. This is why if I suspect there may be any heat damage because of excessively high temperatures, I always leave one or two side shoots near the top and don't pinch them out until I can choose the strongest which can take over as the new 'leading' shoot. On the plant in the picture here you can clearly see that the original main shoot has become twisted and deformed - and I have left the next healthy-looking side shoot to train up. Some varieties seem to be more sensitive than other - not all seem to suffer as badly every year. This is a delicious small olive green plum/cherry tomato called Green Envy - which seems to be particularly prone to heat damage but is one of my son's favourites. So that's why I grow it - I have top keep the mower happy!
Don't over water tomato plants either - that doesn't help with heat damage - it just rots the roots! Keep the soil just nicely damp - always watering the surrounding area - never directly onto the base of plants - and mulch with grass clippings or comfrey if you can, to keep the roots cool. As I'm always saying - a little extra TLC, observation and attention to detail and you will be richly rewarded by your very grateful plants!
Cucumber 'Burpless Tasty Green' with courgette 'Atena' in side bed late May
It's been such a difficult year for young tomato plants.Wild swings in tunnel temperature from 100degF/40degC during the day to freezing nights. On many recent nights here it was only 2 deg C - at least 6 degrees below the basic minimum required for tomato growth. Only just a couple of weeks ago it was -3 deg C in the tunnels! Even under three layers of fleece the tomatoes were quite literally blue with cold! Since then they've been heat stressed too! I'm amazed they've recovered so well, but they're growing on again now and the weather forecast for the end of this week is for warmer nights. Let's hope so!
Bumble bee pollinating beefsteak tomato, with carrots under fleece behind
My tomatoes are always smothered in small bumble bees as soon as they're flowering - so I think that attracting pollinators is also one of the secrets, and also mulching well to keep the roots just evenly moist and to avoid wild swings in the root temperature which might otherwise stress the plants. It helps to grow flowers close to the tunnel doors on the outside of the tunnels too - a bit like a floral 'runway' or welcome sign to encourage bees to land inside the tunnels! All the tomato varieties are setting nicely now, and I can't wait to show you some of the new ones - they look really exciting - especially the new black varieties which are high in healthy anthocyanin phytochemicals.
As soon as the first complete truss is set on any variety, I start giving them a weekly liquid feed with either a home made comfrey/nettle/borage stew which provides potassium, nitrogen and magnesium - or a proprietary brand like 'Osmo' liquid organic tomato food which I've used for the several years now and found really excellent.You'll find it in most garden centres now and you can also buy it in White's Agri, Ballough Lusk Co. Dublin if you're anywhere near North County Dublin. They are the main importers for Osmo products and have the whole range there. In addition they sell the brilliant Klassman certified organic peat-free compost cheaper than most other places. I think that Osmo certified organic tomato feed is available in the UK - but if it's not available near you - then ask your garden centre to stock it. I find it a really excellent feed for everything both in the ground or in containers. With tomatoes in containers I tend to feed about 3 times a week when they get bigger as they're more dependent. I would never use a non-organic tomato food.
I also make a liquid feed if I only have a small amount of tomatoes, but it's very difficult to make enough for 90 or more plants - if I'm growing for Tomato Festivals!You just can't make it quickly enough! I'm not very scientific about exact amounts as a recipe for a home made liquid feed. I just stuff a large barrel with comfrey, borage and young fresh nettles. The nettles provide the nitrogen that really kick starts the whole breakdown process going, the borage provides magnesium that it's particularly good at extracting from the soil, and the comfrey provides potash. It really smells horrendous when it's really stewing! If you get it on your hands or clothes it's very hard to wash off! The most important thing is to use the comfrey variety Bocking 14 - as that's the one that was selected by the late Lawrence Hills of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now re-named Garden Organic) as being the comfrey that's highest in potash. Other comfreys, including wild ones are far lower in potash. The one rule I use is to wait until it's really broken down and looks a bit like soup - and then dilute to about the colour of a weak herb tea. Don't use it too early as it may either be useless or possibly even burn roots. Wait until it looks like a green really smelly smoothie! I also give them a tonic of worm compost tea occasionally. It's all about keeping an eye on your crops, getting a feel for what they need, and feeding before they start to look hungry, otherwise it can take them a long time to pick up again. Don't overfeed them but let them become starved either - it's all about balance!
To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question! Especially with beefsteak tomatoes!
When it comes to removing side shoots, you obviously don't have to remove the side shoots of bush varieties, or you wouldn't get any fruit!. Most people know that you have to pinch out the little shoots growing in the leaf axils between the leaves and the stem on varieties of cordon or upright tomatoes, but I've never seen any of the 'experts' warning about how some of the continental beefsteaks behavethough- which makes me wonder if they've ever actually grown them!! Those types can be a bit of a law unto themselves - or try to be. You have to be firm and impose your will! I never pinch out the one or two shoots near the top of the stems until I can see a very definite main one which will continue the upward growth. From bitter experience I've found that many of them would really much prefer to be bushes which is their natural habit in the wild, and they will often make two or even three shoots at the very top which all look like leading shoots (very confusing), in which case you have to choose one which looks to be the strongest and most likely to grow on further and flower. Or maybe sometimes none at all - they'll just suddenly produce a flower truss instead, going 'blind' with no growing point at the top, in which case you have to be patient and just wait for another side shoot to begin to grow in a top leaf axil, or somewhere else, as it will do in a week or so, and then train that one up.
Beefsteaks really much prefer hotter, sunnier and drier Mediterranean or continental climate summers, like USA summers generally are, where they can be the bushes they obviously long to be, and sprawl about happily about in the sun doing do their own thing! But in our often dull, damp Irish 'summers' - if you're not strict with them - you can end up with a thoroughly unproductive, disease-ridden, slug eaten mess! Particularly with grafted ones which can be far to vigorous judging from the ones I was sent to trial a few years ago. Those were also tasteless which was a bit pointless really! They should produce four decent trusses at least though, if carefully trained. They do tend to be a bit prima-donna-ish, they ripen a lot later than the smaller tomatoes, but their flavour makes it well worth the trouble once you get the hang of them.
Many articles on growing tomatoes are written by experts living in the South East of England where their summers are so much hotter and drier than ours here or in the South West of the UK, so they don't tend to recommend varieties that are suitable for a damper climate. I've tried lots over the years, but in our damp climate with often poor light, I've found 'Pantano Romanesco' really is always the most reliable. 'Costuloto Fiorentino' and Costuloto Genovese also have a great flavour - but are a bit more disease prone in damp summers, as is Super Marmande. Black Krim and Black Sea Man both have supreme flavour but get every known disease far quicker than anything else in a polytunnel. The newer varieties which are being bred seem to be better behaved and less disease prone - but as they don't have even half the flavour - what's the point?! All tomatoes tend to prefer the much drier atmosphere of a greenhouse. I used to grow them in one every year when we lived nearer to the coast, but then greenhouses have their own unique problems too, those encouraged by a drier atmosphere, and all things being equal polytunnels are far better value for money, as you get a far bigger growing space. If I had oodles of money - I'd have a glasshouse just for tomatoes and aubergines - and polytunnels for everything else!
Reminder - Some 'experts' also fail to tell you that some varieties of tomatoes are actually meant to be bushes - and should NOT have their side shoots removed at all or you won't get any, or very little, fruit! Amazingly - I saw that particular important information being completely ignored on a recent TV programme! I've also seen the recommendation to "remove all side-shoots" a lot on social media lately too. Check your seed packet description of any variety before you start to remove any side shoots!
The small cucumber Restina - seed of which I get from Lidl - is already producing fruit this year, as I sowed it in late Feb - much earlier than normal.It's a delicious gherkin or half-sized cucumber usually grown for pickling - but also scrumptious for eating fresh, with a really good 'old-fashioned' proper flavour! I can never wait for that first cucumber sandwich of the season! Despite the difficult weather - we've been eating baby courgettes and mangetout peas Oregon Sugar Pod from the tunnel for a couple of weeks now, The courgette is a delicious yellow one called 'Atena' (which will crop until Nov.) and later in the month we'll have French beans. I grow a climbing French bean called 'Cobra' which is brilliant in the tunnel - far more reliable than outside. Just one packet of 'Cobra will give you more than enough to eat for weeks on end if you keep them well picked over and watered - and will fill your freezer for the winter as well. It's an incredibly delicious, reliable and productive variety, DIY chain B&Q actually have the seed at half the price of anywhere else.
I don't bother with dwarf beans any more in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same amount of ground space, but only give you a fraction of the crop of the climbing ones - which make use of what I call 'upstairs space' to give you an enormous 'high-rise' crop. I'm sowing another late batch this week which will crop late into the autumn. The great thing about tunnels though is that they mostly protect crops from the worst extremes of the weather and all crops are far more productive under cover. In the winter this is particularly noticeable with hardier crops like chards and kales which could of course be grown outside.
I always plant basil when the chard has been cleared. I freeze masses of it to make lots of our vital 'medicinal' pesto during the winter months! There is a rule in this house which states 'you can never have too much garlic, or basil'! That first whiff of summer basil is wonderfully uplifting, but I must say that years ago when I was growing it commercially, after picking the first sixty foot row of a tunnel full of it, one did begin to feel more than a little nauseous! The aroma from the essential oil can be quite overpowering after a while. I prefer to grow basil on it's own in rows - giving it as much light and air as possible as it can be a bit disease prone in a humid tunnel atmosphere. Grown this way it's much more productive than when grown between tomato plants, which seems to be the fashion, as I see it recommended everywhere. Maybe because they go together on the plate?
Weeds shouldn't be too much of a problem now as crops will be shading them out, and you should also be mulching well, which excludes light, preserves soil moisture, keeps roots cool and encourages worm activity. If you don't mulch at this time of year the ground in the tunnel gets too hot and dry and the worms will disappear down into the lower layers of the soil where they're cooler and more comfortable. You want to keep them in the upper layers, pulling down mulches into the soil and working for you helping to feed your plants! Go round every day if possible pulling out the odd weed before it gets too big and goes to seed, and at the same time see what needs watering. If you're growing a wide variety of crops some may need water every day and others won't. This is why I dislike automatic watering systems - I think they're a complete waste of money! An automatic system can't tell if a plant is waterlogged or too dry! It also can't tell what the weather is going to be later that day! There's no substitute for the personal touch and being observant - that's really all that having so-called 'green fingers' is all about - not mystery! I have a friend who spends far more time fiddling around fixing her automatic system than I ever do with hand watering! It's always getting blocked - and ten to one they invariably let you down when you go away! If you've got room, put a barrel of water in your tunnel or greenhouse, so that you've got ambient temperature water always ready to use rather than chilling things with water from a hose. Water between plants rather than directly onto the roots, and if possible try to water well in the mornings, so that the surface has a chance to dry off before the evening when the doors are closed and the air is still.
Keep ventilating as much as possible now to keep disease at bay. Diseases proliferate in a 'muggy' damp atmosphere. If you've got a tunnel full of cucumbers on the other hand they won't mind! They love to grow in a bathroom atmosphere! Keep the soil moist for them, as the one thing that promotes cucumber powdery mildew more than anything is a damp humid atmosphere combined with dryness at the roots. All the cucurbit family should be growing quickly now, although they're not enjoying the last couple of really cold nights. Keep tying them in to their supports as they can quickly get out of hand. There's also more on planting and training cucumbers and melons, and also my method of planting on mounds to avoid common root rots.in last month's diary.
Carry on mulching!
It's more important than ever to keep mulching at this time of year to keep soil cool, feed worms and other soil life, protect roots from heat stress and prevent moisture loss. I have a lot of grass clippings here from the hen paddocks, orchard and other places, so I use them a lot. My golden rule is always - water plants well before mulching, put the grass clippings on fairly deeply - about 10 cm or more. And also keep them well away from stems - at least 10 - 15cm away - as you can see I've done in the picture here of the Atena courgette plants. (Although courgettes will grow happily outside at this time of year - I always grow them in the polytunnel as we love them, they have a much longer season under cover and will go on producing a useful crop until November.)
Water well with a hose immediately after laying the mulch down to prevent it from heating up and giving off fumes. Follow those rules and you won't have problems, and all plants love a good mulch! In a few days it will have turned brown, knitted together nicely and will also block light and prevent week growth. If you don't have any grass clippings, then perhaps you could beg some from neighbours, who are often glad to get rid of them. But make sure that the grass hasn't been treated with any pesticides, obviously!
Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife
Mini-gardens under peach trees with herbs & flowers attract beneficial insects & bees
You've still got time to sow lots of flowers in your tunnel. You could also leave some of last winter's herbs like coriander and parsley to flower and go to seed, or you could buy some flowers in modules from garden centres as a last resort. If you even have radishes bolting you can leave those too - they have pretty scented flowers that insects love! Insects also love the flowers of coriander and parsley. They definitely help to bring in insects for pollination and pest control, some can brighten up your salads and they look beautiful too. I always leave one or two chicory or endive plants too if I have room on the ends of rows - the flowers are so beautiful and the bees adore them! I've got enough seed to last me ten lifetimes now! I also keep a shallow saucer or tray full of water in the mini gardens somewhere - for the frogs which like to live in the shady damp areas of the tunnel and who are very efficient at eating those nasty damaging little grey slugs!
A More Unusual Polytunnel Crop
Roses surrounding rose petal syrup with kefir ice cream
Talking of flowers - most people think that polytunnels are purely for growing fruit and veg, but I grow quite a few rather more unusual crops in mine! Few people think of roses as being a crop - but they are actually a hugely important commercial crop in countries of the Middle East where they're used a lot in cooking.There, they are used in all manner of sweet and savoury dishes. In English cookery they have also been used for millennia, and in medicines too. I have loved the scent of the old and hybrid perpetual roses since childhood, where I grew up in a garden full of them. Their scent instantly carries me back to those times. Summers then in the English shires were invariably warm and dry, which suited them perfectly. Roses love the warm dry weather which they get in abundance in countries like Turkey - but sadly we don't get Middle Eastern weather here in Ireland. Also climate change is changing weather patterns, and at least 1 in 3 summers now seem to be predominantly wet. Rain ruins the flowers of all roses, turning the petals brown and mushy, and causing the flowers of many of the most beautiful ones into rotting brown balls. So - hence I grow some in the polytunnel, where they are never ruined by rain!
Of course - one of the most important reasons to grow your own organic roses for cooking either inside or out in the garden, is that they are totally safe to eat - whereas those bought from florists will have been sprayed with many toxic pesticides not approved for human consumption - even if you didn't mind eating then! And a recent study of children in flower growing areas showed that children's health is being seriously damaged by such pesticides - so growing your own isn't just better for your health - but better for others too!. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190522162713.htm
The most historic roses which have been traditionally grown in in the middle East for thousands of years are rosa Damascena, r. Centifolia and r. Gallica - but those only flower once in June and July.Probably my favourite of these is the old moss rose Henri Martin - which I call my Turkish Delight rose - for obvious reasons! Because these varieties only flower once though - for many years I've been experimenting with some of the most fragrant,more modern, repeat-flowering types. Grown in large tubs of peat-free compost mixed with some soil - to give the compost a bit more body - roses produce really well if they're regularly fed with a good, high-potash, organic tomato feed.. Even the most difficult and fussy of tender roses, like the exquisitely scented, almost black, hybrid tea rose Guinee, or the incredibly scented older roses Emporeur du Maroc and Souvenir du Dr. Jamain, all love polytunnel life. They repeat-flower well, and their flowers are never ruined by rain. I tried for years to grow Guinee outside, but it struggled miserably and I almost gave up. But a couple of years ago I dug it up, planted it in a large tub, told it in no uncertain terms that this really was it's last chance - and since then it hasn't looked back! Some of the newer types of repeat-flowering 'English' roses, bred by the late David Austin, are also excellent. Among the darkest of those with a good scent are Falstaff, Munstead Wood, Othello and Shakespeare, and Young Lycidas is a very well-scented deep pink one.
I tend to favour the really darkest maroon, or deep crimson-coloured kinds because they seem to make the strongest tasting syrup with a really rich dark colour, but occasionally I include lighter ones too, if they have a really good scent. If you make rose water from all pink roses, it tends to be brownish in colour. Rose water syrup is delicious poured over meringues or kefir ice cream, and lifts raspberries which are marinated in it into another dimension altogether! O pick the blooms early to mid-morning, after any moisture has gone from the petals, but before the scent starts to evaporate in the warmth of the polytunnel. They can be stored for 2-3 days in a box in the fridge if you don't have enough at the time for a recipe.
When making any kind of rose syrup the one thing you must remember is to cut off the white base of the rose petals as this has a bitter taste. The easiest and quickest way to do this is just to gather the whole bloom tightly in your left hand, pull off the stalk and sepals, and then cut off the whole base of the rose with sharp scissors. Pick out any bits of stamens you see after the petals have fallen into the bowl, as these can also be bitter. This may seem fiddly - but believe me once you have tasted the results - it's well worth it!
It is said that scent is the first sense which we develop, and the last one that we lose. If that's so - then the last scent I would want to experience would be roses. They bring back so many memories for me. The hybrid perpetual rose Ophelia was the first flower that I remember noticing the scent of, in the lovely garden where I grew up. I grow it here to remind me of that beautiful garden now long since gone - but still there in my memory. And my father always called me Rosebud when I was young. That's the wonderful thing about gardens - we're never really alone while we still have such memories.
We're never truly alone in a garden...
In summer, my favourite time of the day in the garden is late evenings, when as dusk falls every sense seems magnified - especially scent. In the slowly decreasing crepuscular light there is a magical stillness where you can hear a leaf drop. Standing still you can almost feel and hear everything growing.There's a tangible atmosphere. One feels some sort of 'vibe' or energy - a definite feeling that one is not quite alone and that the garden has a soul of it's own - or 'Genius Loci'. That feeling is noticeable even in the polytunnels, where the plants are growing urgently. I'm not the only person who feels this - many sensitive gardeners do - and I think to be a good gardener you have to be a sensitive person. I remember the wonderful old Harry Dodson saying the same thing in that lovely TV series the Victorian Kitchen Garden many years ago. At the time he said that some people might think him fanciful - but I didn't - that feeling is definitely there. He said that he felt it most particularly when shutting up his greenhouses at night - and I know what he meant - I feel it too. It's a strange sensation that's impossible to put into words. I think poets were often better at expressing this intangible but very definite 'something'. Yeats's line from his beautiful poem The Lake Isle of Inisfree always springs to mind......."Where peace comes dropping slow......."... I'm certainly at peace in my polytunnels in the evening - surrounded by all the quietly growing plants and with the company of all the bees and birds - just as Nature meant us to be. One can forget for a while the many cares of this world when surrounded by so much wonderfully abundant biodiversity. But I never forget that I'm just a tiny part of this intricately beautiful picture - and that I exist purely thanks to all the rest of Nature....... It's a very humbling thought.
What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?
"It is a wise man who knows what he doesn't know" - is an ancient saying that often comes to mind when confronted by the often mind-boggling stupidity of some scientists - especially some on social media! I believe their often narrow and blindfolded view is actually a hindrance to the furtherance of our knowledge of the natural world. Science is beginning to discover so many amazing things about plants which we were not aware of before. Far from demystifying them - for me it makes them even more fascinating. It's now proving that plants can react to outside influences far more than we previously thought and that they can even communicate with each other - both above and below ground. They can talk to each other too - in a molecular language - by giving off chemical signals to warn each other of threats when another nearby plant is attacked by pests, or damaged in some way. Science is even showing how plants may be aware of our presence too - but because we humans are conditioned to expect all other species to react to outside stimuli exactly as we do - we are incapable of recognising that they react - but in different ways to us.
There is still so much more that we don't know about plants and how they live their lives, interacting with everything else in their environment.To see the dark, early morning picture of the Rosada tomato plants above - desperately seeking comfort and shade by leaning towards each other and almost hugging last week, reminded me horribly of so many of the pictures of the many terrified animal species which we saw during the Australian bush fires that seem ages ago now - but which in reality were so very recent. Those images still haunt me. (Later on I talk about heat damage in tomatoes and how to deal with it.) But those Rosada plants were a reminder to me that we must never take a purely mechanistic view of Nature, especially plants, if we want to understand them better. We need to listen to them more and learn their language - only then will we truly understand these miracles of Nature, that we totally depend upon for our healthy existence, within the interconnected web of life which we are part of on this fragile planet. There is still so much left to discover - so many mysteries to be unravelled - and how exciting it all is! Will we ever know it all? I doubt it.
Many scientists tend to reduce Nature and the food we eat to purely the sum of it's currently-known chemical constituents - but it is so much more than just that. They give all the various components of foods names and values, placing them into the context within which they believe they belong, given their still limited knowledge. Many of us trust that they are all-knowing......but they aren't.... and never can be. Every new scientific discovery shows us very clearly that scientists don't know it all. They're often only guessing at how all the many and complex natural components of foods - some of which they still don't even know exist - interact within our bodies. That is, until the next 'eureka moment' that reveals a little more of how Nature works. Even something as seemingly simple as water has properties that react in our bodies in ways that are still, as yet, little understood.
One of my most constantly inspirational heroes - the curious, incredibly brave and brilliant Nobel physicist Richard Feynman put it this way - "There is a difference between knowing the name of something and truly understanding it". How very true! The more we know - the more that the wiser among us realise that there is a huge amount that we still don't know! Those who try to convince us that GMOs are totally safe are purely motivated by short-term commercial greed and by owning the patent on their particular method of genetic engineering. They cannot in all honesty assure us that they are safe - when they still don't even understand fully how organisms such as bacteria or viruses, for instance, can interact with each other within their natural environment! They didn't predict the development of Glyphosate-resistance in weeds did they, for instance?
Nature has a way of behaving in unpredictable ways and making fools of arrogant scientists who think they know everything! Remember that they are performing their experiments in laboratories. If you take bacteria or other organisms out of their natural environment, cultivate them in an agar or some other nutrient solution in a Petri dish and then study them under a microscope - they are most definitely NOT in their natural environment! As my scientist son says - Heisenberg's Principle - "that the very nature of laboratory experiments fundamentally changes the way things behave" - particularly applies to natural organisms. This is one of the first things that all student scientists should learn. They are often limited by the ignorance of their tutors though. A bit more humility in many scientists wouldn't go astray - rather than arrogance and plain old naked greed!
Nature has given us an innate early warning system which we have termed 'gut feeling' and this is often far more reliable than the prevailing scientific opinion of the day - if we are prepared to listen to it. That 'gut feeling is now an established fact! That's why I grow organically - because I've known in my gut for over 40 years now that it is the only way to grow the truly healthy real food which our bodies need. It's perfectly simple! Any scientist worth their salt should have the common sense to know that the way that nature evolved us to eat has to be the only healthy way for us to eat. It is a pity so few have the honesty to admit it!! Every time one Googles anything about GMOs, pesticides or food these days, one is assaulted by a plethora of different articles by seemingly independent journalists - but which in reality are often paid for by the vested interests of the multinational chemical companies or huge food corporations. These first websites that come up in searches are all trying to convince us that those of us who question if their products are safe are a lot of ignorant Luddites or 'alternative' green idiots who know nothing - and that their 'true' science is all-knowing! They try to convince us that what they are doing is genuinely trying to feed the world - when actually they're only interested in profit - no matter what the cost to people, biodiversity or the planet!
I had an incidence of this recently on Twitter - when an arrogant Professor of 'Bioinformatics' actually labelled me an 'Organic Crank"for saying that the best way to boost our immunity is to eat a healthy diet - something which is now a widely established scientific fact! (For those who are wondering - "Bioinformatics is the collection, classification, storage and analysis of biochemical and biological information using computers - especially as applied to molecular genetics and genomics" according to Wikipedia!)... Of course - we all know that computers are only as good as those programming them! They are a man-made phenomenon which can't understand or decode Nature!.... And neither seemingly can many university professors - who seem totally isolated and disconnected from the Nature which we actually evolved to live in and depend on to survive! They seem totally oblivious to the fact that the genetically engineered organisms they create may have unintended effects on the natural world, which doesn't always react with the predictability they taek for granted according to their limited knowledge, and that almost none of the GMO crops they produce by inserting viruses and bacteria into their DNA have ever been tested in human trials to discover if there are any unintended effects!
The only way to sustainably and safely feed a growing global population is to restore and enhance the vital soil health which agricultural chemicals have been systematically destroying for the last many decades, since the advent of agricultural chemicals! Chemicals don't feed the vital soil life which we depend on not just to produce healthy food but also to mitigate the currently disastrously accelerating climate change.
I'd better stop now - but I could go on ranting about this forever! Are people really so brainwashed by all the stuff online denying climate change and telling us that chemicals and GMOs are perfectly harmless - that they have lost all ability to reason, think for themselves and even use basic common sense? Or are they simply selfish and just don't want to face reality?
I know that like me you want hope - not gloom! And do you know what? There IS something every single one of us can do. We CAN fight for Nature in our own plots - whether those plots are just a window box or an acre! I started off here 37 years ago in a silent, barren-lookomg field with no birds or bees anywhere. Now, despite being an island in the middle of otherwise intensively farmed land, I have a beautiful Nature- filled space that echoes with birdsong all day long - and that includes the polytunnel as you can see from the picture at the top which I took yesterday. Those growers with row upon row of sterile-looking crops (even some organic ones) who don't do everything they can to encourage Nature, are actually missing the point! They're only focusing selfishly on what they are getting out of it for themselves! Some never even mention Nature - but we CAN all make a difference to the future and to vital biodiversity....... and we CAN DO IT together!
Itgives me so much pleasure to walk into my tunnels at this time of year and to anticipate the delights of all the wonderful crops to come - all the while knowing that I haven't poisoned or damaged anything else in order to do it!It's really so much more satisfying to grow your own food while at the same time encouraging and helping nature too. If you look after Nature - it will look after you. We often tend to forget that we're only a small part of Nature's bigger picture too. If we poison this lovely planet that we all call home - we will be leaving a terrible and painful legacy for our children.
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on doing that, then there's nothing you can do about it." .......... (A great piece of advice I was given many years ago)
'Alvaro' is a fantastic melon which gave me my best polytunnel crop ever!
'Restina' mini-cucumber is a fantastic cropper- the perfect size for pickling
Sorry to mention this - but although it's not quite midsummer - it's now time to think ahead to what crops you will want to grow over the winter, in the polytunnel or outside, and buy the seeds now if you haven't done so already! If you don't,they may disappear off the shelves, when garden centres re-organise their stock for the autumn season which they tend to do before the end of June. Online seed companies may also be sold out of popular varieties by then.
Sow in gentle warmth in pots or modules for late summer tunnel/greenhouse cropping:
There's still time to sow French beans (dwarf and climbing), edamame (soy) beans, sweet corn, courgettes, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can also still sow cucumbers & gherkins (Restina is an excellent half-sized variety for pickling or salads) for late summer and early autumn cropping, also calabrese/Italian broccoli (Green Magic is good) and self-blanching celery for later autumn crops.
Shade propagators and areas where you have young seedlings well from strong sun at all times now and make sure to turn off the propagators during the day, if it's warm enough. The temperature can rise dramatically in greenhouses and tunnels at this time of year, and if it's too hot - things can quite literally cook! Also remember to fill up spaces between plants in propagators with some fort of insulation like bubble wrap. This stops bare areas losing heat, stops overheating and also prevent energy waste. I save even tiny pieces of bubble wrap that come in any packaging for this use.
Although in theory you could sow everything outside now - the nights can still be quite chilly, so it's still worth sowing tender crops like French and runner beans, sweetcorn, basil, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squashes in pots or modules in a greenhouse, tunnel or propagator for planting outside in 2 - 3 weeks. These need reliable warmth and will germinate far more quickly undercover - often in 2-3 days - making them at least a week to to 10 days earlier than anything you might sow now outside. In addition, if the weather turns very wet - seeds can rot. Sowing in modules also avoids potential losses through slug damage, leather jackets and other pests - and it helps you to make better use of valuable growing space.
Sow some quick growing annuals now directly into the tunnel soil in odd corners and also among crops to attract bees, hoverflies and other beneficial insectswhich will help control pests and provide pollination. These and other flowers in return provide the insects with vital pollen and nectar.
It's also it's time to start to thinking about the slower developing winter tunnel crops. Self-blanching celery for winter tunnel cropping needs to be sown in cool conditions around mid - late June, for tunnel planting later, as it is quite slow to germinate, and is a slow developer at first.
Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:
Amaranth (callaloo), beetroot, carrots, cabbages (leafy non-hearting and late stone head types), peas (early varieties such as Kelvedon Wonder from now to ensure cropping before early autumn frosts), calabrese and 'tenderstem' broccoli, courgettes & marrows, 'Witloof' chicory (for winter forcing), endives, salad onions, Florence fennel, French and runner beans, leeks (an early var. for baby leeks), land cress, lettuces, perilla, orach, kohl rabi, kales (early June for winter cropping), radishes, rocket, Swiss chards, spinach, summer squashes, sweet corn, white turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, soft herbs such as basil, oregano, parsley, coriander, dill, fennel etc. and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel.
Also sow some single, fast growing, annual flowers to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination. Plants like limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, buckwheat, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc.
Sow fast-growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) and phacelia, to improve the soil, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that won't be used for 6 weeks or more, or which needs improving. Red clover, buckwheat and phacelia in particular are also great for bees! (You can 'bulk buy' buckwheat seed very cheaply from your local health food shop - just don't get 'roasted' buckwheat - it obviously won't germinate!!)
In warm, well-drained soils outside, tubers of oca, mashua, sweet potatoes and yacon can all be planted now
(Although all of these will produce a better crop in a tunnel, particularly in Ireland, as they like warm soil, bulk up late, and are vulnerable to autumn frosts. They also prefer well-drained conditions)With yacon - you plant the small baby 'growing' tubers that cluster round the stem area at the top of the larger tubers. These all need a long growing season as they only begin forming their tubers in late autumn - in colder frost prone areas growing them in a greenhouse or tunnel is the best way to get a reliable crop, but be aware that Yacon in particular needs a lot of space!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
May topics: Scrap the Supplements - Growing your own Greens is Growing your own Medicine!... A Delicate subject for some? - HLA, a wasted source of Fertility.... Golden rule number one in life - always be flexible!.... Golden rule number two - It pays to be flexible at a moment's notice in the garden too!.... The many advantages of 'raised', 'deep' or 'lazy' beds. Protecting early potatoes and other crops with fleece. Feeding your compost heap! Planting out tender crops in late May. Other jobs for May.
Broccoli Nine Star Perennial is delicious but looks almost too beautiful to eat!
Scrap the Supplements - Growing your own Greens is Growing your own Medicine!
Good news for those of us who grow their own vegetables! Researchers in Denmark studied data from over 50,000 people over a period of 23 years, and found that by eating just one cup (that's only 30 grams!) of any leafy greens or nitrate-rich vegetable every day, they significantly lowered their blood pressure and also their risk of heart disease many years later by 12-26%.Given that cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of deaths globally, killing almost 18 million people a year it's great to know that even if you're a salad-phobe - an incredibly small amount, which you could quite easily put in a tasty smoothie and not even taste, can make a huge difference to your health! As far as just heart disease goes - they didn't find any benefits from eating more, but our gut will undoubtedly thank us. And if we fill up on the huge range of easy to grow greens like spinach, salad greens, chards, watercress, and beetroot etc - it can make meals much cheaper - so then we can afford to splash out on some really good organic meat to go with them.
Here we always have so many veg with our meals that we often need side plates for them - especially in summer, when it's hard to know what to choose because there's so much choice of what to eat! In addition - those of us who grow rather than buy their veg are eating them far fresher, not chlorine-washed and not packed in planet-polluting plastic! What better reason could you possibly have to grow your own greens? It's a no-brainer when they're not just so easy to grow - even for beginners - but it's also an enormously satisfying and rewarding thing to do - so it's good for our mental health too! Essentially - it's growing our own health and saving money at the same time! If you don't have a garden - even just a large tub could easily provide far more than 30 grams a day of some type of healthy organic greens - that's a ridiculously tiny amount! It proves once again the incredible power of food as medicine for both mind and body!
If you'd like to read the study - here's the link to it:
A Delicate subject for some? - HLA, a wasted source of Fertility
Recently on Twitter I saw that there had been a question posed on BBC Gardener's Question Time (which I listen to rarely - only about once a year) about whether or not you could use human urine on plants.I was somewhat surprised that none of the experts answering the questions had the definitive answer to this. Having been an organic gardener for over 40 years, and huge fan of the late, great Lawrence Hills, I was aware that he endorsed the use of what he euphemistically termed - 'HLA, or Household Liquid Activator' (a mixture of 2 parts water to one part urine) as one of the very best fertilisers for a comfrey bed, or activator for the compost heap, and a resource otherwise wasted and lost to sewage treatment plants. Lawrence said that HLA could provide both potash and nitrogen to comfrey - and that in effect, using HLA on a comfrey bed was a good method of exchanging crude nitrogen for a balanced organic fertiliser.
For the life of me I've never been able to fathom why people are seemingly quite happy to use municipal green waste, containing heaven knows what chemicals from multiple unknown sources, or non-organic manure containing straw undoubtedly treated with Glyphosate and other seriously toxic chemicals - when they are squeamish about conserving a precious resource which they are producing themselves daily and which costs absolutely nothing! The same applies to chicken manure pellets - which are a by-product of inhumane, intensive factory farming - despite the makers currently claiming that they are organic! These again undoubtedly contain combinations of many chemicals, including the by-products of the genetically-modified feeds which all conventional, non-organic laying hens and chickens are fed, and quite possibly even antibiotic-resistant bacteria! I'm appalled at how many people use them who otherwise would consider themselves to be dedicated organic gardeners and supporters of animal welfare - when by using chicken manure pellets they are in fact helping incredibly cruel factory farming to dispose of and profit hugely from selling this by-product!
To get back to HLA - you can in fact use it directly on a comfrey bed in the recommended dilution, and you can also use fresh poultry droppings, which is very useful for me since as I'm now partially disabled and can no longer do the heavy work of barrowing loads of fresh manure to compost heaps and then barrow the resulting compost out onto beds. As I say later, being flexible and adapting to your current circumstances is vital if you want to continue growing your own food. And I refuse to let anything stop me from doing that! So I don't have large compost heaps any more, which need turning. Instead I make worm compost, which takes all of my kitchen waste and makes far more nutritious compost, so I need far smaller amounts when using it. A good bucketful of worm compost will do the same job as almost barrow full of normal compost, when combined with mulching crops as well. Using green mulches like grass clippings between rows of crops also keeps down weeds, keeps the soil cool, stops moisture evaporating and feeds worms and other important soil life. I also have a smallish compost bin in one of my tunnels which works relatively fast because it's warmer, and that takes any soft green waste which the hens don't eat and which I don't have room for in the worm bins. - So there's your answer. You can use it if you want to - it's up to you!
(I was lucky enough to meet my hero, the inspirational Lawrence Hills in the 1980s, and was later honoured to be asked to sculpt a bronze portrait of him which now resides in the headquarters of Garden Organic (the organisation formerly known as the HDRA - which he founded)
Golden rule number one in life - always be flexible!
I'm a bit behind with the work here again due to ongoing problems with the ankle I broke badly in March 2019, so very little has been done outside in the kitchen garden so far this spring, apart from some clearing of the encroaching brambles close to the edge of one of the raised beds by my wonderful son, so that I can at least grow some salads outside. Salads don't grow well in the tunnel at this time of year as it's far too hot, and the precious space is needed for other crops like tomatoes too.The intended surgery to hopefully fix my ankle problems has had to be postponed due to COVID-19, and I'm not currently sure exactly when it will happen now. Ideally this autumn would be good, when there's not too much happening in the garden - but everything is up in the air right now, as you will all know. As it will necessitate 10 weeks minimum in plaster, before I can stand on it at all - I really don't want to put it off until next spring. But like so many of you - I can't make any plans now, so I just do what I can on the good days which I'm very grateful for - and I write on the bad ones when I can't stand for very long!
Otherwise, I've been concentrating mostly on the polytunnels, as I find those so much easier to manage when I'm unable to walk far or carry heavy weights. Much of my polytunnel cultivation is done from a stool! I'm thinking of sowing some green manures on some of the raised beds in the kitchen garden in a couple of week's time if I can, other than planting one of the raised beds with salads and calabrese, which I already have plenty of seedlings coming on for, and also getting in some winter veg such as leeks and purple sprouting broccoli. Salads are the most important things to grow, as they need to be eaten really fresh and it's impossible to buy a good variety of them. The potatoes I have in the polytunnels - in the ground and in pots - should last me until the autumn, as we don't eat that many. It's too late to plant more potatoes now if you want to avoid spraying for blight.. Later on in early August as usual, I shall plant a late crop of potatoes in pots to crop at Christmas and just before. I start off all my potatoes in pots now to get them growing earlier, to avoid early blight, which means that I can always be flexible, and if they don't get planted for whatever reason - it means that I don't lose my precious home-saved seed tubers, many of which varieties are either extremely rare and not available online - or that I will no longer be able to order from the UK after Brexit.
Thinking sideways, adapting to circumstances and flexibility are definitely things one needs to be able to do when life throws challenges in the way!
As you know - I usually just stick to blogging about gardening - not about more personal stuff as many people do -but I'm sure that some of you know by now that I'm partially disabled due to progressive degenerative disc disease, and also having from two arms that only half work due to various accidents over the years (and there's a dodgy ankle and knee to add to that list now! Ha!!) I don't like to moan about my difficulties - but sometimes I think perhaps it's actually a good thing to show people that I'm not Superwoman, much as I would like to be! So often people say to me - oh it's alright for you - but I couldn't because of X, Y, or Z reasons. So many times I hear things like - "I have a bad back/depression/am unfit/don't have space/time etc etc"... ..Believe me - just like anyone else - I can sometimes feel like just sitting on the sofa, reading a good book (in my case recipe books!) and stuffing my face with cake! But I don't - because I know that if I can drag myself up and make the effort, even if at times it's quite painful, I will always feel so much better for having made the effort to do it, both mentally and physically - because doing it makes me feel more positive and decisive, and less hopeless, and as any physiotherapist will tell you - much of the pain associated with arthritis and other skeletal issues is actually caused by stiffness - which will normally lessen a bit with gentle exercise.
I like proving that if you really want to grow your own food you can - no matter what your problems! As long as you have a patch of ground or a few containers, you can always find some way to overcome your problems if you really want to. That's as long as you can at least sit or stand upright! A great friend of mine was recently diagnosed with MS and can barely walk - but loves growing her own food - so her son has collected a few bathtubs that were about to be thrown out off building sites and made her a very idiosyncratic container garden! As at the moment standing upright holding onto a walking frame is often just about all I can do until my ankle is better - I've decided to experiment with a few more methods of disabled gardening, and gardening in small spaces or with physical difficulties. This is something which I did a lot years ago after spinal surgery, while living in a house with a tiny garden so it's nothing new to me - although I now have lots of new ideas with more experience. It really keeps my spirits up to be able to pick even a small amount of healthy salad or other veg that I've grown myself.
I'm seeing so many people complaining on social media about feeling depressed - especially now with the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, and wish I could show them all that it's so much better to focus on what you CAN do - not what you CAN'T! I also see many folk saying that they need cake or wine to cheer themselves up. Frankly - both are the last thing they need - especially right now when we need to be eating as healthily as possible - and I speak from experience! Cake is full of sugar which gives you an instant high but then makes you feel even more depressed not long after you've eaten it. And wine does exactly the same if you're drinking too much it on a regular basis! Both are nice occasionally - but not as a regular salve for one's moods. Gardening is one of the best ways to cure depression - with many positive benefits for mental and physical health - so it's far better than trying to give your mood a temporary lift with junk food or alcohol. Even if you don't have a garden - or don't want to try gardening - just going for a walk in the countryside, breathing fresh air and at the same time inhaling the magic Mycobacterium vaccae being released from the soil into the air, is proven to stimulate serotonin production in the brain and lift our mood....then try having a glass of kefir which is full of 'good mood'-making, probiotic microbes after you've finished your activity! It works every time - I totally guarantee it!
More than ever this year in particular - I feel so blessed that I have my garden. I simply couldn't live without it. Not just because it grows so much wonderful produce which I couldn't possibly buy in shops even in a normal year if I wanted to - but this year it's been a real life-saver, and we've been so grateful for all the healthy, fresh produce. It's also my therapy, my sanctuary from the world and solace for any troubles. Although I have to admit there have been many days in the past when I really had to push myself to get out of the house and do something in the polytunnel - even if some days it was just sitting and planning, because I was in too much pain to do anything else. Even when when the weather is bad I can gently work in my polytunnel, but if I don't feel like it - then I can just sit feeling the blessing of the gentle early morning sun on my face and listen to the bumblebees buzzing happily while they enjoy the flowers and the birds singing their hearts out! Over the years I've had a couple of occasions when I stared possible paralysis, or even death, in the face - but believe me it's so good to be alive, upright and out in the garden on a spring day! I always feel so much better after being out there doing something positive - no matter how small it is.
It's truly wonderful to get your hands into the warm, vitally alive soil - literally 'plugging-into' the earth's energy. I believe that it's a primal human need in all of us to have even a small patch of earth to connect with, to cultivate and to grow some food.It's a deep, visceral instinct which man has had since time immemorial. Despite our seeming 'modernity' - the effects of many thousands of years of evolution and survival can't be erased in what is relatively just a few decades. There is no doubt that humans are much healthier both mentally and physically if they have close contact with the earth and can eat food which has grown naturally in it. Healthy food doesn't grow without a healthy soil. Growing healthy food for our families is one of the most basic and satisfying things we can do - and no matter what happens I shall go on gardening! - I hope you will too.
Golden Rule number two - It pays to be flexible at a moment's notice in the garden now too!
Once we thought that gardening rules would always be the same for ever - but our seasons are less reliable and predictable now. It pays to make sure that you've got plenty of fleeces available to cover vulnerable tender plants when necessary.Take care over the next few days - as frosts can still occur unexpectedly when the skies clear late at night. Temperatures have been plummeting here at night to -8 deg C on some nights. The potatoes in pots will have to be fleeced every night now as they're up about 12 inches or more in some cases and it's not worth taking the risk of losing them. May weather can often see-saw back and forth between baking hot summer-like days and freezing cold wintry nights - so it's not a good time for a gardener to be away from the garden for very long if you grow all your own food!! I'm constantly obsessing about the weather in May and ready to run out with fleece at the slightest hint of a frost! But it really does pay off if one takes that extra bit of care - even if some evenings it's really the last thing you feel like doing, after a long hard day! I console myself with the thought of all the delicious crops to come - many of which will see us through all of next winter and beyond. Most of the crops that I grow I could never buy in the shops even if I wanted to - especially grown organically - and I wouldn't dream of eating anything else but organic!
If you're already panicking and feeling a bit behind with the work - then don't worry - so am I But there's still plenty of time to catch up this month. Pretty much everything can still be sown, especially things like French beans, pumpkins and squashes - which develop very fast and hate to be held up and get pot bound. I often find my May sowings actually do far better than earlier ones, specifically for that reason. Don't forget though - that if you use fleeces - take them off during the day and dry them out if possible - because wet fleece is worse than no fleece and offers no protection at all. The weight of it can do a lot of damage too - especially if it gets frozen to the plants. A good way to prevent this and also stop pigeons eating stuff is to suspend netting over the plants first, and then that will support the fleece too - which can be pegged securely to it with clothes pegs - especially worth doing if you live somewhere windy like I do! A lot of trouble some may think? But when I taste the wonderful early veg that I can't buy anywhere else - then believe me it's well-worth every bit of effort!
In the past, before climate change began, our weather seemed to be a little more predictable - but just as in other areas of life - there's no point thinking about the past except to learn from it and to be prepared for anything!We have to deal with the here and now - gardeners now have to think 'on the hoof' and be practical. We're going to have to be a lot more flexible with our gardening in the future, be adaptable and find new ways of doing many things - responding and adapting to the unreliable and fickle weather from week to week. You can pretty much throw the all old gardening advice books out of the window - that is when it comes to advice about exactly when and precisely how to do things. Flexibility is the key from now on. I've never slavishly followed the rule books anyway, being something of a rebel! I always asked 'why'? I read all the basic advice I could in my early days of gardening and then adapted it to my organic way of doing things and also to my particular local climate. That flexibility is vital, is something I've learnt from many years of practical experience in various changing gardening situations and locations. I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
Basic requirements like the need for proper rotations will never change though - in fact they will become even more necessary and relevant to how we can best utilise our precious soils in the future. I find that so many of the new self-declared 'experts' these days are spouting advice obviously taken directly from often outdated books and not gained from their own practical experience. In so many cases that advice is just not relevant any more.Everything is changing now - and so must we - if we want to keep producing enough good, healthy food for ourselves.This year - with unexpected droughts, violent storms and floods happening once again all over the entire planet, and the shortages caused by panic buying, lack of farm workers to harvest crops, and the additional pressures on food chains due to the global pandemic - it is predicted that food prices may rise even more. And heaven knows what effects Brexit will have on food prices when it happens, both here and in the UK! So it's never been more important to grow our own food - and to do it organically - which is sustainable and helps to mitigate climate change - rather than accelerating it as conventional chemical farming does!
After a very dry spring here again, with only a couple of hours rain in weeks now - later on in the year we may well have to cope with an even worse drought again than last year - but organic soils are much more resistant to the stresses of extreme weather conditions due to their high humus content, so they always tend to cope much better. The humus which organic soils contain acts as a buffer almost like a sponge - absorbing water and cushioning plant roots against extremes of both floods and drought. Humus also fixes carbon in the soil which helps to offset climate change. In areas where soils have been degraded and topsoil lost through many years of chemical farming, rainfall just runs off the compacted dead mineral dust that passes for soil - causing flooding, instead of soaking into the humus-rich, moisture retentive sponge that a good organic soil should be. All plants grow far more healthily, withstand stress far better and are more naturally disease-resistant in a living, well-nurtured and properly structured, organic soil.
The many advantages of 'raised', 'deep' or 'lazy' (aka no-dig) beds
Potatoes mulched with grass clippings in one of the newer raised beds
Every spring I am so grateful for my raised beds. I've grown in raised or 'deep' beds for over 39 years now. That's the basis on which I originally planned the whole vegetable garden here- as I lay in my hospital bed after spinal surgery and later for a few months at home, unable to walk after a bad fall from a horse. I already knew then that gardening in the conventional way, on the flat was going to be completely out of the question for me in the future, if I could do it at all.
On re-reading my treasured collection of old Soil Association 'Mother Earth' magazines going back to the late 1930s, I found that there were some very interesting results from so-called 'no-dig' growing then - especially on lighter soils. No dig isn't a new concept - contrary to what many think. Others were growing in 'raised' or 'deep beds' or even 'lazy beds' as they are called here in Ireland. So I decided to combine all three methods of growing to suit my capabilities when I stared my kitchen garden here - by making 'raised/no-dig/lazy beds'! Planning the garden gave me hope and kept me going at what was one of the very lowest times in my life. I've never regretted the work of making them. Originally they were just made by simply throwing the soil up from the paths to give more depth and drainage and afterwards mulched - just as the old 'lazy beds' were made for growing potatoes, in pre-famine days, in the West of Ireland. Luckily I had some help do that hard job in those days - and until my relative fitness returned, all I had to do was to mulch and plant! The beds were not made by lashing on tons of bought in non-organic manure or mushroom compost as some 'No dig' proponents advise - which can bring it's own problems with contaminants etc, - but their fertility evolved - building up gradually and naturally over time.
After over 30 years of mulching, green manuring and adding as much home-made compost as possible - they've become so raised that they're more than double the height they were when I started. It's only rarely now that I have to do any gardening on the flat - when planting trees for instance - and when I do I am so thankful for my raised beds and so is my back!! The beds are so much easier to work, and are an absolute godsend now that I'm partially disabled with one half-working arm since I broke my right shoulder very badly over 3 years ago. When I was growing commercially, I used to have 12 un-dug, raised or 'deep' beds, roughly 10m/30 feet long and 1.3 m/4 feet wide. I made the raised deep (or no dig) beds about 4 ft/1.3 m or less wide so that I could reach comfortably to the middle from both sides. On a 4 ft bed I can just plant 3 rows of potatoes across - then space them out a bit more along the length of the bed - about 2 ft/60 cm apart down the bed or 90 cm/3 ft for main crops. That works very well for me. Now I've cut down and am planning to have only the 6 closest to the house. I'm gradually raising all of these even higher using planks, so that I shall always be able to grow my own veg - even if I have to just sit on a chair. I have no intention of ever giving up veg growing! The other half of the old deep beds will gradually be planted with even more fruit so hopefully will then be far less labour-intensive - but still very productive. That will still give us plenty of room for vegetable growing along with the tunnels, which I find much easier to manage. The tunnels are always workable no matter what the weather conditions outside, in our often very wet climate. I also have to take into account that the family around the table is often smaller at times now too - so I don't need quite as much.
My new, higher level raised beds were made with planks treated with an organic wood preservative (very important where you're growing food) and filled with soil dug from the wildlife pond which I created a few years ago at the bottom of the wildlife meadow. Although unfortunately I couldn't persuade the chap who dug the pond to separate and sort the soil into topsoil and subsoil, I've found over the years that by using compost, green manures, organic mulches, cover crops and proper rotations to create humus and encourage beneficial microbial life, it only takes about 3 or 4 years to convert even the very worst of soil into a really nice medium to grow plants in, which never has to be dug. At the very most it's lightly forked if necessary to remove root crops. I can use my fingers to plant small modules and a small trowel to plant bigger modules of things like cabbage plants.
You DON'T need tons of compost or manure! In fact it's counter productive as it encourages pests like aphids, because it's like junk food for plants and very little better than force-feeding with chemical fertilisers! It's far better to encourage and work with nature and to do things gradually, allowing all the microbes and soil life to develop in nature's own time, if you want to grow really healthy and nutritious crops. If you pile on the tons of nitrogen-rich manure advocated by some - firstly there's potential for massive run-off and pollution of groundwater in our increasingly wet climate. Secondly, any excess nutrients that don't run off are taken up by plants, promoting soft sappy growth which is far more vulnerable to pests and diseases in exactly the same way as artificially-fed crops.
Overfed plants are just like overfed people - unhealthy! In addition, quite apart from the fact that it's virtually impossible to find an organic farmer with manure for sale - as I've already said, any non-organic you buy will contain many pesticides, weedkillers and antibiotic residues which are extremely damaging to all soil life. I'm planning to gradually convert all my old deep beds in my now downsized vegetable garden into higher level beds over the next couple of years, using my sub/topsoil mix and proper organic methods of gradual soil improvement the way Nature does it. No 'quick-fix' methods for me - because that's not Nature's way!
If you haven't yet seen it - here's the video of the talk I gave in December 2016 at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, for the Irish Launch of the 'European People for Soil' campaign. It was entitled 'There is life after soil abuse'. In my talk I showed how I gradually restored the natural health of my badly degraded soil here using organic methods: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0&feature=youtu.be
Protecting early potatoes and other crops with fleece
The most vulnerable things that really need to be looked after outside now are the sappy new shoots of potato plants - they can't stand even the slightest whiff of frost or they'll turn to black mush, so they must be covered with fleece if frost threatens. Some of the early varieties already have flower buds at this time of year if planting from pots has been delayed - but I don't worry about that, as long as they're watered and fed if necessary they'll grow on and be fine. They'll be ready after the tunnel potatoes are finished which I usually start off in pots in January. I start all of my potatoes off in pots these days, in order to both get far earlier crops and to avoid blight and spraying - even with organic sprays such as copper. I am astonished about how inflexible some people are - they are amazed that I would go to such trouble for potatoes - which have always been planted a certain way! Yet they would think absolutely nothing of starting off half-hardy plants like bedding plants or bulbs that way! And you can't even eat those!! We live in a particularly blight-prone area here - with farmers often not bothering to lift blighted crops, just ploughing them back into the ground if the price is too low and they're not worth selling - which means that we can often get blight very early.
I always make sure I have at least two lots of fleece to cover each of my beds, just to be on the safe side. The fleece comes very cheaply on a big roll so I can conveniently cut off exactly what I need to cover everything securely. I get a huge roll every few years from our local farm supply shop - it's massively cheaper to buy it that way than in small pieces from garden centres and DIY stores! If it's windy I also cover the fleece with Enviromesh or netting to hold it down, or use cloche hoops. I fix the fleece to them with wooden clothes pegs which are always needed as it's very windy here, and what can often happen is that fleece will tear and blow away in the sudden gusts we get just before a rainstorm - then the wind drops after midnight and there's a frost! As I'm lucky to have a big enough garden at home to grow my veg., it's easy to run out and put fleeces on in the evening after watching the weather forecast! It takes me about half an hour to cover everything that needs it, including anything in the tunnel. Then I take off the fleeces again in the morning, which only takes about five minutes, in order to dry them and have them ready for the next cold night. As I've said before - wet fleece is worse than none at all! And several layers are far more effective - 2 or 3 layers of dry light fleece will trap air just as layers of clothing do for us - and protect even quite soft things from anything but the very hardest of spring frosts.
If you have an allotment it's obviously a bit more difficult - as you're not there all the time. In that case I think I would make up a frame or hoops to drape the fleece over, perhaps then securing it with netting as it can blow off very easily being so light. Or you could make your own cheap polythene covered frames as I described a couple of months ago, maybe even putting fleece underneath them, where it will stay dry, as double insurance. It's amazing how much water fleece will collect on a cold night, and then it offers less frost protection if it's actually resting on plants, particularly if it's wet, and it's also then surprisingly heavy. You may think all this is an awful fiddle - and at 8 pm in the evening, trying to cover a bed on my own with an aching back and fleece that insists on blowing off in even the slightest breath of air - I'd be inclined to agree! However, I know I'll get my reward in many different varieties - some extremely rare - of wonderful tasting, completely chemical-free, un-sprayed organic potatoes for most of the year! I also grow some potatoes in large pots too, if I'm trying new varieties or growing very rare ones. I normally grow around 12-16 different varieties - and if you think that's barmy - Dave Langford, the potato expert who lives in Leitrim, and who often came to the potato day at Sonairte, grows around 150 varieties every year! As someone remarked, I do use a lot of 2 litre pots for starting them off, which could be expensive, but as one of my best friends is a garden designer, I can always get plenty of free pots in whatever size I need. They would otherwise just be dumped, probably not recycled, and I've been re-using most of them for at least 25 years now! Make friends with your local landscaper or nursery - offer them some free veg. in return for pots which they don't want anyway and they may be jolly glad to get rid of them cluttering up the place!
Potato Mayan Gold flowers are pretty enough for any herbaceous border!
Most of the varieties I grow are early or second early cultivars, which need a shorter growing season than maincrops, so tend to bulk up faster. This means that they're early enough to have a really good crop underneath them before blight strikes here - often in late June in most years. There are quite enough different variety for anyone's needs. Some are waxy, some floury, some salad potatoes or unusually-coloured ones. I like to use different types for different culinary purposes, enjoying the variety. I'd get bored with the same one for everything - variety is the spice....etc.
If I were really forced to choose just one 'white' variety for taste however,it would probably be the Mayan Goldwhich is a second early/early maincrop. It is very versatile, being waxy if lightly cooked, or very floury if cooked for longer. It looks every bit as beautiful as it tastes, is very ornamental with quite unusual foliage and gorgeous deep purple flowers. It also fascinatingly folds up it's leaves at night, a bit like a Maranta (the prayer plant). I've grown it for many years since it first became available, both in the tunnel and outside, and I've seen it recover quite well from late frosts, and even blight - growing on again healthily when the weather became drier. It's fantastic for every use in the kitchen, and the top chefs in London go mad for it to make saute potatoes. It's only problem is that it soaks up an awful lot of melted butter!! A deep gold, almost sweet potato-like colour - it even increases in vitamin A during storage! Although it's actually quite a difficult potato to store, as it starts to sprout like mad in November, but I discovered why, on reading Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix's great vegetable book again.
Apparently the Phureja potatoes, from which Mayan Gold is descended, do not have a proper dormant period, being more adapted to growing conditions in the Caribbean! Which definitely explains why dear old MG enjoys itself thoroughly in the tunnel. It's just flowering now - and it always looks so beautiful! The other advantage of not being day-length sensitive is that it's quite happy to grow at any time of year - so I often use it for growing Christmas new potatoes, planting it at the end of August or beginning of September. It's one I wouldn't want to be without!.......But then......there's so many others too - like the deliciously healthy, purple-fleshed, high-anthocyanin varieties. I've got several different varieties of those now - the first of which - Truffe de Chine or Vitelotte, as it's also known, I obtained in Harrods Food Hall in Knightstbridge well over 30 years ago and was the one which started an undending passion for them! I can just never resist anything different - so it's absolutely impossible to just pick just one favourite!
The potatoes in pots which I start off at the conventional time of mid-March are planted out when they're about 6ins. high. I water them in after planting and then mulch them thickly with grass clippings, keeping the mulch 3 or 4 inches or 10cm away from the base of the stems to avoid rotting. Then I water again immediately, otherwise the strong vapour given off by the nitrogen in the freshly cut grass clippings can burn the stems and leaves. This is really important whatever crop you are using a grass mulch on. Always water immediately - even if the ground was already moist beforehand. A lot of 'experts' forget to tell you this - then you wonder why your plants turn yellow and the leaves curl up - voice of experience! Doing this also 'seals' the grass mulch into a mat quite nicely, sort of knitting it together, which helps to keep moisture in, cutting down on watering, and also keeps the weeds down. After a few days it goes brown and looks very neat and tidy. It's also a very handy take-away nest material for blackbirds - yesterday I surprised a blackbird in a potato bed - it flew off with a huge beak full of mulch - at a distance it looked as if it was carrying a small hedgehog almost as big as itself - then I realised it was helping itself to ready chopped, nicely dried grass bedding! Delighted to be of service in return for the pest control and the lovely music! The gratitude won't extend to free raspberries however!! There's plenty of berries planted exclusively for them down in the woodland!
By the way - if you're thinking of saving a few of your own early potato tubers for seedtubersfor next spring - then make sure that youmark one or two of the very best, most healthy-looking plants, as soon as the foliage has fully emerged.Those must have perfectly green, really healthy-looking leaves with absolutely no yellow blotches, no twisting or odd-looking crinkling - as these could possibly be carrying viruses. Again many 'experts' tell you only to save sound looking tubers - but they don't tell you to look at the plants when they're growing - which is what you should actually be doing! Tubers which are in fact carrying a virus can look perfectly sound and OK, - and it's only when they grow foliage that you can see if they are unhealthy and virused, by which time it's too late. Check their health again when lifting - more on that in a couple of months. As I've mentioned before - Lady Christl is the very fastest if you want to produce extra-earlies in the way that I do (planting in Jan.), Duke of York (which has a slightly better flavour) is the next fastest - only about a couple of weeks behind and Apache has now been a great success for the last few years. Mayan Gold is also definitely worth trying, though it's about another week or so after them until it has a worthwhile crop. Sharpe's Express and Annabelle are also good for 'extra-earlies'.
Other jobs for May
Brassicas safely tucked up under Enviromesh
Planting out brassica plants such as cabbages and calabrese - these must be protected with brassica collars fitted snugly around the stem against cabbage root fly. Seedlings must also be protected from now on too - as the fly is becoming active. As you obviously can't yet use brassica collars on them because they're too small, or may still be in pots, it's best to completely cover them with fleece or 'Enviromesh'. I prefer 'Enviromesh' as it gives better air circulation and light transmission. This will stop cabbage white butterfly too, and I saw several of those in the tunnel a month ago!
If you're starting off in a new allotment, where previously grass has been growing, there may be plenty of wire-worms, cutworms and leather-jackets (daddy long legs larvae) in the soil. It's a good idea to turn over the soil a few times before planting and let the eager birds scratch them up. Starlings are particularly good at this! These can otherwise devastate newly planted out lettuces, cabbages, etc., slicing neatly through the stem, causing the plants to collapse, by which time it's too late. If you see that happening to one, then dig around the base of the others - you may find the grey-brown caterpillar-like grubs there before they kill other plants. Destroy! Chickens are also brilliant for putting onto newly cultivated ground for a while specifically for this purpose - nothing escapes their searching sharp eyes and eager beaks!
For the fourth year running, we're enjoying again what was a new brassica crop to me until a few years ago, although it's something that I'd meant to try for many years. The luscious broccoli Nine Star Perennial which you can see above -so good with a little butter or Hollandaise sauce (or in my case - rather a lot!) It does take up a lot of room though and it's hard to fit in everything - even into a large garden - especially when there's only one gardener - just me! With only very occasional help mowing etc. from other members of the family! I don't ever remember less slug damage to the lush new shoots of plants fast emerging in the borders - that just proves one of the many benefits of having the a very hungry population of birds and other wildlife that I encourage in the garden!
Carrots also need covering completely now with Enviromesh. It's better to sow them in a row, rather than broadcast in a wide band - as I saw someone recommending recently, unless you've got an extremely weed-free soil, otherwise they'll just get smothered by weeds. It's much easier to see where a distinct row is. You really don't want to weed unless you absolutely have to, as the smell of bruised carrot foliage will attract every carrot fly for 10 miles! In a row you can see exactly where the carrots are much more easily, then you can just hoe either side of the row and leave the few weeds in the middle without bruising the foliage and causing the release of scent. Do this very early in the morning - carrot flies only become active around 8 am-ish as the day warms up - so the earlier you can do this the better. Then water the row and cover securely again - carrot flies will get through even the slightest gap. I find that this way I get great crops with no damage. I mostly grow the larger Nantes type carrot all year round now as I think they have by far the best flavour.
Feed your compost heap!
Remember - making compost isn't rocket science - so don't get in a state about it! Many people think it has to be absolutely perfect - it doesn't. Nature does it gradually all on it's own!Weeds can grow incredibly fast at this time of year but all annual weeds can go into the compost heap, so there'll be plenty of material around to make it now! Just make sure you have a good varied mix of soft green material and more fibrous brown and stemmy stuff. If it's going a bit slimy, perhaps because you've added too much cut grass or sappy green stuff, then turn it and mix in more carbon. Material like well shredded newspapers, un-sprayed straw, hay or dried up plant stems and chipped woody prunings will all balance the wet stuff and introduce some air, so that the heap will work better. A shredder is really useful in a large garden, it conveniently chops up things like woody prunings and brassica stems into an ideal size for mixing into the compost heap.
Put all your perennial weeds like docks and nettles into a barrel of water - many are deep rooting and bring up very valuable minerals from lower down in the soil profile. Rotted in water they'll make a really good liquid feed combined perhaps with some comfrey and/or nettles. Then when they're totally rotted in a few months - they can then be added to the compost heap along with everything else. I put anything which might attract rodents, like fruit and vegetable scraps, into one of those municipal grey tumbler bins, along with some shredded newspaper and chicken bedding of manure and shavings, to start their decomposing - they can then go onto the heap or the garden if they're well enough rotted. I put a deep tray underneath to catch the drips - there's a surprising amount. I bottle the fluid which runs off, and after storing for a while it makes a good liquid feed diluted to the colour of weak tea. Alternatively you can also add those things to your worm bin if you have one, although worms aren't that keen on tomatoes and really hate citrus fruit skins as they're too acid!
New material is added to the compost heap before it's re-covered to retain heat
Unless you cover compost heaps - then mostly all you're making is a soil conditioner - and all the valuable nutrients will be lost! It will also be emitting greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide. So don't forget to keep compost heaps covered with something waterproof - whatever the time of year.This argument also applies to my deep mulching with manure comments earlier! Covering the heap also helps to keep the heat in, which makes the heap rot much faster, keeping in the steaming fumes, which then condense back into the heap, stopping any possible nitrogen loss into the air. There's no point going to all the trouble to make lovely compost if you then leave it open to all the weather, so that the rain pours through it and washes out all the valuable nutrients, which leach out, run off and are lost, also polluting groundwater. In order to catch any possible run off from heaps it's a good idea to plant comfrey beds beside them, or let nettles grow there - which usually plant themselves! These will capture any nutrients which run off and will then recycle them into a liquid feed or onto the heap again when their leaves are cut.
If you've just started gardening and you don't have enough good compost available yet, or want to 'top up' nutrients for hungry crops, then Osmo Organic Universal granular fertiliser, fish, blood and bonemeal, and seaweed meal are all useful. There are more and more good compound organic fertilisers available now, so don't let fast growing crops go hungry, as if starved they may run quickly to seed. Don't let them be thirsty either - keep them well watered - mulching with things like grass clippings from lawns not treated with chemicals (I hope you wouldn't!) to conserve water wherever possible. Plants can't make use of food without water. Don't just rely on these alone however - you also need the humus that soil microbes make from decomposing plant remains and carbon, found in manures, compost or mulches, in order to protect the structure of the soil and to feed worms and all the billions of microorganisms which live there and make nutrients available to plants, in what's known as a symbiotic relationship - mutually beneficial in other words.
Even if you can get well rotted organic manure - it shouldn't be lashed on. As I said previously - too much can be just as damaging to beneficial soil life as chemical fertilisers! Moderation is the key. You can make up for a shortage of humus by mulching with grass clippings and other plant wastes, making worm compost, growing green manures or cover crops to incorporate into the soil surface and making as much garden compost as you can. Everything helps - the more varied the better. Mushroom compost is highly undesirable though, as if it's non-organic it will almost certainly contain very persistent toxic chemicals which kill vital soil life and may contaminate crops. And apart from that it also has a very high pH, which can again unbalance soil nutrient availability - causing chlorosis and yellowing of leaves. With no large livestock now, I only have hen manure and with only 9 hens there is little enough of that - so I tend to use a lot of mulches and green manures - which are more the way that nature does things anyway!
Planting out tender crops in late May
At the end of the month, or the beginning of June, depending on where you live, you can start to plant out more tender crops like celeriac, celery, sweet corn, courgettes, French and runner beans etc. after properly 'hardening off' (see April). I don't like to put up a fixed structure for beans, as I find individual 8 ft canes work much better on my sometimes extremely windy site. They can then move individually in the wind and when fully-grown don't present a 'fixed wall' or wigwam of beans - which may well all blow over completely, as has happened several times over the years! We often have very strong winds here in our summers! If only one cane blows over, the plants suffer less damage and are far less likely to break,. It's also more easily pick up and supported again than trying to resurrect a whole row! I sow two beans to a 500 ml plastic yogurt pot - I find those an ideal size. Each pot full is then tipped out and planted beside it's own cane. There's still time to sow things like French and runner Beans, sweet corn and squashes. Squashes courgettes and pumpkins in particular grow really fast!
My pumpkin display photographed by Joy Larkcom in 1991
If pumpkins and summer squashes are developing fast, and the weather is not warm enough to plant them out - don't risk planting them too early. If the roots are filling the pots - feed them - pot them on into bigger pots and wait until the weather is warmer. They hate being checked and never crop as well if you allow them to become pot-bound. When you're ready to plant them out - plant them into a nicely prepared, really fertile, sunny spot and stand well back! They grow very quickly, and are wonderful winter food. If ripened properly they will keep for months - in fact I'm usually using the last of my stored ones when I'm sowing the next year's! I've still got some of last year's that are perfect!
When the wonderful garden writer Joy Larkcom was staying here with us in 1991, she took this terrific photo of some of my squashes on the table in my hall, where I love to see them all arranged in the autumn. They keep really well there for ages as it's dry but quite cool. I almost can't bear to use them as they look so sculptural and decorative! Greed always manages to win over art in the end though! My pumpkin and basil soup is one of the best midwinter 'cheerer-uppers' I know - real comfort food. My kids used to call it 'sunshine soup' - it really reminds one of all the colour and warmth of high summer in the middle of winter. The ones best for storing are not the watery easily carved, over-sized 'Halloween' ones though. You want the really hard, deep orange fleshed, high dry matter varieties like Blue Hubbard, Crown Prince, Marina di Chioggia, Queensland Blue, Hokkaido, Golden Hubbard, Pink Banana and Buttercup. These will store for at least six months if ripened well and are another vegetable which ripens more and increases in Vitamin A with storage. The ones that start off blue all turn pink as they ripen more with age. They can be used in exactly the same way as 'butternut' squashes, but are much tastier! These are all available from The Organic Catalogue, Suttons, Simpsons, Real Seeds, Mr. Fothergill's etc. and grow so quickly that you've still got time to sow them even in June in pots, when their germination will be more reliable and slug proof than outside! My tips on sowing all the cucurbit family are in this month's polytunnel diary.
In early May there's so much to look forward to!
Now at last winter is over - but we haven't quite said goodbye to Spring. Don't be in too much of a hurry to plant out tender crops yet or to sow into soil that may still be cold and wet. Despite the gloriously sunny weather of last weekend's Bank Holiday - we're not quite into summer yet - so it's back to jeans and wellies - it's definitely not shorts weather! This morning there's a freezing south-easterly gale blowing in from the Irish Sea with blossom and leaves lying everywhere! The garden looks a bit like the aftermath of a wedding! We're in that sort of halfway time now - the ante-room for real summer. This morning's gales will do a lot of damage to the blossom in the orchard and to any outside crops. There won't be too many bees flying today either!
Every day now there's something new, fresh and green to enjoy in the garden and fruit bursting into promisingly beautiful flower.Luckily, despite some cold nights over the last couple of weeks, there are now plenty of insects around for birds to eat and many beneficial ones like hoverflies that will deal with any aphids.Despite the cold nights we've had some lovely warm sunny days too. Suddenly everything is lush and burstingly green and you can almost hear things growing! It's so good to feel that urgent sense of regeneration and hope in Nature again, after months of winter.
Don't worry about the stuff you haven't done - if like me you're behind either because of the difficult weather, or for some other reason - life getting in the way as it does, be realistic - it doesn't have to be perfect! Remember that the most important thing of all to do in your garden is to enjoy it! Even the smallest bit of home grown produce is a real achievement - so celebrate it!
Happy gardening.....and Happy Eating! We've got an exciting summer of delicious produce to look forward to - aren't us gardeners so lucky!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
May contents: Crazy mixed up weather again!... Protecting Tomatoes from frost.... The Joy of Seasonal Eating.... Make more Wonderful Watercress.....There's a Growing Excitement again about Tomatoes!.....There's a lot more to Polytunnels than just growing Tomatoes!.....Cucumbers, Melons and Courgettes - the Cucurbitaceae family - propagating and planting.....Planting Aubergines and Sweet Peppers.....Climbing French Beans, early Broad Beans and Peas.....Sweetcorn - inter-cropping or cover cropping, with late Celery or Squashes.....Sweet Potatoes, Oca, Yacon and Mashua.....Other crops - Figs, Grapes and Strawberries.
Robin checking that the temperature is OK for the courgettes sitting on a tray on top of the compost bin in the polytunnel!
Crazy Mixed Up Weather again this year - Goodbye Summer - Hello Winter!
Some people dance around Maypoles on May Day - but I usually dance for joy around my Polytunnel Potager - as long as I'm not on dodgy legs as I am currently! Anyway - no matter how I am - it's always such a privilege to be in there working and listening to happily buzzing, busy bees and all the birds singing for joy.Especially when I'm accompanied by my dear little Robin friend sweetly singing, as I so often am this year. He tweets away happily to me while I'm working, looking all around all the time, constantly on the alert for insects - and then suddenly zooms off to grab one delightedly and rushes off to the missus with it!One of his favourite places to perch, which you can see here, is the tray which I've put on top of the compost bin in the middle of the tunnel, where I put tender plants that are en route from the warm, heated bench to the tunnel beds. There's a little bit of extra warmth there which courgettes and other more tender plants really appreciate at night.
The nettles along the side of the tunnel behind the compost bin look very scruffy currently - but I'm leaving them alone for now, as they are full of butterfly nests - just in case you wondered why!The polytunnel is a great resource for all biodiversity, including all the small birds here, as it's an insect-abundant space to hunt, where they are protected from predators. It's also an indispensable aid to being able to produce our own food all year round - especially in what has so far been a really erratic year weather-wise outside. Although the bank holiday weekend was like midsummer, and we'd had almost drought conditions for weeks, until the last 3 days of torrential rain and hail, and severe night frosts. The temperatures for the next week are forecast to often be below freezing again, despite hot days, and the long range forecast is predicting frost for much of next week. So I'm glad I haven't planted my tomatoes out yet into the polytunnel soil, as they would be far more difficult to protect with fleece in that case.
Maskotka plants unharmed after -4C
Maskotka plants in tubs on grow bag tray covered with 1 layer bubblewrap and 2 layers of fleece for frost protection
Three days ago I decided to start planting out the Maskotka into the large tubs I always grow them in, as some were flowering and one was even developing tiny fruits. I shall gradually plant two or three of all the varieties into the 10 litre tubs of organic peat-free compost on the grow bag trays, as they tend to be warmer in tubs than planted into the ground, and always produce my earliest tomatoes. They're also much easier to protect from frost when they're all grouped together. The other duplicate plants of the cordon (upright) varieties will stay on the warm bench for now as my insurance against disaster - and I may put them on into vine pots and feed them if the weather doesn't look like improving. Doing that is far better and less damaging for them than just letting them get pot bound and starved! They will eventually be planted out into the polytunnel soil and produce a slightly later crop, spreading the season and going on well into late autumn. Although the polytunnel soil is warm enough by now - it would be almost impossible to protect 40 individual tomato plants with the triple layers of fleece which I shall definitely be putting over them to avoid any frost damage at night. The tomatoes in tubs are each supported by a 1 metre cane with a rubber protector on top which stops the canes from piercing the layer of bubble wrap and three layers of fleece which I'm currently covering them with each night. I uncover them every morning for the plants to get some fresh air and for the fleeces to dry, as leaving the fleece on them could promote disease on the foliage, as the surface of fleecebecomes surprisingly wet on cold nights.
Tomato Tumbler plants on stepladder with fleece folded back during the day
Watering the young plants is the other thing I'll be very careful about for the next week or so - only watering slightly in the mornings if absolutely necessary, so that if and when the frost happens, they'll be in dry-ish, warm compost, rather than having soaking wet, cold roots. The same will apply to the 'Tumbler' tomato plants on the stepladder, as the mushroom boxes have a shallow well of water at the bottom and I'm always very careful not to get them too wet in cold weather - although when the boxes are full of roots and the weather really warms up in summer they will probably need watering twice a day. I can never understand why some people water every day regardless of whether the plants need it or not. It's the fastest way to lose plants to root-rotting diseases and it's something to be really careful about when the weather is as unpredictable as it currently is. Just that little bit of effort and TLC makes all the difference to whether you will get good crops or not.
As I have often said here on my blog - too many people still 'go by the book' - or in other words listen to so-called 'experts' telling you to do specific jobs at a specific time - regardless of the fact that their readers may live in an entirely different climate and environment! The other thing I've seen a lot on social media recently is people planting out tomatoes in mid-April - advice usually written from old text books usually written by authors living in South East England! I hope their tomatoes didn't turn blue with cold or worse! Temperatures below 50 deg F or 10d eg. C will damage tomatoes, and affect their cropping potential.
There can never be hard and fast rules for any gardening - whether outside or in polytunnels. My advice is to get to know your particular local climate, and tailor your planting out times to that rather than what is the standard advice - and if in doubt - don't! Which is probably good advice for doing many things in life if one's not sure if one should! Ha!
The winter weather seems to be coming back for another bite at us now - just when we thought it had finally gone and summer had arrived - the seasons seem to begetting more unpredictable, muddled and mixed up! That's something that according to my Geologist/Archaeologist/Zoologist son is because of the jet stream and ocean currents changing due to climate change. The Gulf Stream which keeps our climate relatively temperate for thousands of years is changing.But whatever is responsible for this erratic weather - it's something that from now on we will have to be constantly aware of if we are trying to produce our own food.The good thing this year though, is that many of the winter vegetables like lettuces, chicories and chards have hung on much later than usual again, like last year. We've had just enough cold days at times to cool them down a bit after the hot days. Lovely to still have all these lush crops available in what is traditionally known as the 'Hungry Gap' - but it means that that they're still taking up space in the tunnel, when in theory they should be gone. I should now be getting beds ready for planting summer crops like tomatoes, French beans and early courgettes. The winter leaf crops are only just starting to bolt and run up to flower now, and will still be tender and usable for at least another couple of weeks yet, if well-watered - so it would be a sin to take them out! I just need a bit more time and freezer space to freeze some rather than the very appreciative hens getting all of them!
Jack Ice - finally starting to bolt after cropping since last October!
The bolting lettuce will also be used up to make one of my favourite early summer soups - lettuce and lovage - an annual treat that uses up fast-bolting tunnel lettuce in May.Many people would just throw it onto the compost heap at this stage - but it's still perfectly edible - even if a little stronger tasting. I have three large lovage plants growing in large pots for bringing into the polytunnel early, specifically for making this divine soup. It starts growing too late outside and would otherwise be too late for the bolting tunnel lettuce. So every March I bring them into the tunnel early to force them into growth in time to make the soup - plants growing outside would be far too late for the bolting tunnel lettuce. I really look forward to this soup every year. Oddly enough - I never make it at any other time of year - probably because the rest of the year there's just so much else to eat!
My soup (recipe below) is great for using up the last of the stronger-flavoured, bolting overwintered lettuce that is no longer nice in salads, and it avoids wasting precious healthy nutrients at a time of year when any fresh veg is welcome! Green lettuce is best for this soup I think - the red ones tend to make the soup look a bit of an unattractive 'mud'-colour! The last of the spinach is mostly frozen - making handy 'ready-prepared' veg for super-fast meals and also for throwing into soups and smoothies. I just wash it if necessary, dry it in the salad spinner to get rid of any excess water and then freeze it as fast as possible! The bolting chicory is enjoyed by the hens and I always transplant a few chicories outside into the bee and butterfly border for the beautiful blue flowers that bees and other insects love - and then later on the plants produce seeds which birds like Goldfinches enjoy. Nothing is ever wasted here!
We try to be as self-sufficient in both veg and fruit as possible here and rarely buy anything - I can't bear to waste any part of nutritious vegetables - so I try to make a point of using everything - even bolting veg which many people would just throw onto their compost heap. It's a sin to waste anything when it's still so full of healthy nutrients. If I can't use things immediately I usually freeze them for quick meals later. Recently I've been busy until late at night in the kitchen dealing with the spinach and chard mountain by washing and freezing it as fast as I can! Spinach is such a useful veg to have in the freezer as a standby for quick meals and can be thrown straight into the saucepan from frozen to make a great soup or side veg.
Eating seasonally is what all humans always did until relatively recently, because they had no choice - unless they were very wealthy and used huge resources in terms of fuel to provide out of season crops in winter, as some of the old kitchen gardens did. But even then they were a treat and more for show at important dinner parties, than for the regular menu. There are many reasons that I personally believe that we don't need summer vegetables in winter - otherwise what on earth is there to look forward to? Seeing courgettes in winter at over €1 each I find almost obscene, and 200g bags of baby spinach, imported from Italy, sell in supermarkets for over €3. When wilted down that would give you about a tablespoon after cooking - barely a portion - that is a shocking price for something that's so easy to grow anywhere all year round, even without any additional heat, if you grow the right variety.
Shockingly - I read last year that some of the huge Mediterranean holdings on which this produce is grown use migrant workers who are subjected to the most horrendous abuses of their most basic human rights. In many cases not being provided with the most basic personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves! That's something I'm sure none of us would want to support this by just conveniently looking the other way, while buying that produce! Nor would anyone surely want to eat that produce, which may have been picked by someone who may be sickening with Corona Virus but desperately having to work for wages that are a pittance? If that isn't a recipe for simmering social unrest and food insecurity, I don't know what is! It's time to consider the cost of imported produce in more than just terms of money! It's not worth what amounts to virtual slavery!
Here's a link to that concerning article - "No food, water, masks or gloves" Migrant farm workers in Spain at crisis point":
Imports of such crops are driven by supermarkets looking for the lowest price possible from suppliers all year round. That is a practice which really needs to stop if we are genuine about reducing our carbon footprint, and trying to tackle climate change in a meaningful way! The only difference in terms of carbon footprint, between that spinach grown in Italy and spinach grown here is the distance it has to travel, from where it is grown to where it is consumed. The other important difference is that it is actually not as nutritious - having not just travelled further, but from a different time zone, which will have upset it's circadian rhythm. Yes - plants obey circadian rhythms or internal clocks just like we do - and they can get jet lag too, believe it or not. That means that the vital phytonutrients in that plant will have been affected, and not only are they linked to flavour, but they are also important in supporting our immune defences against pathogens and viruses like COVID_19.
That imported, out of season, cosmetically perfect produce often looks as tempting and attractive as 'Snow White's' poisonous apple! But that apple is almost always a huge disappointment in terms of flavour - often with bitter, tough, inedible skin and watery, over-sweet flesh. It's the same story with so much other produce that's imported. It's a pointless waste of money - usually full of chemicals if not organic, and often grown with many chemicals which are banned in the EU!. Again it will have a massive carbon footprint in terms of travel air miles alone!. Even when it''s organic - imported shop-bought, or even locally-grown organic food can never compare with the flavour, freshness or nutritional content of your very own fresh-picked, home-grown organic produce! The often poorer nutritional content of produce imported from the other side of the world, or even from closer to us in Southern Europe is something I talk about in this blog post here:
There is no doubt that buying something which is tired and already several days old from your supermarket can never rival the enormous sense of achievement and satisfaction you can get from enjoying the well-earned fruits of your own labours - especially if the produce has been grown in an organic, sustainable and nature-friendly way. There is simply nothing like the satisfying crunchy sweetness of that first mangetout, the first May strawberry or the first apple of autumn. There are so many mouthfuls of summer delights we have to look forward to at this time of year. The first of the cherry tomatoes in June, a sun-warmed juicy peach in July, or that August morning when you open the tunnel door and the scent of a ripe warm melon hits you - and you cradle it in your hand, the fruit slightly cracking where it joins the stem in readiness to drop off the vine. It doesn't get the chance here - the pruning knife slices into a juicy ripe melon in a very satisfying way! Simply nectar for the Gods - and the ultimate in take-away breakfasts! I have to admit that the very first of anything in this garden very rarely reaches the kitchen - that's the gardener's extra special reward!!
Is there ever anything to compare with the very first taste of anything seasonal, local, and home-produced each year? How boring would our annual food supply be if it was never punctuated by the season's first of anything - but instead we just had the same continuous diet of what the supermarkets want to sell us all year round? Year-round availability of the most common fruits and vegetables, out of their normal season here, imported from God-knows-where, has actually ruined the seasonal anticipation of crops for most people. That anticipation and then childlike enjoyment of the very first, mouth-watering burst of each new flavour in each season is so exciting! People who are limited to the range of what is now available now in supermarkets don't know what they're missing. No wonder so many children will only eat frozen peas, carrots and broccoli - when most of the time that's all that is available in supermarkets! Children need to get used to a wide range of different tastes at an early age - or they may remain 'picky', perhaps refusing to eat only the veg they know - or none at all - all their lives. This can have serious consequences for their health later on in life. Even farmers markets are often little better in the UK or Ireland - although to be fair, many of the organic growers are more adventurous, as most of the growers would be alternative thinkers in the first place! H
ow lucky we gardeners are - to be able to enjoy the - 'first taste this year' - of so many treats at so many different times, every single year!
Make more Wonderful Watercress
Thinking seasonally - one of my other winter standby veg that needs attention right now is watercress. Although watercress is a perennial plant - it needs renewing each year or it becomes tough, peppery and not nice to eat - rather than lush and delicious! It's just starting to flower now after a few very hot sunny days in the polytunnel - so now is the time that I take 'Irishman's cuttings'. That term means with a few roots attached - for further rooting in a jar of water, and then planting in a damp, shady spot outside for the summer. It will continue to provide lush crops there throughout the summer and then in August I will take more cuttings which will provide a polytunnel crop throughout next winter. Contrary to what many people say - it doesn't need running water or even a pond to grow. It just needs a constantly moist soil that doesn't dry out. In fact growing it at home is far safer than watercress growing beside or in streams - as that can provide habitat for a nasty little snail that carries the dangerous liver fluke pest - especially if there are sheep or cattle grazing nearby or upstream. So it's far safer to grow it in garden soil! I will leave the old plants in the tunnel for as long as I can, until I need that spot for another crop - because the bees adore the flowers.
If you don't have plants already - there's no need to sow watercress from seed. You can easily root it in just a few days in a jar of water, if you buy some watercress salad leaves in a bag - or find some in a bag of mixed salad leaves. Just pinch off any yellowing leaves at the bottom ends of the shoots and put them in a jar of water. When they have formed roots in 3-4 days - either plant them in garden soil or in pots of organic peat-free compost and keep them moist in a shady place where they won't dry out. In August you can then take more new shoots from those plants to root for planting in early September. Those plants will crop really well throughout the winter. I've kept the same plants going for about 12 years now by taking new cuttings twice a year. It's as easy as falling off a log! The only pests of watercress are slugs and cabbage white butterflies - whose caterpillars can decimate plants entirely almost overnight - because they're very difficult to see until it's too late! So keep an eye out for them!
(My easy recipe for the cream of spinach soup shown below - or any other greens such as watercress or lettuce can be found here:
Cream of spring spinach, lettuce or watercress soup - so delicious and easy
There's so much to do in the tunnel in this season that the pace of work is really hectic - but there's also much to look forward to! My mouth's already watering at the prospect of that first fabulous tasting tomato - will it be Maskotka, Sungold, Chiquito or John Baer? This year they're a bit later due to the cold weather. but some of their first flowers are already open while they're still in small pots! I'm growing a couple of new varieties this year which are supposedly very early but I expect it will probably be the wonderful Maskotka first as usual, particularly since it already has tiny green fruit on it the size of small marbles. But John Baer won't be far behind - and they both have wonderful flavour. After those earliest tomatoes, in a few weeks the beefsteaks will start to crop - and there truly is nothing like the taste of that first Caprese salad of buffalo mozzarella and a good beefsteak like Pantano Romanesco with an aromatic basil dressing, accompanied by some home-baked crispy warm ciabatta bread! Mmm - I can almost taste and smell it just thinking abut it!
At this time of year, I've usually had at least two of my five-a-day before I even have 'proper' breakfast! Unless there's a howling gale - then breakfast or brunch in the tunnel accompanied by birdsong is a must. Even on a dull day at this time of year the tunnel is warm. Most normal people put decking outside in their gardens - but I have some inside one of my tunnels so that I can sit in there at a table whatever the weather! Even when I was growing commercially, I always had a small table and chair to sit in one of my tunnels. It's a great place to plan and think. Pre-breakfast snacks at this time of year and for the rest of the summer mostly consist of 'grazing' my way around the tunnels on whatever happens to be good at the time and within arm's reach as I do my morning watering! I'm really missing being able to get up to the tunnels at the moment due to my broken ankle - but luckily my son and daughter between them have managed to keep everything alive in relays, and in another couple of weeks I may be able to hobble up there and potter!
To be or not to be? Whether or not The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival will happen this year is in question!
Exciting new tomato 'Indigo Rose'- naturally high in cancer- fighting anthocyanin plant phytochemicals
The lure of finding a good new tomato variety is usually totally irresistible for me. But because this year I'm not able to grow quite as much as usual, owing to the planned surgery on my ankle being postponed due to COVID19 - I'm only growing my favourite old reliables, which I know will produce the very best tasting tomatoes for all uses. As I didn't want too many to look after if I'm unable to walk very much - I'm just growing 12 varieties, rather than my more usual 20 or so!
This year once again, any healthy food we can grow here and preserve - and also have plenty spare to share with friends, will be even more welcome than usual! This year's Totally Terrific Tomato Festival will sadly not go ahead at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, in September, due to the ongoiong uncertainty surrounding COVID19 - but as last year - I've suggested we should have an online virtual Tomato Festival, so that everyone will still get a chance to show their tomatoes!
The reason I originally came up with the idea of holding the very first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012 was to demonstrate and celebrate the remarkable beauty and genetic diversity of tomatoes - and to make people aware of just how vitally important it is that we preserve all of their valuable genes. Not to mention the wonderfully healthy nutrients they contain - and also the fact that they're one of the most versatile fruits or vegetables there is! Just imagine if some deadly disease were to strike tomatoes, that there was no organic, or even (God forbid!) chemical way of dealing with - so no more tomatoes? Can you imagine a life without tomatoes and all the wonderful things we can do with them? If that were to happen - there could just be one tomato hidden away somewhere, that might possibly hold the only genetic key to resisting that disease. Plant breeders could then use it's genes to produce new strains of tomatoes resistant to the disease. This is true of so many other food crops too. Preserving all genetic diversity is vitally important. Tomatoes were just a conveniently eye-catching, exciting and colourful way to show that to people. Plant breeders are also busy now using wild and Heritage varieties to produce new strains which are even more full of healthy nutrients too.
The tomato pictured above - Indigo Rose - was one of the first of a new breed of naturally-bred tomatoes that are high in the healthy plant phytochemicals called anthocyanins.These nutrients are brilliant for our health - boosting our immune and circulatory systems and protecting us from a number of major diseases. Seed of Indigo Rose was first released to gardeners in the USA in early 2012 - it's stunning looks were what gave me the idea of holding the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival . I first held a tomato day at The National Botanic Garden, Glasnevin thirty years ago - but sadly Indigo Rose wasn't around then, and people weren't as aware of where their food came from as some people are now. Diversity isn't just about saving old heritage varieties - although that's vitally important. It's also about preserving good, modern, naturally-bred varieties too.
There's a lot more to Polytunnels than just growing Tomatoes!
Me in the big polytunnel behind what I call the 'Emperor's New Clothes Plant' - Yacon. The latest fashionable 'must-have' plant!
Cucumbers, Melons and Courgettes - the Cucurbitaceae family
7 cucumbers ready to pick on this Burpless Tasty Green plant in large tub!
I think the next most common tunnel or greenhouse crop to tomatoes that people grow is probably cucumbers - because you really can't beat the taste of homegrown ones - especially the older varieties which I personally think have far more flavour. I've been growing Burpless Tasty green for around 35 years now - and I still think it can't be beaten for easiness of growing, flavour or productivity for home gardeners. Seed of BTG is also incredibly cheap compared to the more 'prima donna-ish' newer hybrids - you'll get about 20 seeds for the price of just one seed of those expensive F1 varieties! I always plant cucumber and melon plants on a slight mound, watering them in carefully with tepid water -never cold. After that I NEVER water very close to their stems again, as they can be very prone to root rots just where the stem meets the soil. I always use tunnel temperature water to water them around their outer root area - using water from the water butt kept in the tunnel specifically for that purpose. I never use cold water from a hose! I tend to give them a slightly richer soil than I would give tomatoes, again preparing the soil in the same way a few days beforehand but also forking in a nice bucketful of good compost or well-rotted manure per planting spot. I then water the prospective planting site thoroughly and leave it for a couple of days for the soil to settle and warm up. If I'm growing more than one plant I plant them roughly 3ft/1m apart. I plant my early tunnel courgettes in exactly the same way. Doing this ensures that I never have any root problems.
For those of you who are buying plants from garden centres rather than using plants you have grown from seed - make sure you inspect them very carefully! If there's any sign of browning, cracking or other damage on on the stem anywhere, particularly where it meets the compost at the top of the root ball - then DON'T BUY THE PLANT! That's always the first sign of root rots setting in. Very often these plants reach the nursery or garden centre from the suppliers perfectly fine - then they might get watered with a cold spray from a garden centre hose, very often by someone untrained, who wouldn't know a cucumber from a cabbage. That means that plants can be well on the way to root rots before you even buy them - but you won't know that, and think when they wilt and collapse a week or two later that it was your fault! Another tell-tale sign of this is wilting - even though the compost feels damp. That is always an indicator of root problems. A mistake many beginners often make is that because they see something wilting - they think the plants need more water (I can't tell you how many plants I lost that way when I first started growing things!) but it almost always means that there is a problem with the roots and the last thing they need is even more water, which will make things even worse! That's why it's generally safer to grow them from seed yourself, in a good, free-draining, peat-free compost, and once they have started growing well and need water - always water them from the bottom by sitting them in tepid water for a couple of minutes, so they can drink what they need, rather than giving them too much.
The other thing which may affect cucumbers is Sciarid fly maggots in the compost. These flies are particularly attracted to peat composts, and their tiny larvae or maggots will eat away at fine roots. So that's another reason why we shouldn't be using peat composts - apart from the fact that using them is destroying bogs and adding hugely to climate change! Once those flies are in the compost - you won't get rid of them, so you're better off taking them right out of your greenhouse or propagating frame, so they can't migrate to any other plants, and dumping them! Luckily cucumbers and courgettes are very fast-growing plants, so unless it's very late in the summer - you can always sow some more. When I have sown my cucumber seed, I always top the peat-free compost with vermiculite or sharp sand, and never over water them. If you follow this rule - you won';t have problems with Sciarid flies laying eggs into the compost.
There's still plenty of time to sow them now for a mid - late summer (or even an autumn crop with the small gherkin types). It's best not to start them off too early anyway, as it can be difficult to give them enough warmth at the roots early on to keep them growing on really well, because another thing that all the cucurbit family hates is being pot-bound and getting checked. Pumpkins in particular really hate this as they make huge root systems - and if they get 'pot-bound' before planting out they never really do as well afterwards. Some years ago I was sent some half-sized grafted cucumbers for trialling. To be honest I wasn't that impressed with them compared to my usual varieties and they also brought in red spider mite - which didn't please me, as I then had to go to the expense of buying a biological control! A very good half-sized cucumber, ideal if the larger ones go off before you use all of them is Restina - the seed of which I got from Lidl of all places! It's a really delicious gherkin type which is very useful for pickling or grows to make a very nice half-sized tasty cucumber too - just enough for a couple of good sandwhiches! It's also incredibly productive, as many of the gherkin types are.
While I'm on the subject of peat use - I'm always trying to think of ways that I can lower my personal carbon footprint, and not using peat in our gardens can make a huge difference to carbon emissions.NO gardener who is concerned about climate change and loss of biodiversity should be using it! Not using peat is something which all gardeners can do now that there are plenty of excellent peat-free alternatives available. Peatlands form only 3% of the planet's land surface - but they are massive 'carbon sinks' - storing twice as much carbon as all currently standing forests. That's a pretty mind-boggling statistic! We must stop digging them up now! In their natural wet, un-drained state - peatlands also sequester huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere through all the native plants which grow in them, especially Spaghnum mosses - trapping it underground as carbon. Their capacity for regulating climate is actually far greater than that of forests.
Pumpkins and Squashes
The sword in the stone! Attacking an 8 month-stored 2.8kg (6lb 3ozs) Queensland Blue in late April.
Pumpkins and squashes are one of my most important staple crops,which I start off from seed in late April to mid-May in the propagator. If ripened properly, they store incredibly well through the winter, and I always expect any I have left to keep well until I am sowing the next year's ones. I grow the really dense fleshed ones - and these actually increase in beta-carotene, as they ripen even more while they are stored over the winter. You don't think of vegetable crops as being alive after they have been harvested - but they actually are. After they've been harvested a lot is still going on inside the cells of the plant - whatever type of plant it is! It always fascinates me how a pumpkin that starts off with a turquoise blue skin at harvesting time in late autumn can gradually change over the winter to an even more beautiful deep orange pink, like the Queensland Blue pictured here, which is a fantastic keeper.
I usually grow at least six varieties of long-keeping squashes or pumpkins - and they are all so beautiful to look at, that being an artist I hate to cut them up for cooking! But the really good varieties also taste fantastic too, just like sweet potatoes but much firmer - so I get over it! The giant pumpkins sold for Halloween are totally useless for storing - and also cooking - they are utterly tasteless and watery compared to the ones I grow. Some of the best varieties to grow are Golden Hubbard, Blue Hubbard, Invincible, Crown Prince, Hokkaido, Giant Pink Banana, Buttercup, Marina di Chioggia and Queensland Blue. Cutting up a well-ripened Queensland Blue is a bit like breaking and entering! You need a really stout knife or hatchet to safely cut into those babies! We roast wedges in the oven with garlic and a little butter and oil - and they are absolutely delicious! They're also fantastic for the best ever pumpkin pies and soups (recipe elsewhere) and you can even use their flesh in cakes and smoothies too.
Advice for propagating and planting all the cucumber family
I propagate all my cucurbitaceae family (courgettes, pumpkins, melons etc..) in exactly the same way. I sow them in 3 inch pots singly, on their sides, edge of the seed up, about 1/2 in deep, covering with vermiculite, and water in with tepid water. After this, I cover the pot with a polythene bag and germinate them in a propagator at approx 20 deg C plus/68 deg F. After this - I NEVER water from the top again - always from underneath by sitting them in water for a couple of minutes. I keep them steadily growing well, even potting on if necessary, before it's warm enough to plant them out in the soil either in the tunnel or outside.
Cucumbers in particular need night time temperatures of at least 20 deg.C to grow on really well after planting out. Unlike tomatoes, cucumbers and melons love sauna-like conditions - humidity and warmth, so the place to grow them is in the middle of your tunnel or greenhouse where they won't be in a draught and it will be a bit more humid. Or if you have more than one tunnel - then give them a tunnel to themselves. I must say there are times when I really miss the four tunnels I used to have when I was growing commercially - my rotations were just so much easier. After planting, always water at the base of the mound they're planted on - not against the stem - and with tunnel temperature water, as I said previously. You shouldn't have a problem with rot if you do this. Don't over water, but never let them dry out either, or you may encourage powdery mildew to develop on the leaves, which is caused by dryness at the roots combined with high humidity. This is a particular problem in the autumn as cooler nights encourage it.
A good moisture-retaining mulch of grass clippings or compost after planting (again kept well away - about 10 cm or 4 inches away from the stem) will help to keep mildew at bay by keeping the outer soil and roots moist. With cucumbers - stop (pinch out) the main stem once it reaches the top of whatever support you're training it up, then stop any lateral (side) shoots at the fourth leaf joint and any sub-laterals (side shoots from the side shoots!) at the second leaf joint beyond the first good fruit. If you're growing an 'all female' variety of cucumber, take out any male flowers immediately if any appear - this sometime happens if the plant is stressed in some way. Female flowers have a tiny cucumber behind the flower, male ones just have a plain stem behind the flower. I let my pumpkins and squashes trail along the beds, stopping the main shoot at 4-6 leaf joints, and then stopping any side shoots that develop fruits 3-4 leaves beyond the fruits. Doin this stops them becoming too rampant, and concentrates their energy into developing their fruits.
I plant my melons on a mound in exactly the same way, but I prefer to grow them trailing on the ground, rather than climbing, using a side bed, rather than training them up a string or net, which I basically don't have time for as it's so fiddly. Again, I pinch out the main stem when five leaves have developed. The plant should then develop four or five side shoots, which will bear the fruits. Pinch these out when they reach the extent of their space, or at five leaves - these will then develop the lateral shoots which will bear more fruits. Bees will often pollinate these for you if there are lots around, but to ensure pollination, you can pick a male flower and push it gently into a female flower when they develop. The best time to do this is around midday when it's warm enough for the pollen to develop and the atmosphere isn't too humid. Careful watering of these in the same way as cucumbers is again absolutely key. When the fruits have formed - put each developing fruit on something like a piece of wood, slate or an upturned pot to stop any chance of them rotting where they're in contact with the soil and where there's less likelihood of slugs nibbling them. This also attracts warmth which helps to ripen them. (This is something I was asked about at a talk last year in respect of pumpkins - this is a good way stop them rotting outside in the garden too) You'll know when melons are starting to ripen by keeping an eye on the stem - when a crack start to develop just around where the stalk joins the fruit - and you also get that unmistakable scent - you can be sure they're ripe. I promise you that when you taste your first home grown, perfectly ripe, sweet and aromatic melon - you will be totally hooked!
Ridiculously productive Atena courgette in late May
There's still plenty of time to sow pumpkins, courgettes etc. for planting outside, or better still in the polytunnel if you have space. You are guaranteed a really good crop in the tunnel in our often unreliable and wet Irish 'summers'! My courgettes always crop until November in the tunnel, making them really worth the space - those outside always give up much earlier. I don't bother with green courgettes much now - maybe one or two plants - I grow the yellow one 'Atena Polka', a firm, deliciously sweet variety, not at all 'cabbagey tasting' like most yellow ones - and also far more productive than any of the other yellow ones I've ever tried. Everyone loves it's sweet flavour. It's very like the variety 'Eldorado' that Suttons sold in the early 1990's. I saved seed for several years, but then sadly lost it. It was quite variable though, as it had originally been an F1 hybrid. I prefer to sow all my courgettes in pots too.
Although in theory all the books say you can sow courgettes etc. outside from the beginning of June, in my experience those sown inside now (or inside anytime for that matter) will still be miles ahead, far less likely to be eaten by slugs or other pests, and will crop far more quickly than any sown directly outside. I often think that most seed sowing instructions are written by companies mostly located in the south or west of the UK. In our part of Ireland or the north of the UK, and the growing season is considerably colder and shorter than other places, so use every aid possible to speed things up! Sow them in exactly the same way as the pumpkins etc.above. I usually grow a couple of Atena in large tubs in the fruit tunnel for some early courgettes, then pull these out as soon as those outside, or planted in the ground in the other tunnel are cropping. After a while in tubs they tend to get mildew aa they hate the root restriction, but they provide a really useful early crop this way.
Planting Aubergines and Sweet Peppers
Aubergine 'Bonica' in July You can plant out Aubergines and sweet peppers towards the middle/end of the month too if it's warm enough - these like a really warm soil. If you have too many Solanacae (tomato family) to fit in with your rotations these will grow well in large pots on grow bags trays or sitting on plastic. I grow them in 10lt. pots, 3 pots to each grow bag tray. This means I can water into the tray rather than the pots, when plants are bigger and need more watering or feeding. I like to plant both aubergines and peppers on slight mounds - with the soil sloping away from the stem - towards the sides of the pot, as this prevents root rotting - to which they are both particularly susceptible. Don't let the plants root through the bottom of the pots into the tunnel soil, or it will mess up your rotation plan in just the same way as if they were in the ground! They require the same careful watering as most other things, never against the base of the stem - always around the outside of the pot if necessary. Be careful never to over water in case the weather then turns cold.
Aubergines are the only one of this family that I would be inclined to mist over - but only if the weather is very hot and the atmosphere very dry in your greenhouse or tunnel, as they can be very susceptible to red spider mite. By the way - if you can actually see tiny very fast moving red spiders, these are usually the predatory mite - Phytoseilius Persimilis. This means you are lucky, as this is what you would normally have to buy to control red spider. Many people confuse it with spider mite but it is very fast moving and visibly red. I often see them in the tunnel and the conservatory. The real red spider mite pest you actually can't actually see, without a hand lens, and it shows itself by a sort of dusty, dry, silvering of the leaves, and if it is a very bad infestation, by dusty fine cobwebs on young shoots as well. Red spider hates humidity, so misting over any affected plants a couple of times a day with a fine mister spray is a good idea. If you get a bad infestation you will have to buy the predatory Phytoseilius. It is very effective - but as it costs around 40 euros for a decent sized greenhouse - you obviously want to avoid it if you can!
Climbing French Beans, early Broad Beans and Peas
Climbing French beans are a fantastically productive tunnel crop. You can always be sure of a good crop inside - even in a miserable summer. I grow the variety 'Cobra' (very cheap seed in B&Q) it's a round-podded stringless bean - actually an improved form of 'Blue Lake' and is fantastically reliable - both indoors and outside in the garden. I always grow a lot as it also freezes exceptionally well and it's nice to have a bit of a change from cabbages, leeks and chard in the winter! I sow two or three seeds (pre-sprouted on damp kitchen paper) into a recycled 500ml plastic yogurt pot or milk cartons, gently pulling out the weakest if three germinate, leaving two, planting them out when they have a good root-ball but just before they get too friendly and start winding round each other! Again, always watering from underneath by sitting the whole tray of seedlings in water for a few minutes rather than pouring water into their tops. They are also extremely susceptible to root rots at soil level. Milk cartons unzip very conveniently along the join in the carton and then I plant the whole pot out about a foot/30cm apart on a very slight mound made by making a depression between each set of plants. After that I always water between plants - again never against the base of the stem. Follow these instructions and I can promise you that you will not only fill your freezer but be giving away beans! The flat podded French beans don't freeze as well as the round ones, but have a very good flavour fresh and are very productive. I don't bother with dwarf beans in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same ground space but don't crop anything like as well.
What I term 'high-rise' crops are much better value for the space they take up in a tunnel, cropping skywards as they do - just as long as you stop them at the top of their canes or supports, leaving enough room for air to circulate well.
The flat-podded mangetout pea Oregon Sugar Pod will be cropping in about four weeks. The mangetout 'Delikett' won't be far behind those. Delikett is a deliciously sweet sugar snap (round podded) variety which never gets stringy, and goes on cropping for ages. When it gets really huge it can also be podded and the peas used separately. It crops really well in the tunnel from an early February sowing, as does Shiraz. I sow these quite thickly in large recycled plastic fruit punnets, I never bother spacing them out too well. about 8-10 punnets gives me a 10 foot row from a whole packet of seed. That works well, as I usually then give the 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean - pictured here - the other half of the row.
Originally from the HDRA seed library - now known as the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library - I've been re-selecting and saving seed of this fabulous flavoured one for well over 30 years now, re-selecting for traits like taller, heavier cropping plants. At one time it was extremely rare and one couldn't buy it - but several seed companies are selling it now - although I don't think they are as good as my selection which is quite improved from the one I originally got. It's not the biggest cropper, only four or five seeds to a pod, but it does produce a lot of pods on the now taller plants and has an incredible flavour - the best of any broad bean. The small undeveloped pods are nice too if picked early and cooked whole - they have the same flavour as the broad bean seeds. It's also extremely decorative and worth growing just for the flowers and perfume alone, which really hits you when you walk into the tunnel in the evenings. The best thing for me though - is that when it's flowering it's full of deliriously happy bees all day long! They love it just as much as I do!
Sweetcorn - inter-cropping (or cover cropping) with late celery or squashes
If you've got a large tunnel and have room for a small block or row of sweetcorn plants, they're much more reliable in the tunnel than outdoors in our wet summers, as a dry atmosphere at pollination time is vital. In Ireland we often get a wet spell just when the outside ones are producing their pollen - resulting either in very disappointing cobs or none at all! Although they do take up a lot of space, I often sow late self blanching celery now or in mid June - to plant between the sweetcorn plants for a late autumn/Christmas crop. Celery appreciates the shade of the sweetcorn as long as you don't let the soil dry out and will crop well all winter if you just snap off one or two stalks at a time rather than cutting the whole head. Celery is one of the things I can't do without in the kitchen, so I like to have my own available for as long as I can.
Sweet corn can also be sown now in a deep pot, again removing the weakest to leave two in the pot, then planting them out into the tunnel bed when they're about 6-8in/15cm high, about 18in - 2ft./45-60cm each way, that leaves room for the celery. Sweetcorn hates root disturbance so be careful not to break up the root ball when planting. They're a great crop to follow on after my extra early potatoes, the bed should have been well composted or manured for the potatoes, so both the sweet corn and the celery will be very happy with just a light dressing of a general organic fertiliser such as 'Osmo Universal' certified organic fertiliser granules. The celery is slower growing, and after the sweet corn has cropped, I just chop the stems off at the base with secateurs and let the celery grow on into the autumn. It should keep well until at least Christmas, and you can always leave some of the bare sweet corn stems cut at about 2ft/40cm if you like - to act as support for the fleece which you may need to cover the celery with in late autumn! By the way - when the sweetcorn is pollinating - make sure to go along the row and shake some of them - around midday if possible, to spread the pollen, as they're normally wind pollinated. This way you are guaranteed great crops.
You could alternatively grow pumpkins or squashes with your sweetcorn as long as they can trail outside the rows to get plenty of light - thus again ensuring two crops that need dry weather - in case we get another awful summer! In my experience, the famous '3 sisters' Native American way of combining them both with climbing beans as well, doesn't work here in Ireland! Amusingly trendy right now, and a great talking point for those who want to try - but frankly not a productive way to grow them here, either inside or outside. We don't have the same hot, dry summers and intense continental light that they have in the USA. Low cloud and warm grey mist can often be the best part of our summers here. At the end of the day - productivity is the whole point for me - as we aim to be as self-sufficient as possible and don't have space or energy to waste on unproductive crops just to be trendy and talk about!
Sweet Potatoes, Oca, Yacon and Mashua
Another great crop which makes a good break in the tunnel rotation is sweet potatoes. These aren't related to anything else so make a really good 'break' in the tunnel rotation and can be very productive if you know how to grow them. Some of the 'so-called experts' obviously don't however - as they tell you to plant them in very fertile soil! If you do that - all you'll get is a great crop of enormous leaves!! Ignore their advice and plant them in a deep, well-drained soil used by a previous crop - and only add a light dusting of seaweed meal before planting - then mulch with grass clippings or comfrey to keep any weeds down and water just to keep the soil moist after that. Never over-water or they can start to rot. I plant mine about 2 ft/60 cm apart and just leave them to ramble along the ground. They are quite happy there - forming extra roots along the stems which you can use for 'slips' - or cuttings later on. I've seen people train them up trellises - but those seem far too lusciously leafy to me to be very productive tuber-wise! I've tried them in large pots before but they weren't very happy - but a few years ago I tried them in my new 'skip bag' raised beds. They were incredibly happy - I think they loved the great depth of soil. I planted them following on from some 'extra-early' normal potatoes that I'd grown in the skip bag. Again planting them and adding only a little seaweed meal until starting to feed in August in the same way as those planted in the ground. They produced a huge crop and it's something I do every year now.
Now for my top sweet potato tip! In early August I start to feed the plants with a high potash tomato feed like Osmo liquid Tomato feed whenever I need to water them. This is because it's only after then that they start to develop their tubers, triggered by the shortening days, as they are 'day length sensitive' sub-tropical plants. They will they go on developing the tubers until the soil begins to cool or there is frost, so usually early November here. Outside in most areas of the UK and Ireland they would be pretty much a waste of time as it's usually far too cold and wet in the autumn and they stop growing too soon to give a really worthwhile crop. A few years ago, I successfully overwintered late autumn 'slips' in well drained, barely watered pots in the house. Last year I thought I would try to overwinter some in very well drained soil in the cold tunnel but lost the lot. They seem to be very prone to rotting under about 50degF/10degC. and won't even keep after harvesting unless I keep them in the house somewhere over that temperature. Some of the garden centres and multiples may have plants of 'Beauregarde' fairly soon - which is a good variety to grow. It has delicious deep orange flesh and is the most reliable for home gardeners. Johnstown Garden Centre had one called Bonita for the last two years, a white-fleshed variety which did very well and produced even bigger tubers than Beauregarde, and also one called Murusaki which was similar. Orleans is an improved form of Beauregarde - giving bigger tubers but less of them. Two years ago I tried a purple one which I don't know the name of sadly - I bought tubers from organic grower friend Denis Healy's farmers market stall and managed to root cuttings of it. I thought they were worth trying as I love the purple ones - they were from Spain, rather than further afield, and they did well in a polytunnel here.
Oca is another tender-ish crop which forms it's delicious lemony flavoured tubers in the late autumn- but beware - once you have grown it in the tunnel you will always have it as even the tiniest tubers will grow again the following year! That said - it's not really a thug, is easy to grow and like sweet potatoes is a good break crop. The small tubers are like floury lemon flavoured new potatoes - nice steamed and served with fish. You can also eat the delicious sharp flavoured leaves and pretty, small star-shaped yellow flowers in salads in moderation. Moderation is the key though - you don't want too much of it! Here's the reason -
Something that again some 'experts' fail to tell you - or may not even know, is that Oca is actually a member of the sorrel family and so is extremely high in oxalic acid - too much of which could give you kidney stones, if you are susceptible!Some garden writers who should know better, are now even suggesting it as the new alternative to potatoes - as a staple root crop that won't get blight. Even those who write about 'healthy eating' - which is quite astonishing! They clearly haven't done their research properly! I've done a lot of research over the years into the nutritional qualities of crops, as it's something I've always been interested in - especially with growing all of my family's food and also being fascinated by plants. Apart from the fact that you'd really never get big enough crops here outside - I would suggest that they are a rather dangerous 'staple' crop to eat every day instead of potatoes! A nice alternative occasionally - as an interesting side dish - but not worth risking on an every day basis!
Now for another of what I love to call the 'Emperor's New Clothes' plant -Yacon - that I'm pictured with above!! It is undoubtedly an extremely handsome plant - but as the old saying goes - looks aren't everything!It's the very latest 'must have' plant - even what I would call a garden 'fashion statement'! Everyone professes to love it and to get great crops from it - but frankly I don't believe them and I have no problem saying so! Particularly if they live in the British Isles! I suppose it depends what you call great crops though? A few years ago I tried Yacon plants in the tunnel. I've tried them outside before - but never got much of a crop as they also don't develop their tubers until the days shorten so they need a long warm autumn - not something we usually get here! At €28 per potted plant as seen in garden centres over the last few years - it would need to be an awful lot more than just good looking for me! Plants in my polytunnels have to really earn their space! It did produce a good bunch of tubers per plant and even flowered with small sunflower like blooms - but quite frankly it's a waste of time unless you have acres of spare tunnel space - and who has, except a botanic garden? I certainly don't - for me it's a waste of valuable tunnel space (a minimum 2/3 sq.metres per plant) and outside won't produce a worthwhile crop in our cold damp autumns anyway!
In addition to that - all the' experts' (there I go again) say it tastes of 'Granny Smith' crossed with mild pear(copying each other - having obviously read each others articles!) - now come on please! I reckon I have very good unspoiled taste buds, loving as I do on a totally organic, low salt diet and being a non-smoker, I can usually taste the most delicate flavours - but apple and pear? I don't think so!! At best - weak water chestnut - but yes, a lovely crunchy texture, I'll give you that! It's also being promoted as a less 'windy' alternative pre-biotic vegetable to Jerusalem artichokes. Now there's a veg with attitude - it certainly makes it's presence felt - or otherwise! It's cheap to buy, overwinters outside because it's as hardy as old boots and it's almost impossible to lose. What's not to like - apart from the fact that it's just not as fashionable!? And it also has a most fantastic nutty flavour - valuable and versatile in countless winter recipes. Give me Jerusalem Artichokes any time over Yacon! This year Yacon will be relegated to my Jungle garden - with all the other interesting foliage plants. It will look absolutely splendid there, and I will just appreciate it's admittedly exotic looks!! By the way - you can reduce the bloating or aerating (to put it politely!) effects of Jerusalem artichokes by cooking them with a little lemon juice, and also by getting your gut used to them gradually, by not eating a lot at first!
Beautiful but hot - tubers of Mashua or Anu
Mashua or Anu - this is another crop that's suddenly become fashionable - although it's very much an acquired taste for most to say the least! If you like Wasabi - then you'll love it! It's actually a type of climbing nasturtium - Tropaeolum tuberosum - so the leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads and are just as tasty as it's cousin the more ordinary annual nasturtium that we all know and love. The roots are the real crop though - and these are far higher in some cancer-fighting phytochemicals than any other members of the wider cabbage, or brassica family, to which they belong. They can be grated over salads, accompanied by a lot of oth er cooler-tasting greens and then they're not too explosive-tasting! I still don't think Gerry Kelly's forgiven me for getting him to nibble one a few years ago!!
The very strong, if not to say explosively hot, radish-tasting tubers are beautiful but not for the faint hearted! Not bad grated very sparingly raw in salads or even fermented in Kimchi - and in South America they are greatly prized when dried, stored and later cooked. I haven't tried doing that with them yet!
Tropaeolum tuberosum aka Anu or Mashua in flower -
Other Crops - Figs, Grapes and Strawberries
Ever-bearing or perpetual strawberries are another great tunnel crop. They will of course produce good crops outside - but they will crop for far longer and more heavily in a polytunnel! The biggest problem with them is the blackbirds, if I put up netting fine enough to keep the birds out - it keeps out the bees as well, which pollinate them! I try to find netting which is about a 1/4 the size of pea and bean netting, as that will only deter pigeons and pheasants. The blackbirds have perfected a 'hobby-like' last minute wing-folding dash as they aim at the squares of pea and bean netting - I've watched them do it countless times - and I have to admire their ingenuity, but not their greed! If they get into the tunnel they will try nearly every single one - pecking at them all until they find the very ripest. I think they must be the avian equivalent of 'Goldilocks'! Encouraging wildlife is all very well - but it has does have it's limits!! Albion, Mara de Bois and Everest are great-flavoured, heavy cropping varieties that all do well for me - cropping from May until November - and you can't ask more than that!
'Lakemont Seedless' grape - September ripening
All of the grapes are producing plenty of flower buds now, and on both seedless and seeded grapes the main work is pinching out shoots two leaves beyond potential bunches, leaving only one bunch per shoot if you want decent bunches or if the vine is young, or two bunches if they are seedless and you don't necessarily want huge grapes. Be careful not to pinch out the last two shoots needed for any extension growth of the main rod or stem. Keep roots moist, but don't over water.
In a normal year I'd be doing the second thinning of peach fruitlets this week - when they're already the size of large walnuts. At the moment they're still only the size of large peas - about 3 weeks behind due to the weather - that's when I normally do their first thinning now - to 2 ins apart. At the end of the month or when they're walnut sized - I'll thin them to 4ins/10cm apart. It's a fiddly job I really hate - taking off all that potential fruit! But if you don't thin - either the whole lot could drop off because the tree has too much to cope with, or you'll just get very small stony fruits. I want big luscious ones - so I thin them! Keeping them well watered now is important too.
The figs in pots are also developing fast and are being fed a high potash tomato feed, as they kept their embryo fruitlets well over the winter. The 'brega' crop (the term for the overwintered early crop) looks like being really good this year on all of the figs. Brogiotto Nero is looking the best - it's a black fig with deep violet coloured flesh and has the very best flavour I think - but they're all delicious if you're into figs as I am! I've got about 20 varieties now. Figs are very easy to propagate from cuttings or suckers as they aren't grafted and so are much easier to grow than many people think - as long as you're very strict with them! They must be kept under 'house arrest' and restricted in large pots. In the ground - particularly outside - they will just produce masses of leaves and no fruit unless you have them on a very sunny wall with their roots severely restricted in some way. Nice foliage plants in a jungle - but not very productive! 'Violetta', 'Brown Turkey', 'Brunswick', Califfo Blue, Sultane and Rouge de Bordeaux are some that all have a fast-developing 'breba' crop of baby figs currently. They will need to be kept moist and feeding at every other watering - particularly as I want another later crop in the autumn.
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else, but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing you can do about it." - ( A great piece of advice I was given many years ago!)
French bean Cobra and Sweet Corn Lark are just two of the reliable and delicious crops you could sow now directly into polytunnel soil.
Sow in a heated propagator, in a warm place, or directly in tunnel soil when it's warm enough - for polytunnel or greenhouse cropping, or for planting outside under cloches or fleece at the end of May you can now sow:
French beans, runner beans, sweet corn, courgettes, edamame (soy) beans, chick peas, cucamelons, gherkins, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can still sow cucumbers and tomatoes for late tunnel/greenhouse crops. Also 'soft' herbs such as basil, coriander, dill, Greek oregano (best for flavour), lovage, mints, parsley (giant flat-leaf Italian best flavour) Perilla (or Japanese beefsteak plant) and fennel, Alpine strawberries (Reugen is a good large-fruited variety).
Also Florence fennel and half-hardy single flowers such as Tagetes, single French marigolds, nasturtiums etc. for bees and butterflies - and to attract other beneficial insects like hoverflies etc. to help with pest control and pollination, both under cover and out in the garden.
It's really important to shade propagators and young seedlingsfrom strong sun at all times now to stop seedlings from cooking! - You can also switch off propagators during the day to save energy - even if shaded, on sunny days they will be plenty warm enough - but do make sure you remember to turn them on again well before it gets chilly in the evening, in case of unexpected frost..
Sow in modules if the weather is still too cold, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in the ground where they are to crop - if the weather and your ground conditions are suitable:
Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, all varieties of peas, savoy and other autumn/winter cabbages, all varieties of sprouting broccoli including calabrese and purple sprouting, cauliflowers, salad onions, Hamburg parsley, landcress, lettuces, perilla, orache, chicory, kohl-rabi, kales (those for cropping overwinter outside from the middle of May onwards), parsnips (early May) radishes, rocket, salsify, Swiss chards, spinach, turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. Asparagus peas, Cardoons, Good King Henry and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside under cloches now, and also from the middle of May, if the soil is warm enough, sweet corn, French and runner beans. Marrows, courgettes, pumpkins, ridge cucumbers and squashes can all be sown outside under cloches at the end of May, in warm areas.
Also sow some single annual flowers such as Sweet Alyssum (perennial in polytunnels, sowing itself freely), limnanthes (poached egg flower), cosmos, calendula, Californian poppies, Convulvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc. All of these will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds which will help with pest control, and also attract bees which help with crop pollination.
Sow fast-growing green manures like buckwheat, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations), lupins & red clover (legumes) and phacelia, to improve the soil by adding humus, to encourage beneficial microbes, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that won't be used for 6 weeks or more.
Although in theory you could sow almost everything outside in the garden now - except tender veg. like cucumbers etc. - our weather is so variable now that you must keep an eye on soil temperature and weather conditions!
Unless you've had ground covered with cloches or polythene so that soil is dry and really warm - then it's always much safer to sow in modules undercover in a greenhouse, polytunnel or cold frame to be sure of guaranteed results and to save wasting expensive seed. Also don't make the mistake of sowing too deep. This is one of the main reasons for seed not germinating. Never sow seed at more than twice it's own depth - and some seeds like celery and alpine strawberries actually prefer to be sown on the surface of compost, or only very lightly covered with something like vermiculite or sharp sand which allows light to filter in.
The soil in some areas is still cold after the recent frosts & heavy rain. A late frost could destroy newly emerged seedlings of tender crops like French beans even under cloches. Seed is expensive and you can't afford to waste it. You can't afford to waste time now either, by possibly losing any sowings made at this time of year - especially now, as with the sudden increase in people growing their own food due to the COVID19 - pandemic, seed has become almost impossible to get!. Many important staple winter and storage crops need to be sown this month - and if they fail it may well be too late to sow them again, even if you can get seed. Although the sun is strong now and sunny days are warm, there can still be seriously damaging night frosts at beginning of this month.
In the tunnel you can plant tender veg like sweet potato 'slips' in pots this month - or in the ground if it's reliably warm enough, but I always prefer to get mine growing really well in pots first, as it gives them a better start. They need a long season as they don't bulk up until late, very frost tender and hate cold, wet ground. You can also plant Oca and Mashua tubers in pots now - again to plant out later, at the end of May or early June - or to plant directly into tunnel soil. The small growing tubers of Yacon can also be planted now in the tunnel or in pots to plant outside later. They are just starting into growth now.
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)