Mid-November salads in the polytunnel - 38 different varieties you could be eating now (1)

Mid-November salads in the polytunnel – an example of homegrown plant diversity – with 38 different varieties of leaves which you could be eating now if you had sown them in August and September

Including – Growing Super-fast Microgreens, Plant Garlic in Tubs for an extra-early, disease-free crop, Sustainable, Planet Friendly Growbag Gardening

Diversity is strength – in the Soil and our Gut

Whatever the time of year, the only certainty now is that there are no longer any certainties when it comes to the weather!  The last few weeks have seen wild swings from hot weather to violent storms and torrential rain with substantial flooding, then within hours, midwinter freezing night temperatures of minus four degrees centigrade with almost midsummer heat in the daytime sun, then back again to more torrential rain.  The weather seems to change far more quickly than it used to, and weather forecasters seem unable to predict more than a few hours ahead at times!  We have experienced almost every season of the year in the last few weeks, due to erratic and unpredictable weather unquestionably caused by climate change.  We need to be prepared for all weather scenarios, and as ever – grow by the seat of our pants!  

While there may be no certainties now – there are certain rules which we need to observe if we want a liveable future for our children.  One of the most important rules is that we must protect soil in every possible way to ensure future food security, because soil is not only our greatest ally in mitigating climate change – but also in reliably producing healthy food, however big our garden or farm.  The positive news is that we can all do something, even if we don’t grow our own organic food – by supporting more climate-friendly organic farming and growing – locally if possible.  We may feel that we can’t do a lot on our own – but together we can do so much.  

We must also do everything in our power to protect biodiversity, because by doing that we will be protecting the future of all life on this planet.  Having spent over forty years researching and practising organic methods of farming and growing in a changing climate – I know that organic is the ONLY way of growing food which not only protects biodiversity, but also preserves and restores soil carbon and has any hope of mitigating climate change.  Regenerative and local are the current fashionable buzzwords – but are often misleading terms which many chemical farmers and growers misappropriate use to describe simply not ploughing land – while still using tons of fossil fuel-derived fertilisers, pesticides, and environmentally-destructive herbicides such as Glyphosate!

ONLY organic growing which fosters and supports vital soil life and encourages biodiversity both below and above ground, is closest to the way that Nature intended things to grow, and only that can ever truly be called regenerative.

I see so many people on social media advocating digging soil over in the autumn and leaving it open to the weather to allow frost to break it up to create a “nice tilth”.  Sadly, even some so-called ‘experts’ advise doing this – individuals who many people listen to and believe to be right about everything, simply because they may be well-known gardening celebrities!  This is not only outdated, uninformed ignorance, but also selfish in the extreme.  It doesn’t matter how good or bad your soil or compost, it is nothing short of criminally irresponsible to leave soil or compost open and unprotected from the weather.  Doing so inevitably contributes to flooding which causes leaching and erosion, however carbon-rich your soil.  This leads to pollution of groundwater, climate change accelerating nitrous oxide emissions and loss of precious nutrients which we need to grow crops.  It also breaks up the vital microbial communities and fungal networks which enable plants to grow healthily and to produce the many compounds which they need to protect themselves against pests and diseases.  These natural compounds, or phytochemicals as they are known, also benefit our health when we eat them, and have been proven in multiple studies to protect us from many diseases.  That, after all, is just how nature designed things to work – with everything connected.

Despite all our modern scientific advances, we still don’t know either the amount, or the type, of all the microscopic life forms which exist in a healthy undamaged soil, what functions they perform, or how they interact with each other, because it is only now that some scientists are beginning to understand just how important a vibrant, living soil is to all life on this planet.  Many organisms remain to be discovered, so in the meantime, it is wisest to assume that not only did Nature evolve them to be there, working together, but that protecting them and giving them the widest diversity of foods to select from as possible is the wisest course of action. 

Good gardeners and farmers feed the soil – not the plant.  Bad gardeners and farmers feed their plants directly with fossil fuel-derived artificial chemicals, which not only cause pollution in their production and use, by emitting huge amounts of climate-changing gases, and by-passing, unbalancing, and destroying soil life which has evolved for billions of years to perform specific ecosystem tasks.  This microbial life evolved to break down and recycle animal and plant wastes, to fix and store carbon from the air, and by doing so to regulate the planetary climate.  Artificial chemicals are basically like ultra-processed junk food for plants, which harm the soil’s microbiome.  Junk food is just as damaging and unsustainable for soil life as it is for us!

Happily, science is now beginning to recognise this, with some of the more enlightened and commercially unbiased scientists understanding that a healthy and resilient soil, which efficiently fixes and stores carbon, is essential if we are to have any hope of mitigating climate change and growing healthy food. The inspirational late Lawence D. Hills, whose books I first read in the mid-1970s (who I was lucky to meet a few years later and then honoured to eventually sculpt his portrait) always proclaimed that “the soil is the gut of the plant”. This is something which the latest scientific research is increasingly proving to be true.  As an early convert to organic farming in the 1970s and deeply involved in the foundation of both organic certification organisations in Ireland in the 1980, I have always believed that a healthy living soil is also the foundation of our own gut health.  Feeding the soil with the most complex and widest diversity of naturally derived nutrients possible, rather than feeding it artificial chemicals, is the route to a healthy soil, and microbiome scientists are now establishing that to be true for humans too.

Some gut health experts are now advocating that we should eat as wide a diversity of plants possible and aim to eat at least 30 different plant foods a week.  For over forty years here, we’ve always eaten as many different plant foods as possible, because if you grow your own fruit and veg it’s not only a far cheaper way to eat – but it also stretches out precious and more expensive organic meat with a variety of delicious seasonal foods which you have grown yourself.  It also means that you can eat many interesting and delicious plant foods that would be impossible to find either in shops or farmers markets, especially those which taste far better when really fresh, like sweetcorn and peas.  Lately, I have found it quite amusing to see people freaking out and saying that they find eating 30 plant foods a week so difficult.  What boring diets they all must eat!

Everywhere you look in Nature there is strength in diversity, with loss of any biodiversity being dangerous and potentially making the whole ecosystem more vulnerable to threats.  So why should our gut be any different to soil? After all, it is just another ecosystem, which is part of Nature’s incredibly complex and beautiful tapestry.  As I am always saying – everything is connected.

A plate of food with flowers

Description automatically generated

My autumn diversity couscous salad composed of 32 different plant foods!

Growing Super-fast Microgreens

I’m often asked what we can do to produce some healthy food fast. One way to quickly and easily increase the diversity of plant foods that we eat is to grow some microgreens, and this week I’ll be sowing some to add extra variety and nutrition to salads over the festive season.  Extremely nutrient dense, they’re packed full of vitamins, minerals, and health-promoting phytochemicals, fast-growing and especially valuable at this time of year, when fresh produce is at a premium.  Even a small amount of them can add a very attractive and tasty garnish to your festive cold platters.

Anyone can grow them easily on a sunny, warm windowsill and they can be ready to eat 2-4 weeks after sowing, depending on the variety. Sow the seeds quite thickly on the surface of some compost in a shallow tray with drainage holes – I recycle small mushroom trays, first washing them well and punching a few holes in the bottom.  Then I add a thin layer (about 1cm) of recycled organic peat-free potting or seed compost, which I always save when pricking out or potting on plants, rather than just throwing it onto the compost heap as it’s so valuable.  If you don’t have any compost, you can sow them onto damp paper towel – just like we all did as children when sowing mustard and cress, but they won’t be quite as nutritious as compost-grown microgreens as they grow bigger – so harvest them small.  After sowing the seeds, water gently from above to soak them well without disturbance which might make them clump together, and mist over with a hand sprayer, 2-3 times daily to encourage germination, covering lightly with a plastic bag or clingfilm.  Once they have germinated, water only from the bottom by sitting the trays briefly in water, letting any excess drain away.

Many edible plants can be grown as microgreens.  Radish, broccoli, red cabbage, beetroot, basil, chards, kale, coriander, mustards, nasturtiums, pea shoots, cress and sunflower greens are the most common.  You only eat the stems and leaves, not the roots too, unlike with sprouted seeds.  To harvest, cut them off at the base with sharp scissors, then rinse in a sieve.  Using organic seed is best, as this avoids toxic, fungicidal seed treatments, which a lot of conventionally grown seeds are treated with.  There is a wide range of suitable varieties of seeds now available from organic seed suppliers.

Plant Garlic in Tubs for an extra-early, disease-free crop

A close-up of garlic bulbs

Description automatically generated

Plant autumn-planting varieties of garlic as soon as you can now – the sooner you plant it, the bigger the resulting bulbs will eventually be.  If possible, plant organic bulbs as these are far less likely to carry the dreaded onion white rot which can persist in soil for up to 20 years, as well as many other diseases and viruses.  Organic growers are legally required to adhere to strict rotations, to prevent the build-up of pests and diseases. Chemical growers aren’t required to rotate crops by law as organic growers are under their licence agreement, so they can grow continuously in the same soil.  This is in addition to the many combinations of persistent toxic pesticides and fungicides ‘conventional’ chemical growers use, traces of which will still be present in any garlic bulbs or onions that you buy, either for planting or eating!

Planting in tubs of organic peat-free compost, or raised beds, is very successful as the plants are warmer and have constantly good drainage.  Garlic is far less prone to pests and diseases in those conditions.  As garlic has upright-growing leaves, you can interplant it with fast-growing salads, lettuce, or Oriental greens like the purple Pak Choi pictured above, Mizuna or mustard greens, which will be harvested long before the garlic grows large enough to need more space and eventually ripen. The garlic also helps to keep aphids away from the salad greens.

Planting in tubs is also a great way to try growing any garlic you may have brought back from your holidays, because you liked its taste.  Growing it in tubs means that if it is evidently carrying disease – then you can just dump the contents of the tubs into the brown food waste bin, rather than putting it into your compost heap, where it could carry diseases to the rest of your garden! If it proves to be healthy and grows well in the tubs, then it is safe to plant it in the garden the following year.

Sustainable, Planet Friendly Growbag Gardening 

Squashes planted in late May in a homemade growbag of peat-free compost, sitting on a grow tray in the polytunnel - now growing well

 Squashes planted in May ’22 in a homemade growbag, filled with organic peat-free compost, sitting on a large plant tray in the polytunnel 

Sustainable you ask?  Impossible you say?  No – not if you do it my way, making your own growbags, from bags of organic, peat-free compost!  

An organic peat-free homemade growbag kit was one of the Christmas gift ideas I suggested in my recent feature on Gerry Kelly’s Late Lunch Show on LMFM Radio. I think that an instant growbag kit comprising a bag of organic peat-free compost, along with one of the plant trays I mention below, with perhaps a low support to raise them to a convenient height, would make a terrific Christmas gift that any planet conscious food gardener would really appreciate – especially if like me they may be partially disabled and find it difficult to bend to tend plants in the ground – or perhaps don’t have a garden at all.  You could also include a voucher for seeds, which most seed companies now offer. This is a gift which would just keep on giving for months if not years!  It isn’t an expensive gift but is one that shows you’ve really thought about it and gone to the trouble of putting it together – and that’s what counts in my opinion!  

For roughly €35-40, plus a few seeds, you could buy someone the means to grow healthy and delicious food for a year or more, saving them money, giving them endless hours of enjoyment and perhaps a new hobby for life, that is good for both their physical and mental health.  If they were disabled to any degree, you could also offer to set it up for them. Where else would you get so much for so little money and effort?

To give you a bit of background – I first made my own growbags over 40 years ago when we lived in a rented house with only a tiny garden while we waited to move here.  There was no space to grow vegetables there, and I couldn’t dig up the tiny patch of lawn.  Anyway, the vegetable garden all had to be portable at a moment’s notice, so it had to be in containers!  Since then, I’ve always grown a lot of plants in various types of containers, which I find very useful for some vegetables.  Although I’ve written quite a few blog posts about growing in different situations including containers of many kinds over the last 13 years on this blog – growbags specifically are not something which I have written about before.  This year on social media though, I have seen so many people using the ubiquitous, and very environmentally destructive, peat-filled growbags, that I decided it was high time I did!  Not only are these made from organic, peat-free compost far more environmentally-friendly – but they also have a far bigger surface area and depth to grow in and can be re-used many times for all kinds of crops.

Growbags have their own unique challenges when it comes to things such as watering and supporting taller plants but are very convenient and clean for any situation – especially when placed on a large plant tray which catches any water, dirt, or drips, and retains valuable nutrients.  The plant trays I use are the terrifically useful 120CM X 55CM X 4CM Garland Giant Plus plant trays, they are made from recycled plastic and cost around €25 each, depending on where you buy them and if delivery is extra or free.  Many suppliers and several garden centres list them.  I bought two a few years ago in my local garden centre and they cost me around €30 each then, but even at that they weren’t bad value as they are almost indestructible, unless you drive a car over them!!  They are the perfect size for one homemade growbag, laid flat, and in addition to that they also have space for either a half growbag or a large container, so can provide a very useful amount of mess-free extra growing space in any garden, in a house porch or conservatory or in fact anywhere.  

If you don’t have a garden, perhaps just a path or balcony, or only a small back yard with no soil to grow anything in, these are perfect. They can also conveniently be raised to any height, which is perfect if one is disabled to some degree as I am now, and doing this means you also have useful storage space underneath if you only have limited space.  I happened to have a couple of old wooden sun loungers here which very conveniently open out flat to make enough space for two plant trays, with a slight overhang at either end, which isn’t a problem, as the growbags are so heavy once they have been wetted that the trays won’t tip up.  You could just as easily make an instant raised growing platform from anything you have to hand, for instance a couple of concrete cavity blocks with some old scaffolding planks – which I have done in the past.  Just do bear in mind though, whatever you raise the plant tray on needs to be sturdy, and supported in the middle so that it doesn’t sag, as when the bags are planted and wet they are very heavy.

A close-up of a plant

Description automatically generated

Some people may think that at around €13 each, my organic peat-free growbags cost a lot more than those cheap, peat-filled growbags you see everywhere, often in multiple offers in DIY chains.  But they end up giving back so much more than their cost!  Their first crop of winter squashes grown in my two newly made growbags last year in the polytunnel covered the initial outlay on the two bags four times over!  Each bag produced four large squashes worth around €15 each, at current farmers market prices, and after those plants were removed, one of the bags grew a range of mustards for winter salads, and the other grew a dozen loose leaf lettuces which produced plentiful leaves all winter. They then each grew courgette plants, and one also produced a seed crop from one of the overwintered lettuces which I left in the corner of it – the fantastic crunchy loose-leaf variety Jack Ice, which will probably provide enough seed for me and all of my friends for about the next ten years!  So not bad value for money!  The bags are now growing a crop of watercress for winter 23/24! 

A close-up of a planter

Description automatically generated

Despite being recycled four times now, the compost in the bags has continued to keep its well-drained structure, yet good moisture-holding capacity, and is easily refreshed each time a new crop is planted by using a little worm compost, and some calcified seaweed to adjust the pH and support healthy plant growth.  On the other hand, a peat grow bag would by now have deteriorated into an irretrievably useless wet sludge which would not support the growth of any healthy crops! 

The organic peat-free compost in the growbags can be re-used many times, by refreshing the nutrients in the compost with worm compost made from kitchen and paper waste – which again costs nothing but a small bit of effort. The nutrients can also be refreshed by adding a light sprinkling of a good organic general fertiliser such as Osmo.  The compost can also be taken out of the bags and recycled by using in containers.  It should never just be thrown onto the garden or compost heap as so many people do with peat grow bags (literally throwing away the planet!).  Organic peat-free compost is far too valuable a resource, having been made from certified organic crops grown specifically for producing it, which are then composted.  The Klausmann compost is truly the best peat-free compost I have ever used, and I’ve tried many!  It may not be the cheapest, but as I often say – you get what you pay for in terms of healthy crops – in this case many, many times over!

Peat evolved to support plants which grow in bogs, and no others.  It needs a lot of added artificial chemicals such as nitrogen to enable it to grow anything else!  Artificial fertilisers are produced using fossil fuels and are incredibly environmentally polluting both in their manufacture and in their use.  In fact, the widespread use of nitrogen fertilisers in agriculture and gardening releases nitrous oxide (N20) a greenhouse gas which stays in the atmosphere for 100 years and is three hundred – yes 300 – times more potent than C02!  As I mentioned above but is worth repeating, artificial fertilisers harm soil life and the soil’s ability to fix carbon, which is vital to regulating our climate. They also create toxic run off, polluting groundwater, streams and rivers and destroying valuable wild plants and other biodiversity, and after all that – they don’t produce healthy food!  Destroying peat-rich wetlands, or bogs, also releases huge amounts of C02 which rapidly accelerates climate change and destroys valuable habitat for vital biodiversity which depends on bogs.  Why on earth would people wonder that I’m so against using peat and artificial fertilisers!

I guarantee that these growbags will very quickly pay for their outlay in terms of any produce grown, and after that anything else is a bonus.  This spring and summer, we picked salads for months from them on my new raised sun-lounger beds outside, for months from them, in fact the new homemade growbags had already paid for themselves within six weeks of setting them up if you consider the cost of buying just two bags of organic lettuce or mixed salads a week at a price of €3 per bag!  

In my January blog post I shall explain how to set up the new growbag on its plant tray, how to cut the top of the bag of compost, to make a suitable growing space which doesn’t bulge out as the sides – and how to regulate the drainage if it’s outside and possibly vulnerable to flooding in heavy rain.

A row of plants in a greenhouse

Description automatically generated

Other Jobs

Order fruit trees for planting, and also order seeds – before the most popular varieties are sold out

Make sure compost heaps are securely covered,

Sow green manures if you have any spare ground in the polytunnel – keeping the soil working keeps it healthy

Sow fast- growing hardy annuals to provide early flowers for bees and other important pollinating insects

It’s always useful to keep a roll of polytunnel tape handy if you have a polytunnel or greenhouse in case of weather damage

Laura Turner – In Tribute

I was deeply saddened recently to hear of the sudden and unexpected death of old friend Laura Turner, of Malahide, County Dublin. I first met Laura and her dear late mother Molly almost 40 years ago, through the Dublin Food Co-op and the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA), in the early days of organics in Ireland. 

Laura was a friend of many years, with whom I shared many memories of countless farm walks and organic meetings. Always unassuming, eager to learn and acquire more knowledge, and with a wry sense of humour.  In the mid-1980s when I was growing commercially, Laura sometimes took a break from her tofu and tempeh making for the Co-op (at which she excelled), and from her delightful small garden, to come over to help me with urgent weeding and other jobs, and she was always meticulous.   

She taught organic courses at several gardens throughout Ireland, and was also a mainstay of Sonairte – the ecology centre in Laytown, County Meath for many years, where she will be much missed.  In her gentle and knowledgeable way, she opened people’s eyes to environmental issues and encouraged many new organic gardeners.  Laura was a gentle, caring, and sensitive soul, deeply committed to organic and environmental issues. She was a kind, patient, and knowledgeable teacher, who will be sadly missed by many more people than she could possibly imagine.

We would often bump into each other when shopping in Malahide in the late lamented Organic Supermarket – always with delighted hugs.  We would have wide-ranging, long chats, putting the world to rights, often sitting on the bench overlooking the harbour, looking out across the sea to Donabate and Lambay Island.  She was someone you could totally confide in, always safe in the knowledge that your confidences would go no further.

I last saw her 3 years ago, when she called in unexpectedly and asked if she could see around the garden.  I am glad that we had a lovely, peaceful walk in the sun, with a long chat about the plants she was interested in, and it was nice to see her looking so happy. 

Rest in Peace dear Laura – and thank you for all that you selflessly did to try to make this world a better place.  We will miss you.

A white flower with yellow center

Description automatically generated