Salads in a large pot will start to crop in 6-8 weeks if sown now - and my stepladder salad garden and recycled skip-bag raised beds will fit onto a path
Veg Without Limits - Container Growing
First - sincere apologies to anyone who was listening to my radio feature yesterday on growing in containers - it was cut a bit short unexpectedly due to the pressure of so many fast-evolving, incoming news items about Covid-19. I was taken a bit by surprise myself, as we normally do a much longer feature, but with everyone at LMFM Radio working from home, it must be incredibly difficult to co-ordinate everything, and well done to all of them for coping so well right now. Anyway here is what we were going to talk about - some of which I did get time to mention on the show - but all of it now in much more depth than would have been possible on air, even in the time we normally have. If you're growing something for the first time, I hope you will find this blog post useful. If it seems a bit disjointed or there are repetitions in some places further on - apologies again, because the second part of it was sort of 'stitched together' in a hurry, not just from my programme notes for yesterday, and also from several older blog posts.
I think that the Corona-virus pandemic will undoubtedly have an effect on the mental health of all of us - to a greater or lesser degree. Gardening can be extremely therapeutic, and in these stressful times, growing even a small amount of our own healthy food feels such a positive thing to do. It's not just that for a while it distracts us, while we concentrate mindfully on what we're doing. If we're also gardening outside in the fresh air, using an organic compost or some healthy living soil, then additionally it means that we are breathing in the naturally beneficial soil microbe Mycobacterium vaccae - which has been scientifically proven to help lift our mood, and make us feel more positive, by stimulating our brains to release Serotonin - the 'feel-good' hormone. If gardening can help to alleviate the stress which we're all experiencing right now even slightly - then it's surely got to be a positive thing. Enjoying our first homegrown produce is also an experience like nothing else - but that thrill of achievement and satisfaction never goes away, no matter how long one does it. I hope for some that this blog post may be the start of an absorbing and satisfying habit that could last a lifetime. For other, more experienced gardeners, I hope this may give you some more ideas for getting that little bit more out of your space - and space is something us gardeners never seem to have enough of for everything that we want to grow!
This year I'm unable to grow as much outside in the garden as usual, with my ankle surgery having been postponed due to hospitals having cancelled all elective surgery in order to make more space for patients with Covid-19. As a result, I'm prioritising container-growing of certain veg which either I know I wouldn't be able to buy in shops, or those which are eaten fresh and uncooked, like salads. This is not just because homegrown is much fresher, but also to avoid any contamination with the virus, as far as is humanly possible. I generally prioritise salad growing, as they are all so much better for us when eaten as fresh as possible, and picked just prior to eating - which you can only really do if you grow them yourself.
A couple of weeks ago, while doing extensive research trying to discover how long it was estimated the virus might last on fresh produce, I found a very concerning study which was carried out in 2013, on the SARS and MERS Corona Viruses, which are both related to but slightly less virulent than Covid-19, and which also included the influenza virus. The study showed that they can all survive for up to 10 days on fresh, uncooked produce such as lettuce or strawberries - those fresh foods which we are encouraged to eat the most of for health reasons! The virus can only be killed either by cooking or washing thoroughly, with soap or disinfectant - neither of which you can obviously do with soft produce like lettuce or strawberries, but which you could possibly do with harder produce like apples or peppers. As a result - I feel that erring on the side of caution, and treating any fresh produce you haven't grown yourself as if it may potentially be contaminated, is the most sensible option. It's better to be safe than sorry - especially when so much of the veg in shops is either imported from abroad, or even grown and packed in our own country by people who may not yet be unwell, but who could perhaps be carrying the illness in a mild form as someone as some are, or may be developing it - when it can be spread to others before one is aware that one may even be ill. It is for that reason that I think growing your own fresh salads which you will eat raw has never been more important
It's most important to stress here that as far as we know and I can ascertain from extensive research - NONE of these viruses can survive in properly cooked food. But while I don't want to panic anyone - no one currently seems to be highlighting the possible surface contamination of fresh produce as a potential source of infection, as far as I've seen. Evidence also shows that it can be passed on through contaminated faecal matter - so once again it's absolutely vital to stress the importance of repeated and effective hand-washing. If you're preparing food that will be eaten uncooked, or even after you've prepared any fresh produce that will be cooked - wash your hands thoroughly before you do touch ANYTHING else! I know we're already probably thoroughly sick of hearing it - but it can't be repeated often enough, if it may save lives.
So What can you grow in Containers - if you don't have a Garden?
This is something which I'm asked about a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is - quite a lot! Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, or outside in the garden - you can grow in containers - but obviously just on a smaller scale. You won't be self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and fruit by growing it all in containers - but you'd be surprised at just how much you CAN grow! If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again! You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two? Some people live in a flat which may have a balcony - and that can be a very useful space. So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything". Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a windowsill or balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be far fresher than anything you could buy, a lot healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy-looking pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill! If you've got a path with room to walk on - then the good news is that you've got room to grow at least some healthy salad veg in containers.
So What Type of Containers are Suitable?
Basically you can use anything which will hold enough depth of soil and has a few holes for drainage. Plants like lettuce, spinach and many other salads are quite happy with about 6 ins/15cm of compost or soil, because they make a very fine mass of fine roots which spread out - rather than a long single 'tap' root. But the deeper it is the better - then you won't have to water and feed plants as often. I grew my whole veg garden in containers 40 years ago, before we moved here, because I had a severely allergic child who needed chemical-free, organic food. In those days organic veg wasn't available in shops anywhere - so I had no choice! In the second year as I got better at container gardening - I grew French and runner beans in strong carrier bags and froze 40 pounds of them! Granted I spent a lot of my time feeding and watering - but we were pretty much self sufficient in veg. As I was at home with two toddlers then and not working - I had plenty of time then compared to now. It's amazing what spaces you can find to grow things in if you're determined - and it's great fun experimenting! Even though I have a large garden now - I still love to find new ways of growing things!
For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year! I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg department of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit onto each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them.
I've tried growing almost everything in the mushroom boxes and some veg do better than others. Most things are happy in them as long as they get enough food and water - even small, stump-rooted varieties of carrots - but veg with long roots that go deep, like parsnips, large cabbages and leeks don't like them, they need deeper containers like old dustbins or skip bags to grow happily. It would cost far too much to fill these up with just compost, but you can fill up to 2/3rds of larger containers with any garden or kitchen waste which you would normally put into a compost heap. Things like twiggy prunings, annual weeds, veg peelings, newspapers and cardboard are suitable, and also grass clippings - as long as they are from a lawn which hasn't been treated with weedkillers. The bonus is - that in a few month's time, all that stuff will have mostly broken down into perfect compost, which you can either add material and then another top layer of potting compost to grow more plants in - or you can tip it all out to use somewhere else in the garden or sieve and use in another container as the top layer.
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago. I also put a couple of large 10 litre buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew! Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?" route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows!
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath-Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy!
You don't need a polytunnel for container growing - but if you want to grow more tender veg like tomatoes, aubergines or cucumbers, you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets very cheaply. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could even make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store! They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them!
If you don't have much space - there's really no point growing things like carrots and potatoes which you will still be able to buy in shops.
So What Varieties are Good for Growing in Containers?
Lettuce - loose-leaf types like oakleaf and Lollos will give you the longest harvest by picking individual leaves rather than the whole head. Cheap lettuce mixes usually contain these and other varieties.
Summer spinach - very fast-growing and can crop in 4 weeks as baby leaves at this time of year.
Radishes everyone knows - but not many people know they can be sauteed in butter when they're delicious!
Perpetual spinach beet and Swiss chard are some of the most productive and nutritious veg. They need a shady spot and a deep container, but will go on cropping for months if well watered and fed.
Courgettes - can be sown now for growing inside or in late April for outside. They like plenty of root room, so a skip bag or dustbin is best for them.
Tomatoes - bush varieties Maskotka and Tumbler both have terrific flavour and are easy. There's still just time to sow those for a good crop this summer here. But you could also beg a cutting of a side shoot of any tomato variety from a friend, root it in a jar of water in a few days and grow it on in a large container even in a sunny porch.
Broccoli - grows well in bucket-sized containers. Green Magic is a great variety,continually producing sweet side shoots after the main head is harvested, if you keep feeding and watering it.
Kales - also grow well this way, are fast-growing and can be harvested as baby leaves.
Oriental seed mixes containing veg like mustard, Mizuna, Pak Choi etc are very fast-growing and productive.
All herbs are happy in containers and if you don't want to grow them from seed - you can buy herb plants in supermarkets - where they are generally cheaper than in garden centres. You can also split pots of basil and coriander to give yo several plants from one potful. Don't split parsley though - as this can make it bolt or run up to seed.
Potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes also grow well in large containers.
Watercress - easy to root from the shoots found in salad bags - just pop into water for a few days - they'll sprout roots fast which can be planted into a container. Keep well-watered after that and it will produce harvests literally forever - as it is a perennial plant that can be constantly reproduced from cuttings.
There's just a few ideas for you!
A word here about sowing seeds generally. It's worth taking a little bit of time and trouble to be really careful with sowing seeds, so as not to waste them. They're as precious as gold dust right now - some small suppliers have already sold out, or can't keep up with the demand for sorting and posting them. Some garden centres or nurseries may still have seed or even small plants of vegetables like tomatoes or lettuces - but some have already closed here in Ireland. Even if you're growing in containers, to avoid wasting seed it's worth starting them off in modules of a good quality, preferably peat-free, seed compost. For best results, don't use a multi-purpose one which says you can sow seeds in it but which will often give disappointing results, or may possibly even kill some sensitive seeds due to too much artificial nutrient, or even high levels of nitrogen in an organic compost. When potting on or planting in your containers - you can use a compost which says it's specifically a 'potting' compost. This will contain more nutrients which will sustain plants for longer, before they will need further feeding.
Just a warning - I've seen some people online recommending the use of mushroom compost for preparing vegetable beds and planting vegetables. If you are trying to avoid toxic chemicals and grow organically DON'T use it! It will contain very nasty chemicals which are used in the compost to kill fungus flies - the most common pest of mushroom growing. Not only that - but the 'substrate' or growing medium will have been made using non-organic straw which has already been treated many times with seriously toxic pesticides including Glyphosate. While this may not show up as damage to your produce, the various combinations of most of these many chemicals have never been tested to determine their effects on our bodies when we consume them, the only tests which have been done show that just Glyphosate, combined with the adjuvant always used in commercial formulations to make them more effective, makes the Glyphosate itself at least 1,000 times more toxic! Although it may be tempting - long and sometimes bitter experience has taught me that it's false economy to use cheap, DIY chain composts containing peat and artificial fertilisers as they are not a natural medium for plants. I won't talk about the environmental reasons for not using peat composts here, as I do that elsewhere on this blog.
When you've been growing in any compost for a few weeks, as plants get bigger they will need some extra feeding as the compost in small containers will quickly become exhausted. especially when plants start to crop. I make a very nutrient-rich worm compost which is excellent for that purpose, but if you don't have room - there are several good organic liquid feeds which are suitable. Osmo is the one I always recommend, as I have had great results with it when growing in containers - especially when I grew 48 different varieties of tomatoes for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival which I founded in 2012 - but there are others. Osmo also make an excellent and very convenient granular organic fertiliser, but it comes in very large bags - although you could share these with another gardening friend. I buy my organic peat-free seed compost and potting compost from White's Agri in Lusk, who are also the main Irish distributors for Osmo products. I called them a few days ago to ensure that they are still open to gardeners. They also have a website which takes online orders for delivery.
On the bench pictured here I have two cheap Lidl cold frames sitting on a roll-out heated mat - which is a bit like an electric blanket - (from Fruit Hill Farm). It keeps things at a 'just warm enough' 50/55 degF or 10 degC. The mat sits on a recycled door supported by trestles. To cover then at night I roll out double fleece and a large piece of recycled bubble wrap. So as you can see - it's not very hi-tech but it's actually very effective! This is a great set-up for growing large amounts of seedlings - but you won't need anything like this for growing in containers.
The advice below is repeated from earlier blogs I've written - so although I've amended it in places - you may find some repetition, but it remains exactly the same and can't be repeated often enough if you want good results! In a normal year, from March until about June, most garden centres will have module-raised lettuce and other veg plants, so if you're a beginner you can get used to growing the veg plants first, without the hassle of raising stuff from seed - also good news for any of us who are late starters in the vegetable growing season. But this year, as I've already said - both plants and seeds are selling out fast because people naturally want to ensure some food security due to the worries generated by the Covid-19 situation - so buy any plants or seeds and get sowing asap!
My General advice for Sowing all Seeds:
You can raise most plants on windowsills, but contrary to what many people think - sunny windowsills are not the best - as most seeds are quite happy to germinate at a temperature of around 60 degF or 15 deg Celcius. If you put seed trays on a sunny windowsill, on a warm day even in March the temperature can shoot up dangerously high very quickly and literally cook seeds! Young seedlings are also far better off on a cooler windowsill - perhaps with a backing of tin foil behind them to reflect light so that they don't become too tall, leggy and weak. As soon as the weather is not freezing - everything but tomatoes and other tender seedlings will be fine outside
If you're impatient to get an early start, you can steal a march on spring and sow a few early seeds now if you have a warm light enough windowsill indoors, or much better still a heated propagator in a greenhouse or polytunnel where the light will be better. You can sow your seeds now in pots or modules for planting outside later on - there's a list on the "What you can sow" page. Even if the 'gardening itch' hasn't got to you yet this year and you don't want to start quite this early - then it's a good idea to have everything ready to go when you do. I love sowing seeds - it's such a hopeful and positive thing to do - it's an investment in the future, short or long term, that pays off in abundance. A great many of the things that need to be sown in the next few weeks we'll be eating this time next year.
This is the start of the most important time of year for seed sowing - and the same advice applies whether you only have a cold frame or just a warm windowsill. At the moment the soil is saturated everywhere outside - far too cold and wet to attempt to sow anything outdoors - and even by the end of the month I doubt if it will be much better unless the weather improves a lot. So there's no point wasting expensive seed by sowing it into cold wet ground. It's not really until early March that any sun is strong enough to even begin to warm the soil at all for sowing - and when it is you'll begin to see weed seeds germinating, which is always the best guide. If the soil's warm enough for them - then it's plenty warm enough for some of the the hardier crops to germinate. I sow nearly all my crops in modules now though - as that allows me to get ahead whatever the weather, which means I can plan better, and it helps to make the most of valuable growing space. Obviously the most important thing to do is always adapt any guidelines to suit your own local climate and soil. That can vary hugely depending on exactly where in the country you live - and often even in individual gardens in the same area. For instance - early spring can arrive in the very north of Ireland up to three weeks later than in the warmer south - and the same goes for the UK. Even within a few miles it can vary surprisingly. Where I live now - 400 feet above sea level on a south west facing slope in the teeth of the prevailing SW wind - the season is at least ten days later than where I lived 35 years ago - down near the sea only 9 miles away.
I sow most things in modules all year roundnow - as itwastes far less seed and I know I can be more sure of the results! The only exception to this would be root crops like parsnips or carrots - which are really much easier to sow direct in the ground, if you can protect them from hungry slugs!. I only sow these into my recycled 'loo roll middle' modules if I want to make a really early start - or if their allotted space isn't free yet. As I mention later - doing this really makes the best use of your space, as the minute you have a crop cleared - you have another ready and waiting to be planted. By sowing in modules you're not spending time waiting for seed to germinate in ground which early in the year may be far too wet and cold. Carrots and parsnips like quite a warm seedbed and can be very slow and even rot if the ground is too cold. They can also take up to three weeks to appear and with carrots - the tiny early seed leaves are so fine that they're quite difficult to see - so often slugs will have eaten them before you've even noticed they were actually germinating!
If you're planning to sow any crops early outside perhaps in March, and their planned space is free at the moment - then it's a good idea to cover it with some black polythene or something else waterproof now (it should be covered anyway if you've been following my advice!) Then you can uncover it every so often and clear up any slugs which are lurking around just underneath and get ahead of them too! You'll be amazed how many you'll find hiding under there - they won't bother going underground if they can hide in the dark somewhere damp and snug and they think they're out of sight!
If you leave soil uncovered, as some people advocate - the slugs also just hide underground or around edges of beds. They've evolved to hide from hungry birds and hedgehogs - not hungry gardeners! So be clever and outsmart them - it's always a good idea to trap and dispose of as many slugs as possible before you actually start the growing season - that gets you well ahead ahead of the game! Please don't be lazy and thoughtlessly use slug pellets - they kill all slug-eating wildlife too and traces of the poisonous metaldehyde they contain are increasingly being found in our drinking water as well! If you have ducks they're the very best slug hunters of the lot - they seem to have slug radar in the tips of their beaks - and they'll even eat the really big Spanish ones like rubber tyres which hens won't eat. But beware - as ducks are also extremely fond of anything edible, luscious and green - so don't let them near any lettuces etc. Also be careful if your soil is a heavy clay as they'll pack it down with their webbed feet - causing compaction, 'souring' and acidification - so don't leave them on any patch of ground for too long. After you've sown crops - a strip of black polythene, or a piece of slate at various points along the bed will give any remaining slugs a place to hide - so that you can then go along every so often, scoop them off and dispose of them - or cut them up with sharp scissors and leave them for wildlife to enjoy! When you've got rid of most of the slugs, then you can put some clear polythene on to the bed. This will allow the soil underneath to warm up so that it's all ready. If you see any weed seeds germinating at this point - a flame weeder can be very useful for burning off any tiny seedlings to make what's known as a 'stale seedbed' - which is perfectly clean on the surface and ideal for carrots and other small seeds.(If you're of a nasty frame of mind - a flame weeder's also great for barbecueing slugs!) Remember - weedkillers aren't just toxic - they don't actually kill weed seeds, so they're pointless poisoning!
Seed Sowing in Modules
(This applies to all vegetables, herbs and flowers, whether they're for planting outside later, or for under cover - whatever the time of year.)
It may seem a bit fiddly sowing things into modules like plug trays, pots, or seed trays, but it's what I call my 'guaranteed one-step method to perfect plants'!This method of sowing means you don't have to handle them again until you actually plant them out. Seed germination is far more reliable in the better conditions. I do most of my sowing into modules all year round now. It means I'm not waiting for a patch to be free before I can sow seeds - and I can have something ready to go straight into the ground the minute any crop is cleared - that way I get loads more veg. out of my space. In essence what I'm doing is continuously overlapping crops. By not taking up ground just waiting for seeds to germinate - over the course of a year I gain several extra weeks of growing time out of my ground space and I can fit in another quick growing crop. I've been doing this for years since I first started off in a small garden and it's an even more valuable way to grow things if you only have a small space.
Module sowing also involves far less handling of the seedlings and avoids the risks of 'pricking out' seedlings from large seed trays - the less you handle them, the less chance there is of wasting seed through possible damage, which can cause setbacks, fungal diseases or even death. The only time when I would sow a few seeds into pots or small seed trays might be when seeds need a much higher temperature for germination - things like aubergines or tomatoes. I otherwise wouldn't have enough space for everything in the small heated propagator - because I grow so many. The other really great thing about module sowing is that I can do all my seed sowing inside on the kitchen table - in the warm! I keep all the 'doings' neatly on a grow bag tray under the table - then whenever I have five minutes - I just pull it out and sow something! For me, this also means that things are far more likely to get sown at the right time. I don't have to plan to set aside a whole day to do it all at once - making it much easier to fit into a very busy life! Remember - you can catch up on everything else - but if you don't sow the seeds at the right time - there's no catching up on that. Time waits for no man! (or woman!)
Planting out modules when they're ready also means that the plants are already growing strongly, are bigger and as a result better able to withstand the occasional nibble from any slugs or other pests without being completely destroyed. And there's always one or two that escape my early scissor forays! I often get questions from people who think they bought bad seed and it didn't germinate - but usually the reason seeds don't appear is because either the soil was too cold and wet in early spring so they rotted, or they dried out in summer, or slugs ate them as they came up! Sowing into modules avoids all those problems. Bad seed that doesn't germinate at all is thankfully extremely rare. Whatever pot or module you choose to sow in is up to you, there are masses of things which can be recycled for this purpose, and as usual the choice is only limited by one's imagination! The important thing is to make sure they're clean, have good drainage holes in the bottom and that the young plants will come out quite easily, without disturbing the root ball if you gently push them up from the bottom - otherwise you lose the whole point of modules - which is to avoid any disturbance which causes setbacks!
Just a word on using loo roll middles as pictured above. I find these brilliant for long rooted things like very early carrots and parsnips because they can be planted out intact as they are - completely avoiding root disturbance - but I don't find them quite as good for other things like lettuce or other leafy crops which have a fine root ball - I think this is because the cardboard rolls are so high in carbon - which needs nitrogen to break down naturally - so it tends to rob this from the surrounding soil or compost as it does so - and also possibly any young plant that is growing in them.
The other thing to remember about using cardboard tubes like loo roll middles is that they MUST be planted with the cardboard of the loo roll BELOW soil level - if exposed to the air they will act like a wick, drying out and shrinking - evaporating moisture from around the young plants ans fine roots with possibly disastrous results! The same goes for using paper pots. I get a lot of questions about this from people who have tried i and had disappointing results - but I've never seen anyone mentioning the danger of this happening. I know it does take a little extra compost sowing this way, but sowing into modules also means I don't waste expensive seed - which more than balances out the small cost of the extra compost used. It also means I have larger plants ready to go without losses to slugs. That again also means that I can plan the use of space much better - planting out neat, attractive-looking rows, instead of perhaps having unsightly gaps! I really love that kind of instant potager gardening. It's very satisfying to stand back and look at the results!
The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost
It makes sense to use a good proprietary organic peat-free seed compost - NOT a multipurpose compost containing peat! A good peat-free seed compost will have been specially formulated to be suitable for tiny seedlings for their first few weeks when their tiny hair-like roots are very sensitive - and is worth it's weight in gold! Many seedlings dislike a high nutrient content in composts - so using one specifically for seed sowing is really important - otherwise too high a nutrient content in the compost could inhibit germination, giving disappointing results. I never found those 'seed & potting' multi-purpose peat composts good for that particular reason when I had no choice but to use them many years ago. They also tend to attract root-eating soil pests too - because all composts containing peat do that! I haven't used them for many years as I only use an organic peat-free compost now.
Peat is only a natural medium for plants which grow in bogs - and it should stay in the bogs where it belongs! Using it is a very selfish choice! It supports enormous biodiversity and also acts a very effective carbon sink. It should not be be dug up for the convenience of thoughtless gardeners who are just looking for the cheapest option - especially when growing your own food actually saves so much money anyway! In terms of damage to the planet and accelerating climate change - using peat certainly isn't the cheap option eventually! Any short term financial gain from using cheap, easily available peat is wiped out many times by the loss of important habitat for biodiversity, and also the inevitable flooding caused by reducing the land's water-holding capacity. Bogs act like enormous sponges - capturing rainfall and slowing up huge volumes of water that would otherwise immediately run off the land surface, overwhelming natural drainage systems and flooding not just farmland but also peoples houses and gardens.,
As I've mentioned previously - I use a really good, peat free, certified organic compost. This is available in Ireland from Fruit Hill Farm - (call them for local stockists - getting one bag by post is expensive!). It's also available from White's Agri, at Ballough, Lusk. The compost is produced by Klassman in Germany, from composted organic green waste. It's utterly brilliant and is the very best compost of any sort that I've found in over 40 years of growing. It's also available in the UK, and it's worth investigating if you live there. There are a quite a few other peat-free organic composts available there now too - but I haven't tried them, so can't recommend them. I would always prefer an organic compost - as those containing artificial fertilisers don't produce the most healthy plants in my experience. They are far more likely to attract aphids and other pests as the plant's immune defence systems aren't as healthy. Once you've used the Klassman - I promise you won't ever use anything else! (I wish I had shares in it!) .It's the best compost of any sort that I've ever used. Whether you're organic or not - believe me - this compost is worth every cent! Plants really thrive in it - I think possibly because it contains a good range of beneficial bacteria, having been made with organically grown green waste, composted specifically for this purpose. But whichever brand you choose, don't use a potting compost for sowing seeds - it will be far too high in nutrients that inhibit germination and burn the roots of the tiny seedlings as soon as they emerge. They may then be sickly, or possibly even keel over and die! I grow a lot of rare plants - many of which are fussy and the seed expensive. I can't afford to risk wasting seed. These days no one can - so always go for a reliable, good quality seed compost - and choose peat free preferably - if you care about the environment.
In addition - make sure that any compost is this year's freshly-delivered batch of compost too! Not old, saturated compost that's been sitting around outside in the garden centre all winter since the previous year! That would be stale, will have lost many of it's nutrients and may well harbour moulds and diseases. I always make sure that I have a couple of spare bags put by in a dry place so that I have plenty for early sowings the following year. Also don't use garden soil for sowing in pots - it's false economy - especially if you're a beginner gardener. It will contain weed seeds and perhaps pests too, and the texture is unlikely to be suitable for sowing small seeds in pots or modules. I know good compost isn't cheap - but actually most bags these days cost no more than two or three packets of seeds and you won't need a huge amount. If you're careful a little will go a very long way, and you'll get far better results. You'll avoid wasting expensive seed and precious time too.
Another point I'd like to mention here is that although some gardeners in the UK don't like using British produced peat composts - some of them don't seem have a problem using Irish extracted peat. I just don't understand that 'NIMBY' attitude, because it's every bit as damaging to the environment and to biodiversity, and releases just as much climate-changing carbon which affects the whole planet. So please have a re-think if that applies to you! I think it's a bit like thoughtlessly throwing away your rubbish out of the car window and ensuring that it becomes someone else's problem!
Remember the piece of advice"Whatever else you don't get time for - always sow the seed - you can catch up on everything else except that". - One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given - well worth remembering - and another good reason for sowing in modules so that you're not delayed by the weather or by waiting for another crop to be finished. This is often something that's really hard to remember in the middle of summer, when you're enjoying an abundance of glorious vegetables! If you don't sow many things in June, July and August - you'll have very little to eat in the winter! Don't spend ages waiting around to get ground perfectly ready either, particularly in a wet year, or you may find it's then too late to sow the seed. Sow the seed first, in modules if necessary, and then catch up with all the other jobs later while your seedlings are growing on nicely somewhere else, until they're big enough for planting.
Seed sowing - the basics
It's stating the obvious to repeat that most seed these days is expensive - a little care will make your seed go a lot further and therefore your money too!My apologies to all you 'old timers' out there like me who know all this stuff - but maybe you may actually do it differently - and there's no harm in reassessing the way we do things occasionally is there? Gardening is an occupation where you never stop learning, that's what makes it so interesting.
1. First fill your modules, pots or whatever with good seed compost, firming it gently but not ramming it down too hard. Then make suitably sized small depressions in the top of each one with the end of a old pencil, pen, or whatever's handy. Seed differs in the depth it prefers to be sown, so consult your seed packet on this one, there isn't enough room here! Generally I find a depression of about 1/2-1 cm is suitable for module sowing of most things depending on the size of the seed. A very rough rule of thumb though is to sow at about twice the depth of the seed. As some really fine seed like celery or Nicotiana prefers to be sown on the surface and not covered at all - If you're going to sow very fine small seed it's a good idea to water the containers before sowing, to avoid washing tiny seed either too deeply into the compost, or alternatively washing it completely out of the compost! Some brands of seed composts can be quite difficult to wet if they've become exceptionally dry - so when sowing anything it's probably a idea good to moisten all composts a bit first - and letting any excess drain away.
2. Next, after you've prepared your modules, before you even handle the seed packet make sure your hands are absolutely clean and dry! Don't attempt to open the packet with dirty wet hands from preparing your compost, soil or whatever! Unless you're going to sow all the seed at once, which is unlikely, you need to take care that the atmosphere around the remaining seed in the packet is as dry and clean as possible. Most people with average-sized gardens won't need to sow a whole packet of seed at once - despite what the packet tells you! (obviously they're trying to sell seed!) When you've taken all the seed you need, squeeze as much air out as possible, seal with sellotape, write on the date it was opened, and store somewhere really cool and dry. Most seed except carrot and parsnip will last well for at least a couple of years this way. People always say "but the experts say store them in the fridge" - all I can say is those 'experts' must have nothing else in their fridges - or have dedicated seed fridges! Since when were most household fridges absolutely bone dry? But then perhaps yours is a bit tidier than mine! Frankly - I'd sooner tidy my polytunnel any day than my fridge!
3. When you're opening the packet of seed, make sure that all the seed is shaken down to the bottom first. Then slit it open with a sharp knife or with scissors rather than just tearing off the top - this makes it much easier to do up neatly again afterwards. The seed may also be in a 'stay-fresh' foil packet inside the paper packet, so open that carefully too, then when you've finished, re-seal afterwards in the way described. It always says on the packet "Do not re-seal" - pay no attention whatsoever to that! Seeds will just absorb atmospheric moisture far more easily if you don't re-seal them properly - then you'll have to buy more seed because it won't germinate nearly as well!
4. Tip a very small amount of seed - slightly less than you think you'll need - into the dry palm of your hand or onto a saucer and carefully sow the amount you want into each module. Never put seed back in if you've tipped out too much into your hand, unless your hand is very clean and dry! I sow lettuce, brassicas etc. in two's or three's thinning to the strongest one when the seed leaves (cotyledons) are fully expanded and there's one 'true' leaf just showing, then you can judge which is the strongest, or if any are 'blind'(which can sometimes happen with cabbage family/brassicas in particular) - then pull the others out very gently and carefully. Beetroot or chards can be sown singly - they are multi-seeded - producing several seedlings in a clump from just one lumpy seed, which you don't have to thin too much unless you want to - I never do - I normally leave three chards in a clump! They grow perfectly well as normal - and I'm greedy! Some modern F1 varieties of beetroot are 'mono-seeded' - these are useful if you just want one seed per station and bigger roots eventually - but the seed is usually much more expensive and I don't want massive roots. I prefer medium sized or baby beets to pickle or roast - so I use normal varieties and I leave them in clumps of 3 or 5. They will push each other apart quite happily as they grow and find their own growing space.
I sow my onions in 3's, 5's or 7's according to what size I want them to grow to. The more you sow into the module, and the closer you grow them on, the smaller the onions will obviously be. Three seeds to a module sown in early to mid March will generally give me onions of around 4-5oz - a medium size which I generally find are the most useful for the kitchen. Red Baron onions I sow in 5's as I like smaller whole red onions for roasting. They're planted out later about 20-30cm apart in late March or early April. They will then push each other apart quite happily as they grow, giving you a much bigger, more reliable crop. Early carrots (a small pinch) and parsnips (in 3's) can be sown into loo roll or 1/2 kitchen roll middles and easily planted out carefully using a long trowel later. Peas and beans can be sown in large yogurt pots - as shown on the polytunnel page and here - also 1/2 milk cartons, fruit punnets etc - all with good drainage holes made in them. You can see how I sow mine in the polytunnel diary as well. Some people sow into old half drainpipes but I find they're too shallow, they don't have much root room, then if planting out is delayed by bad weather, as it often is at this time of year, plants may get a setback and won't crop as well as they should later on. The roots can often go along instead of down.The RHS recommends shallow drainpipes with holes drilled into them - but again delays can be a problem and the roots may start coming through the drainage holes - making it harder to slide them out easily and possibly tearing roots off when you try to slide them out. The peas and beans pictured above here are growing in a variety of recycled containers in mid-February
5.Cover the smaller vegetable seedswithvermiculite, which is available in all good garden centres now in small packs (if it's too much, split it with a friend - it lasts years as it's sterile and you don't need that much). This promotes really good drainage and air circulation around seedlings which is vital and usually avoids nasty 'damping off' diseases, which can otherwise be a big problem with early seedlings in particular (but never in peat-free composts). Sit the seed tray, pots or modules in a tray of water for a few seconds (new cat litter trays are a good size for standard seed trays, and much cheaper than something similar sold in garden centres!) but don't let the modules or trays get saturated. If by mistake they do - then a good tip is to sit them on a folded up newspaper with a bit of kitchen paper on top, which acts like blotting paper to draw out excess moisture - newspaper on it's own doesn't work quite so well. Don't forget that if things are too wet - even if they're warm - they're far more likely to rot. Bigger seeds like peas and beans can be covered with compost and then watered from above initially. I put my early peas and beans onto damp kitchen paper on a covered plate or tray somewhere warm to germinate them first. Usually the back of my range cooker where I can keep an eye on them. This is particularly good for French beans later on in spring - which can be very prone to rotting if sitting in wet compost for too long. I then put the sprouted seeds into a pot in the usual way and cover them with seed compost. I then water them lightly at first, again making sure I don't saturate!
6.Cover the seed tray or modules after sowing by putting in a clear polythene bag, under a sheet of clingfilm or glass to keep them moist and stop them drying out, and put them in a suitably warm place. Check the optimum germination temperature on the seed packet - as not everything likes to be too warm. This particularly applies to lettuces and spinach. Then check every day for germination, and as soon as they appear, uncover them immediately and put them into good light - but not strong sunlight as this could burn them and kill them very quickly. If they're in the house on a windowsill, turn them round a bit every day so all the seedlings get equal light to prevent them getting etiolated (or drawn up and spindly), which weakens them and makes them much more prone to disease. You could also make a light reflector of tin foil fixed to a couple of barbecue skewers at the back of the pot as I used to years ago! At night then bring them into the room before you close the curtains otherwise they could be frost damaged. If they're in a cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel outside, shade them lightly from very bright midday sun - which can be surprisingly strong through glass, even at this time of year. Again, do make sure they're protected from frost at night with fleece suspended over them - not resting on them - or newspaper. Wire hoops are useful for this, also recycled old freezer baskets, a propagator lid or cloches etc.
7. Always water trays of young growing seedlings from underneath when necessary - sitting them in a tray as described above, using clean, ambient temperature water if possible. Watering them from above with a watering can again encourage damping off diseases. I keep clean rainwater in a barrel in the tunnel for watering, which is usually not too cold. Seedlings don't enjoy sitting in a freezing cold bath any more than you do! And they enjoy rainwater best of all. Like all plants, they didn't evolve to appreciate chlorine, or anything else that may be in tap water!
8. After germination, grow on seedlings of tender veg. like tomatoes etc. at a slightly lower temperature but still in a warm light place- where they won't get chilled if it's cold at night. A roll-out heat mat which you can put on a greenhouse bench is convenient for this - or if you're good at DIY - you could make a cheaper large area of gentle bottom warmth by using soil warming cables buried in sand. Be careful that propagators don't overheat, get them set up and going for a few hours before you start sowing your seeds, because just as too little warmth can damage seedlings - so can overheating. It can can seriously damage their cropping potential. From March onwards all small seedlings will need some shade at midday under glass or in a tunnel - fleece also makes a good temporary sun shield. A small max-min thermometer is well worth buying, they're far more useful in the garden than a soil thermometer, and cheaper. As I've already said - you don't need a soil thermometer out in the garden to tell you when the soil outside is warm enough for sowing - all the weed seeds germinating will reliably tell you that!
Sowing early seeds in modules
To make sure I have something to plant as soon as the winter crops are finished both in the tunnel and outside, I always start sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you cansow now are in the 'What to Sow' sections for each month, so I won't repeat them here. Things like onions, leeks, beetroot etc. can be multi-sown in the modules - in 3's or 5's - depending on how many you want in a clump - or how big you want your onions (less in a clump for bigger onions) and they're planted out later without thinning. These will push each other apart as they grow and develop quite normally. You can do the same with summer spinach, chards and 'baby leaf' or salad mixes. Rather than use an expensive propagator at this time of year I germinate everything near the back of my range cooker - which keep things at a steady 65-70 deg F/16-20 deg C. As soon as the first seedlings are showing they need good light, so then I put them out in the polytunnel, on a roll-out heated mat which provides very gentle bottom heat of about 50 degF/10 deg C - or just above during the day - and is very economical to run. This is all most things need to grow on nicely without forcing. In another 2 weeks in the warmer propagator I shall sow my aubergines Bonica F1, (the very best and most reliable one) these develop quite slowly at first and need a long growing season. I'll also be sowing my earliest tomatoes - Maskotka, Latah and John Baer. These are always ripe in the first week or so of June. I can't wait for ripe tomatoes again! Talking of which - there may be some very exciting news soon on the tomato front - but can't reveal it yet!!
What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?
Occasionally there are seedlings that develop they're first seed leaves or cotyledons as they are known - but after that they don't grow any more new leaves. These are known as blind seedlings. In cases where you may only want one plant per space - like lettuces or hybrid calabrese - it's normal to thin seedlings to one per module, but only do this after they have clearly developed their first 'true' leaves - not the seedling/cotyledon leaves - as 'blind seedlings they will never develop 'true' leaves and grow on. This is quite common with brassicas and if it happens you could waste space on a seedling which will never develop any further - so don't thin them too early! With calabrese seed in particular - which can be expensive - it also wastes seed and money! I've never seen any of the 'so-called' experts telling you this - they always tell you to thin as soon as you can handle the seedlings! Over 40 years of experience (OMG can't believe it!) does actually teach one a few useful things!
Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots
Sprouted broad beans sown in 500g yogurt pots
Sprouted mangetouts sown for pea shoots and pods
At this time of year - I always soak my broad beans and peas for a couple of hours before then sprouting them on damp kitchen paper on a plate covered with cling film and put in a warmish place. I always get the best germination this way. It saves the seed sitting in cold wet compost for too long and possibly rotting. They sprout in about 2-3 days and then as soon as the 'radicle' or main tap root appears - I then sow them in large pots as you can see above (I use recycled 500 ml yogurt pots - they're the perfect size!). 3 broad beans to a pot or a small handful of peas (don't count them) per pot. I don't thin the beans or the peas as it's totally unnecessary - I've tried doing it over the years but the plants produce just the same crop per plant - so obviously crop more per sq.ft/m if on a deep, raised bed. Thinning them after germination is not only totally unnecessary, but is also time-consuming and wastes valuable seed. These potfuls will be planted out about 30cm/1ft. apart when big enough.
I am always amazed at just how much better the germination is with home-saved seed. I got 100% germination of the yummy Crimson Flowered Broad Bean as per usual (good job as we've just finished the last from the freezer!). Beans and peas are the only things I cover with organic peat-free seed compost after sowing - everything else is covered with vermiculite - which promotes good air circulation and drainage around the seedling stem, virtually guaranteeing no 'damping off' disease - as long as you are careful with your watering. After sowing anything - only ever water again from underneath. This is easy to do by sitting the tray or module in a tray of water for a few seconds. And as I've often said before - if you do happen to overdo it by mistake - and we all do it occasionally - don't despair and leave them to rot in cold wet compost! It's very simple - just sit the tray of seedlings on a newspaper for 1/2 hour or so which acts like a wick to draw out the excess. All seeds need is a good seed compost, a little thought and plenty of TLC to grow - it's not rocket science!
Despite all the years I've been gardening - I never cease to be surprised, thrilled and full of wonder at Nature's miracle of a tiny seed and it's determination to grow. That perfect little pre-programmed parcel of DNA - full of history and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And - best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food!
This is how I sow my Tomatoes - and other tender crops
Just inside my main tunnel door, on the left, I have a propagating bench. It's a very busy place at this time of year - so much happening and changing every day. So many reliable old friends appearing once again, kick starting another gardening year, and a few exciting new ones too! At the moment in the warmest propagator there are sweet peppers, chillies, aubergines, celeriac, tomatoes, etc. physalis (also called golden, Inca or Pichu berry), These are all just starting to appear above the compost. As soon as they do I immediately remove their individual polythene bag covers which have kept them nice and moist up until then. Having each pot in an individual bag means that they stay nice and moist until the seeds have germinated, which helps the seeds to ease their way up out of the compost. It also stops too much moisture collecting around seedlings that are already up, when they need less moisture but still need to be nice and warm. This stops diseases developing.
After germination, they spend a few days in the propagator, moving gradually nearer to the front where the lid is propped open a bit for more air circulation, and then as soon they look ready - they get moved out into the frame on the heated mat, which is at a much lower temperature, only supplying a bottom heat of around 50 deg. F. Things get too 'soft' if they're left in the propagator for too long. The heated mat is a roll-out heated foil mat a bit like an electric blanket. It uses far less electricity than the small warmer propagator. It's just warm enough to keep things moving gently along, and they get covered at night with one or two layers of fleece to keep any possible frost off the tops of the plants. It's a good 'halfway house' for plants raised in heat to progress eventually to the main beds in the tunnel for tunnel hardening off. About 20 yrs or so ago, it was discovered that 'brushing' tomato plants a couple of times a day stimulated a growth hormone call Jasmonic acid, which is supposed to have the effect of making them a bit sturdier. A lot of nurseries had a 'boom' which passed over plants to do this a few times a day. I tried it with a very soft, long wallpaper pasting brush - but frankly, I'm not sure it made that much difference to mine. Not pushing them with too much heat and giving them plenty of light and space will produce nice sturdy plants - and you won't risk possibly causing disease by being a bit 'heavy -handed' and bruising tiny seedlings!
I'll be sowing the last of my tomatoes this week - I sowed some earlier on to check the germination on home saved seed. It's always good though - so have quite a lot of Pantano Romanesco beefsteaks and various other babies already potted on! I'm hoping to have some Pantano earlier than ever this year - I can't wait to taste that meltingly delicious Mediterranean flavour again! People who don't eat seasonally miss so much. Nothing imported can ever give that same anticipation of enjoyment. The next week or so is about the right time to sow tomatoes in most average years- because you don't want your plants to get too big, too early - or you won't be able to keep them warm if it's a very cold spring. On the other hand - if you sow very much later than the middle of March - you'll be half way through the summer before you get any ripe tomatoes at all!
I like to eat my first ripe tomatoes - always the dependable bush variety Maskotka - in the first week of June. Maskotka is already potted on and has four 'true' leaves. It should fruit really early if we have a decent spring. Sown in a warm propagator now - most tomatoes should be just about the right size for planting out in early to mid-May. I sow mine in 85 cm (or 3&1/2 in) square pots of Klassman certified organic peat-free seed compost - but any size pot will do fine as long as you make sure they're clean and you're sowing into a good reliable seed compost.
I like to use square pots because they fill up the propagator space nicely, with no gaps for heat to escape. What small gaps there are I fill up with scraps bubble wrap to ensure absolutely no heat is wasted and that the propagator doesn't overheat. I fill the pot with compost and firm down gently, make a hole with the end of a pencil or biro about 1/2cm deep in 4 or 5 places - one at each corner and one in the middle - put a seed in each hole - cover them with vermiculite, gently water the pot - letting any excess drain away, label them (important) and then cover them with a plastic bag. Most tomatoes take about 4-5 days to germinate and most modern F1 varieties will pretty much all germinate at the same time. Often the non-F1 or old Heritage varieties may stagger their germination over as long as 2-3 weeks. That's a fascinating way that nature ensures their survival, so that some will usually be successful and will keep the species going. So don't give up after a week or so - they can often take longer depending on the variety - anything up to 3 weeks I've found. Tomatoes, like people, are all different! They'll be able to stay in those pots until the roots are almost filling the pots - then you can gently split them up and pot them on singly. If you don't have a heated propagator, you could germinate them in any warm place like an airing cupboard, or the back of your range cooker if you have one, but then bring them immediately out into the light as soon as they are up above the surface of the compost. Then a really light windowsill is OK for them if you don't have any heated space in a greenhouse - but be sure to bring them inside the room at night before you close the curtains, so they don't get chilled - and if the windowsill is south facing you will also need to shade them from strong midday sunshine, or put them on a different windowsill if it's very sunny because they will fry! It is surprising how strong the sun can be at midday in March - and last week I sat in the polytunnel at lunchtime and for the first time I felt the sun actually burning my face. It was a good feeling - but not good for too long!
Use Peat-free seed Composts
I can't stress enough just how important it is to use a really reliable, organic, peat-free SEED compost. Don't usea 'multi-purpose' compost as they may contain far too much fertiliser which may burn the young roots. Many seeds are very sensitive to a high nutrient level in the compost - and seed is expensive so you can't afford to waste it! Added to that it's especially important that they are peat-free - and if you're a regular reader you will already be familiar with the many environmental reasons why NONE of us should be using peat in ANY form in the garden! I talk about it so often I won't repeat them again here.
I always try to share my money saving tips here in my blog - but compost is one example where trying to save money is false economy. In my experience - you get what you pay for! There are a few peat-free composts available now from DIY multiples, but I've tried most of them and they were all dreadful! They weren't organic either! I personally prefer organic as artificial fertilisers discourage soil life - something that organic gardeners always try to encourage.Several garden centres here are now stocking my favourite organic peat-free composts - made by Klassman, botht the seed and the potting composts. They are by a very long way the very best composts of any sort that I've ever used! In Ireland, Klassman composts are available by mail order from Fruit Hill Farm - https://www.fruithillfarm.com/ (the Irish importers) but the postage is quite expensive and will cost you as much as just one bag of the compost! If your local garden centre doesn't stock it then ask them to! If you're anywhere near north Dublin, White's Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co Dublin (on the old main Dublin-Belfast road) also stock it now too - http://www.whitesagri.ie/Products/GardenAllot.aspx.
Organic peat-free compost is a bit more expensive than some of the others I'll grant you - butas I've so often said - believe me it's worth every single cent. I wouldn't sow valuable seed into anything else. Seed is so expensive now that you only have to lose a couple of packets and that would have paid for a bag of decent compost! Being peat-free you can also feel good about not destroying peat bogs and preserving biodiversity too! And before you say that making it miles away in Germany isn't very environmentally friendly - making it in bulk, from organically grown plant material, is actually a carbon-friendly activity - and shipping it in bulk to the UK and Ireland is many times less destructive, less carbon-emitting and so much better than digging up our precious, biodiversity-rich peat bogs!
I don't need as much of the seed compost as I do the potting compost, generally only getting through 2-3 bags a year even with a big garden and growing all our own food. If you only have a small garden and the bag of seed compost is more than you think you'll use in a year then you can always split it with a friend. Although if kept undercover I find it doesn't go 'off' like other composts, and will last for quite a long time - at least 2 years - as long as you keep it dry and cool. I've even used 3 year old compost and it gave perfect results. Make sure that wherever you buy the compost, they have also kept it dry and cool. Never ever buy saturated composts that have been sitting out in winter weather without being covered! If the compost hasn't been stored properly - the natural ingredients in it will have changed and plants may either be starved or get diseased. White's Agri are also the Irish agents for my favourite organic plant foods - the 'Osmo' range. The liquid tomato feed is brilliant and thoroughly reliable, as are the other products.
Potting on tomato seedlings
I always move my tomato seedlings out of the warmest propagator (18degC./65deg.F+) and put them onto the more gently heated mat (about 10degC./50degF+) as soon as they have their first 'true' leaves showing - otherwise they can quickly become very 'leggy', (or etiolated) from too much warmth without enough light. After a few days - I separate all the seedlings out of the small square pots they were germinated in as soon as they are big enough to handle, potting them on individually into quite small pots like white plastic cups - which conveniently and vitally can be written on with permanent marker so I know what variety they are. These have a slit for drainage cut into either side across the cup bottom with scissors. I always pot on twice before planting as potting straight into a large volume of compost can lead to rotting, if the roots get too wet. It also means that the smaller pots take up far less valuable space on the heated mat. Warm space is always at a premium at this time of year and I don't like to waste energy. The plastic cup potting is an interim measure before their final potting on into recycled milk cartons - as these are far too big for very small seedlings. I find that milk cartons are deep enough to give them really good root room until planting later on and again are handy as you can write their name on each carton - rather than using a label which could get lost. Growing so many different varieties of tomatoes - in some Tomato Festival years as many as 48 - this is very important for me or they're easily mixed up! I start saving milk cartons now - the family know that from the beginning of March milk cartons are not to be put in the recycling bin or I scream! While they may not be the most attractive greenhouse feature in the world - they're very effective!
I'm constantly shifting things around the heated space at this time of year - a bit like playing musical plants! I know it seems a lot of bother - but it's very little trouble actually - and a pleasant job that's well worth doing to be able to eat really ripe tomatoes on 1st June! No plastic-wrapped, carbon-intensive, imported imposter of a tomato can ever possibly compare with the flavour of a sun-warmed, home grown one, picked and eaten straight off the plant! The aubergines will be potted on in the same way. They'll all spend a few weeks inside the light plastic cold frame on the heated mat. This prevents possible cold draughts from the open tunnel doors. I have the top of the frame open - with bubble wrap pegged to canes higher up around the side for the first week or so. Then I remove that - and finally they'll all go out onto the other mat without the frame to make way for the cucumbers and peppers - which appreciate a bit more early warmth.
Any bubble wrap you can salvage is really useful - always save it - even tiny amounts. It makes extra insulation for propagators tops at night - and even the smallest bits can be used to tuck in between pots to fill in any spaces between pots inside the propagator or on heated mats to stop heat escaping, thereby saving energy and also stopping it overheating through working too hard to replace any heat lost from gaps. It's amazing how many pictures I see on social media of propagators with a few pots sitting in the middle and with no insulation around them - this means that the propagator is losing heat the whole time. Filling up empty spaces with bubble wrap or some other insulation like fleece will save energy and saves money!
By the way - if you're using a heated propagator - it's important to wipe the moisture off the inside of the propagator lid every day - where it tends to condense. If you don't do that - it can drop down onto seedlings and possibly cause fungal diseases in the warm, moist atmosphere. Attention to detail is always the key to successful propagation, or in fact at any stage of growth.
Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key
Good air circulation is really important in a polytunnel at any time of year, but particularly from now on. Trays and pots of all sorts of other seedlings are already jostling for space in the propagator and on the heated mat. From now on - the hardier ones, like broad beans, peas, lettuces, cabbages, calabrese and cauliflowers have to take their chance just under fleece in the main part of the tunnel at night, without artificial heat, as there are so many others, like celery, tomatoes and onions, and tender bedding plants like nicotiana and french marigolds that still need that extra bit of warmth just to germinate. I stand the trays and pots of the more hardy types of veg. on black polythene on a spare tunnel bed. The black polythene absorbs the rays of the sun during the day (if there are any!), heating up the ground underneath, and this amazingly keeps them about 4 deg C warmer under their double fleece 'duvet', than the ambient temperature in the rest of the tunnel. So far this year - doing this has saved my extra-early potatoes - finger's crossed. During the day I uncover them, normally when the sun gets high enough to start warming the tunnel up a bit.(around 9 or 10 am-ish). If you don't do this, stagnant moist air gets trapped under the fleece, encouraging disease.. Later on, depending on the amount of sun, I open one or both of the doors at either end for more ventilation, as long as it's not too windy. In the evening, around 4.30 or 5pm I then re-cover those crops that are 'fleeced' at night, and close the doors. In the next few days more frosts are forecast - so make sure anything vulnerable is covered at night! Frost does an awful lot more damage once plants are starting to grow more quickly again - as they are now.
Shading small seedlings is important from now on
Any sunlight is getting much stronger from now on, soI keep some fleece suspended well above the small seedlings on the propagating bench in the tunnel - in order to shade them at midday if the sun suddenly comes out. In the greenhouse it's a lot easier, you can just shade the glass by painting on 'Coolglass' paint - a powder which you mix with water and paint onto the glass. Mix it up in an old measuring jug or similar, put into an old baking tin or paint tray and use a paint roller or soft household sweeping brush to brush it all over the roof and about half way down the sides. Do this in dry weather, then once dried, it won't wash off again in rain. It just cleverly turns clear again when wet - letting more light in. Heavily abrasive hail may damage it, but you can re-apply it, and then in the autumn you can remove it by just brushing it off again on a dry day. Unfortunately the tunnel is too big and difficult to paint unless you have a helicopter! So fleece or shade netting is the only answer there.
While on the subject of fleece - another of my money saving tips. It's a lot cheaper by far to buy a big roll of it from your local agricultural supplies shop. You'll get one for around 20 euros or so, and then you can then split it up with friends. A small packet of fleece from a garden centre or DIY store will cost you almost the same - though in some you can buy it by the metre from a large roll.
A colourful small flock of 6 hens enjoying some late winter greens from the polytunnel in early March
There’s very little more rewarding than keeping a few hens in your back garden. A colourful flock of beautifully marked hens look every bit as ornamental as any exotic birds you could keep in an aviary – but unlike purely ornamental birds - if you look after hens correctly, they don’t just look beautiful, but they will provide you with far more delicious and nutritious organic eggs than you could ever buy. In addition to being amusing, intelligent and very watchable company all year round, keeping your own laying hens also gives you a measure of food security, because you will always have some eggs handy for a quick meal, for baking or can even to make a very welcome gift – far cheaper and healthier than a box of chocolates!
An organic egg is probably the fastest, most convenient and nutritionally perfect meal in the world. A simple omelette made with couple of eggs along with a handful of homegrown salad greens, is a nutritionally-balanced meal, containing high quality protein and fats, virtually all of the vitamins and minerals we need, and also choline – recently classified as an essential nutrient - which is vital for many bodily functions including liver function, cholesterol metabolism, and healthy brain and nervous system development. Eggs also supply important antioxidants like Lutein and Zeaxanthin, which are vital for eye health.
Producing your own eggs means that you know exactly where they have come from and how the hens were kept. That gives you a great feeling of self-sufficiency and of being more in control over what you’re eating – because you are, quite literally, what your hens eat. The better you feed them – the better their eggs will be. The more organic greens like broccoli, kale and spinach that you feed your hens – the higher the eggs will be in those vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients vital for eye health. In addition to all of that – as if that wasn’t enough - your hens will give you a wonderful free by-product, fertile organic manure which will greatly enrich and boost the vital microbial life in your garden compost, which can then be used to grow your own delicious vegetables and fruit! What a lot of benefits, in return for very little daily trouble, after you have initially set up your domestic egg production unit!
Hens are a valuable adjunct to any organic food-producing garden. They convert the leftover bits of green vegetables like kale, broccoli, spinach and chicory, which are not quite good enough for the kitchen, but still too good for the worm bin, into wonderful eggs. At the same time, they produce very valuable, high nitrogen manure. They are also very happy to help you to get rid of garden pests like gooseberry sawfly larvae, if you let them roam among your fruit bushes during the winter.
I’ve kept hens for most of my life but last year I was without them for 3 months in the autumn, and I really missed them. Although we buy organic eggs, they are not nearly as good as our own, because as I’ve often explained before in other blog posts – organic producers are forced by economics of scale to keep the maximum number of hens on their holding that they are allowed to under Irish organic standards (or Soil Association standards in the UK) - otherwise it would not be economically viable due to the cost of producing the eggs in relation to the price they get for them, and they could not survive. However, I won’t go into that here, as I’ve already done so before. Hens love to graze on short, sweeter, newly emerging shoots and grass, and the more hens you keep on any pasture naturally means that they eat any green food like grass and clover faster – so then their eggs will not have such as deep an orange colour to the yolks as hens where fresh green food is always available. When I was producing organic eggs commercially, I used to grow green food especially for them which makes a huge difference – particularly in the winter, when growth outside is slower. My customers really loved our eggs. I often see some of them and they still tell me that they simply can’t buy eggs which are anything like as good as ours were. I can guarantee that once you have tasted your own home-produced eggs – you won’t ever want to go back to buying them from shops!
Gerry and I looking at the friendly and fast-growing 8 week-old pullets and cockerels in net-covered run
Gerry Kelly came over here recently to see how the day-old chicks which had just arrived when he was last here in early December were doing – and he was amazed to see how grown-up they were already looking, and how friendly they were! I got a mixed bunch of male and female day-old chicks from the hatchery – somewhat unusual as most people just want females, or pullets, for laying eggs. However, I wanted to prove that it was worth rearing the male chicks too, which are usually discarded, and that’s certainly proving to be the case – but those details are for another blog post I will write soon. Suffice to say here, that the males produced when hatching eggs of laying breeds (roughly 50% of the eggs hatched) are usually discarded, which is not only cruel and unethical - but also incredibly wasteful, when so many people in the world are starving! While I think about it by the way – hens are just purely for laying eggs - while hens and cockerels bred for meat production are collectively called chickens. A fine distinction of nomenclature perhaps – but there is often confusion about the use of those names. I’m talking about keeping hens for egg-laying here.
What do you need to think about if you want to keep hens?
Before you start –the most important thing of all is to consider your lifestyle, and if you have enough time/are prepared to make the commitment to looking after them properly every day. In that way – keeping hens is just like keeping any other animals. Happy, well-kept hens lay the best eggs!
Then will first need to check with your local authority to see if there are any by-laws forbidding the keeping of garden livestock like hens or rabbits. If you are renting your property, then you may also need to check with your landlord. Unless you are keeping a cockerel which will crow loudly, waking up everyone within a mile at 3.30am in summer - it’s unlikely that neighbours will object to some occasional daytime clucking from a hen that’s just laid an egg – especially if you occasionally present them with half a dozen. Obviously hens need to be kept clean as possible to prevent smells, flies attracted to their droppings or vermin like rats attracted by their food.
If you go away occasionally - don’t forget that you will also need to arrange for a ‘hen sitter’- someone who will look after them every day while you are away – whether just for a night or for longer. It’s important to make sure your hens are properly looked after if you’re away from home, even if it’s only for a day or two. You can’t send hens off to a kennels while you’re away like dogs or cats, as they get used to feeling secure in familiar surroundings. Any sudden drastic change can easily upset them and would definitely stop them laying.
There’s just no substitute for someone looking at livestock every day– whatever sort of livestock it is. While there are some automatic door openers, feeders and drinkers etc – I would never rely on these as they can always go wrong (and Sod’s law says – if it can go wrong it will – and usually when you’re away!) Drinkers can get blocked, hens may get trapped, injured, or have some other misfortune. While it’s alright to leave them if you’re at work during the day, they shouldn’t be left without attention for any longer – as this could lead to disaster and suffering for the hens. It’s also important that eggs are collected every day – because not doing so can result in broken eggs, which can then lead to egg eating. This can be a big problem, because once they get a taste for it – it’s almost impossible to stop.
I’m not trying to put you off – just to make you really think about the responsibilities of keeping them, and whether they will fit into your life. If you do decide to give keeping hens a try – then I can almost guarantee that you will never want to be without them again. Hens are endlessly fascinating to watch, far more intelligent than most people give them credit for and definitely have very individual personalities. They are great company and a really good way of teaching children how to look after animals responsibly, and also of giving them an understanding of where their food comes from. Being outside in nature and having contact with pets is known to be good for boosting children’s microbiome – the community of beneficial microbes living in their gut which is their immune system. Science has recently proven that the more naturally occurring, beneficial microbes children are exposed to from an early age – the better their immune system functions. This means that it is less likely they will suffer from the allergies which the many nature-deprived children, reared in often microbe-phobic, antiseptically-wiped environments, are increasingly suffering from.
Then you must decide how many hens you want to keep.
If you want to keep hens really happy and healthy, the first thing to remember is that they evolved in Asia to live as jungle fowl, spending their time mostly in jungle clearings – so they are happiest when they have plenty of room, and are warm, dry and scratching around in grass and the leaf litter under shrubs and trees looking for insects and eating the green shoots of plants. They also like having a daily dust bath to keep their feathers in top condition. Hens are very social animals which evolved to live in flocks and are very unhappy if they don’t have the company of others. For this reason, I would never keep less than 3 or 4 hens, because if you only have two, and one dies or has an accident, which can happen occasionally, the one left on its own will pine and suffer. So, given that we can’t supply jungle – we must try to replicate the natural food, shelter, company, places to roost up off the ground as they would in jungle trees, the opportunity to dust bathe, and the freedom and plenty of room to scratch around looking for insects.
Next you need to decide how and where you want to keep them
You may like the idea of hens romantically roaming free in your garden, but as they like to eat a lot of plants - they will destroy your garden! Bear in mind that 3 or more hens can also make quite a lot of poo and can damage a small patch of ground very quickly - turning a small piece of lawn into a mud patch within a few days, especially in wet weather, which is not good for their health! Also roaming completely free they are far more vulnerable to predators. Urban foxes are becoming an increasing problem often due to takeaway rubbish being discarded, most are not one bit afraid of people and regularly visit urban gardens. To a fox – a hen is naturally just another takeaway opportunity – and you don’t want your beautiful hens to be hurt or to disappear completely! Other predators like mink can be a problem if you have water nearby, and also neighbour’s dogs and cats. While hens undoubtedly look lovely roaming freely around the garden – that’s not the best way to keep them. From a welfare point of view – a roomy safe run is always best.
Some housing options:
The so-called 'Hen Hilton' - the re-purposed child's Wendy house where my hens live and even have their own vertical garden!
Wooden hen houses/chicken coops are widely available now and suppliers can be found online. They can be an expensive option though - but admittedly, they often look tidier and nicer than many homemade ones! A small re-purposed garden shed, making a pop-hole, can also be an option, but it must be heavy enough wood to keep predators out, or lined with wire to stop them eating through it as happened to me once many years ago. You can do a lot to beautify and have a lot of fun re-purposing a plain old garden shed! I was thrilled to find a child’s ‘Wendy house’ on sale 6 years ago in my local DIY store – it was just what I’d been wanting for keeping my few hens for ages. The hens even have their own vertical garden outside it in the summer!
I describe my re-purposed Wendy house further on. It is ideal for our 6 hens, and they provide us with more than enough eggs for our needs now. I prefer wooden houses as wood provides better insulation from heat or cold than some of the funky small plastic ones, which can also have condensation problems. Here are some ideas.
A moveable house preferably on wheels - with a predator-proof run attached which can also be moved daily. This is what I chose for the few hens which I used to keep after I stopped producing eggs commercially. It was a re-purposed small dog kennel with a sliding door, and a hinged roof for cleaning out and collecting eggs. After I broke my shoulder, unfortunately I was no longer able to move it, so I purchased the Wendy house which they now live in. It is far more plush and attractive – and one of my friends even called it the ‘Hen Hilton’!
Four hens in a small re-purposed dog kennel house on wheels with movable run attached - in early spring.
Permanent fixed housing - with 2 or more permanent runs leading from it so that these can be alternated regularly to keep them fresh and disease-free. This is a good option for anyone with limited space, as even if you only have two alternating runs, you can throw all their green food and anything else which could go on your compost heap into one small run, which they will enjoy scratching through, will give them exercise and keep them amused, while you’re growing a green manure or grass in the other run. Then you can change over sides when this is ready for them, cleaning out the one just vacated onto the compost heap and sowing more grass or green manure into the soil there.
Permanent housing - letting the hens have free run of all your garden which some people do.
It may look lovely, but I don’t like this as:
- It means you have no fresh ground for them, which is important if you have any disease problems introduced by wild birds.
- They will destroy your garden, eat your vegetables if there are any, and they are far more vulnerable to predators like foxes and mink.
Hens being hens – they much prefer to find hidey holes under bushes to lay their eggs, as they naturally would do in the jungle where they originally came from - rather than lay them in nest boxes for you to conveniently collect! Doing this can attract vermin like magpies which love to eat eggs, and also rats.
Perches – Hens and chickens like to roost at night off the ground on a perch. In the wild they would naturally do this in trees. The perch needs to be a minimum of 45cm/18ins off the ground and long enough for each hen to have a bout 30cm/1ft of space.
Nest boxes - Whatever type of housing you decide on – or if you make you own – you will need at least one nest box to every 3 hens. When I’m shopping, I always look for wooden orange boxes which are a real rarity now, as everything tends to come in cardboard. Wooden orange boxes make brilliant nest boxes with one of the sides lowered for easy access. If they have a lid you can leave it on as hens like to lay in a dark place. If not you can put a board across the top, which also prevents hens roosting on the and dirtying the nest. I always use hay to line them, as I can’t get organic straw, and it’s softer anyway. I make a cosy nest shape in the soft hay for them, and when they’re young pullets I also put a golf ball into each nest so that they get the general idea! I fondly remember the beautifully realistic china eggs my father used when I was growing up, and so wish I had one of them purely for sentimental reasons. The funny thing about hens is that when one decides to lay, usually in the morning – then they all get the urge to lay – often in the same nest. So, if you don’t have enough nest space you may well get smashed eggs! Purpose made hen houses obviously have their own, usually accessed from the outside of the house or coop.
If you’re handy at carpentry you could make your own hen house from recycled pallets or other materials, which I have done in the past. Ventilation without draughts, insulation against heat or cold, easy access for cleaning out, and being raised off the ground to prevent vermin must be considered when building it. Or you could buy a small wooden garden shed and re-purpose it as I did as I describe below.
My girls have a delightful re-purposed Wendy house which I bought cheaply in a DIY store sale. It has a smart front door and an opening window. The front door allows easy access for cleaning them out once a week. It came in a flat pack, which my son put together, lining the inside with small-mesh chicken wire to keep out predators. He made a pop-hole in one side, which has a sliding door leading out into their roomy scratching pen. I just love it!
On the floor I have heavy-duty, recycled polythene damp-proof membrane, which is available cheaply from DIY stores and prevents the floor from rotting. This is then covered deeply with wood shavings which are topped up with a few handfuls more daily to keep the air sweet. This is all cleaned out weekly and goes onto the compost heap.
Hen house with scratching pen attached accessed by the pop hole. Sliding side panels allow access to runs on either side.
A selection of some the 47 amazingly diverse varieties of tomatoes I grew for Ireland's first
ever 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' in 2012. A real feast for the eyes - and the taste buds!
This is my personal take on the best of some of the 100's of varieties I've grown over 42 years of tomato growing!
I'm adding a couple more tasty varieties to my list this year, after trying a few new varieties for this year's Tomato Festival. That was such a great excuse for a tomatoholic like me! Every year I try one or two new varieties which sound promising - comparing them to my tried and trusted ones which I've grown for many years. Sometimes I'm delighted to discover a new gem to add to my list - but often I'm disappointed. They have to be easy to grow, disease-resistant, productive and most of all have really great taste, in order to be a good variety in my eyes! I would never grow those ghastly 'Moneymaker' types which have virtually no taste but produce tons of tomatoes - whatever is the point of putting energy into those when there's so many other great tasting ones out there? Many of the newer F1 varieties are promoted by seed companies who own the plant-breeder's patents and despite the always glowing catalogue descriptions - I've found most of them disappointing. They often have very little taste or anything else to recommend them! Many are bred for a totally different climate - something people often don't factor in when choosing varieties. Rosada was the brilliant exception to that - but sadly it has now been dropped by all the major seed companies in favour of those bred by themselves, as they didn't own the patent! I have enough seed for the next couple of years or so after buying some extra last year - but after that there will be no more here - and I honestly don't know how I will manage without it!.
Many of the open-pollinated Heritage varieties have a lot more flavour - but not all. That often depends on where they're grown too. Some are very fussy and are far more suited to continental climates like eastern Europe or the USA, where they enjoy much hotter, drier summers and far higher light levels than we do here in Ireland! Many of those 'continental' varieties that I've tried stretch towards the light as if absolutely desperate for it - poor things! Even their shape can be a problem too. Varieties such as Costuloto Fiorentino and Costuloto Genovese admittedly do have a great flavour - but their fascinatingly ribbed and pleated shapes unfortunately attract and hold on to any moisture in the air, which in the humidity of an Irish polytunnel in our average often damp summer automatically results in disease!
Climate can affect every aspect of tomatoes. Growing conditions here in Ireland are totally different to the much drier and warmer south or east of the UK - where light levels are also generally better and where many seed companies trial grounds are based. Our summer temperatures are always an average of 10 degrees centigrade lower all summer long and we also get a lot more rain - resulting in the kind of high humidity which cucumbers love - but tomatoes really hate!! Lower levels of light can affect tomatoes more than many other crops too. Although we're quite close to the east coast here - only about 5 miles as the crow flies - we don't get the benefit of the brighter 'reflected light' that many living closer to the sea do. This is because we're also over 400 feet above sea level and even in summer we often get gloomy low cloud and sea mist hanging around for much of the day, which may only clear for 3 or 4 hours around midday, then descends again about 3pm! As a result - tomato growing conditions here can be pretty challenging to say the least! I believe that any tomato which grows well and and tastes great here will deserve a space in anyone's greenhouse or polytunnel - wherever they may live!
Tomatoes are a vitally important crop globally. For me it would be absolutely impossible to imagine life without them - whether it's just in your humble lunchtime BLT sandwich or salad, on your pizza for supper - or whether you're a Michelin starred chef! During his highly entertaining talk at the 2016 Totally Terrific Tomato Festival, Dr. Mathew Jebb, Director of our National Botanic Gardens imparted a mind-boggling piece of information - which was that each year the entire human race eats half of it's own weight in tomatoes! That perfectly illustrates just how important tomatoes are in our diet worldwide! I've always loved them - having grown up eating the wonderful sun-warmed produce from my parents greenhouse. That first unmistakable scent of tomato foliage in spring always brings those memories back to me instantly. As a member of the HDRA - (now Garden Organic UK) Heritage Seed Library for many years, I held a tomato day in the National Botanic Gardens here back in the late 1980s, using varieties many which were kindly provided by the HSL. In early 2012 - seeing the stunningly beautiful new black tomato Indigo Rose sparked ideas again and seeing it's beauty galvanised me into action once more! This resulted in my idea of a 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' in the hope that it would raise public awareness of the ever-increasing importance of preserving genetic diversity. Indigo Rose was the first ever naturally-bred, high-anthocyanin tomato and it's seed only became available for the first time commercially in early 2012. It's stunning colour is so breathtakingly beautiful and unusual that I knew it wouldn't fail to catch people's attention. It certainly did that - and two very successful, fun festivals have happened since.
After the first two - there was a hiatus for a couple of years as unfortunately I had an accident just after the second Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2013, breaking my right shoulder into several pieces. Having been left with only a half-working arm, I knew that sadly I wasn't going to be able to do that huge amount of organisation and work single-handedly ever again, in addition to still trying to grow our own food here! I hoped that some other 'tomatophile' would eventually pick up the baton and carry it on. So you can imagine my delight when Jane Powers, the wonderful garden writer and gardening correspondent of The Irish Sunday Times, called me in late 2015 to say that she thought it would be such a pity if we lost it altogether and to ask me if I would mind if she put my idea to Lord and Lady Ardee of the beautiful Killruddery Estate, in County Wicklow. She felt that with their expertise in organising event, their beautiful surroundings and a perfect location easily accessible from everywhere, it could potentially be the perfect place to hold it. The rest, as they say, is history - and due to a lot of hard work, mostly on Jane's part and also by everyone at Killruddery - another highly successful Totally Terrific Tomato Festival was held once again last September. My 'baby' had found a wonderful new home! Many enthusiastic tomato growers from every corner of Ireland generously brought along their special treasures to share with us. There were competitions, talks, stalls selling all sorts of tomato-related products and general convivial 'tomatoness'! It was such a joy to see the 138 varieties of tomatoes in all their incredibly varied, eye-popping diversity, displayed and shown to perfection in the beautiful light surroundings of the Orangery at Killruddery. Seeing the wonder on the visitor's faces - especially the children's was such a joy. And I got to do the bit I love best - talking about tomatoes!
People gazing in wonder at an amazing kaleidoscope of tomatoes on one of the tables at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2016
It is vitally important that we preserve our heritage seed varieties - just as so many other tomato lovers before us did, over many centuries. bequeathing them in turn to us. We are the lucky recipients of an irreplaceable and priceless inheritance from those gardeners and food growers of the past and owe owe them a huge debt of gratitude. We are the current custodians of that genetic diversity. It is vital that we care for it and preserve it for the sake of future generations. So much precious genetic diversity in all food crops has already been lost. For me a life without tomatoes would be unthinkable - I don't know about you?
Taste is a very subjective thing - it often depends what sort of diet you have or whether you smoke or drink - which can dull the taste buds. I reckon our taste buds are pretty unspoiled here having eaten mostly nothing but organic food for over 40 years and very little sugar! The tomato varieties listed here are mostly on my list because they have fantastic flavour. Some only develop their best flavour when cooked - others are better eaten raw. Also to be honest - one or two are on the list purely because they look stunning and the artist in me just can't resist them! How food looks is also important to me. We eat with our eyes - and I always like my food to look as beautiful as possible! All of them are worth preserving though - because at some time in the future, some desirable aspect of their genes, such as disease or pest-resistance, may possibly be needed in new, natural breeding programmes. We have no idea what as yet unknown challenge may arise with increasing climate change. This year was a really bad one here for tomato growing! All the information here is reviewed and updated each year.
I've been asked so many times over the years which is my all time favourite variety. It's an impossible question for me, trying to narrow it down to just one - they all have their different uses. That's like asking me which is my favourite child!.... I suppose if I were to be allowed one of each type - then it would be a little less difficult - but not much! If I could have only one of each type - then it would have to be Maskotka - bush, Rosada - cherry plum, John Baer - classic medium, Amish paste - cooking plum, and Pantano Romanesco (beefsteak). There - I don't think I can narrow it down any more than that. But then again - perhaps if I was really put to the sword and told that all others would be lost and what would I save - it would have to be the incredibly versatile and good-natured Rosada!
I think all bush varieties are much better grown in large containers raised up off the ground, as they tend to sprawl a little and can rot on the ground or get eaten by slugs if grown in greenhouse soil beds. A 10 litre container is fine size-wise. I use recycled coleslaw/mayo buckets from local supermarket deli (they just chuck them out for recycling and I sit those on grow bag trays as these retain any water or feed that drains through). Growing as a bush is actually the natural habit of tomatoes - we've just selected the varieties which are more amenable to growing as a cordon/upright fashion, purely for our convenience. Some refused to be trained however - and I rather admire them for that! Many are often the better flavoured ones too. Containers also restrict them a bit if they are a bit over-enthusiastic, thereby encouraging slightly earlier fruiting! I put the containers on the grow bag trays on upturned plant crates, barrels, benches, or something similar - where they can drape down decoratively and are much easier to pick without too much bending!
Maskotka - My no.1 bush! (This little treasure is available from many companies now) Medium to large cherry sized fruit. Everyone loves the 'more-ish' almost 'tomato sauce' flavour of this one without fail - It's one of the varieties that my 'From Tunnel to Table' co-presenter Gerry Kelly was 'swooning about' (to quote one listener) when we had our chat on LMFM radio the week before the 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' in 2012. I've grown this variety for many years now and I absolutely adore it! A middle-sized, incredibly productive, disease resistant bush - it's always without fail my very earliest variety - and also the last. Always ripe the first week of June from a late Feb/early March sowing - and I've often picked the last few in early December! It just doesn't know when to stop - if you keep picking and feeding it occasionally, it just keeps on flowering and setting fruit! It's only very slight fault is that if you let it get too over ripe, or water just a bit too much when the skins have 'set' and are ripening fast, it may split. I take that as a fault of the grower though - not the tomato! I'd forgive it anything! If it does split - just throw those straight into the freezer without delay - as it tastes even better when cooked - brilliant in a roast ratatouille or a tomato sauce - although it bursts and doesn't hold together like Chiquito! It's the easiest tomato of all to grow - no need to remove side shoots as it's a bush. You could even grow this one in a window box, or under a large cold frame if you haven't got a greenhouse - as it's quite low and spreading rather than tall, or even in a large hanging basket. It's far better than any of the usual varieties recommended for doing that (most of which are pretty tasteless and have very tough skins). 2 years ago I also grew one in a recycled plastic mushroom box on the top tread of my LMFM/Late Lunch Show/'Tips from the Tunnel' stepladder garden, where it fruited all summer long. I promise you - anyone can grow it. I wouldn't be without it!!
Chiquito F1 - (Simpsons seeds) A smallish, plum shaped cherry type, meaty/firm fleshed, dusky/pinky red. I first grew this one 10 years ago as it was described as having a very good flavour. I quite liked it - it was sweet with quite a good flavour though not that brilliant compared to Rosada which is always my taste yardstick now. Somehow it didn't really have that 'certain something' for me! It also made a very vigorous sprawling bush - not ideal in a greenhouse or tunnel border. Two years ago, however, I decided to give it another chance and try it in containers instead. Boy- am I glad I did! I grew it in my 10 litre containers on grow bag trays again this year, and I can definitely say I've now discovered another gem - not for eating fresh - but actually for cooking! Looking around one day for something to throw in a roast ratatouille - I grabbed a few handfuls of this one, and chucked them in whole half-way through. Cooking utterly transforms them! They stay whole without collapsing - and biting into them is like bursting an incredible flavour bomb! Amazing! I shall be growing more plants next year specifically for cooking - and freezing too, as in my experience those meaty, dense-fleshed small tomatoes freeze very well and are very useful in the winter for stuffing peppers etc. I think it could be good dehydrated too - as that concentrates the sugars in tomatoes and enhances the flavour, as long as they aren't too acid (don't do that with Sungold - it's horrible!). I cook them from frozen, just throwing them into a roast ratatouille half-way through cooking or into a pan of olive oil to use as a side veg.
Latah - (Real Seeds) Again very early, fabulous flavour (see Jane Powers article re 2013 TomFest) - but doesn't go on producing quite as long as Maskotka. It makes a larger, more spreading bush and produces a very large crop of all sizes and shapes - and some would definitely win weirdest shaped tomato! Some with a meaty centre like a mini beefsteak - others more like cherries. Disease resistant middle-sized bush - quite 'twiggy' rather than very leafy. The very first time I grew it, it was so almost 'leafless' that I thought at first it must have something wrong with it! Good air circulation as a result though. Doesn't have as long a season as Maskotka, but you could do two sowings - one early & one later on. One thing though is that the odd shaped fruits with lots of crevices can cling on to moisture a bit which can sometimes set up disease in damp years.
Incas F1 (Organic Gardening Catalogue & other companies) A very productive, great flavoured Italian plum type. Although it's a bush it's disease resistant despite being very vigorous. Two years ago I tried it in containers and it was terrific. Easy, good-natured and incredibly productive. Despite being a 'cooking' type also has quite a good flavour raw. This was the other one I found dehydrated brilliantly and the flavour deepened considerably - almost as good as Rosada for doing this.
Greensleeves (Plants of Distinction) Quite a fruity flavour. Tastes better with some salt or basil oil. Cooks well - makes an unusual 'Tarte Tatin'! Hugely productive, impressive looking, very attractive green/yellow striped, sausage-shaped fruit on vigorous, disease-resistant, middle-sized bush. Crops for a long time. Something for a rather different salad perhaps - possibly worth growing for that alone. Not bad dehydrated. One of the ones I grow from time to time for looks alone - especially if there's a Tomato Festival happening!! Very attractive and unusual.
Purple Ukraine & Banana Cream
Banana Cream (tradewindsfruitstore) Great shape and instantly attractive though not the best flavour! A bit disease prone here too. Grew it 30 years ago from HDRA Heritage Seed Library seed. My opinions haven't changed - a cream coloured, banana shaped, curiosity for exhibition or to wow your pals - that's all! (Pictured here with Purple Ukraine which I wouldn't bother to grow again- very spindly, obviously needing better light!)
Two unusual bush varieties that may be worth trying if you live somewhere less humid than me! They both have great flavour.
Green Grape (tradeswindsfruitstore.com and Simpson's) very sweet small cherry, unusual and pretty olive greeny/yellow colour. Tasty. Very vigorous bush that can be disease prone if you don't limit the foliage a bit. Very productive otherwise but a bit of a pain as it drops it's fruit very easily once just ripe and the minute you touch the bush they drop off - then you have to search underneath the copious foiage! At least you know that they're ripe then - as that's difficult being green! Better in a bucket - I grew it in the ground 30 years ago from HDRA/Heritage Seed Library seed and it took over half of the tunnel!
Black Sea Man (Plants of Distinction)Beefsteak/bush. I won't be growing this one again - it's far too temperamental in our climate! It does have a fabulously distinctive smoky rich flavour to be fair - but to grow it well you probably need to live in the warmer south-east of the UK - not in our cooler, more humid climate - even in a polytunnel! It's such a prima donna that I won't waste space on it again! (I've found one now that tastes pretty much the same but is far easier - Nyagous below) BSM is a bit like 'Black Krim' but sweeter. Extremely vigorous potato leaved very crowded bush, so air circulation can be a big problem. Gorgeous medium to huge beefsteak fruits that are a reddy/pinky/purpley sort of 'bruise' colour (or as one vegan friend I gave it to complained - it looks just like raw meat!!) so sweet you could almost eat it with sugar and cream, which I don't fancy trying - though oddly there are many sweet Shaker pudding recipes for tomatoes! It's problem is that it gets disease every year even in good weather - just when the first fruits are ripening and it's carrying a hugely promising crop. Not really worth the space or the work in my opinion - so be warned if you're thinking of growing it. This tomato is only worth growing in our climate here in Ireland if you don't mind just having great flavoured tomatoes for just one month at the most - instead of 6!! (I'm greedy!) And also be warned that rather than speaking from their own experience of actually growing it - I have seen some websites selling this tomato are 'borrowing' their descriptions directly from the catalogues of seed companies who may be in the south east of the UK - where the temperature is always about 10 deg C warmer all summer and a lot sunnier and drier than here. Tomatoes vary hugely in their innate disease resistance and cropping - and you need varieties that are tried and tested to be reliable over several years in our damp climate. I usually try varieties for 3 years before discarding - if they have a good enough flavour. They're dumped after the first year if they don't taste good
Cordon (upright) varieties - only bothering to review the very tastiest ones here or I would still be here next Christmas!
Cherry and cherry plum varieties
Rosada F1 - 5 star flavour! AN ABSOLUTE PARAGON OF A TOMATO, NUMBER ONE WITHOUT QUESTION ANDTHE VERY BEST CHERRY/PLUM!(I got mine in the past from Simpsons - I'm still including it even though I can no longer find it as I'm hoping that public pressure will bring it back! Please ask seed companies for it then they may decide to stock it again.)
As I've just said - if I only grew one tomato it would have to be this! Ab. Fab. flavour - and top of everyone's list who knows it or has tasted it here - the very best flavoured. Came top of the 'Which' taste trials some years ago - but no longer sold by the major seed companies for the reasons stated above. Great balance of sweetness and acidity. Very easy to grow and disease-free as it has well spaced, airy foliage, held well out from the stem. This is the one I ALWAYS recommend even for beginners. Very long trusses often almost 1m long - (I've had over 70 fruits on a single '3 branched' truss of one growing in a 10 litre container!) firm, meaty, small plum-shaped fruits that will last for absolutely ages on the plant so you can really ripen them to maximum sweetness. They may split eventually but only after about 3 weeks of absolute total ripeness and if your watering regime is irregular! (Sungold will split after only 3 days of being ripe!) They also keep for ages once picked, they freeze well and cook beautifully. Cut in half and dipped in hummus they are heavenly - or in fact anyway you like! Slow oven dried and stored in olive oil they are fabulous. 3 years ago I bought a dehydrator mainly for them and they are fantastic semi-dried, frozen and then re-hydrated in basil oil - yummy in festive salads, or 'delish' thrown straight into a roast ratatouille or stuffed sweet peppers! Such a good natured tomato - just as happy growing in buckets or the ground and always eager to please!! Has a tendency to keep on producing side shoots constantly from everywhere - but this is a plus as they easily root in a jar of water and you can pot some up for a later crop - thereby saving money on sowing more seed later. You can then bring potted ones into the house in late autumn to ripen their late fruits. What more can I say? If you only grow one - make sure it's this one if you can find it! You won't be disappointed. Please put pressure on seed companies to stock this variety again - it must not be lost!!
Sungold - a favourite with children
Sungold F1 - (available everywhere) Ubiquitous and delicious! Everyone knows it now - wonderful flavour, slightly more acid than Rosada so sadly doesn't dehydrate well as this accentuates their acidity. Best eaten straight off the plant or straight away when you get it to the kitchen. Doesn't keep on or off the plant very long and splits easily at the first opportunity. I also find it runs out of steam generally at about 6 trusses - long before Rosada, which reliably sets 8+, and needs far more feeding to keep it going. One of my customers of over 30 years got her grandchildren to eat tomatoes with this one and Rosada - now they're always asking her for the 'tomato sweeties'!
Tomato 'Apero' with yacon in foreground.
Apero F1 - (Dobies and Simpsons) A baby cherry plum that has exceptional flavour, although not quite as good as Rosada as not quite enough acidity. It's sweeter than Rosada but without that slight tartness it needs to balance it for supreme flavour. It's not nearly as productive or disease-resistant as Rosada because it has a slightly more compact, less airy habit. It has quite a tough skin and a really dense meaty texture though and this is the only tomato I know which you can freeze, then defrost, and it can still be sliced in half afterwards! Great for a tomato 'Tarte Tatin' in winter.
Blush - I discovered this little beauty for the first time this year - and it will be a permanent fixture from now on! A very beautiful teardrop-shaped, cherry plum striped in glorious sunset colours - it has the most stunning flavour! A wonderful balance of sweet/tart - the moment you bite into it your mouth instantly water.! My Tunnel to Table co-presenter Gerry Kelly was in raptures about it - and he's a Rosada fan too!
Green Envy - another new one this year. An unusual olive green, pear shaped, cherry-plum variety. At first hard to tell when it's ripe because of it's green colour - but when ripe it takes on a slightly yellowish hue and is just slightly softer with a bit of 'give' when very gently squeezed. Sweet and juicy - now a favourite. Sets skin early, so careful watering needed after that or fruit may split.
Classic Medium (Moneymaker size) type
Tomato 'John Baer' - very early, productive & best tasting medium classic type
John Baer - My absolute favourite in this category. non-hybrid (Plants of Distinction) A brilliant discovery in 2011 which I will definitely never be without again! Variable medium to very large round classic type that's not quite decided if it wants to be a beefsteak or a medium classic-sized tomato! It produces both. Very early and cropping well on into the autumn, it is vigorous and disease-resistant both in the ground and in containers. Such a heavy crop in my recycled mayo buckets that I had a job to stop it falling over! (Set 8 trusses even in buckets when well fed with Osmo organic tomato food) seems totally reliable - outstanding performance and superb flavour in our climate! Solid firm middle with no cavity looking more like a beefsteak. Can split if left on the plant too long. Lovely for salads and great cooked as well. A real favourite now.
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
Indigo Rose - Couldn't leave this one out as the inspiration for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival!(Got this from www.tradewindsfruitstore originally but last year Suttons Seeds had it) I couldn't leave this one out of course, as I was the first person to grow this in Ireland and poss. the British Isles 5 years ago when it was first introduced! The star of the 2012 & 2013 TomatoFests! Really stunning aubergine black - with rich ruby red flesh inside when ripe and the skin develops a 'slatey blue' sheen. Sadly looks aren't everything - even if it is absolutely a stunner! Very average supermarket-type flavour but with a very slight odd hint of liquorice - possibly from the anthocyanins. Also a slightly odd 'rubbery' texture to the fruit. It was bred from the only wild tomato with high levels of cancer fighting anthocyanins in the fruit, so I.R. is higher in these than any other tomato ever bred. Amazingly - since it was bred in the USA - I've found it a very easy to grow, very healthy, vigorous, short-jointed plants that set fruit easily so very productive and it didn't seem at all bothered by the low light levels we experienced in 2012. It was even better in 2013. Sets 8 trusses easily on plants only 2m high! Some of the Eastern European varieties I grew in 2012 only set 2 or 3 trusses very badly on 3m high plants!! It looks absolutely stunning with beefsteak White Queen in a salad, so celeb chefs would love it. It also deepens the colour of a tomato sauce significantly. Don't skin it - that's where the goodies are! Just blitz in a blender before adding to tomato sauces. (I do this with all my tomatoes - life is far too short to skin tomatoes anyway and it's totally unnecessary! Doing so loses valuable nutrients.) It's flavour intensifies on dehydrating and definitely improves although it shrinks quite a lot. A definite candidate for tomato 'sweeties'!
Dr Carolyn Pink - Lipstick pink, large fruited and with a fascinating history! This is said to be cherry type but generally more a medium/classic sized (another almost beefsteak looking one inside) Luscious, lovely flavour - Irish Times gardening correspondent Fionnuala Fallon said it tasted of summer! It's flavour reminds me very much of the furry skinned Red Peach (which is very rare and far more tricky to grow. I grew Red Peach for several years in the late 80's/90's from HDRA/HSL - and again this year) Dr. Carolyn sets fruit far better and is far more disease-resistant. After some detective work - Fionnuala Fallon wrote about this tomato in her great article in the Irish Times magazine of 25th August 2012, which you can read here: http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/2.770/reds-from-russia-with-love-1.543223
Nyagous - (Plants of Distinction) I grew this for the first time 4 years ago. Large, egg/baseball shaped blackish plum tomato, great flavour. Fairly disease resistant most years, and very productive even in containers. Definitely a good alternative to Black Sea Man. Another schizophrenic tomato that often produces beefsteak-sized fruits as well as medium sized!
Moonglow cut & uncut, Nyagous & John Baer
Moonglow - (Simpsons) Lovely fruity/sweet flavour - luscious almost apricotty texture. Bears large (beefsteak) to medium sized fruits on same plant. Stunning looking. Vigorous and disease-resistant old heritage variety. Incredibly productive - can tend to overcrop and become very heavy. A real favourite! Gorgeous sliced in a mixed variety Caprese salad. Well worth a place in any greenhouse!
Pantano Romanesco - (I save my own seed but it's available now from Klaus Laitenberger Green Veg. Seeds and T&M's) What more can I say about this wonderful tomato that I haven't already said? It's the very best flavoured Italian beefsteak in my opinion (certainly for Irish conditions over the last 20 years) and I've grown most of them. Better flavour than any of the the Costulotos or Marmandes and much easier to keep healthy in our climate. Some of those others look very attractive with their convoluted, pleated odd shapes - but that shape attracts and traps damp which can cause disease. Pantano has a smoother skin and better flavour anyway. Michael Viney mentioned in his Irish Times column in August '11 that he had grown it on my recommendation and that it was every bit as good as I had said. He did also say though, that people ought to be warned early on about it's tendency to make side shoots with extreme enthusiasm - to put it mildly! It is very vigorous and can make extensive unnecessary leaf growth, particularly on the ends of flower trusses, so it needs looking at every couple of days and doesn't want too much rich feeding at first. It's one of the varieties I would never want to be without though. Quite possibly, when perfectly ripe, it might be the last tomato I would want to eat if I was about to leave this world! It's that good! Rich tomato flavour - eat it with some chunks of torn, softly yeilding buffalo mozzarella, a drizzle of good EV olive oil, a fresh grind of black pepper, a scattering of shredded basil leaves and crusty ciabatta and you're instantly transported to the Med.! Or for the very best tomato sandwich ever - a guilty treat with rarely home-made white bread which doesn't mask the heavenly flavour - possibly slightly toasted until 'marshmallowy' and with a slick of home made mayo! (OMG I'm salivating at the thought!) An absolute must for beefsteak lovers!
Ananas Noir - (Plants of Distinction) Really delicious, strong growing and generally healthy beefsteak type. Very large fruits - some really huge 350-500g +! Outside an unprepossessing olivey/greeny/yellow colour - the inside so utterly beautiful you almost want to frame it! It's like eating a rainbow or an impressionist painting - all the colours of a Monet or Turner sunset! It can split a bit around top of some fruits near calyx when fully ripe and then may begin to rot from there if not picked immediately, but many of the older heritage and best-tasting beefsteaks tend to do this. Just one of the little foibles that you don't mind in the least once you've tasted it! The biggest one I've ever grown of this variety reached a weight of 856g or 1lb 15oz - so one can be almost a whole delicious meal!
Neve's Azorean Red topped with Sungold to show scale!
Neve's Azorean Red - (Plants of Distinction) A symphony of exquisite 'lipstick' pinkness! Huge beefsteak type fruits some 500g plus. Can also tend to split around stem end when ripening and must be picked straightaway then or it will quickly rot - but soft, yielding and utterly delicious - particularly with basil and garlic oil in a tomato and mozzarella salad. Well worth the trouble.
Green Cherokee - (tradewindsfruitstore) Extremely rare derivative of Cherokee Purple which I've also grown and is almost as tasty (now available Simpsons). Deep emerald green colour inside/yellowy olive green outside. Great flavour. Huge beefsteak fruits 350g+ - very sweet and beautiful colour - makes a fabulous contrast in Caprese salads. (Is healthier and more vigorous than Tasty Evergreen - which I no longer grow as it isn't nearly as tasty despite the name!)
Black from Tula. Grew this one for the first time this year. Not the most attractive colour! On the outside - a nondescript mahogany reddy-brown with greenish shoulders - it is a beautiful greeny-black inside. It has the same lovely sweet-smoky taste of Black Sea but is a cordon, so it's far easier to grow. It's also far heavier cropping and much more disease-resistant. It cropped well this year in container so I shall grow it in the ground in 2017. The easiest and tastiest of any of the darker coloured beefsteaks and I tried several for the first time this year. We loved it!
Black Beauty. The blackest tomato of all so far! A very unusual and stunning beefsteak with a cherry red heart inside when really ripe, it has the best flavour so far of any of the high anthocyanin tomatoes which I've tried. Not the happiest in a container this year - I shall grow it in 2017 as I think it may be far happier in the ground and is definitely worth trying again.
White Queen - (Also pictured above with Indigo Rose) from Nicky's Nursery seeds. Pleasant, not hugely 'tomatoey' but fruitily sweet and juicy, cream-coloured beefsteak. Interesting and makes an unusual, stunningly beautiful contrast in a mixed tomato salad. Quite healthy and vigorous. RTE gardening expert Dermot O'Neill liked this one a few years ago when he visited my tunnels for RTE Radio's Mooney Show! I grew it first over 25 years ago from HDRA/Heritage Seed Library (now Garden Organic) seed when doing a similar, smaller tomato event I mentioned at the National Botanic Gardens.
Large plum/beefsteak type
Amish Paste - the best for tomato sauce
Amish Paste - (Plants of Distinction) Large plum/beefsteak type. Not for eating fresh in my opinion! A fab cooking tomato - tastes of almost nothing when raw. It has a strange 'pasty'/meaty texture that changes vastly in cooking and then has a great flavour. It only tales a couple of fruits to utterly transform a huge vat of sauce made with any kind of tomatoes. Some sort of alchemy happens it's when cooked! Very productive.
Just in case you're tempted by this one - Sweet Aperitif F1. - (I was given plants of this - so thought I'd just mention it. I tried it 3 years ago as a couple of people had raved about the flavour) The tiny, cherry sized fruit certainly have an intense sweet/acid flavour. I won't be growing it again though, firstly because I found it didn't fit into a mixed tunnel well. It produces huge fan-shaped trusses of tiny flowers (millefiore) which I found attracted botrytis (grey mould) very easily - even in a year which was warmer and drier than usual. The reason possibly is that in the mixed cropping environment of a normal back garden greenhouse or tunnel the atmosphere is usually a bit more humid - because most of us want to grow things like cucumbers etc as well. I think this is a factor often overlooked by seed companies and plant breeders. If you are growing only tomatoes then you could probably keep the atmosphere a lot drier - so perhaps it might not be so much of a problem. Another fault for me was that the fruits had very tough skins which I hate for eating raw - and it also split easily. I personally won't bother growing it again.
I'm sure there are 100's of other varieties that would grow well in our climate that I haven't tried - out of the many 1,000s there are out there. But my criteria are first and foremost taste - then disease resistance, length of cropping time, earliness and ease of growing for back gardeners. They've got to earn their space! I reckon to get 5-6 months of cropping from most of them. I can't think of any other vegetable/fruit that is quite so generous for so long! Some catalogues give information on the number of days the variety takes to start cropping after planting - go for the shortest time as this indicates earliness to ripen - very important in our normal 'summers'! In a poor summer - the ones with the shortest time from planting to cropping should still do better than most others.
Beefsteak tomatoes halved - Giant Belgium, Green Cherokee, John Baer, Persimmon, Ananas, White Queen, Neve's Azorean, Black Sea
Insalata Caprese - with (from bottom) John Baer, Green Cherokee, Ananas Noir
Some of the varieties or other heritage ones may be available from Mads McKeever's Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork - a certified organic seed company. A couple of the varieties I recommend may also be available from Klaus Laitenberger's seed company along with some other interesting varieties of veg. Here's a link - http://greenvegetableseeds.com/shop/
My endlessly versatile Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce recipe, that makes the base for literally dozens of different meals, is on the recipe page of the website. Even if you don't have any tomatoes left in the freezer - you can still make this budget friendly recipe with tinned tomatoes and it tastes great! Served with pasta - it makes a cheap, filling and tasty meal for a family of four, for barely a couple of euros! By the way - life is definitely far too short to skin tomatoes! Unless they have a very 'woody' at bit at the stem end (in which case cut out) - then just throw them into a blender - whizz them and add to the sauce as in my recipe - or use them raw, just as they are, with some crushed garlic for a fabulously fresh tasting pasta sauce. Not skinning means you retain all the nutrients which are mostly either in, or just under, the skin, although cooking with oil in the sauce actually releases more of the important tomato phytonutrient lycopene, which has numerous health benefits.
Urgent message for all fans of Rosada F1Tomato!
I'm repeating this plea! Ask for Rosada please even though it's currently not available. Otherwise we will lose it forever!
In Jan. 2015 I was speaking to Simpsons Seeds as I was having a slight problem with their website order. During our chat they told me that as from 2016 the scrumptious Rosada F1 cherry/plum tomato would no longer be available! Their supplier >wholesaler>breeder says that not enough of this wonderful little tomato is being sold. That is absolutely tragic! As many of you know, I think that this tomato is without doubt the very best cherry plum ever - and I've been growing tomatoes organically, both in my back garden and then on a larger scale commercially, for over 40 years now. I've tried literally hundreds of varieties over the years, trying to find better ones each year. There are far too many new patented varieties available at the moment - and very few that I would consider good enough to ever bother with again!
I don't think that any other tomato comes anywhere near either Rosada's fabulous flavour, massive crop (over 70 tomatoes on just one 3 branched lower truss in a 10 litre pot - setting 8 trusses! 23 trusses when grown in my own invention - candelabra-style growing!) it'sgreatdisease resistance, good-natured ease of growing, remarkable resistance to splitting, or versatility in the kitchen, whether it's for eating fresh in salads, freezing, dehydrating or cooking. It's the very best tomato for beginners - I always recommended it if asked to suggest just one variety. All children love it too - one customer's grandchildren keep asking when she'll have the 'tomato sweeties' again! (And I just can't stop eating the semi-dehydrated ones straight out of the freezer!)
It's an F1 hybrid (which doesn't mean that it's a GMO - something that could never potentially occur in nature!) F1 just means that it's a very specific cross between two known parents, done in isolation from other varieties, to ensure that it comes true from seed.That being so you will not be able to save seed from it and get the same result! Or if you do - you will possibly get seed, but you'll probably end up with a lot of mongrels - many of which may be no good - believe me - I've tried it! Producing an F1 hybrid is naturally a more expensive process than producing an open pollinated variety - so if it doesn't sell well enough - then the powerful commercial interests that now control most of the global seed industry just won't bother with it. Profit from their patents is their main criteria for selection!
In general I favour non-F1 hybrids, as I save a lot of my own seed - but this tomato is an absolutely outstanding exception.
THIS TOMATO REALLY IS WORTH SAVING - PEOPLE POWER COULD DO IT! ASK FOR IT EVEN IF IT'S NOT IN THE CATALOGUES - WE MAY BE ABLE TO GET IT BACK ON SALE IF WE DO!
Wonderful, wiggly Dendrobaena worms - busy turningour kitchen waste into black gold!
Black gold - worm compost ready to go. Superfood for plants!
Do you have worms? That is not a personal question you understand - but I mean actually in your garden? If you don't - then you may possibly have New Zealand Flatworm. I normally love worms but that's a worm that I really hate! I've had it in my garden for well about 15 years now. They look disgusting, a bit like an 'ironed-out' strip of liver, pointed at both ends, with a pink 'go faster' stripe along either side. They gobble up every earthworm in sight - with the resulting destruction of the soil drainage - because deep-tunneling earthworms are no longer there to do their vital job. Believe me - you learn to value your worms then! One of the reasons I make worm compost is to compensate for the fact that I no longer have enough worms working through my garden soil outside any more. They are vital to a healthy soil and their actions make plant foods more available to all the gazillions of soil bacteria, which act just like a digestive system in the 'gut' of the soil, making nutrients readily available for plant roots to absorb. It is a vitally important process. Without worms, their associated bacteria, and all the other billions of soil organisms such as mycorrhizal funghi - plant debris does not break down into what is known as humus.
In fact - without worms globally - we would all be literally buried under millions of tons of unrotted plant debris lying around everywhere in a very short time. Without worms working in your garden soil and doing their part in Nature's perfectly balanced ecosystem, if you put any compost or a mulch onto the surface then it will just stay there in exactly the same state, instead of gradually disappearing as it should, as worms gradually pull it down under the surface.
Years ago, when I was growing commercially, I used to make tons of worm compost in a huge bin made of pallets which was about 2m x 1m x 1m high. Sadly though, after I unwittingly imported New Zealand flatworms into the garden in some plants from a well-known Rhododendron nursery in the North (I am 100% certain), they then settled in and decided they liked the place - bred like wildfire and very quickly went through my worm bin for a short cut - followed by most of the garden too! I don't think I'll ever get rid of them entirely now - I've just learned to work around them. Interestingly enough, I had a long chat with the man at Finnis worms who sell worm bins and the worms to stock them - who said that masses of people all over Ireland are buying the earthworms he now also sells, specifically to replace those eaten by flatworms - interesting as I've only ever heard of one other place in Ireland that actually admits to having them at all! People seem somehow to be ashamed to admit it! Almost as if they have some deadly disease or think you can't be properly organic if you have them! Silly - as it's not your fault if you have them if you've introduced them unwittingly. It probably means that you like unusual plants like me and you can blame the 'globalisation' of the horticulture industry for importing them - and also the fact that we don't have Kiwis or any other Antipodean predators to eat them - even my chickens won't eat them! Yet another reason for avoiding those plants that come with a big carbon footprint! Flatworms also love organic gardens even more - because there's a lot more worms in them (before they get in there!). The only thing is - unless you get rid of the flatworm before you buy more worms to put outside in your garden - all you're doing is providing fast food take away for them because they're a siting target! Though I'm sure anyone selling earthworms won't tell you that!! I've been doing a lot of research and experiments on how to deal with New Zealand Flatworm. How how to avoid getting them in the first place, how to deal with their serious effects on your soil if you do and eventually restore your worm population, and I'll talk more about in another article.
I bought one of those small 'high rise', stacking worm compost bins a few years ago and they do actually work very well for making small amounts. As they're really only suitable for small amounts of waste though, and as we try top be self-sufficient here and I needed a lot more worm compost. So I decided to make a slightly bigger, indoor system that I could put in the old stables so that it would be safe from any marauding flatworms. Those stacking bins are rather expensive too - all types being at least around €150 - so I looked around for a larger alternative. I found some big bench-sized storage bins with lids (on offer at the time in B&Q at 28 euros but available generally in most DIY shops). These were ideal, as they also had ventilation holes hidden in the handle wells. First I made drainage holes in the bottom at one end, by cutting off a couple of the extruded feet with a small hacksaw, then put the bin on a base of wood laths on a slight slope - with a small plastic tray under the drainage holes at the lower end to collect any run off - which makes a very good liquid feed. I then covered the base with gravel, covered that with some slotted plastic windbreak but anything similar would do, then put a double layer of ground cover material over that to stop any worms escaping - or broken down compost clogging the drainage. (Worms seem to be like sheep - hell bent on escaping at every possible opportunity - and believe me, all my birds would certainly appreciate them if they did - they wouldn't last too long!) I then made a dividing mesh fence for the middle, so that I could put food waste into one half until that is full, then swap to using the other side, encouraging the worms to move to the new side by exposing them to light on the worked, 'full' up side.
After setting the bin up, I made some nice soft bedding for the worms, from leaf mould and shredded damp newspaper, putting about 10cm of this to cover the bottom of the bin both sides - and it was all ready to receive it's new residents - 2 kilos of worms! When they arrived in the post, I put them gently into the bin, talked to them nicely, and covered them with a duvet of thoroughly damp newspaper to keep them moist. (They seem to like The Guardian best!) I gave them a couple of days to settle in and recover from 'post lag' and then started feeding them with a small amount of food at a time - after a few days they were eagerly racing through all the food. By the way - I couldn't believe at first that the leaflet from Finnis worms even actually recommended keeping the light on at night for a few days at first to help them settle in - I thought that was maybe taking anthropomorphism a little bit too far?!! But actually this is based on science - as worms naturally move away from the light, they are more likely to stay in the bin and not try to make a run for it and escape to go back home! Once they're happy and decide that they like you they will be too busy all the time chomping away on all the yummy goodies you provide, so they won't want to escape.
You can then take out the sweet-smelling, well-processed, worm-free material whenever you wish. It is a ready to go, rich source of soil microbes and plant micro-nutrients that can be added straight to soil when planting, scattered around plants as a tonic or made into an incredibly nutritious 'compost super-tea' in a large bucket or other container, by adding a small amount of the worm compost as a starter, then water and some molasses to feed all the microbes, stirring and fermenting for 24 hours, then watering onto the soil around plants.
I took a few pictures as I was setting up the bin which show the simple basic layout:
Worm compost is just like rocket fuel for plants - and the worms really are worth their weight in gold! My son caught me seemingly talking to myself in the old stable/potting shed some years ago (I do it all the time!) - and I explained I was talking to my new worm best friends - the Dendrobaena - which work through food waste much faster than the more usual red tiger worms. He raised his eyes to heaven and said "OMG Mum - your obituary will be entitled "The Woman Who Talked To Worms"! I replied that there could actually be worse things to talk to - anyway I love my worms - they are doing such a fantastic job and I was just telling them so!! Hey - I talk to plants, so what's wrong with worms? They react suddenly to loud noises, so why might they not respond to my positive and encouraging dulcet tones?!!
I've had the Dendrobaena worms for a few years now - they are doing a fantastic job of processing our kitchen waste with relish. I got them mail order from Finnis worms in the North. Dendrobaena are in fact a type of earthworm, but not the 'deep tunnelling' type. They live in the top few centimetres of soil, processing plant wastes, a job at which they are the most efficient of all worms. Most municipal composting systems now use them exclusively. Their favourite food in the whole world is either carrot or sweet potato peelings - as they clearly have a sweet tooth! They're quite partial to a rotting avocado too if you get a bad one. They will even eat mouldy bread and left over pasta if you have any (without sauce!), neither of which you can put onto the compost heap.
You must never put meat scraps into the worms - but our lovely rescue dogs enjoy those. They don't like otherfats or dairy leftovers either, orcitrus rinds either as they're too acid. Apart from that they're not that fussy. I cook all our eggshells in the bottom oven of the range and scrunch them up really small to provide a source of calcium for the worms as they like a pH of about 7 and also use the small grit they provide to grind up their food. So the only food waste here that can't be recycled and actually goes into the brown recycling bin now are any bones. That's of course after making my famous stock or 'bone-broth' as it is now known - per the current US fashion! I was making it long before most of the current 'food fashionistas' were even born!! I've often wondered if there's a sort of domestic scale grinder out there which would turn them into bonemeal fertiliser? Sadly bones don't break down in the soil - which naturally of course makes my archaeologist son very happy - especially when they're a few thousand years old! Sometimes when I'm digging to plant something, I'm still finding old bones in the garden which my darling old labrador Lara (the children's nanny!) buried in her favourite spots more than thirty years ago! Those and the half-eaten tennis balls I come across from her and various other dogs that have shared our lives over the years bring back so many happy memories!........
Anyway - REMEMBER - LOVE AND RESPECT YOUR WORMS! They are your best friends! Don't kill them by using weedkillers, artificial fertilisers and pesticides which are death to all soil life - not only worms! A healthy living soil full of life is vital for our own health and also the health of everything else on the planet.
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.
As I write this I'm listening to Hurricane Ophelia raging over us! I've decided to update this as it helps to take my mind off my own polytunnels and also stops my eyes from looking out of the windows. Also I thought I'd do it while we still have power, which usually goes off here in even minor storms! There has already been a lot of damage countrywide. My trees are currently bending double and although we've been through some serious storms here before and we've done everything we can to prepare - this storm is an unknown quantity. Sadly with increasing climate change, I doubt if this will be the last of these storms we will see in our lifetime - but I won't go into that argument here!
I sincerely hope that all your tunnels are safe - but if not - I do hope that any damage is minimal and that my suggestions below may be of some help and possibly save the cover of your tunnel. More gales are forecast for this weekend, so if there is even the slightest of small tears in covers - it's worth strengthening them NOW with tunnel tape. This method will also save greenhouse glass too if there are cracks or even complete panes broken - something which again I've experienced here.
There were some suggestions on Twitter yesterday evening and this morning that it was better to leave tunnel doors open in rough weather - but from my own experience it is far better to keep them as tightly closed as possible. Winds in such strong storms can be very unpredictable and can change direction very suddenly. If you leave the downwind doors open as one or two people suggested - I know from my own experience that the tunnel can just take off if the wind suddenly gusts from a direction that wasn't predicted. I lost my very first polytunnel in the Great Storm of 1987 because the cheap roll up door blew in and then up through the roof! Then I lost another polytunnel two years later that had been put up by a man who said he was experienced at erecting polytunnels - it turned out that he wasn't! He had tacked the polythene on at one end before he realised there wasn't enough to reach to the other end - he then forced it to stretch too much and pulled it too tight - slightly bending the frame. At the first sign of any wind it just collapsed like a house of cards. I lost not just the polythene but also the frame as well -so it was an expensive lesson. Although he had been recommended by my polytunnel suppliers at the time - I very stupidly didn't ask for other references!
So I know how upsetting it is to lose a tunnel completely - I did 30 years ago! If you've been unfortunate enough to lose yours I can sympathise - but all is not completely lost - because even if the frame is weakened, it can still be useful. I now use that old frame as a fruit cage and chicken run instead!
Since then I've always got the suppliers themselves to erect them as I describe later - then they are responsible if it's not done properly! I also have properly closing doors on both of my new stronger-framed tunnels - one has sliding doors and the other has a hinged-type opening door. I definitely think that the more expensive option of the sliding door is worth every single cent! It's very easy to vary the width of the opening to allow the doors to be opened in even quite windy weather, depending on direction, which you can't do with the hinged doors.
Here's a list of what you will need:
1. A large roll of see-through tunnel tape. You should be able to get this from your local farm supplies shop, they' usually have them in stock as there are so many tunnels around now. Or if your polytunnel supplier is near enough, they're sure to have it. There is a type of Sellotape sold in DIY stores for garden use - but the rolls are smaller and not quite so effective in my experience.
2. A large roll of a good absorbent kitchen paper towel.
3. A large pair of scissors.
4. A stable stepladder that won't wobble if the damage is not within easy reach.
5. Someone to help hold the stepladder steady for you - (most important!) and also to hold an umbrella over you if it's raining while you're working outside as the polythene must be kept dry while you're working on it or the tape won't stick!
To mend a small or middle sized tear:
Mending a hole or tear up to about 4-5ins long that's within reach is pretty easy - but needs to be done immediately to avoid the wind catching it and causing possible further damage.
Get all your equipment ready and keep it dry in a bag or bucket - don't put down on damp ground.
Start on outside of the tunnel first if it's within reach.
First wipe dry the area all around the tear - to about 4-5inches 10cm or so from damage - with 3-4 large pieces of kitchen towel. Do this twice with two changes of towel to ensure it's as dry as poss.
If it's only a small tear or hole just cut off enough tape to mend to about 2ins-3ins either side of the damage and press the tape gently onto the area, working from the middle of the tear out, to avoid air bubbles which will attract moisture and gradually undo the mend. Once you've it stuck to the tunnel, use the rounded handle of the scissors to gently rub all over the area, working along the length of the taped bit, as if you were brass rubbing! This really seals the tape mend and squeezes out any small air pockets. You will see the area gradually become clearer, which means it's really stuck.
Then do exactly the same inside immediately, repeating the process of drying off the area thoroughly etc. again. You may think it's dry enough in the tunnel, but even your breath will create humidity which will affect the area to be mended, and will make the seal less effective.
To mend a larger hole or tear:
Go through the same process again of drying off, starting on the outside.
Cut enough of the tape to 'stitch' across the tear to about 4-5ins either side of the damage, start in the middle, pulling it together, then work out from there either side, and literally doing large 'cartoon' stiches across the damage first. If it's really large, having another pair of hands to pull the tear together really helps - but I have often done this on my own.
Make sure the damaged/stitched area is still dry enough, if you're not sure then rub with kitchen towel again and then go along the whole of the damage length ways, going further out from the stitches over the whole area with the tape. This is because if you don't - wet can get under the stitches and the whole area may come undone if it gets wet inside. Again rub over the whole area with handle end of scissors - (or the back of a large tablespoon as a person suggested to me recently who had mended her polytunnel using my advice.
If you have someone to help - get them to stay outside while you repeat the process again on the inside, getting them to hold their hands flat over the area, to give you some thing to work against when putting on the tape and ensuring it sticks. You ideally want as few air bubbles as possible under the polytunnel tape when doing this. Don't try to skimp on the tunnel tape when doing this - more is definitely better and is a helluva lot cheaper than having to buy a new polytunnel cover!
To mend a tear in a tunnel roof where you can't get at the top outside without a cherry picker!
Make sure you've got someone to hold the ladder - the voice of bitter experience here!
Go through the same process as for the larger tear or hole, making sure it's really dry, getting a piece of tape to stitch across the middle of the tear first. It it's large enough to get your hand through to the outside and you can reach, put one hand on the outside and then you can push against it.
Once you have done that - the first strip of tape should hold the area steady enough to enable you to get the rest of the tape on, again 'stitching' across larger areas first. Then going along. It will also be strong enough to rub the handle of the scissors over the area as before. It's also often a good idea to reinforce a large area with additional polythene if you have some handy. Doing this can give you a good seal which will last for years - I promise! Believe me I've mended some really huge holes this way, and they've lasted until the tunnels were due for re-covering several years later.
If you're just putting up a new a tunnel - it can be really useful to save all those off-cuts of the polythene that may seem too small to be useful! They can come in really handy later on for mending large, difficult tears. I'm an avid recycler (some would say hoarder!) and I can guarantee that if I throw something out - I'll probably want it a couple of weeks later. 'Sod's Law'! If you don't have any off-cuts - then go to a local bed store like Harvey Norman's and ask them very nicely for a polythene mattress cover (threatening to weep helps if they're mean - but they're usually very nice!). They'll always have these hanging around from new show bed mattresses etc. The polythene is normally strong enough to cope with mending a large hole if well put on - and the're actually also just the right size and really useful for covering areas of my 4ft wide raised beds in spring, to dry them off a bit!!
If the tear is too big to attempt to repair in any way at all - even without using a large extra patch of polythene - then sadly the best thing you can do is to literally just cut your losses, get a sharp knife and cut off all the polythene completely. If you leave it flapping around in the wind like a sail - it will gradually distort the frame, weakening it and it will be useless for using as a polytunnel again. Sorry! Not complete despair though - you could still use it as a fruit cage or hen run!
My polytunnel history!
I put up my very first tiny 6 x 8 polytunnel/plastic 'Garden Relax' brand polythene greenhouse in our very first garden about 39 years ago! That was the beginning of a love affair with these incredibly productive and useful things. When we moved to our current home, I started growing organic veg commercially. After losing three greenhouses, I decided that polytunnels were the only option here, as they can flex and move just a little, which a greenhouses can't. One crack and a greenhouse is gone in a high wind. I learnt as I went along. The first one that I lost in Hurricane Charlie produced great crops. It was one of those 13ft x 65ft ones, where you could only grow tall crops in the middle and the sides were very low. The only problem was that on our very windy site, the roll-up doors could potentially catch in the wind and blow inside the tunnel, going up through the roof! That was how I lost that one in the hurricane!
After that I got two more of that size as they were the cheapest option. As I earned enough from all my hard work, I would buy another - ending up with 3 of those smaller ones, and then an 18ft x 54ft much taller one at the bottom of the hill where it was more sheltered. That was luxury indeed! These served me well until I gave up commercial growing in the mid '90's, mainly to look after my late mother who had increasing dementia and also to pursue my dream of becoming a sculptor - which enabled me to be around the house more for my mother. I still grew all my own food in the old larger tunnel, and promised myself that if I ever had the chance - then I would one day buy the very best I could possibly afford, with sturdy real doors - not the 'roll up' ones which so easily catch in the wind.
I come from a farming family and used to breed horses as a hobby until very recently. Sadly I haven't been allowed to ride for over 30 years or so now due to increasing spinal problems, but I loved having horses around, and luckily they've always earned their keep! Just in case you might think we're millionaires - I had a bit of good fortune a few years ago. I happened to sell one extremely well, so I finally decided to go for it and realise my long-held dream of a buying two polytunnels that would last as long as me. These will hopefully enable me to still go on gardening - growing food both for us and for nature and bringing me a lot of joy - even if sooner or later I become increasingly disabled as doctors have predicted! Having learnt so much about polytunnels over the years - I went for the strongest and biggest I could afford, both with a really heavy gauge steel frame, cladding strips to hold the polythene along the sides to make re-covering easier if and when necessary, with the toughest heavy polythene covers and they proper sliding and hinged-opening doors.
I bless my good fortune, my lovely old mare (now sadly deceased) and my two polytunnels every day! Even on the very worst of days when the weather is foul or if I can barely bend - I can still sit on a stool and plant or weed, getting my daily dose of light and birdsong! It's the most wonderfully relaxing therapy as all you gardeners know and is also a reason to keep moving when sometimes it might seem easier not to! The tunnels are also incredibly productive as you can see from all the pictures elsewhere. They provide most of our food here, as well as raising chicks, rescuing hedgehogs, even drying the washing - you name it - they do it! I know that greenhouses are more beautiful - but on our very windy hill here they sadly weren't an option, and they are twice the price anyway. I hope you will agree that I've tried to make mine as beautiful as possible. They're also brilliant for bees, butterflies and all other sorts of wildlife who benefit all year round from all the nectar and pollen producing flowers while providing me with nature's free pest control! I just couldn't live without them!
Whether you have to beg, borrow or steal for a polytunnel - or just pay for it by the sheer sweat of your brow as I did - they are well worth it. I worked out a few years ago that any size polytunnel should more than easily pay for itself in produce within 3 years. And if it doesn't - then you're not using it properly and really you don't deserve it!! If you're eating your 5-a-day it should save you at least €25-€35 per week on your household budget for a family of four - multiply that by 12 and that's the price of a small polytunnel over a year! My polytunnels save me a huge amount on my food bill and everything that they produce is always organic, local, super-fresh and full of all the nutrients that Nature intended and which are often lost in shop-bought fruit and vegetables.
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)
Gerry Kelly & I chatting about seasonal crops & planting for winter - in our 'From Tunnel to Table' Autumn Special
As it's late autumn and so many people have asked me about winter polytunnel crops - this month I've decided to depart from my usual format and share the notes with you which I always send to Gerry Kelly before our programme on LMFM Radio - which aired last week. Gerry then chooses what he wants to talk about. The notes are a full run down of what's in the tunnels right now - which I've slightly amended to make them more intelligible (I hope) because Gerry is used to my notes by now - but they're still slightly in shorthand compared to my usual style of writing! I think they do give a flavour of what's going on in there at the moment though. As time for adverts always tends to cut down on our air time too - a lot tends to get left out - which is a pity but can't be helped! I will put the more usual stuff on the blog in the next few days. You can listen to our chat and the more 'ad lib' programme here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/listen
Polytunnel - general comments
Firstly - as I'm always saying - this garden isn't a show garden it's a food-producing garden. It never has huge swathes with neat rows of crops as 1. I no longer grow commercially and 2. I never did plant like that! It does however grow plenty of food for my family - with enough spare to often share with friends and also for wildlife. It's therefore always a work 'in progress'! If you came to see it - you would probably be hugely disappointed - as it looks far from perfect!
Autumn planting is well under way in the polytunnels - it's sad to see the end of summer but we're looking forward to some great winter food not just for us but also for any bumblebees that will venture out on mild days. I have lots of flowers planted for them too. With lots of flowers all around the polytunnels to attract in bees & beneficial insects - that's why I almost never see any pests. The hoverflies, frogs, sparrows and other small birds that come in, because of the insects attracted by the flowers, are a very effective army of pest controllers.
All the flowers in the polytunnels also lift my spirits in winter - a time when many people feel a bit low. Many studies have shown that spending some time outside every day with gentle exercise, even in winter, is good for our mental and physical health. So a spot of gardening in a nice warm, dry space, with some colourful flowers to look at, bees buzzing and birdsong to listen to as well, is just what the doctor ordered and something we really need in the middle of winter!
There are also clumps of nettles in odd corners which provide nettle aphids which are very valuable early spring food for ladybirds. Those aphids are specific to nettles and don't live on anything else - but ladybirds are so grateful for them when there's little other food around, as they can eat all sorts of aphids! When the ladybird larvae have chomped their way through the nettle aphids - which are normally the earliest to appear every year - then there is often other food for them to eat. Or at least I think there must be - because I rarely see any aphids around after that! Some butterflies also over winter on the nettles as chrysalises which then hatch out in spring.
Just as I do in the garden outside - I try to make my polytunnels as natural an ecosystem as possible - just mimicking nature in miniature really - because everything in nature is connected - with everything living depending on everything else. In that way it all works well in a wonderfully evolved symbiosis - or mutually beneficial relationship - which helps me to grow all of our food as naturally as possible - without any pesticides.It's a sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" situation! (ps - This is an aside not in the programme notes! - I was furious a few years ago when a very rude visitor remarked behind my back to his wife on seeing all the nettles - "that if this was his garden - he would do a bit of weeding"! Unfortunately for him my son was at the back of the party I was showing round the garden and heard that remark! With hindsight now I laugh about it as he was demonstrating not just his bad manners in return for my hospitality - but also showing his total ignorance of how nature works. Not surprising I suppose though - for someone who sold a lot of pesticides!!!
Walking in at the south end - the propagating/potting tables on either side of the door
Lots of veg seedlings still sitting around in pots or modules waiting for the last of the summer crops to come out before they can be planted. Things like multi-sown Ragged Jack kale - this is a useful way of sowing for lots of things to be cropped as baby salad leaves. As I always save my own seed of this and many other salads - I can be generous with the seed. Lots of things can be sown this way - especially things like fast growing Oriental salad mixes and spinach - which by the way can still be sown now. (These can also be left to flower early next spring to provide welcome early pollen and nectar for bees.) You have to be careful with multi-sowing things like lettuces though - as these need slightly better spacing and air circulation or they can get diseases caused by damp. I always sow three to a module with these - to make sure I have them - and then thin them to just one seedling per module as soon as they're large enough to handle without damaging the others. There are also peas sown a week ago in pots (to avoid mouse damage) - for a late crop of pea shoots - these are Oregon Sugar Pod which is a good variety for doing this in winter. The leaves are tasty and it seems hardier than most.
There is also garlic sprouting in modules - a variety called Lautrec which I've wanted to try for a while. I always start garlic off like this if I don't know the source of it - then if it looks virused or diseased I don't plant it. When it's sprouted - if it looks healthy then I shall plant it in a container for this year. (I found this in the Avoca shop in Dunboyne. They sell a great variety of organic veg there & also have a lovely garden centre & cafe if you're in the locality.) There are also some tomato cuttings I rooted in water a few weeks ago - these will be potted on now and brought into the house in the next week or so before frosts, where I hope they will come through the winter and be very early next year as the Rosada did last year.
In addition there are also some Violetta and Red Emmalie potatoes for Christmas - up out of the way of marauding mice on a small stepladder - (last week they dug up and ate some of the Red Duke of York I had planted earlier!) They are both second-early varieties which usually do well. Mice can't reach them up there! It's what's known as the organic 'barrier method' of pest prevention!!
Middle S.E. Bed on right
All the beds have moved round in their yearly rotation so this bed is now winter lettuce - mostly a great variety called Jack Ice a lovely crisp variety like a non-hearting Iceberg type lettuce - this means it's more nutritious as all the leaves are green - not blanched and white like an Iceberg lettuce!' Also Red Oak Leaf lettuce in the middle. It's all inter-planted with a garlic variety called Morado - an organic high-Allicin producing variety which I got from Fruit Hill Farm which is available online. Allicin is the strongly-smelling active ingredient in garlic which is very good for our health - boosting our immune system and circulation - and keeping away colds & flu. The garlic will continue to grow on after the lettuce has all been harvested in early spring and will be harvested as soon as it produces usable bulbs in late spring/earl;y summer and our stored bulbs are finished. Green garlic - with the leaves still green - has a delicious flavour. I think the garlic may also even possibly help to keep root aphids away.
There's celery planted at the door end where it is slightly lower and cooler, as this was planted while the weather was quite warm and kept well-watered. I only grow a few plants and only ever cut sticks as I need them - I never cut whole plants. This way there's always outside sticks available for cooking throughout the winter - with some more tender, inner ones for salads. At the other end of the bed near the middle of the tunnel there is purple Perilla - a lovely spicy herb with an indefinable curry/basil/anise/lemony taste which is fabulous in salads and other dishes. I always leave it to do it's own thing and seed itself where it likes. I then dig up any seedlings I want as for some reason it's very difficult to grow from seed and does it far better itself!
Inter-planting is something which I've done for 40 years now. A few years ago someone re-named it polyculture - but basically it's the same thing! I first discovered it was a great way to grow things when I only had a tiny garden - and as I've already mentioned - I still plant every part of my garden and even the polytunnels like that. Just like a tiny garden that I have to cram as much as possible into! It makes the most of the available space by growing something very upright that will crop later in between something like lettuce which is harvested earlier. Then there are also the perennials - like grapevines and peaches in the tunnels too.
Far right S.E. bed - side of tunnel
I'll be sowing a green manure called Phacelia in this bed next week to improve it's fertility and humus content - as it tends to dry out quite quickly. This is a much better way to improve soil fertility than just lashing on masses of manure! Too much nitrogen unbalances the nutrients in soil and can cause some important soil bacteria and other soil life to die out. When it's cut down and forked in lightly early in the New Year, the worms will gradually work it in - magnifying it's nutrients and turning it into moisture-retaining humus.
Left-hand S.W. bed
This is all brassicas - the cabbage family - broccoli, Chinese greens etc. this year - this bed will be tomatoes next year as they follow on well from brassicas.
It's important to plan your rotations well even in a small polytunnel as this is another good way to prevent a build-up of pests and diseases. Growing veg in rotation means making sure that you don't grow any veg family in the same spot more than once every four years. With things like the tomato family (solanaceae) sometimes this can be a problem as there's so many of that family that we want to grow - tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, potatoes etc - I overcome this by growing some of them in containers - especially peppers and aubergines which seem to do better in containers - I think that's because the roots are warmer and the drainage is much better.
Growing right next to path here where it's easy to pick anytime is watercress - a plant that most people don't realise is actually a member of the cabbage family - this is one of the mainstays of our winter diet. It's higher in healthy nutrients than any other green veg - lovely raw in salads and also great for soups and sauces - it's so versatile that we use it a lot.
Next to that is the multi-coloured Pak Choi called 'Vibrant Joy' (from Real Seeds)with very tender juicy leaves - again great in salads. Next to that in the middle of the bed is the Chinese Cabbage Scarlette - a fabulous-coloured, sweet-tasting new variety I grew for the first time last year - very high in phytonutrients. It's great in stir fries and salads.
On the left of these will be Green Magic broccoli - coming on nicely in modules now and soon to be planted. That will crop until late April/early May.
To the far left of these at the side of the tunnel waiting to be planted are lots more plants and seedlings in pots and modules - looking a bit of a mess really!
The last grapes are ripening - a late seedless variety called Flame. These are trained at 1m high along the sides where they don't shade anything & produce huge crops.
Top right middle bed
Courgettes - yellow Atena & a green one Ambassador (some of which we eat in the pizza recipe for the programme) - these have been cropping well since early May and should go on another few weeks unless we get really cold weather. I always plant two varieties to ensure I get good pollination (explained in programme) After they come out I have a terrific winter spinach called Viroflex (again Real Seeds) - growing on in modules which will crop until next April and some more lettuce. If they're still cropping I shall pot the spinach on into small pots.
Far right N.E. bed
This will also be brassicas - multi-sown Ragged Jack Kale to provide baby leaves for salads or stir fries all through the winter and then delicious flower shoots like broccoli in spring. Currently there is some green oak leaf lettuce cropping there and also some loose-leaf winter 'collard' cabbage to harvest after Christmas. There's also some late-sown purple sprouting broccoli - all still growing on in modules at the moment. Both are much more productive in the tunnel in late winter as we can be very windy here. As I have eight beds in the polytunnel - a four course rotation works well in here.
Left middle bed
All the tomatoes have gone now and have been replaced by Ruby Chard Vulcan - another very nutritious mainstay of our winter diet. This is planted either side of the bed with Sugar Loaf chicory down the middle. The hens love the outside leaves of this and we eat the smaller middle leaves and hearts in salads all winter until April. There are Welsh onions to provide tasty salad and stir-fry green onions planted between the chard - and again this bed is also inter-planted with garlic. 'Layering' and 'inter-planting' crops again.
Far left bed
Here the brilliant bush tomato variety Chiquito is still ripening late fruit - this is wonderful for cooking and also freezing for cooking over the winter. We're eating some of this in the sauce which is an ingredient of today's recipe.
Poor Gerry missed the hundreds of peaches! We've had a phenomenal crop - the best ever! I spent about 4 weeks dehydrating a crate of them every night during August and early Sept. The older branches will be pruned out next week - I haven't had time to do this yet - then the younger green shoots which will carry the crop next year will be pulled down into a horizontal position. I do this while the shoots are still pliable and before the buds start to swell each year.
Just worth mentioning here is that peaches grow really well in a polytunnel or greenhouse because they never get peach leaf curl which is caused by rain washing fungus spores into the buds as they open in spring if they're growing outside. They're easy to keep as small as you want them to be too, as they have to be pruned every year to take out the older growth. Peaches fruit best on the younger green wood formed the previous year. I wouldn't be without them - they're a real treat and with organic peaches at least €1 each even in the height of summer - we harvested about €400 worth this year! I've now got masses of semi-dehydrated peaches in the freezer
Already I'm thinking ahead to next year's crops. It's a good idea to buy seed or order online as soon as the new catalogues come out - some varieties sell out quickly & with Christmas in between it's so easy to forget to do it!
Our recipe used some of the last of the courgette glut - new courgette recipes are always great to have at this time of year because anyone who grows them has a glut sooner or later! You can find the recipe here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes
Do you know that every single year the entire human race eats half it's own weight in tomatoes? This astonishing fact was revealed to us by Dr. Matthew Jebb - Director of our National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin - during his fascinating and entertaining talk at the 2016 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival'. Not only are tomatoes clearly a vitally important crop in economic terms - given how many are consumed globally - but when you look at all their many and varied health benefits they may well also be responsible more than most other fruits and vegetables for maintaining our health too! Can you imagine a life without tomatoes and all the wonderful dishes we can make with them? Imagine a curry or Bolognese sauce without them - or even just bog-standard good old tomato sauce on your burger and chips? I certainly can't! A life completely devoid of tomatoes would be unthinkable - and for me they are the absolute essence of summer!
It was for this reason that I came up with the idea of holding the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012 - as a way of not just celebrating their enormous and fascinating diversity but also to show how vitally important it is to preserve as much as possible of that genetic diversity. In the future, some as yet unknown disease may possibly threaten the survival of all tomatoes as a food crop - and if we have preserved their varied and valuable genetic diversity, there might just possibly be one gene - in one particular tomato variety somewhere - which could be resistant to that disease. This gene could then possibly hold the key to the survival of all tomatoes, as it could then be used to breed a new race of disease-resistant varieties. That's why genetic diversity really matters both in scientific and economic terms. In terms of our everyday lives though - it also means that we have a delicious and diverse kaleidoscope of tomato colours, shapes, textures and flavours to choose from - all with a wide range of scientifically proven health benefits!
So why exactly are tomatoes so good for us?
Tomatoes are very high in health-protecting, carotenoid plant phytonutrients. The most important of those healthy nutrients is Lycopene - tomatoes are the richest dietary source of this. It is a very effective antioxidant phytochemical that can protect our body's cells from oxidative damage and from many degenerative diseases such as heart disease, premature aging, skin cancer and eye cataracts. It is also well known for it's protective action against many other cancers including kidney and prostate cancer.
Although cooking does reduces the vitamin C in tomatoes - this heat processing can dramatically increase the bioavailability of beneficial lycopene by up to 164%! This is especially the case when combined with a natural oil or fat. So It's important when eating or cooking tomatoes to use olive oil or some other natural fat, as this increases our ability to absorb the valuable lycopene and other healthy carotenoid nutrients such as vitamin A.
Interest in the health-protecting effects of phytochemicals is growing and new phytochemicals are being discovered almost daily. There's now a great deal of interest in a relatively recently discovered compound called Tomatidine. Scientists at the University of Iowa have found that this can stimulate muscle growth and has potential as a treatment for muscle weakness due to aging and injury. So don't worry if you have lots of green tomatoes left at the end of the summer. Although they're far too acidic to eat raw - you could use them in cooked dishes as an effective anti-aging medicine! Fried green tomatoes is one famous example.
Tomatoes contain many other healthy nutrients - here's a chart showing the main ones:
Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), red, ripe, raw, Nutrition value per 100 g. (Source: USDA National Nutrient database)
Percentage of RDA
When cooking all my tomato dishes - or anything else requiring onions - I also only ever use organic red onions. Thesehave by far the best flavour and are proven to be far higher in important antioxident phytonutrients than the white varieties of onions. Interestingly, some very recently published research by our own scientists here in Ireland - at Teagasc and UCC - proved that after a study of several years in all weather conditions - organically grown onions are in fact a massive 75% higher in these important antioxidant phytonutrients than conventionally grown crops! The same naturally applies to the garlic that we use in tomato dishes.
In addition to using oil or fat - I always use plenty of freshly ground, organic black peppercorns when either cooking with tomatoes or eating them fresh. Organic peppercorns have the most incredible aroma and really bring food alive - giving it a fabulous flavour!Whole black peppercorns are also now known to contain important phytochemicals such as Piperine & Terpenoids. Exciting new research is now investigating these naturally occurring compounds for their apparent ability to stimulate our digestive tract - thereby increasing our absorption of the healthy nutrients in tomatoes.and all other foods - as well as stimulating better absorption of many pharmaceutical medicines. As with all plant foods that we eat - organically-grown plants have been scientifically proven to be around 60% higher in all health-protecting phytochemical compounds - so the more you can add to your food the better! (If you can't find organic black peppercorns in your local supermarket - they are easily available online and well worth any slight difference in price)
How I grow Totally Terrific Tomatoes:
I've been growing tomatoes organically in Ireland for over forty years now and I never grow tired of their endless variety. They are such a generous fruit that even beginners can easily grow them and achieve decent crops. Each variety has different qualities and every year I'm excited by the possibility of finding an even better one for a particular use - whether it's for eating fresh, cooking, freezing or dehydrating. Below are links to my comprehensive blog post on how I grow them and also to my 'Tomato Report' - which I update at the end of the tomato season every year:
Here is the link to my Tomato Report - these are the varieties which I have found grow well in Ireland in a polytunnel, in our less than ideal climate and which in my opinion have the best flavour. If they grow well and taste good here - then they will do pretty much anywhere - trust me!:
Whether you grow your own tomatoes or buy them in a shop - the first rule of storing tomatoes for just even a few days is NEVER to keep them in the fridge! I always feel like screaming when I see this done in shops! It absolutely ruins their flavour because it stops the action of the compounds that contribute to their flavour and also stops them ripening any more. Always keep them above 10 deg C/55 deg F and below 29.5 deg C/85 deg F as below or above those temperatures stops them ripening. If you keep them out of the fridge at normal kitchen temperature - then even if they are the usual not-so-tasty, shop-bought tomatoes which are usually picked slightly under-ripe - they should go on ripening a bit more. Placing them in a bag with a brown over-ripe banana may also help if they are very unripe, as the banana gives off ethylene gas which triggers ripening in all fruit. (Works for avocados too)
I don't make jams or chutneys with tomatoes here because these generally require a lot of sugar to make them. We try limit our consumption of added sugars here to an absolute minimum - eating as few insulin-stimulating highly processed carbohydrates and free sugars as possible, within practical limits.
Apart from being frozen cooked, as sauces, roast ratatouille etc, you can also actually freeze all un-cooked tomatoes without blanching, either whole small cherry types or larger ones like beefsteaks simply cut into pieces. Just clean and dry them - cut out any bad or woody bits from the stalk ends and loose freeze them on trays. You can then bag or box them up later when frozen - which is very convenient for just taking a few out at a time. This is a very useful way of preventing waste when you're too busy to make sauces - as you can freeze any good bits of tomatoes, throwing away just any bad bits - rather than wasting the whole tomato because it may have a bad spot. As with many other fruits - the action of freezing on the plant's cells makes most of their important phytonutrients such as lycopene much more available and more easily absorbed by our bodies. It does reduce a small amount of the vitamin C but this can easily be replaced from other sources, or by adding more fresh tomatoesor lemon juice to pasta sauces at the end of cooking - which gives a nice freshness to dishes.
DO NOT REMOVE SKINS before freezing, even if you don't like tomato skins! If you then want to use frozen tomatoes for cooking in sauces, just thaw them, pour off any water that results during the thawing process as this usefully gets rid of some of the water they contain - so will reduce their cooking time. Then simply blitz them to a fine puree in a blender before adding them to your other ingredients. As I've mentioned before - the skins and flesh immediately beneath them contain most of the nutrients in tomatoes - and if you're blitzing them well in a food-processor or Nutribullet - these are very finely ground. In addition to the nutrients the skins contain - they are also a very useful source of important gut-friendly fibre and hidden in a sauce I promise you won't notice them! Whole cherry tomatoes can also be used straight from frozen for adding Roast Ratatouille, Roast Mediterranean Peppers and other dishes calling for the addition of whole tomatoes. Once they're cooked - you won't notice any difference. If you insist that you must remove the skins for some dishes - these slip off very easily when the frozen tomatoes are run under the tap for a few seconds! Don't wast them though - re-freeze them for blitzing into other dishes like stews and soups to add flavour and nutrients!
I'm a big fan of dehydrating many fruits and vegetables - it's a terrific way to preserve the goodness of your summer crops for use in winter - but I never dehydrate anything to 'paper dry' stage as most people do, as doing that destroys far more nutrients and also flavour. Instead I semi-dehydrate to what is known as 'soft-leather stage and then freeze them - otherwise they wouldn't keep safely, without developing food spoiling organisms, for more than a few days. Dehydrating effectively reduces their volume by more than a quarter, so it makes it easier to find space to store them in the freezer - and gives far more delicious results. It also increases the lycopene content. My favourite tomatoes for dehydrating are Rosada, Chiquito and Incas. I don't dehydrate any fruits or vegetables to a completely 'paper-dry' state which I think ruins the flavour of fruits in particular.
There are many books out there now which recommend dehydrating to a totally dry state in order to store fruits and vegetables - but as I've already said - this can reduce their nutrients and another thing that they all fail to mention is that the variety of fruit - especially in tomatoes - has an enormous bearing on their resulting flavour when dehydrated. Not exactly rocket science one might think - even common sense? This makes me wonder just how much experience of dehydrating some authors really have! I've been doing it for many years and have experimented with processing dozens of varieties of tomatoes this way. I have found from often bitter (!) experience that dehydrating tomatoes naturally concentrates all of the various elements of their flavour. This means that not all varieties of tomatoes are good for dehydrating. If a tomato has a deliciously mouthwatering acidity to balance it's sweetness when eaten fresh - any acidity will tend to concentrate on dehydrating. In some varieties this acidity can dominate the taste very unpleasantly after dehydrating - completely ruining them! I'm thinking here of tomatoes such as Sungold or Maskotka - which have a deliciously mouthwatering taste when fresh - and even cook very well - but dehydrating makes them almost inedible and certainly not enjoyable to eat! The reverse is true of paste tomatoes such as Amish Paste and Incas or some of the black-skinned, high-anthocyanin tomatoes such as Indigo Rose - which tend not to have the strongest flavour when fresh. The taste of these varieties hugely improves on cooking and they also dehydrate extremely well - their often rather bland taste intensifying a great deal. I always find that it's well worth do a small 'test run' of any new variety which I haven't dehydrated before - no matter how delicious it may be when fresh. This is easy to do when you're processing something else and it can save an awful lot of waste and heartache! My absolute favourite tomatoes for dehydrating are Rosada, Chiquito and Incas. These are always reliable and give very good results. Some of the larger beef tomatoes are quite good too - cut into quarters and dehydrated skin side down on the dehydrator sheets.
To prepare tomatoes for dehydrating - I remove any stalks, wash, dry and halve them - even the smaller cherry plum varieties. I try to ensure that I process similar sizes together. If some are a lot smaller they will dry quicker and may be spoiled - so I will put smaller nes on one tray so that I can remove them a it earlier than larger ones of the same variety from the dehydrator. I space them out as evenly as possible on the dehydrator trays and process at a temperature of 135 deg F - usually for an average of about 14 hours. This usually semi-dehydrates to what is known as the 'soft-leather stage which I prefer. This depends on how large the pieces are but I find it generally takes an average of 14 hours. I then loose freeze them and bag them up later - this is because as I only semi-dehydrate them to preserve more of their flavour and nutrients - they otherwise they wouldn't keep safely for more than a few days being still a bit moist - even if stored in oil.
I've found very few books which give any useful instructions for using them from a dehydrated state - so again I've experimented a lot over the years! My method of semi-dehydrating reduces their volume by more than a quarter, so it makes it much easier to find space to store in the freezer - and because it also concentrates their flavour so much they are even more delicious! I like to use them either simply thawed and added chopped to salads or re-hydrated slightly in extra virgin olive oil. I also add them to pizzas and all sorts of cooked dishes to bump up the flavour. They can also be cooked, very gently straight from frozen, in olive oil. This results in an incredibly deep-flavoured tomato salsa or sauce which makes a sensational addition to traditional fried breakfasts, a filling for omelettes, or an accompaniment to many other meals! You will never find that fantastic flavour from any shop-bought fresh tomatoes - either in winter or summer!
I use a Sedona dehydrator. Excalibur is also a good brand. I chose the Sedona because the drying compartment can be reduced in size by closing off half of it when processing smaller amounts. That saves energy and is more environmentally friendly - even though most of my electricity now comes from wind energy. Although at this time of year the dehydrator tends to be chock full most of the time! If you're a dehydrating novice, starting with one of the much smaller and cheaper models is perhaps a good idea - although they don't give such good results, some are only around €40 and will give you some idea of what you can do and if you like the results. Oven-drying is possible on a very low setting - but I've never had much success with it. Most ovens are too warm and also waste a lot of energy doing this - especially if leaving the door partially open as recommended. They use a great deal more energy when compared to a dehydrator - for doing the same task but with not quite such successful results.
1. 'Rosada' tomatoes - halved and spaced out on the mesh sheet ready for dehydrating.
2. The same 'Rosada' - 14 hours of gentle dehydrating later. Semi-dried and succulently sweet!
My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - 2014
Have you ever thought that you might like to grow a little bit of your own food - but thought you couldn't because you don't have a garden? Or perhaps you want to grow some healthy salads so you can have them super-fresh all year round, instead of buying expensive bagged salads already several days old - saving on the household budget at the same time? Do you think you don't have enough space? Well guess what? If you have a stepladder you're not using - then you have loads of space!
Even if all you have is a path to your door with just room to walk - or only a balcony - then you do have room to grow something! Using the space-saving stepladder method I invented years ago, when I didn't have a garden - you could have a very attractive and productive small vertical garden for growing salads, herbs, strawberries and other good things to eat all year round. If the stepladder's rather practical looks bother you - believe me - when it's covered with abundantly growing plants it's virtually invisible and you will hardly be able to see it! The pictures of my stepladder garden have always been so popular whenever I've tweeted about them on Twitter, and so many people have asked me about it, that I thought I would write about it to tell you exactly how I made it and what you can grow.
First - you need a stepladder with broad enough treads to be able to hold suitably sized boxes for growing the plants in. Any box or pot that fits onto the treads and is deep enough to hold a minimum depth of 15 cm of compost is perfect. I find those large, loose mushroom boxes from the local supermarket are just the right size. They recycle those - so you can do it for them free if you ask nicely! If there are drainage holes in the bottom of your box - place a drip tray underneath, or failing that - put a piece of polythene inside the bottom, extending about 5 cm up the inside, to prevent water from draining down onto the plants below. Those rectangular cat litter trays available cheaply in the pet section of most supermarkets make very effective drip trays, which fit neatly on the average stepladder tread. You can put a box with a drip tray on each step, and then on the ground in front of the last step you can put either a large pot, or another box, on a plant saucer or drip tray.
To fill the boxes I use a mix of 1/3 soil and 2/3rds organic, peat-free compost. The soil helps to retain moisture and also provides soil life like microbes which are important for keeping the plants healthy. After initial planting and watering in, most Mediterranean-type, hot-weather herbs like thyme and marjoram won't need too much attention other than occasional watering - but other plants such as salads may need watering daily, or even twice daily, in hot weather as they can dry out quickly. It's easy to remember to water them though, when you're picking delicious food from them daily. As they are so productive grown this way - the plants will exhaust their food supply fairly quickly in the small boxes - so after they've been cropping for a month or so - I then feed them about twice a week with a good organic plant food like Osmo, which provides naturally-made nutrients and I find excellent.
You will be amazed at the amount of healthy food that you can grow like this and just how much money you can save! It's so flexible and easy that you can change what you're growing every year - or several times a year - whenever you like. Many plants are more than happy to grow this way as they have better light and good air circulation. Along with another large pot in front at the base - perhaps growing a few edible flowers like Nasturtiums or Calendulas - it can look really stunning and provides a lot of growing space. It's also a very convenient, 'no-bend' way for those with back or other problems to harvest produce - because the plants are always within easy reach for you to pick them. If you have a source of cheap stepladders - you could even have several and make a bank of them against a wall - giving you heaps more vertical growing space than you would have by growing just on the flat, in the same amount of space as the small stepladder footprint!
Most stepladders are far cheaper than any of the undoubtedly smart but very expensive wooden structures you can buy for growing in. These can cost anything upwards of 200 euros and may also be treated with toxic wood preservatives! My re-purposed stepladder method is easy, cheap and productive - and if you need the stepladder for anything else - just remove the boxes for a few hours! If you don't already own one - you can buy a budget stepladder quite cheaply and the recycled boxes cost nothing! Set that against the price of buying any organic strawberries or salads (or even non-organic) - and the stepladder will be paid for in only a few weeks!
So what sort of things can you grow?
Fresh strawberries are always a firm favourite. If you grow alpine, 'perpetual', or 'ever-bearing' types which fruit for months, you could be picking delicious fruit from early May to the end of November in a warm spot against a sunny wall or in a glass porch. This year - I have Alpine strawberries on my stepladder garden - they've been producing their beautiful tiny flowers, which bees and butterflies love, since mid-March and they have been producing delicious fruit since early May. There's been a veritable waterfall of deliciously aromatic, small strawberries that smell of scented strawberry jam and taste like Heaven!
Alpine strawberries can be grown easily and cheaply from seed sown in early spring and will start to produce their exquisite-tasting fruit in mid-summer from seed, but you would be able to pick fruit from the larger 'perpetual' varieties of strawberries much sooner. Many good online fruit nurseries such as Ken Muir now supply cold stored 'plug' plants of excellent perpetual varieties like Albion by post for most of the year. These arrive well-rooted in small convenient containers - ready to romp away as soon as they are planted. You could be eating these within just a few weeks!
Strawberries really seem to love growing this way - because they get more light, warmth and really good air circulation, so they tend not to get moulds or diseases caused by damp. They also hang down very conveniently to pick and are naturally totally free from any possible slug damage!
I've experimented with this method of growing all sorts of crops successfully over the years - so here are a few more ideas.
The smaller culinary herbs are all happy growing this way - last year I had parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme steps. You could even grow your own tomato salad, with small varieties of bush cherry tomatoes on each step and a large pot of basil the base! Baby cucumbers and chili peppers also enjoy the extra warmth and light - producing a huge amount of fruits if you can sit the stepladder in a sunny porch. If you have enough space either side - you could also grow taller upright varieties of tomato in containers pushed half underneath the steps, and tying them up to the sides of the stepladder for support.
Spinach, Oriental salad mixes, Mizuna, rocket, baby leaf kales and chicory, pea shoots, radishes and other salads can all be sown directly into the stepped boxes, or you could buy a few module-grown plants to plant if you don't want the hassle of sowing seed. These are all very happy - producing huge crops if kept well-watered. Super-healthy, nutrient-dense watercress can easily be grown from shoots gleaned from mixed salad bags and rooted in a jar of water. Planted into a deep box watercress grows extremely well if kept constantly damp. You could even grow smaller varieties of carrots which I tried successfully one year. (You can see some old scanned-in photos of those from over 30 years ago at the bottom of the article) It's a fantastic and fun way to grow lots of healthy food - whether you just have a tiny patch or no garden at all!
Why not try growing something this way? If you do - you'll find the only way is up - for your health and your savings! The sky is quite literally the only limit - or your imagination! What are you waiting for?
Alpine strawberry Reugen - cropping well on this year's version of the 'stepladder garden'
Stepladder garden on path many years ago!
High Rise Herbs!
Rocket, red veined sorrel, celery leaf in stepladder garden with lettuce on next step above & pea shoots on step below 24.4.14
Carrots growing in a recycled mushroom box on one of the steps
Watercress is very happy and productive in a large box in consistently damp soil
(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.)