"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on that, there's nothing you can do about it." ....
That means do it NOW! Every day, light is getting shorter and growth is slowing. - In the UK and Ireland we're facing some uncertainty of supplies due to Brexit - so anything you can sow now may give you some vitally important fresh salads etc, if there is a shortage of fresh winter vegetables!
Sow outdoors in pots or modules - for planting in the tunnel or greenhouse later in September when summer crops are cleared and space is available - or direct sow in the polytunnel now if not too hot:
Cabbages 'Greensleeves', 'Greyhound' & other leafy non-hearting spring types, carrots ('Nantes' and other early finger types, possibly in long modules for transplanting), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack (or Red Russian) for baby leaves, lettuces (non-hearting leafy types such as green & red Lollo, Batavian, Jack Ice and Lattughino, Winter 'Gem' & winter butterheads like All Year Round), lamb's lettuce (corn salad), endives*, rocket, Swiss chards & 'perpetual leaf beets*, beetroot 'Bull's Blood' & 'McGregor's favourite' (for salad leaves*), peas (for pea shoots - Oregon Sugar Pod is a good variety), Claytonia* (also called miner's lettuce or winter purslane), American Landcress*, leaf chicories*, rocket, brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa'. All Oriental greens such as Vitamina, Mizuna, pak choi*, Choy Sum, mustards, Komatsuna, Tatsoi etc can be sown now with less risk of bolting now the weather is cooler, and are so productive and useful in polytunnels and greenhouses over winter, and can be grown in large pots if you wish. Also summer turnips*, summer spinach, salad onions*, leafy salad mixes, coriander*, chervil*, plain leaved and curly parsley* and broad leaved sorrel*.
Covering all young seedlings while in seed trays outdoors with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche will give them protection from pests, early autumn strong winds or heavy rain. Cabbage root fly is still active in early Sept. and can devastate brassica crops. Be extra careful with watering and ventilation of seedlings now, in the damp autumn air, to avoid damping off. I find using a good, organic peat-free compost is best for autumn sowing in particular - I never experience any fungal diseases, as the plants have far more natural resilience that those grown in chemically fertilised peat composts.
Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop - To possibly to cover with cloches or frames later on in autumn:
Early summer cauliflowers for next year, brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', fast-growing early 'Nantes' type carrots for a late autumn crop, cabbages (red ball head, 'Greyhound' and leafy non-hearting spring types), leaf chicories*, endives*, salad onions*, Claytonia (winter purslane)*, lamb's lettuce*, American Landcress*, winter lettuces*, kales*, radishes, Oriental radish such as green skinned, red fleshed Mantanhong, or Pink Dragon (a great variety), rocket, summer spinach*, Swiss chard* and leaf beets*, oriental greens such as Choy Sum, Pak choi*, mibuna, mizuna, mustards 'Red & Green Frills', Chinese kale (Kailaan), Komatsuna*, and any of the fast-maturing salad leaf mixes.
On any empty patches of ground already cleared of crops that won't be used over winter:
Sow green manures now such as alfalfa, red clover, mustard (a brassica so be careful watch rotations) winter tares, field beans, fenugreek, phacelia and Hungarian grazing rye. These will help to protect and improve soil, mop up nutrients to stop them leaching in heavy rain - resulting in them being lost and polluting groundwater. Green manures or even weeds will 'lock-up' carbon, hold onto nutrients and feed worms later, when cut down and covered. Dig them in or cut down and leave on surface later after the first frosts, then cover with something waterproof to protect the soil, prevent nutrient loss and possible pollution. The worms will then work on incorporating the plant material into the soil over the winter - leaving you a perfect, weed free, warmer, more friable and more fertile soil to start your spring sowings next year. Don't leave manure or mulches uncovered now, otherwise you will cause pollution - whatever some of the devotees of that practice may say!!
Also sow a few hardy annuals, to flower over the winter in polytunnels and greenhouses, and early next year outside for bees and other pollinators which either don't hibernate or emerge in early spring. Bees and other insects are the basis of all life on earth - and they need all the help they can get now!
If you want new potatoes for Christmas -
You could also still plant a few sprouted potato tubers in pots before mid-Sept. - to bring into the greenhouse or tunnel later. 'Autumn planting ready' types are available now in garden centres - or if you have any small tubers of 1st or 2nd earlies you've kept from your spring crop, or 'Mayan Gold' or 'Apache' lifted in spring/summer - put them in the fridge for a couple of weeks - then bring into the warm and keep dark for a few days - this will initiate sprouting of shoots - Mayan Gold and Apache are great-tasting potatoes which are not day-length sensitive and will grow quite happily at any season of the year. Lady Christl is also good and always the fastest to bulk up but Sharpe's Express and Duke of York are also good. The sooner you plant them the better now. Give them really good air circulation once they are above the surface - to avoid late blight and don't wet the leaves when watering as doing this encourages it.
*Best sown in early September
And don't forget there's still just time to plant some saffron bulbs (see last month).
Saving our own seed gives us a measure of resilience and independence from the global giant agrichemical/seed companies who are increasingly buying up small independent seed companies with the aim of controlling the global food supply and increasing their profits by selling more of their exclusive patented F1 hybrids. At the same time they are ditching tried and tested old varieties which have stood the test of time and may have traits far more useful to home gardeners, like not all being ready at once! Open-pollinated varieties may also have the genetic resources to be more adaptable to the variability of weather conditions due to climate change. If you do one thing next year - plan to grow at least one non-F1 hybrid, open-pollinated variety of one of your favourite vegetables to save seed from. I guarantee you'll be so glad you did. and if you haven't done it before - so thrilled and proud when you grow your first crop from home-saved seed!
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 package of DNA - full of ancient history, the spiritual fingerprint of all those gardeners who have grown and saved them before us, and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food in the future!
A friendly note:I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy any of my material - including photographs - or repeat it in any way online, I would remind you that it is copyright and I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.
(I recently came across one of my best tomato photographs - one that I took to publicise the very first 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' - being used online, as the profile picture on someone else's Twitter account. Quite unbelievable cheek and legally that is plagiarism! Needless to say that person was otherwise anonymous!)
Contents:Any veg you can grow or preserve now is like money in the bank!.... Now really is the last chance for serious seed sowing!.... A Wonderful Memory from 2019 - Tomatoes truly without borders!.... Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!..... Future Food Security depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity..... Polytunnels come into their own even more now.... Why it's worth using a good quality peat-free compost.... My top crops for winter productivity in the tunnel.... Brassicas undercover.... Sweet potatoes..... Feeding Soil for Winter Crops.... Save money by saving Seed.... Tunnel fruits.... Don't forget bees need winter food too!
Good crop of late-sown mangetout pea Delikett - sown 1st July
Any veg you can grow or preserve now is like money in the bank for winter
Despite one or two days like high summer over the last couple of days - with unbearably hot temperatures in the polytunnel - it's mostly been grey, chilly and autumn-like here for the last two weeks. It was even down to 0 degrees Centigrade in there a few nights ago, with the Cercidiphyllum Japonicum in the woodland garden scenting the air with the characteristic toffee apple/caramel scent it gives off as soon as it experiences the slightest whiff of a frost. It feels as if autumn has already well and truly arrived already - and we need to urgently think about winter food now if we haven't before.
Summer crops are still continuing to produce well though. The French bean Cobra has cropped really well this year - both in large tubs as an experiment after last year's tomatoes - growing in the same recycled peat-free compost just refreshed with a little worm compost and calcified seaweed, and also in the ground. The delicious mangetout pea Delikett is cropping really well right now too. Sown 1st July - pre-sprouted to give them as much chance as possible to grow before the mice discovered them. They grew really fast in the hot August weather. They are a wonderful crop for freezing - retaining their delicious, sweet flavour, which is a real treat in winter. Both the French beans and the Delikett mangetout are being harvested and stashed in the freezer as soon as they are ready, for something different to go with winter meals. They should go on producing a crop for the next 2 or 3 weeks until the nights get colder. Courgette Atena is as prolific as ever and the Rosada tomatoes have as always been simply wonderful. One of the best aspects of Rosada for growing in polytunnels is it's more than usually well-spaced foliage - which allows for a lot more air to circulate and keep the bushes disease-free. It's such a pity that it's no longer available thanks to the greed of the big seed companies! There is simply no other tomato like it for ease of growing and for every use.
Blaue Annaliese - still looking healthy in the polytunnel
A basket of Blaue Anneliese gathered for supper - 22.8.20
The Blaue Anneliese purple potato has excelled itself again - it really loves the polytunnel and is without doubt a paragon of a potato and one that will become a mainstay here from now on! Started off in pots on the mid-March, I planted it about a month later, and it's been looking beautiful and growing vigorously ever since, without even the slightest touch of blight. I kept looking for blight but never even found a single spot. It's without doubt the tastiest, healthiest potato I've ever grown of the blue/purple ones which are so beneficial for our health. Many of those are fussy divas though - and are not very blight-resistant wherever you grow them - and some are especially prone to it in the polytunnel. Although I've dug up a couple of plants to save seed from, just in case we get an invasion of rodents which often happens when the cereal crops are harvested around us - I've been loath to dig up the rest while they are growing so well, and obviously swelling the crop! I'll have to bite the bullet in the next week or so though - as I have loads of things like lettuces, chicories and other leafy greens to plant in their place which I've already potted on once, which really must be planted in the next couple of weeks so they can get established well before the autumn equinox. Light is already decreasing dramatically and the hens are even going up to roost just after 8pm - especially on darker damp evenings.
At this time of year so many people are content to just wind down and enjoy the last delights of the summer crops. Here I'm also still doing that - but also thinking ahead, to when fresh vegetables won't be so easy to grow, or perhaps to find a good variety of, in shops or farmer's markets - especially if there are shortages due to a possible 'no-deal' Brexit! Any fast-growing veg which I haven't already sown in the last month is being sown now, or in the queue for sowing as soon as possible! I'm also planting more potatoes in pots, so when the Blaue Anneliese are finished, it will only be new, pot-grown potatoes until next spring - but I don't think anyone will be complaining!
It's very easy among all this abundance to forget that winter is literally only just around the corner! The light is visibly decreasing rapidly now though and growth is also winding down a lot from the hectic pace of summer. With so much of summer's bounty still to be harvested and preserved, it's so easy to forget that winter crops need attention right now - or we won't have any! This year - just as the British Retail Consortium predicted - there are already shortages of fresh food due Brexit, with a lack of workers for picking crops, a shortage of lorry drivers to transport them and long delays at ports. Many people don't realise that a vast amount of fresh produce both in the UK and Ireland is imported, and much of our supply here comes through the UK. So if you haven't already sown some winter salads and fast growing veg - you've still just got time to sow some types of leaves to have some fresh salads if they're in short supply - but only if you do it NOW! There's till plenty of things to sow which will give you a varied diet over the winter - without resorting to imported crops, which may or may not be available. Take a look at my What To Sow in September page - you'll find plenty there!
I sometimes get criticised by people on Twitter - saying that my blog posts assume that everyone has a garden - which is very unfair criticism because I don't!When we rented a small semi-detached house for 2 years while we were in transition from our first garden, before we moved here, I only had a really tiny garden - but I still grew all of our own veg in pots. I learned a huge amount from that, and understand only too well the limitations of trying to produce as much food as possible in small, or no gardens. Even now I still grow a lot of things in large pots, as it's a great way to avoid slug damage - very important when I want to photograph crops for my Irish Garden Magazine articles. It doesn't matter if you don't have a polytunnel or even a garden - as long as you even have the smallest bit of outside space you can sow something useful, fresh and super-nutritious - even if you can't be self-sufficient as much as possible as I try to be. It really takes very little effort - but I suspect that many of those criticising me are the "I can't" brigade, who assume that is the case - without even trying! I often feel that if people just made the effort - it would massively benefit their mental health - which often seems not the best from the way they attack me! There is no space so small that you cannot grow something that will make a real contribution to your diet and health - unless you live in a hole in the ground without even a door or a window!
The most important thing which all plants need is really good top light though - they won't really be happy on a windowsill for more than a few days. This is because they're unable to photosynthesise properly and turn sunlight into the sugars they need to grow. Lack of light makes them become weak, sickly and spindly, more prone to diseases and also far less nutritious. A windowsill is fine for houseplants - but really no use for food plants - as it can't produce enough food for it to be worth the trouble. If you happen to live in an apartment without even a balcony though - then sprouting seeds or growing microgreens can produce valuable, highly nutritious crops to help supplement your diet. I used to produce mung bean sprouts, alfalfa, and sunflower greens etc. for the Dublin Food Coop 35 years ago, when I was growing commercially, and they are really very easy to grow. They do need regular consistent care though - rinsing very well several times a day - to avoid the build-up of moulds and bacteria which can cause spoilage and even potentially cause food-poisoning!
I've written several articles here on the blog over the years on how you can grow in pots and tubs, or even in recycled boxes on a stepladder.There's very little that you can't grow in large pots - although some plants with very long tap roots aren't too happy in pots unless they're dustbin or skip bag sized! But I've grown in those too! Here's a link to a blog post I wrote this April - "What if you don't have a polytunnel or garden, can you grow anything?" it includes a link to my stepladder gardens article elsewhere on the blog :
Now really is the last chance for serious seed sowing!
There's still time early this month to sow winter lettuce, Oriental salads, and many other fast developing veg for crops for harvesting through late autumn up to Christmas, or even continuous cropping throughout the winter into early spring 2016 - so check out my 'What to Sow Now' list and get sowing now! The longer you delay the less things will crop before the New Year - so don't delay! - You'll be so glad you have them during less productive times outside in the winter vegetable garden, and when organic salads in particular are almost non-existent in shops
It's already too late for some crops to produce well this winter - but there's still time for quite a few - sothere's absolutely no time to lose!Don't waste precious tunnel space! I never forget the great piece of advice I was given many years ago - "Whatever else you don't do - SOW THE SEEDS" - everything else you can catch up on - but not sowing seeds. They have their own timetable and must be sown at the right time, no matter what the other distractions - or you won't have any winter crops under cover!
Winter crops in particular can save you a small fortune, which may surprise you, particularly if you're the sort of gardener who usually loses interest after the summer crops - buying your winter veg in the supermarket which has been flown in from Spain or somewhere. It's not rocket science - it just takes a little more trouble, planning and thought - but it's well worth it. So give winter tunnel or greenhouse gardening a try if you haven't done it before - I promise you won't be sorry!
Even if you don't have a polytunnel - many crops can also be grown in tubs and pots under large cold frames - or even on a balcony in good light - so there's no excuse not to try. Long before I had polytunnels, I grew all my winter salads under large homemade cold frames - which I made from recycled skip-found timber and some large pieces of double bed-sized polythene covers which I begged from a bed store years ago!
Some fast-growing crops like summer spinach, Oriental vegetables, quick salad mixes, kohlrabi and rocket etc. will all crop by November if sown now - and may possibly go on cropping through the winter if it's mild. If you tend to get very hard frosts where you live you can cover them on cold nights with fleece but do uncover during the day to allow any dampness to dry off and hang the damp fleeces up to dry - then you won't get any disease which is encouraged by humid conditions,. Lettuce, land cress, lambs lettuce, loose leaf cabbage greens etc. are a little slower growing but must be sown NOW so that they can establish really good root systems and make enough growth to just keep 'ticking over' through the winter - these will be your mainstays - allowing you to pick leaves every few days, or every day if you have plenty of plants, and they'll give you a slow but continuous crop throughout the winter. This is why sowing into modules and containers is such a good idea. If you wait until after current crops are finished and cleared to think about sowing things, it will be far too late. Having good plants in modules or pots ready and waiting, to go straight in as soon as summer crops are cleared, makes the most efficient use of very valuable tunnel space.
It will still be much too hot on any sunny days to sow or even plant many of the winter salads in the tunnel even if there is room - a couple of hours of very high temperatures can literally 'cook' them - so sowing outside in pots or modules is the best option. I usually do two sowings of my favourite crops as insurance. The only things I always sow in mid-late July without fail are Swiss chards and chicories as they are slower - everything else I sow from mid-August to mid-Sept., so that they are small enough not to bolt or run up to seed in a warm autumn but will still make a big enough plant to crop well through the winter - even a cold one! It's a fine balance, and will vary slightly from year to year depending on the autumn weather and also your local climate. In the milder south you may be able to sow some things a couple of weeks later, in the north you may be better sowing a week or two earlier, but it's light that mostly governs healthy growth - so I find that's about right.
And most importantly - NEVER economise on good seed compost - doing so is a false economy as it can not only waste valuable seed but even more importantly at this time of year - may lose you valuable time!! If you lose seedlings now - for many it's too late to sow again! And talking of which.....
Why it's worth using a good quality peat-free compost!
The one thing I can never stress enough is just how important it isto use a good, peat-free organic seed compost in order to have really strong, healthy disease-free seedlings. Again, as I've mentioned before - my favourite which is the only decent one available here in Ireland is the Klassman organic, peat-free seed compost which I get from Fruit Hill Farm, via my local distributor White's Agri. At this time of year it's very easy to lose seedlings to 'damping off' diseases if the compost you're using isn't up to scratch - but I can absolutely guarantee that I never lose seedlings in that compost, unless it's through my own carelessness. If I have to pot anything on to avoid a check if it's allotted tunnel space isn't yet available - then I use their excellent peat-free potting compost too. Their composts are made from composted organic green waste grown specifically for it's production in Germany. Both the seed and the potting compost produce excellent results, the plants make really good root systems and are always really healthy.
I've tried so many other dreadful peat-free organic and non-organic composts which caused much waste of expensive seed. With some it was almost impossible to have any healthy seedlings at all. I love the Klasmann compost though, it outperforms any that I've ever tried. Even thirty years ago, I was very uncomfortable about using any peat-containing seed composts at all due to peat extraction's destructive carbon footprint - especially when they also contained synthetic, fossil fuel-derived chemical fertilisers. But there hadn't been a really good alternative until relatively recently. Now there is plenty of choice - especially in the UK - and there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever to use peat, or any compost which contains it! Peat use is no longer acceptable in this era of rapid climate change and more environmental awareness - there is NO excuse!
OK, so a good peat-free compost is a little bit more expensive than bog-standard peat-based composts - but is that really any excuse for destroying bogs, which are huge carbon sinks storing millions of years of carbon - which when released massively accelerates climate change? Or is it worth the cost of destroying along with them the huge amount of vitally important biodiversity which they sustain? Especially when you're actually saving so much money by growing your own? I personally believe it's worth every cent because of the great results it produces! In over 40 years of growing experience, I've found that chemically-fed plants in peat-based composts are far more susceptible to disease. Sadly even some of the peat-free composts made from composted bark are truly dreadful and are not organic either.
This can be a really tricky time of year for managing vulnerable winter salad and other veg seedlings. They're getting blown out of their modules one minute - drenched with torrential the next - and then even perhaps baked! It does sometimes seem like an awful lot of bother looking after them - but come the middle of winter, when there's so few decent organic salads, spinach, chards, broccoli or other veg to buy in the shops that you could easily be growing in your greenhouse or tunnel - you'll be so glad you did! I sometimes may even have to pot some of them on twice before tunnel planting - but again it's well worth doing.
Just to remind you, or if you didn't happen read my spring sowing instructions - when sowing into modules - I fill them, firm gently, water them and then make a small hole (1/4 inch or less depending on what I'm sowing) in each module with the end of a pencil or something, sow the seeds either individually or multi-sow for things like kale and salad mixes, then cover the hole with vermiculite. This keeps air circulating around the seedling stem and the surface is just slightly drier as vermiculite promotes better drainage - so it helps to prevent damping off. Cover lightly with polythene for 3 or 4 days until you can see the seedlings starting to push through the surface - then remove the cover immediately. After this - only EVER water from underneath, by sitting the seed tray or modules in a tray of water for a minute or so - don't allow them to become saturated!! Follow these instructions, use a good quality compost and you won't have a problem.
Be extra careful with watering seedlings and all tunnel watering now. Over-wet compost is the main reason that 'damping off' happens, that and poor air circulation.Only 'just moist' is the rule. If somehow by accident compost gets really saturated, then there is something you can do - a simple trick I came up with many years ago. Only common sense really - but surprising how many people just wouldn't think of doing it! A few years ago a gardener friend, who opens her lovely garden full of rare plants and sells many of them, was terribly upset because her automatic watering system had gone wrong (I hate them!) and had practically drowned all of her plants. Even though she'd taken them out of the water and tried to drain them off to rescue them - they were so wet that they were starting to rot off and she said she would probably lose the lot. As she was a keen recycler, I told her to get every newspaper she could lay her hands on and sit the pots on a piece of kitchen towel placed on top of several layers of newspapers for a few days. It works brilliantly! You do need a piece of kitchen towel under each pot though as it seems to act like a kind of wick - newspaper on it's own doesn't work as well, or as quickly. Granted, you may lose some water soluble nutrients to a certain extent by doing this - but you won't lose all the plants! You can always replace any nutrients lost if necessary - but it's often hard to replace plants lost through rotting.
My top crops for winter productivity in the tunnel
Autumn can be a tricky season for growing, as the weather can be so unpredictable, so I usually do two sowings of my favourite crops as insurance. I want to be able to pick a good mixed salad at a moment's notice every day over winter - and also to have a brassica of some sort to eat at least 3 times a week.The rewards for taking a little trouble are great though. There are many crops which really enjoy the winter shelter in the polytunnel. Ruby and white Swiss chards, sugar loaf chicory, celery. Welsh onions (scallions), endives, lettuce, lamb's lettuce, Oriental leaves like mustard and mizuna, rocket, land cress, winter spinach, watercress and claytonia - which I never have to sow now as it obligingly appears everywhere all by itself anyway! If you grow it once - you will find that it's one of the most enthusiastic self-seeders and you'll rarely have to sow it again. You just weed it out where you don't want it. It even makes a great green manure which the worms really love. To me there's no point just sowing stuff that will sit there all winter and then crop only in the spring. Many indispensable soft herbs like parsley and also perennial herbs like thyme are also far more productive inside.
I like to have plenty of green leaves to feed my hens all winter too. They get extra greens all year round but it's especially important in the winter as it keeps the egg yolks a really deep orange, meaning they're much higher in nutrients like Vitamin A and lutein. Unlike conventionally-produced hen ration - organic hen food is not allowed to contain any artificial colourants to make yolks yellow. If they don't get extra greens or are not on good pasture with fresh grass to eat every day, like some poor, non-organic, 'so-called' free range hens - then the yolks are much paler as grass grows more slowly and is less nutritious in the winter and that means that the hens are less healthy too. My hens are happy and bursting with organic good health all year round!
A Wonderful Memory from 2019 - Tomatoes truly without borders!
View of both sides of the World Record-Breaking Exhibition of Tomatoes for the 2019 Totally Terrific Tomato Festival which was held in The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin
I'm really missing 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' this year, which we couldn't hold due to Covid19 pandemic.
So I'm repeating the pictures from last year - when we didn't just have one great day - but once again two fantastic weeks, thanks to our wonderful National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, their dynamic director Dr. Matthew Jebb and his hardworking staff. It was a stunning sight, all beautifully displayed sitting in terracotta pots. A new world record of 261 varieties was set - surpassing the 2018 total of 258! There was an incredible diversity of almost every possible combination of shape, size and colour of the rainbow! It was beyond my wildest dreams that we could ever have achieved this when I originally conceived the idea of holding the first 'TTTomFest', as it is now known, back in 2012!
For me - the most wonderful thing of all was watching the faces of people from all over the world, full of wonder as they gazed at the fantastically diverse array of colours, shapes and sizes of tomatoes!Just like children looking at Christmas trees! I met interested people from all over the world again - all who loved tomatoes - and even some who didn't think they did until they saw these! The truly great thing about tomatoes, as I've so often said, is that almost everyone eats them and cooks with them - and almost anyone who has a garden also grows them. So we all have instant common ground no matter where we hail from!
The really encouraging thing was that people were all so interested and grateful when I explained that the reason why I started the original Tomato Festival was to highlight the issue of the loss of vital crop genetic diversity - not only in tomatoes. Tomatoes just happen to be a very visually appealing and fun way to demonstrate that richly valuable and irreplaceable diversity. After all - different varieties of wheat, for instance, all look pretty much the same don't they? So they wouldn't be as much fun to most people - unlike these gorgeous, plumptious, incredibly diverse beauties! The wonderful thing about tomatoes is that it doesn't matter where people are from - most people eat some tomatoes occasionally (or a lot in our case!). As Dr Matthew Jebb said a couple of years ago in his Tomato Talk at Killruddery - the entire human race eats half its own weight in tomatoes every single year. That is a staggering statistic - and if that doesn't give us something in common with practically every other person on the planet - I don't know what does!
Everyone eats - and what is most relevant is that whatever 'diet' we eat - whether it's healthy or not - completely depends on the original seeds needed to grow a particular crop. This is of course the major reason why the huge multinational agri-chemical/seed giants want to gain control over the supply of our seeds, and are increasingly buying up smaller seed companies in order to control seed availability and increase their profits. Forget money, forget oil and forget politics. Owning the supply of seeds which produces all of our food globally is the surest way to ultimate power over the human race!
It was another fantastic demonstration of just what a lot of keen growers can do when they get together to work towards one goal- and such a delight that it was hard to tear my eyes away from such a gloriously colourful panorama!Let's hope that next year the Pandemic will be over and we'll be able to hold this fantastic event again - and make it even bigger and better!
I truly feel that 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' is now in the safest possible hands - many years after I held my first 'Tomato Day' at the National Botanic Gardens in the early 1990s, which was the original seed of this wonderful Festival. It has now returned to its roots - back to the original place where it was first conceived. I am so grateful and thrilled and feel confident that it's future is assured..... And I can't tell you what a good feeling that is!
Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!
This is a short extract from my 'Tomato Talk' on the main tomato day. I first organised what I then called a 'Tomato Day' back in 1993 at the National Botanic Gardens, at Glasnevin in Dublin. Many of us organic growers and gardeners had already been aware for some time of the loss of 1000s of seed varieties since the mid 70's when Lawrence Hills first established the Heritage Seed Library of the HDRA - and were aware even then of the urgency of preserving as many older varieties of seed as possible. After the original tomato day I held at The National Botanic Gardens in 1993 - although there was some interest - it wasn't really enough to bring it to the attention of the wider public. So there it rested for a couple of decades.
Fast forward to 2012 - and I began to feel that people here were beginning to become far more interested not just in where their food came from, but also in the different flavours, culinary and health-promoting qualities of the many Heritage varieties that were still in existence.By a stroke of pure luck - that year the amazing high-anthocyanin black tomato Indigo Rose also became available to amateur gardeners for the very first time. I knew as soon as I saw it that January that it would be an instant attention grabber, so sent off to the USA for seed, and I believe became the first person in Europe to grow it! I also knew that by then, preserving genetic diversity was becoming ever more urgent. With increasing climate change and the attempted takeover of global food systems by huge and aggressive multinational agrochemical/seed corporations. It's now more vital than ever to preserve genetic diversity in all food crops including tomatoes - with such huge economic and dietary relevance. Anyway - I knew I could no longer stand idly by and watch this happening without feeling that I was at least trying to do something. I am only one person and can only do so much - but if each individual does one small something then that can add up to a very positive BIG something!
I don't know who actually first said "That it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness" - but I believe that to be very true. In 2012, I felt I had to have another try to light that candle while there was still time - to help raise awareness of how important genetic diversity was - and how it was increasingly being threatened by global 'Big Ag'. So the 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' was re-born under its current name. The candle is now burning brightly thanks to our wonderful National Botanic Gardens - to my lasting gratitude.
Future Food Security depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity
Genetic diversity should not be entrusted to the 'care' of a few large multinational chemical/seed corporations who have been gobbling up smaller seed companies systematically since the 1970s. They are only interested in profit and selling the varieties which they have bred or happen to own the patents to! We have already lost far too many crop varieties because of this. Profit for the privileged few who control our food system could mean starvation for the many. We have no idea what the future may bring and we each need to do our bit - however small that may be - if we care about future generations.
But food security isn't just about tomatoes - useful and delicious as they are! Recently I posted this tweet on Twitter:
"If you're buying #seeds to sow winterveg try to support small & organic seed companies if you can - seeddiversity helps to ensure futurefood security - Global multinational chemical/seed companies are buying up smaller seed companies - closing them & dropping varieties!"
Judging from the amount of retweets - it seems that perhaps people may at last be waking up to the fact that we cannot trust the security of the future of our food supply to the avaricious clutches of a few, self-seeking giant multinational seed/chemical companies. We have no idea what challenges the future may hold in terms of pests and diseases - especially with the challenges of a changing climate - so it is extremely dangerous to narrow the choice of genes (or characteristics) - present in different varieties of any staple crop which is vital to the future of human health, or possibly even survival. If we allow that to happen by doing nothing, we are gradually allowing what is essentially our own life-support system of crop varieties to gradually be eroded.
As I have highlighted so often in the past - our choice of varieties in the various crops we grow is now being continually eroded by these companies. Their motivation is profit NOW - not the future of genetic diversity! They are continually buying up smaller seed companies, then closing them down, taking over their seed lists, reducing their diversity, and gradually dropping older varieties of important crops which are perhaps genetically more valuable, in favour of their one patented F1 Hybrid or GMO/GE varieties. They can't patent old varieties - so they plunder them for a few genes or characteristics which are useful for breeding newer varieties to which they can then own the patent. That's where the money is - not in selling much loved and reliable old varieties like the ones pictured below -which have been grown perhaps for centuries!
Ananas Noir not easy but delicious!
Green Cherokee another favourite beefsteak with great taste.
Nyagous - unusual rich smoky flavour.
Pantano Romanesco my 'desert island' beefsteak if forced to choose only one!
Polytunnels come into their own even more now
After the excitement of the Tomato Festival it's certainly back to earth with a bump - but earth is just where I like to be!! Now I've recovered a bit, I need to catch up on some of the work here that was more than a bit neglected over the last week or so. It very urgently needs doing now - if we're going to eat any homegrown food this winter!
September is when we tough, 'all weather' polytunnelers really get going! If you put the thought, work and care in now, you'll be enjoying the delights of abundant crops from the polytunnel not just in summer - but all winter long too - harvesting far more than the 'fair weather, summer only' gardeners ever thought possible! Not an inch of valuable polytunnel space should be wasted -especially in winter . Every inch should be growing something delicious either for us, or valuable food for non-hibernating bees - and it's quite possible to do both!
The value of growing brassicas undercover
You might think it strange to be growing kale and other brassicas under cover. They will grow outside I grant you - but kale especially won't be anything like as productive. In a tunnel most will continuously produce huge crops! Outside in most winters you'll only get a few pickings from some even if the weather isn't too bad - neither freezing it solid, nor drowning it. I would need probably four times the space outside to produce the same amount of crop as I get from plants growing inside. With protection from the elements, both kale and calabrese/broccoli thoroughly enjoy the sheltered life under cover (who wouldn't?) and that allows you to pick continuously throughout the winter. I grow Cavallo Nero, red curly kale and my own strain of Ragged Jack kale, which I've been growing for over 30 years now - originally from HDRA Heritage Seed Library - saving my own seed every couple of years. I've also bred my own hybrid strain of different coloured kales which I'm trialling at the moment.They all have great flavour. Kale and broccoli are two of the top crops you can grow for your health. They are very nutritious - being chock-full of vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytonutrients like isothiocyanates which have been shown to prevent many diseases such as cancer. I like to have plenty of them to eat all year round - both as baby leaves to use in salads and smoothies, or lightly steamed when they're larger. Or even as 'kale crisps' (a yummy treat!). My own particular strain of Ragged Jack kale - which I've been saving now for about 35 years also produces really delicious flower shoots in early spring. These are far more tender and delicious than any sprouting broccoli - almost like asparagus!
The other brassica I always grow in winter is Green Magic calabrese/broccoli. In a mild winter it will produce a large central head in the late autumn and then lots of smaller side shoots slowly, but steadily until the following spring. 'Green Magic' is the one I've found best for this - and it wouldn't normally grow at all outside over the winter. If you sow it at the end of July it will produce a really good tunnel crop in late autumn - but even sown now, it will still go on to produce small sweet shoots all winter that are delicious for picking raw or lightly steaming. Some years ago I found that following brassicas with sweet potatoes works very well - because sweet potatoes enjoy a little bit of hardship to start with! If you're too kind to them when they're first planted they produce wild masses of luxuriant leaves - with very
little in the way of tubers underneath later on. I experimented by leaving a row kale down the middle of the bed - it used up a lot of the nutrients and stopped the sweet potatoes growing too lushly at first. The kale can be left in the ground when you're planting the sweet potatoes - still producing well into the summer if they're watered regularly. If it gets too tall you can just chop off it's head with a pair of loppers. It doesn't mind a bit and will re-sprout lovely fresh young growth from the truncated stalks - even when it's quite hot in the tunnel.
I love to experiment with different kinds of inter-cropping and overlapping of crops. I often find unexpected things that work well as part of my rotations - which make the best use of the space and completely do away with the so-called spring 'Hungry Gap' everyone complains about. There's no such thing here - there's always something good to eat. The permaculture people have invented a new name for doing this - they call it 'polyculture'. Essentially, it's exactly the same inter-cropping, catch cropping and overlapping of crops that I've been doing for over 40 years now - growing all sorts of things all together, growing flowers and permanent top fruit in the tunnel too - making the most of every possible inch. This is even more important undercover, where space comes at a price!
Making the most of your space under cover is all down to good forward planning - you should be thinking several months ahead to the following crops whenever you're planting anything. Valuable tunnel space should be as productive as possible all year round.
More on sweet potatoes
It's time to give your sweet potatoes a bit more TLC now. They need feeding with tomato fertiliser once a week from now on if they are to produce plenty of large tubers. 'Osmo' certified organic feed is perfect - again something I've been using for years now. Everything loves it and you never get any nutrient imbalances as you often can do with other, non-organic feeds. You could use home made comfrey feed if it's made from the high potash variety 'Bocking 14' developed by Garden Organic founder Lawrence Hills. Other varieties wouldn't be much good for this as they're far lower in potash. Sweet potatoes are dead easy to grow - the trick is not to feed them much at first but wait until the days start to shorten in August, because that's when they start developing their tubers.They're a fantastic 'break crop' in the tunnel rotation, because they're unrelated to anything else and the worms just love the little thread like bits of root left behind after harvesting. I always see a huge increase in worm activity after growing them in any bed. Worms obviously have a sweet tooth too!
I've tried lots of newer varieties - but I always return to my old reliable 'Beauregarde'. I save a few of the tubers for producing 'slips' to plant next year. I did that very successfully again last year and gave them to several friends. I must hide a few so that we don't eat them all!. If they're stored above 50 deg F, they'll keep very well into next spring and beyond. I've even kept the purple ones for a year and then taken shoots or slips from them! Never keep sweet potatoes in the fridge as they actually die of hypothermia! Many people don't realise that vegetables are still alive after they're harvested. How else do you think we grow potatoes? You don't necessarily have to grow sweet potatoes in the ground either - but they do like a deep root run, so they like a large container filled with well drained compost. I often grow them in recycled log/skip bags and they revel in them - producing huge crops.The foliage hangs over the edge, hiding the bags, and they look really decorative with marigolds and purple basil planted in them too - especially when they produce their beautiful, convulvulus-like mauve flowers..
Feeding Soil for Winter Crops
It pays to keep some your very best garden or worm compost for the beds where your winter salad crops are to grow.Many of them have fine root systems which appreciate a little bit of comfort and if you're as kind as possible to them they will keep cropping for much longer in the early spring, before running up to flower. I just scratch a light covering in and then water it in lightly to firm the soil before planting. You could possibly add a very light dressing of a general organic fertiliser like 'Osmo Universal' granular fertiliser - which is certified organic - if you think the ground is particularly hungry. It's available in several garden centres. Never over-feed winter crops though - just give them enough to get going without being starved. Lashing on manure, compost or compound fertilisers is wasteful, often polluting and can be counter productive - as there isn't enough light for the plants to photosynthesise efficiently in order to turn the available nitrates into sugars to give them the energy to grow. This has the result that crops can often taste bitter due to high nitrate content in leaves. Overfeeding can also promote soft, sappy, disease-prone growth that is much more attractive to pests too. I've thought for many years that overfeeding with nitrogen is why non-organic vegetables can taste bitter and smell really disgusting when cooked, especially in the winter. This is particularly the case with Brussels sprouts - and I think this is why so many people hate them! I've never had organically grown sprouts that taste bitter like chemically grown ones. Organic ones are always really sweet as long as they're not overfed with nitrate-rich manures too late in the season.
Funnily enough many years ago when I used to have my small children's Montessori friends for meals - they would often eat things like spinach and cabbage here which they would never normally touch at home, if they weren't people who normally ate organic food. An instinctive natural discrimination perhaps - an evolutionary warning not to eat things that taste at all bitter in case they're poisonous? And naturally - fruit and other wild things are far sweeter and have maximum nutrients when they are properly ripe. Perhaps this is why children seem to prefer chemical-free organic food, before their taste buds and instinctive discrimination are 'civilised', dulled and destroyed by junk foods?I definitely think so - I never had any so-called, 'picky eating' problems with my kids. They ate everything! Anyway - my children's schoolmates parents were all simply astonished - but when I explained that my vegetables were actually sweeter because they were organic - many of them asked if they could buy them, and then became long-standing customers when I started growing commercially. Most, more than 35 years later, are still committed organic consumers even though their offspring, like mine, have long since flown their respective nests!
Ventilation, careful watering & good housekeeping are essential now to keep diseases at bay
In this "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" it's easy to get so distracted with enjoying all the "fruitfulness" that one forgets that the "mists" can hang around all day - particularly in a polytunnel! Only water if you absolutely have to - and if you do then do it in the morning if possible and do it between - not directly onto plants. This gives surface moisture a chance to evaporate before the night time closing of doors. Scrupulous housekeeping is absolutely vital now too. Remove every single scrap of dead or diseased plant material immediately to avoid fungal diseases developing that could infect the winter crops you'll be planting over the next month or so. Good ventilation is absolutely essential too, I only close the doors at night (necessary to keep out foxes and badgers that are particularly partial to the strawberries and late peaches that are still cropping well) and I open them again first thing in the morning. as long as it's not too windy.
Save money by saving your own seed
A truss of 'Pantano Romanesco' - the largest 4 fruits weighed 11-14ozs each!
Now is the time of year for saving tomato seed. You can save a lot of money doing this - and you don't need to go to a lot of fuss and bother soaking, washing or doing anything else. Just do what Nature does - let it rot! Nature doesn't rinse seed in chlorinated water. The natural ripening process and then fermentation as the fruit starts to rot is what the seed needs to overcome any innate germination inhibitors. Pick the ripest possible fruit - put it on your kitchen windowsill in the sun in a yogurt pot or something - and just leave it to fester! Put it somewhere where mice won't get into it and the inevitable fruit flies won't bother you - and do remember to label it! Sorry if you're of a delicate disposition - but it does pong a bit! if you're one of those people who has to have ghastly, asthma-inducing air fresheners everywhere to mask perfectly natural smells, then you probably won't be reading this anyway! When it's really smelly and rotten - then you can just squish the seed out into a small sieve, rinse under a running tap for a moment stirring the messy flesh around a bit to get rid of any fleshy bits, pick out any remaining skin and then tip onto a couple of layers of kitchen paper towels. Then put the paper towels onto a cake drying rack or something similar somewhere for a few days to dry. If you're doing several varieties at once - then write the name of the variety onto the paper towel with indelible marker immediately! When everything's completely dry - then just fold up the paper and put into a marked envelope. Simple! It works a treat, and the seed lasts for years stuck to it's piece of kitchen towel from where you can peel off the seed individually. If you don't even want to rinse the smelly flesh off - you can in fact just squish the seeds straight onto the paper without rinsing at all and this is just as successful!
Do bear in mind that you can't save seed from F1 Hybrid varieties, as these are crosses made between two specific known parents. If you do save seed from them, they will just produce hundreds of different mongrels - mostly tasteless, possibly even bitter and usually not worth growing! In a normal tunnel environment though - non F1 tomato seed will normally stay true to type - so you can save seed quite safely from those varieties and save yourself lots of money! Google them to check if they're F1's if you don't have the seed packet and you're not sure. The gorgeous-flavoured Italian beefsteak variety Pantano Romanesco (my desert island tomato!) pictured here, is one you can easily save seed from.
Tunnel fruits in abundance still
This is the sensational late peach that I bought quite by accident! I have no idea what variety it is - I got it in Lidl labelled as a nectarine, but it's the best flavoured peach I have! It ripens a bit more slowly than the earlier summer one does which is better, and means we can eat more fresh over a longer period, rather than having to deal with a huge glut all at once. The only problem in a very wet autumn is that the fruit can tend to split with all the water at their roots though - which they're doing now - so they still need to be dealt with fast to avoid wasting them! I'm currently dehydrating the last of the peach crop as fast as possible - as since the field beside the tunnels was harvested - we also now have a plague of hungry mice and our useless cat was no deterrent whatsoever - so it's now been re-homed to a very sweet old lady who lost hers and was delighted to have our very fussy and affectionate lap-cat! By the way - the cat's also delighted!
The potted autumn raspberries are still fruiting exceptionally well in the same pots with very little feeding! They have the advantage of being both totally safe from marauding blackbirds and also from autumn gales and torrential rain - which often batter and ruin late crops outside here. I'm loving the Sugana raspberry from breeders Lubera - which is incredibly productive and really delicious. Although expensive to buy initially - it's already more than earned it's keep in huge crops of enormous fruits which also freeze well! I'm also growing my favourites 'Joan J' and 'Erika' in pots too - again hugely productive and which I think just have the edge on flavour. It's a way of stretching the season which is very useful. One big plus that 'Joan J' has in its favour is that it's stems are completely smooth and spine free - important when working at close quarters in a tunnel or if you have small children who like raspberries!
The grapes are ripening fast now too and again we're eating as many fresh as we can. Mice are particularly fond of grapes - especially the best seeded black ones like Muscat Bleu and Black Strawberry. As they ripen - all the grapes will be frozen loose for smoothies etc. or made into sultanas or raisins by dehydrating in my Sedona dehydrator. The spring-sown cape gooseberriesare ripening fast and will keep on going until December now all being well with the occasional high potash feed.They keep well for months in their little paper lantern cases which so far the mice conveniently haven't discovered! I wonder how long that will last?
The Albion and Mara des Bois perpetual strawberries are still reliably producing their delicious berries- people must be tired of me saying what wonderful strawberries they are. They won't stop fruiting until it gets really cold in November. Sticking to my rule of never wasting an inch of precious polytunnel space - at this time of year even my propagating benches get re-purposed as yet another fruit growing opportunity! Albion is on there right now producing more strawberries in large pots and tubs!
Don't forget bees need winter food too!
Do think about planting some winter flowers like winter-flowering violas and pansies for non-hibernating overwintering bumblebees and any other vitally important pollinators that may happen to be around if it's a mild autumn. You'll be surprised how many will regularly come into your tunnel once they know you have flowers in there all winter, and it's great to see them and know you're helping them to survive! Without them we wouldn't have much food! Keep annual flowers like marigolds, borage, scabious etc. flowering for as long as possible now by deadheading or cutting back a bit so that they don't go to seed - there's lots of hoverflies, butterflies, moths and bees still about which are really appreciating the nectar and clearing up any pests. There's also plenty of young frogs now busily hopping along the 'frog corridors' of weeds which I leave between the boards at the back edges of the side raised beds and the sides of the tunnel. They appreciate the damp conditions there and the abundant small insects, as well as their little 'pond gardens' I make in plant saucers at the ends of the tunnel. They are great for clearing up those nasty little grey slugs that get into lettuce hearts and ruin them. I just keep the weeds clipped to bed level, between the bed and the side of the tunnel to stop them seeding, rather than pulling them out - and find that far from encouraging pests - leaving those wees there actually encourages the creatures that eat them! Leave one or two Marigold and Tagetes plants to seed though - so that you'll have some for next year.
A few years ago a listener called after our August radio show to say that it sounded more like the Gerry Kelly Food Show than 'The Late Lunch Show' because we literally ate our way round the tunnels! I think that's why Gerry suggested we should change the title to 'From Tunnel to Table' a couple of years ago and do a bit of cooking as well - or rather his clever producer did! The polytunnels don't just grow food for us to eat though. The stinging nettle 'butterfly nurseries' that I showed Gerry in the corners of the tunnels earlier in the year have produced their annual crop of butterflies once again. I love them so much - they are magical, and so good for the soul! There's been a succession of Painted Ladies, various Fritillaries, Peacocks and Tortoiseshells - and now in the last week or so a lot of Red Admirals have hatched. They're now fluttering around the tunnels enjoying all the nectar in the flowers. They kept landing on us as we walked around last year - one even landed on Gerry's microphone while we were recording the show - a definite seal of approval - I hope that means some good 'Karma' for us!
Organic gardening isn't just about growing healthy, chemical-free food for us!
It's also about encouraging all the wonderful wildlife that helps us to do that without chemicals and helping it to survive. A healthy chemical-free garden sustains so many lives that matter in the whole web of life - not just ours. Growing food without using pesticides that harm nature helps to preserve the earth's incredible biodiversity in all it's incredible richness. The tunnels are such a joyful celebration of Nature's abundant generosity at this season. It's biodiversity brought to richly-productive and beautiful fruition.
At the moment in the tunnels with all the beautiful colours of the crops and flowers, so many gorgeous butterflies fluttering around everywhere and happy bees buzzing - it truly is like "walking into the magical land of Narnia" - as Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon so kindly remarked a few years ago. It does seem a bit like a fairyland - with delicious food and incredible beauty everywhere you look...........If I ever go to any sort of heaven - I really hope it's like this!
(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.)
Contents: "The times they are a'changing"...... Now you see it - now you don't!....Berried Treasure - Blackberry fields forever!.........Preserving the joys of summer!......Magnificent Melons.........Raspberries all summer long?.... 'Tis the season of wasps!..... Other fruit jobs
The Sea Buckthorn bushes were loaded this time last year and starting to ripen their super-nutritious berries
The ever reliable Sea Buckthorn promised a great crop again in late June this year
"The sun being now in it's southern declination the Air begins to cool, and it is become very pleasant to walk after a thunder shower. Although the beauties of the Fields and Gardens begin to fade, yet the profits now flow in.... the Avenues and walks of your Gardens now furnish the most curious palates with the most delicate Fruits....Little is now to be done in a Garden, besides gathering in the Fruits of former Labours."
(From A calendar of Gardener's Lore - August, 1688)
"The times they are a'changing" - (to quote Bob Dylan)
I love old gardening quotes, which echo the familiar fellow feelings we share with all the other gardeners who have preceded us down over the centuries. They valued the predictable abundance of summer and autumn fruits just as much as we do now. They knew that fruit was healthy food - even though their knowledge was based on observations which didn't include using magnetic resonance imaging or high-throughput sequencing - the electron microscopy tools that we have much more recently acquired!
I wonder how those old gardeners of yesteryear would have coped with the wildly erratic swings in weather and storms that we have had over recent years - which undoubtedly caused by rapidly progressive climate change? How I wish I could go back and ask them! I'm sure that they would have had some very ingenious ways to overcome problems - successful methods, well-practiced over centuries, which didn't involve pouring massive amounts of chemicals all over plants and the soil in an attempt to cope with the pest and disease problems that are a direct result of destroying biodiversity! The erratic swings in weather due to climate change are causing stress to plants, and making them more vulnerable. They are also disrupting the breeding cycles of the insects we depend on for pollination and pest control services. Those biodiversity-destroying chemicals are one of the major elements which are directly responsible for accelerating climate change, which is making growing any plant foods increasingly difficult - especially fruit crops.
Now you see it - now you don't!
The increasing lack of insects and destruction of hedgerows, with the resulting loss of their wild fruits, is also putting more pressure on biodiversity such as small mammals and birds - with the result that they become even more interested in eating our precious crops! As you can see from the picture above - last year I had my best Sea Buckthorn crop ever, filling the freezer with the deliciously sharp and fantastically nutritious berries. I had so many still left in the freezer at the end of June that I was using them in everything, thinking that I was looking at freezing another massive amount, as the branches were loaded with the still green, half grown fruits once again - as you can see in the other picture above. I've never had any problems with birds eating them over the past 30 years, so wasn't the slightest bit worried about them.
Taking their ever-reliable crop for granted, as I normally don't pick them until at least the end of the first week in September, I took my eye off the ball a bit for a couple of weeks. My daughter was here who I hadn't seen for ages, otherwise I might perhaps have noticed the flocks of ravenous blackbirds feeding on them! Then when I went up to the top of the field a few days ago to see how they were ripening - a shocking sight met my eyes. Almost overnight they had vanished completely! They must have ripened early, and the branches has been picked so clean - that it was almost as if a plague of locusts had suddenly descended on them! The large tree-like bushes are far too high to cover with netting - but believe me, I won't ever take the Sea Buckthorn crop for granted again! So I shall have to devise some sort of clever strategy to outwit those melodic and beautiful, but very greedy black marauders.
Someone once said that there's no point looking back unless you can learn from it, and that is so true.As I said earlier - times are a'changing and we have no choice now but to take it on the chin, adapt to our changing climate situation, grow 'by the seat of our pants', as I'm always saying, take the bad, but be grateful for any good. And also perhaps to learn new ways of growing reliable crops of healthy food.
Grape harvest - 6 early varieties ripe now. From top left clockwise - Chasselas D'Or, Regent, Muscat Bleu, Black Strawberry, Lakemont Seedless & Rose Dream
I really hate it when people ask me -"If you could have, say, only one grape, one tomato, one apple or other crop - then which would you choose?" I always feel it's a bit like being asked which is my favourite child. It's impossible to choose! And why would you want to? It depends so much on what you want that fruit for - whether it's for cooking, eating fresh and raw, dehydrating or whatever. Every fruit behaves differently and a method which may suit some varieties of even the same fruit really well, doesn't always suit other varieties. There are so many different cultivars of every possible kind of seasonal fruit and other crops available which have been handed down to us over centuries, that we enjoy a fantastically wide choice and that is a luxury that many of our forebears didn't have. But there's also a serious point to that, and that is that we have a responsibility to ensure that we don't lose that diversity - we must make sure we preserve as many of them as possible. When old varieties fall out of favour or possibly disappear altogether - we are losing a precious genetic resource which may possibly be vital to future breeding programmes, because it may have pest or disease-resistance - or an ability to adapt to our changing climate.
There are always of course many new varieties of fruit being bred because it can now be extremely profitable to own the patent and collect the royalties on a new variety of any food crop.Being able to patent a new variety is a relatively new phenomenon, compared to the countless centuries over which most fruits were preserved by people who just valued their qualities and thought them worth handing down to future generations. But the new varieties are not always good ones. A case in point is the Rose Dream grape above - very sweet and watery, almost insipid, but welcome enough in early August because it's always the first grape to ripen here - but it has very little real flavour until it's dehydrated. Breeders now seem to think that everyone wants sweeter and sweeter fruits - but in fact what I'm always looking for is exceptional flavour. A rich, aromatic depth of flavour indicates a complex concentration of phytochemicals. That is what interests me, as I want to grow the most nutritious food. Sadly supermarket demands for easy to package, evenly-sized fruit that doesn't bruise when travelling and has a long shelf-life, has caused many older traditional and far better-tasting varieties to become unavailable by making it not worth the commercial growers while to grow them. As gardeners we don't have to worry about shelf-life - we worry about our own lives - so we can grow the very best and tastiest varieties, which are often the most nutritious and best for our health too.
Berried Treasure -Blackberry Fields Forever!
The huge ripe fruits of my 'Himalayan Giant' x wild bramble hybrid - always the earliest. Plump and delicious!
The heavy rain of the last couple of weeks has brought a bit of a damp chill in the evenings and it's feeling very 'autumn'-y! The first rain a few weeks ago was very welcome relief after a long dry spell, but the last few days have been ceaselessly grey. It really feels like the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. However - on the bright side - the rain came just at the right time for this year's blackberry crop after the drought!The first berries started to swell about three weeks ago but they were still a bit 'pippy' and dry. They've started to swell up nicely now and the plumptious, glossy black berries are ripening faster than we can pick them - or the birds can eat them! The cultivated types like Himalayan Giant always start to ripen earlier - at least a month before the smaller wild species. One or two of the 'bird sown', bee cross-pollinated hybrids I've found here over the last few years tend to ripen even a few days earlier than those. One plant in particular has that real wild 'bramble' taste, combined with the depth of flavour, acidity and much larger size of the cultivated varieties. It's the best I've tasted and has a far better flavour than any of the hybrids you can currently buy. I've tried most of the varieties on offer and been very disappointed with their taste. Himalayan Giant - which I've often talked about before - is really the very best-tasting variety but it's a bit of a thug and can be an absolute nightmare in a small garden - or even a large one if left to its own devices! Fine though, if you've got plenty of room and you want a productive, very effective vandal proof hedge! A good alternative to Himalayan Giant for a small garden - not quite as deeply flavoured but still very nice - is the new variety 'Reuben' which is a primocane variety. Being a primocane means that unlike other blackberries - it will fruit in its first year of cane growth. I've been growing it for over 4 years now since it first became available commercially and have found that by growing it in a large tub in the polytunnel I can even get it to fruit twice a year - picking huge fresh juicy berries for much longer.
Blackberries are a nutritional powerhouse and a mainstay of breakfasts, muffins, puddings, salad dressings, ice cream and many other delights all year round here.Combined with green leaves like spinach and kale, some kefir, and a handful of walnuts or almonds - they make the most delicious gut and brain-healthy phytonutrient-rich smoothies too! I've enjoyed them like that for over 40 years - but I have to say that using a Nutribullet or other similar type blender , make that a lot easier. The rich taste of blackberries makes them a healthy base for any number of things and they're also high in other nutrients and fibre. In fact - blackberries have been shown to have one of the highest antioxidant contents of any food tested and studies have indicated that regular consumption of them may have a positive impact on health - lowering the risk of many diseases. Their high level of anthocyanin phytonutrients - which gives them their dark purple colour - have been shown to protect the brain from oxidative stress, and may even reduce the effects of age-related conditions like Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Other studies have shown that they may also protect against cancers of the colon. They are high in potassium, ellagic acid (an immune-stimulating nutrient) as well as many other vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
We don't tend to eat jam here as we avoid too much sugar - so to preserve blackberries I freeze any berries not eaten immediately. They can then be thrown straight into yoghurt or kefir to make ice cream or half-frozen smoothies, if you have one of those powerful Nutribullet-type blenders. You can't buy frozen organic blackberries anywhere - at least I've never seen them. Even the chemically-laden ones - which I wouldn't touch - are incredibly expensive both fresh and frozen, so it makes sense to grow your own, and they really couldn't be any easier! Picking Is the hardest thing - but any of the family who are around always get drafted in for that job - they want to eat them after all! Anyway who doesn't love a bit of leisurely blackberry picking in warm early autumn sunshine - and the delicious benefits are many! I certainly wouldn't agree with the "little is now to be done" in the above quote - but "the profits are definitely now flowing in" - we're certainly enjoying "gathering in the fruits of former labours" right now, as the quote says! ...
So far we've picked and frozen 12.5 kg of blackberries - that's €600 worth at the current price for organic fresh berries! - And even the conventionally-grown ones, which are sprayed with a lot of pesticides, aren't much cheaper, because even though they're seasonal as they're mostly grown in huge polytunnels or greenhouses, being such a high value fruit. So it's well worth the sometimes uncomfortable effort of picking your own, to have such nutrient-rich organic fruit available all year round! When I finally ran out of the frozen berries a few weeks ago - I really missed them. Even the amount we already have would provide one person with one 'portion' of their five a day - on every other day of the year - and there's loads more still to be picked! Blackberries are even energy efficient! Freezing them loose and then bagging them up into very large bags is best, as it means that when loose frozen like that they'll fit very conveniently around all the bigger, lumpier things in the freezer - filling in any gaps and air pockets and therefore making your freezer as energy efficient as possible, as well as taking up less room. Important when there's so many seasonal goodies to try to fit in!
Anyone who has ever tried to clear brambles knows that blackberries will grow vigorously almost anywhere - but they particularly appreciate a heavy fertile soil and plenty of sun to ripen the berries and give them flavour. I noticed the first blackberries were ripe on the early Himalayan Giant hybrid about a month ago, while I was mowing nearby. I meant to go out in the evening and pick them - but something happened as usual and by the time I remembered next morning and went out, one of our secretive fruit gourmets - the badger or the fox - had paid us one of their regular visits, which they do nightly at this time of year. Everything that's ripe, from 'large Labrador nose height' down was gone!! My dogs have always loved them too and even the hens love them! They know what's good for them! That blackberry is trained along a fence which backs onto a lawn, and is about 8 feet high so I find it impossible to cover. That means that the badgers, foxes and birds get a massive amount of fruit each year.
Covering blackberries is extremely difficult - and fraught with danger due to the vicious thorns. It's also practically impossible to get the net off again, as it gets caught on all the thorns, so I don't bother to even try any more. I would need an enormous fruit cage to contain just one plant of Himalayan Giant and as it grows at an exponential rate - exploring through any netting very quickly! We always have more than enough anyway. Badgers and foxes love all fruit - and on their night time forays help themselves to any juicy fruits conveniently growing at their level. I don't mind though - heaven knows they have a hard enough time surviving these days. Unfortunately though, badgers and foxes are also very partial to plums, which are not so plentiful! They obviously must stand on their hind legs to eat those - carefully hoovering off all they can reach in a neatly cropped circle all around the lower branches of the tree - not a lot I can do about that!
Preserving the fruity joys of summer!
I always start to feel a bit like a squirrel at this hectic time of year - as while there's more than enough fruit to eat fresh now - it's very nice to know that there's also plenty of fruit preserved in different ways to add a bit of joy to the cold, dark winter months and to keep the colds at bay. This is the only time I miss the very hot, dry late summers of my childhood in the English shires, which seemed to last forever in hindsight. Our wonderful Victoria plums were as big as duck eggs from the huge old trees - and oh, the scent of the greengage walk in the kitchen garden! As soon as you walked anywhere near - you could smell when they were ripe!.....You never get that wonderful aromatic scent from greengages unless you grow them yourself because they're never left to ripen on the trees. They need to have a yellowish hue, be slightly soft and to be cracking slightly around the stem at the top. Then they taste like nectar for the Gods! The same goes for melons - most of the ones sold in shops are picked well before they're ripe or they wouldn't travel - but the taste of a properly ripe homegrown melon makes all the hard work worthwhile! The summer's been kind to us this year - and all the fruit in the garden is cropping really well. It certainly appreciated the bit of rain we've had recently - it came just at the right time - all the berry fruits are extra-large and juicy and the apples in the new orchard are swelling fast.
There have been so many peaches again this year in the polytunnel - a surprise after the freezing-cold weather when they were flowering! The unknown variety of late, white fleshed, free-stone peach in the polytunnel had a fantastic crop on it again this year.After eating as many as we can fresh, and freezing a few, I semi-dehydrate and then freeze them, after dipping them first in lemon juice to stop the cut pieces browning due to them oxidising. It's a very successful way to reduce their bulk in the freezer while still retaining their nutrients and delicious taste. In fact - doing this actually concentrates their flavour and they add a welcome extra deliciousness to winter salads, smoothies and many other dishes. The only problem I find is not eating them all immediately as they are so scrumptious - with that really concentrated peach flavour! When I was a child an uncle living in South Africa used to send us a huge box of candied glace fruits every Christmas as a present and they were such a delicious luxury then - though they were very high in sugar! These peach pieces have the same concentrated flavour but no sugar at all apart from what the fruit originally contained - so they're much healthier. Picking them very slightly under-ripe also means they contain a little less sugar and they're also firmer and easier to deal with when cutting in half. Another great use for the dehydrator!
Melons for breakfast - so sweet that they are almost (but not quite) too sweet - are such a luxury! The best and most reliable varieties I've found for tunnel growing so far are Lidl's Charentais (great value seed), 'Emir' which last year produced an exceptional crop of dozens of incredibly deliciously aromatic fruits and Alvaro which is similar. They are definitely the best I have ever grown! The fruits are just the right size for two people to halve for a starter, pudding or breakfast - but naturally, being us, we have one each! Well we have to - we couldn't possibly waste them as they go off so quickly when really ripe - and don't store other than freezing well as a sorbet (with the judicious addition of a little drop of 'Melone' liqueur too - yum!). I never harvest melons until they come away from the stalk at the top of the fruit with the slightest touch - that's when they are at their luscious peak of maximum perfection. Do try these varieties - they're terrific in a polytunnel - and this year might have been good outside too, with the amount of sun we've had here, especially if one grew them under a cold frame or cloches. In the UK - particularly in the south east which all summer is normally between 6-10 degrees warmer than we are here - it would definitely do very well outside.
If you want an easy watermelon, Sugar Baby is a good reliable one - and more like the size of a canteloupe. They do need a longer season that canteloupes to be successful though - I always sow them in mid-late February. One or two are already looking very promising and won't be long before they're ripe! You can grow the huge ones from seed too if you start them early. About 35 years ago I grew some from seed saved from a shop-bought watermelon as it was hard to get seed then. They actually grew - I was astonished! I took a few slices to an organic conference - making some people very envious and a couple of good friends very happy!
In the picture below I've raised some of the melon fruits up off the ground on 2 litre pots. This keeps them away from any possible slug damage and being raised up in the sun also helps them to ripen as the black pots also trap heat.
The three melons you can see below are, from l-r - Charentais, Country Taste and Emir.
Raspberries all summer long?
A delicious bowl of Sugana raspberries
Huge tasty fruit of raspberry 'Sugana'
I'm very pleased with my latest autumn raspberry experiment in the fruit tunnel. I potted up a couple of Sugana plants 5 years ago to see how they would grow under cover. Sugana is a new autumn raspberry - supposedly 'twice fruiting' - but as you know if you've read this blog before - I originally discovered many years ago by accident that all autumn raspberries will do that, if you leave some of the previous year's older fruited canes on the plants to fruit again the following midsummer. This is a tip I've shared widely - and I now see it being repeated everywhere! Sugana does seem more vigorous than most though, it's producing the most magnificent huge berries with a wonderful flavour. I made the mistake of putting two plants into a huge 20 litre tub as they were quite small when they came and I was a bit short of room. They've grown massively since then - producing lots of new canes which they will be fruiting on for some weeks - so when they eventually stop I shall split them up into 6 and replant them as they need watering every 5 minutes! The flavour is almost as good as my favourite Joan J - and also seems just a tad earlier. Growing both varieties - both inside and outside could spread the season even more and possibly give a really good crop of raspberries for most of the summer. I love raspberries - and they freeze so well. I've frozen some of the Sugana for a healthy festive treat - but last year Joan J went on fruiting a bit right up until Christmas
Raspberry Joan J - size comparison with 1 euro coin
Autumn raspberry 'Joan J' is a wonderful variety - so far removed from the old 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' types that it's almost another fruit altogether. Joy Larkcom originally recommended it to me as she'd been given some to trial a few years ago and she loved it. When she was staying here some years ago for a talk she was doing locally, she tried another new one called 'Brice', which I had growing here which is another really good variety. Anyway, I'm so pleased with 'Joan J' that I took a photo to show you it's size. It tastes every bit as good as the summer ones and unlike them - it's another so-called 'primocane' variety - and it will actually crop again next year, lower down on the same canes which have fruited this autumn. It really earns its space in the garden even more than summer ones - producing two crops rather than just the one in the same amount of space. The flavour of these two newer autumn varieties is fantastic and completely different to the older types which I think are mostly pretty insipid and tasteless. This year I'm trialling a new variety - which is looking even better than both of those - with a lovely rich flavour and very productive - but I won't reveal it's name just yet - until I'm sure it's good all round.
Although years ago I suppose one was glad of any late soft fruit - which was why I originally planted them, the older varieties like Heritage and Autumn Bliss are complete weeds here, and are a real nuisance in the garden now, coming up literally everywhere. I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone to plant them. Their berries really aren't big or well-flavoured enough to warrant their aggressive behaviour! I really wish I'd never planted them! I keep persistently digging them out and replanting them down in my woodland for the birds - but I don't think I'll ever fully get rid of them. Being organic I don't use weedkillers - so digging them out constantly is the only option - and not an easy one with my bad back! Anyway, the wildlife is grateful - that's why there's so many birds here. Although that can be a curse too at times when blackbirds start pecking at the shoulders of the apples as soon as they show any colour - and that can destroy quite a lot!
The jury's really still out for me on the expensive summer raspberry 'Black Jewel' which some of the fruit catalogues have now. Their photographs look so enticing, and black raspberries are supposed to contain anti-cancer phytonutrient ellagic acid and anthocyanins like blackberries - but you'd need an awful lot of them to benefit. I planted some four years ago and they fruited for the first time 4 years ago. Last year they produced what I presume would be a good crop for them - but sadly not for me! The small fruit were a nightmare to pick as the plants are very thorny - and when you get hold of the pippy little fruits to pick them - they just disintegrate between your fingers into the separate little globules containing the pips, or whatever they're called! The few you can actually get enough of to taste do have an unusual sort of sherbetty/fizzy flavour, like old fashioned raspberry sweets - but I think they may well be joining the older autumn raspberries down in the woodland fairly soon - especially since they look alarmingly like rubus Cockburnianus - a decorative white-stemmed species of rubus that is another complete nightmare here and which has taken over half an acre of the garden! Naturally you see 'celebrity' gardeners or botanists retained by the big-ag owned seed companies promoting them - but they're paid to! But frankly folks - they're an expensive oddity! Grow blackberries instead if it's health you want - and your pocket will be healthier too!
Black Jewel can go and do it's thing where it can't take over too much or do too much damage - in the woodland! I'll just eat lots more raspberries and blackberries together to get mostly the same nutrients and flavour - which I do already! This year I compared the taste as they all happened to be fruiting at the same time and actually - if you eat blackberries and raspberries together in the same mouthful, then they taste exactly like the black raspberries! They're expensive to buy and a bit too 'Emperor's New Clothes' - like for me! If you only have a small space though you want to make the very best use of it - and frankly despite their much-vaunted health claims - I think that black raspberries are not a value for money fruit - since in addition - they only fruit once in summer!
'Tis the season of wasps!
Early grape Rose Dream
When the first of the grapes are ripening I can always guarantee the first wasps suddenly appear - as if by magic! Every year they time it to perfection! It's a good time now to hang wasp traps around the gardennear the grapes- I shall be doing that this week as I'm starting to notice a lot of young ones around so there must be a nest somewhere. I know wasps do a lot of good in the garden - but I do like to get at least some grapes! The earliest tunnel grapes - the seedless Rose Dream pictured here is already completely smothered with wasps. They never touch them until the berries at the top on the shoulders of the bunch are starting to ripen - then they can destroy whole bunches incredibly fast. When they finish that one - they will move onto the other varieties as they ripen - so it's definitely time for the traps! I've tried all sorts of methods of protecting them - but short of putting individual bags around each bunch - which I could do if I had an army of gardeners like the walled gardens of old had - then there's very little I can do! I just try to get there before they do! I might try vacuuming them off every day in the tunnels for a week or so - sounds daft I know - but it's very effective for many pests as I've mentioned before. I don't begrudge them a little fruit...... just not all of it! It's a bit of a quandary really - I don't want to get rid of all of them - as wasps actually do a lot of good work controlling aphids, caterpillars and other pests in the garden - and they're also good pollinators. This is something many people don't know, thinking that they're only a nuisance. I remember about 20 years ago hearing a very loud buzzing beside me in the cabbage bed where I was kneeling down weeding at the time. I looked to where the sound was coming from, just in time to see a wasp desperately trying to take off and fly away with a very large green caterpillar in its jaws - about twice as big as itself. The loud buzzing was its wings beating as it made the huge effort! It eventually managed it - flying off to its nest to feed it's hard-won trophy to it's young grubs.
Other fruit jobs
When loganberries and summer raspberries have finished cropping, cut out all the old fruited canes, give a balanced high potash organic feed, water well and mulch. If you haven't done so already, you can now cut out the old twice-fruited (darker brown) canes of autumn raspberries as well, to give this autumn's new (pale green) canes more room light and air to grow.
As soon as stone fruits such as plums, cherries and peaches have finished cropping - get any pruning done as soon as possible.Do it on a dry day to prevent possible infection entering wounds before they heal. Remember when pruning that peaches tend to fruit mostly on the new green wood they've made this year - so prune back to that to keep them within bounds. Peaches and nectarines in particular can get out of control very quickly if you don't do this - especially if trained as fans (or what I call 'fushes' - fan/bushes in my case!) in greenhouses or tunnels. The late peach in the tunnel is starting to colour up now so I'll be watering very carefully from now on - not soaking them - so that they don't split.
You may need to protect ripening late peaches and other fruit from the wasps now if they're a problem, as well as from the birds. Old net curtains, or something like 'Enviromesh', fixed securely with clothes pegs are good for this. Ordinary garden netting isn't fine enough.
I'm potting up the last of the strawberry runners for next year's plants this month- I like the early tunnel ones like 'Christine' (the best for early tunnel use) to get properly established in their 2 litre pots during the autumn - they'll crop far better next year then. In their first year, perpetual strawberries make a lot of runners too. You mustpropagate these in their first year, as in their second year most perpetuals tend not to produce as many - if any runners at all. That being so - it's very easy to lose them. Always choose really healthy looking runners - don't use anything with distorted, yellow spotted or twisted leaves - this can often be a sign of virus passed on by aphids. Alpine strawberries are different, and are propagated either by division or from seed. Clean up fruited summer strawberry beds now - cutting off any old tired foliage. Lift off protective netting so the birds can get in to clean up any pests like vine weevils that may be lurking around. The perpetual strawberry Albion is still fruiting steadily in the stepladder garden and elsewhere. If I only grew one strawberry it would be this one. It fruits prolifically from May until November if you give it the occasional feed of tomato food like Osmo organic, and it's firm and really delicious. I can't recommend it highly enough.
All fruit in containers needs careful and consistent watering now. If some are still developing fruits - add a high potash liquid feed such as the brilliant Osmo organic tomato feed. Remember that with fruits ripening - erratic watering often causes fruits to split - so consistency and a good moisture retaining mulch if they're growing in the ground is key to avoiding this problem!
If you're thinking of ordering fruit trees or other fruit this autumn - do it now - even though autumn still seems like ages away. Nurseries start lifting plants in late October. If you order now and get ahead of the posse - you will be first in the queue when the orders go out, things should arrive when the soil is still in a fit state to plant, and still warm from the summer. They will establish so much better than plants or trees planted in early spring when the soil is cold and wet and possibly even unworkable. They will also make bigger root systems, as they have more time to develop roots without having to support any new top growth for several months. Many nurseries have good offers right now before the end of August. These are for pre-orders of bare-root trees which they then start lifting in November.
Look up good mail order catalogues and online now. Even if you don't order anything, they are a valuable and free mine of information - and I'm all for that! Good catalogues are the stuff of dreams for most of us gardeners - and remember - dreams are free too!
Early apple George Cave
I don't have many apples in my old orchard this year, due to next door's spraying regime and the bad drought in spring.Just a handful on one or two of the trees - certainly not enough to store loads for the winter as I often do. Sadly one of my earliest dual-purpose apples, Emneth Early, has burst the already ripened skins on many of its fruits, due to pressure of water building up in them from the heavy rain over the last couple of weeks. There were a few windfalls after the storms and I'll be making chutney and stewing those rather than throwing them out for the wildlife - I'm so grateful for anything! The wonderful early cooker Grenadier also has some fruit on it too - so I'm looking forward to some crumbles! There's a few on the lovely early dessert apple George Cave - bred in Essex in 1923. It's one of the very best of the early apples and always the first to ripen here. Often ripe by the end of July - it's now fully ripe, as it's seeds have now turned from white to brown - which is how you know. When apples are properly ripe their seeds are always brown. It has crisp juicy fruit with a well-balanced, almost Cox-like, slightly sharp and 'cidery' aromatic taste. Now all I have to do is keep the birds off a few of them!
For many years now I've had very few apples in the orchard I planted when we first came here, 38 years ago, and I've missed them so much. The orchard was planned to give us a spread of fruit that ripened over a whole year, both freshly picked and then from storage - and I had wonderful crops for about 15 years until the farm next door was sold - and all of the fields were ploughed up to grow grain. Five years ago I finally gave up hope of ever having any again, so started planting a new orchard on the other side of the property - much further away from the horrible hormone weedkillers that abort the flowers on my fruit trees every year. Somewhat ironic eh! The young orchard is now looking promising, and we had quite a lot of fruit from it last year - but this year due to drought while the fruits were developing, there will be very little as most of the young fruitlets dropped very early on. The trees have grown well though and I'm very pleased with them. It's very noticeable that bare root trees always establish far better though. All of my trees are on the brilliant M26 root stock - which is semi-dwarfing, early-fruiting and productive - and suitable for all soils but particularly good on my heavy wet clay.
I hope you will all have some apples to enjoy or can find an organic orchard near you where you can buy some, or pick your own. Like blackberries - they're one of the healthiest fruits you can eat - and together they are simply sublime! Blackberry and apple crumble is a favourite here!
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 - including photographs - or repeat it in any way online, I would remind you that it is copyright and 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. (I recently came across one of my best tomato photographs - one that I took to publicise the first Tomato Festival - being used online, as the picture on someone else's Twitter profile. Simply unbelievable cheek and legally that is plagiarism! Needless to say that person was otherwise anonymous!)
Contents: How to grow your own saffron..... Planning 3 months ahead is the way to have healthy food all year round..... Sowing salad crops in modules now means the best conditions for germination..... Growing your own means zero food miles, fresher, cleaner and cheaper too..... Keeping crops harvested is vitally important now..... Mulching well looks after vitally important worms and protects soil fertility......
Saffron flowering in large container in late October
The aromatic thread-like stamens of saffron laid out to dry on paper kitchen towel
How to grow your own saffron. Or how to achieve the ultimate in 'grow your own' one-upmanship - by growing the most valuable spice in the world!
Saffron is extremely expensive to buy but is actually incredibly easy to grow! It's simply a type of hardy crocus, and you can grow Saffron bulbs in exactly the same way as any other crocus.In the Middle Ages - Saffron Waldon in Essex was the centre of saffron production in England - hence its name. One of the reasons was the very dry, sunny climate there - which is a curse for many vegetable gardeners, but is just perfect for saffron production, as warm, dry and sunny conditions are exactly what it likes. This is why it is such a commercially important crop in Middle Eastern countries, which have the perfect climate for it. Originating in the eastern Mediterranean - Saffron has been valued both for cooking and for its medicinal properties since the Bronze Age, and was depicted in the Minoan cave paintings of Crete.
A warning here! It is vitally important to remember that it is ONLY Crocus Sativus (to give it it's correct botanical name) which is the kind of crocus with edible stigmas!Other members of the crocus family are toxic if eaten! It is also the orange-coloured, thread-like stigmas that produce the saffron NOT the stamens as I heard one so-called 'food expert' say recently! (You can see them very clearly in the picture above).
The part which we buy as dried saffron is the dried stigma of the flower, and each flower will have at least one of these which splits into three as it emerges from the flower. These are best picked before midday, when the flower is dry. If it becomes wet, then the stigmas can become runny and the saffron is ruined, as much of the flavour and important nutrients are lost. This is why I grow it in pots in my polytunnel in our damp Irish climate. Saffron is rich in flavonoids, vitamins and unique carotenoid phytochemicals, which recent research has shown may be therapeutic for many conditions including depression, may have an anti-aging effect on our cells, and is also cytotoxic - meaning it has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory. I've certainly always thought of it as an uplifting, 'feel-good' spice. I believe that a saffron-rich Paella or risotto is one of the most comforting dishes in the world - and it's sunny colour alone is definitely a 'mood-lifter' in winter when many of us need a sunny-feeling uplift!
Saffron bulbs are available for planting now in some garden centres, but you can also easily get them online which I prefer, as the ones sold in the packs which available garden centres are not the biggest bulbs - and larger bulbs will give more flowers immediately - therefore more saffron.www.sativus.com in the Netherlands sells organic bulbs. I prefer to buy organic bulbs for the obvious reason that a flower produced from any bulb or plant will contain a combination of all of the systemic chemicals and pesticides used in it's production, which are absorbed by the plant's tissues as it builds itself up to produce it's flowers for next year. All organic herbs, spices and other edible plants have also been proven to contain up to 70% more of the active phytochemicals which give them their flavour and health benefits - so it's well worth buying organic if only from that perspective. Of course organic farmers don't use any pesticides which harm bees and other endangered important biodiversity, and they also maintain soil fertility and restore soil carbon so vital in the fight against climate change - so it's worth supporting organic production from every perspective.
Bulbs need planting as soon as possible now, as they are available from August onwards, but some suppliers will often have cheaper offers in September, when they may want to get rid of any leftover stock.They may have even cheaper offers once the correct planting time is over - but these bulbs are still worth planting, because they will actually flower in their first year. After that they may possibly take a year off, just producing leaves and building up the bulb's strength again for flowering, just as many flower bulbs will if planted late. As they are perennial bulbs, they will flower again the year afterwards, if fed well while in leaf, and every year thereafter. In fact if you're really kind and feed them well when they're in green leaf after flowering and are still growing and building up their reserves - they may even not take a year off at all!
They need planting at a depth of about 15 cm or 5-6ins, and about 10 cm or 3-4ins apart, then covered with soil, in a very well-drained spot in full sun. This can be either outdoors in well-drained soil or even in a well-drained container on a balcony! Alternatively - you can grow them in a tub in a polytunnel as I do where they enjoy the summer heat to ripen the bulbs.Alternatively they can be grown in the tunnel permanently, but as they don't like being shaded by other crops and are very hardy, I find a container in the tunnel is best. Then you can move it outside if more space is needed. The container can be put outside in full sun somewhere out of the way once their crop has been harvested in November, but never let them get waterlogged or they will rot. The other very good reason for growing them in a tunnel is that the flowers are protected from rain when they're flowering, so the stigmas are dry. This is very important - because there's nothing worse than watching all that lovely saffron-coloured liquid running down the flower stems after heavy rain! In a polytunnel or under a cloche they're completely protected and your valuable saffron won't be ruined!
Each flower will produce three orange stigmas from around mid-October through to November. Pick them as early as possible in the morning by parting the petals and pulling them out of the centre of the flower very gently by hand. It's very fiddly to do - which is why it's such an expensive spice. No one has yet discovered a way of mechanically harvesting it - it is all done by hand - and it must be really hard labour bending over to pick an entire field of it! I prefer to harvest it this way rather than picking the whole flower as they do when it's grown commercially - later all sitting around tables in the traditional way and chatting while they separate the saffron from the flowers. If you don't pick the flower - this remains lovely to look at for longer as you've removed the stigmas, and the flower can then die down as it naturally would afterwards - returning it's nutrients to the bulb. I harvest the stigmas directly onto paper kitchen towels in a tray, which I then place on a cake tray or something similar to dry them for a few days. Then I just fold up the paper and store them on it in an envelope, or in a glass jar protected from light, once they are thoroughly dry.
Just as with any other bulb - the thin leaves that appear with, or just after, the flowers should never be cut off - they will die down naturally at the right time the following spring. They are there to make food for the plant and to build up the strength of the bulb for next year. While the bulb is still in leaf it's a good idea to give an organic liquid feed a few times, in order to build up the bulb's energy for flowering the following year. As they originate in dry mountain ranges where they're baked in summer and very cold, but very well drained in winter - give them conditions as near as possible to those and they will thrive - producing up to 3 offsets (baby bulbs) each year which increases your stock gradually. You can lift the bulbs when the leaves have died down and replant the new offsets, which will take a couple of years to reach flowering size themselves. Alternatively, you can just leave the clumps of bulbs until they appear overcrowded, then just lift them, split them up and replant.
The only pest I have ever experienced with growing saffron is mice - and they really are an absolute curse! Particularly at this time of year after the adjacent fields are harvested and they're looking for more food to store for the winter! They just love the bulbs and will dig loads of them up and eat them all overnight. Even covering with small mesh wire netting doesn't work unless the mesh is minute - as they can squeeze through - so mousetraps are sadly the only option if you're growing at ground level! Put traps down as soon as you plant the bulbs, but make sure these won't kill small birds by covering the traps with small mesh wire netting!
The photo here shows my mouse-proof way of Saffron growing - in tubs on grow bag trays resting on upturned buckets sitting in water in grow bag trays. A bit complicated but it works, because mice HATE water!
The other alternative if you have a rodent problem is to grow the bulbs raised off the ground or staging, either in hanging baskets or pots sitting on top of upturned pots, so that the mice can't climb up! A few years ago, I invented my 'Moat Method' - which I also use to protect valuable auriculas or seedlings from vine weevil and slugs. I grew the Saffron bulbs in tubs on 'grow bag' trays, resting on upturned buckets sitting in water in grow bag trays - mice really hate water! It was easy enough to do and worked perfectly - none stolen!
I know it seems a lot of bother for what seems like a very small crop - but when you consider how much saffron costs, and experience a luscious Risotto or Paella made with your very own full-flavoured, home-grown saffron - you'll feel so proud and know exactly why you went to all the trouble!
Planning at least 3 months ahead is the way to have healthy food all year round
Although this is a really hectic time for gathering and preserving summer crops both outside and in polytunnels - thinking at least 3 months ahead is really key at this time of year. Good planning now will really pay off in late autumn and winter.If you don't have protected space like a tunnel or greenhouse - and haven't so far sown any winter crops - then this month is really your very last chance to sow many crops that you will get a decent return from in the open ground over the autumn and winter - perhaps given the extra protection of frames or cloches. There are plenty of suggestions in the sowing list for this month.
I also always try to make sure that all the ground in the vegetable garden is covered either with something that will give a crop in late autumn and over winter, or with a green manure which will improve and protect it's fertility and structure. That may then later be covered with a rainproof dark cover of some kind to kill off the top of the green manure used and let the worms begin to work on decomposing it and pulling the plant material in. Then all I have to do to prepare ground for early crops in early spring is just scratch over the surface which by then will be nice and crumbly - the worms having done most of the work! I know it's difficult to think about the winter when we still hope to enjoy some more summer - but if you don't think ahead now - then you'll be very sorry later. I always start to sow my winter salads and other important crops at the end of July - when the last thing one wants to think about is winter! The thing is though - a lot of late autumn and winter crops like chicories, kale, pea shoots etc. all need a long growing season even for growing undercover. Just sowing a couple of weeks later means you'll get far later and smaller crops - or you may possibly not get a worthwhile crop at all. Faster-growing things like Oriental salads and other leafy veg like spinach and watercress can be left until the end of this month or even early September to be sown.
Sowing salad crops in modules now means the best conditions for germination
At this time of year, sowing in modules is particularly valuable for crops that prefer cooler conditions while germinating. Crops like lettuce and spinach will germinate more easily, since you can give them ideal conditions - something you can't always be sure of in the open ground. Germination of some crops, particularly lettuce, can be inhibited by too high a temperature in the first 48 hours after sowing - so I tend to sow lettuce and spinach in particular, in the afternoon or evening, and then keep the modules in the shade of a north facing wall for a few days until they're all well germinated. This is the main reason people can find lettuce difficult at this time of year - and sowing in modules in the cool this way completely avoids that problem. After they're all well germinated - then I move them into better light, still shading from the sun a bit as it can be very strong at this time of year. Sowing into modules also means you can give plants more protection from slugs, which is the other major cause of seedling losses. Plants in modules or pots also tend to grow on a bit faster, which is useful if you're a bit behind with your seed sowing and they're also out of reach of slug damage if they're on a table or other structure raised off the ground! Starting off your winter salads this way means that as soon as a summer crop is finished - you'll have lovely big plants in modules that you can plant into nice neat rows with no gaps and away you go!
Lettuce 'Jack Ice' in early September.
Endive 'White Curled'
Lattughino - one of the best winter lettuces
With the price that vegetables may well be in the shops - if they're available at all at the end of this year with possible lack of availability of many crops due Brexit shortages - it really makes sense to grow all that we possibly can ourselves. Salads are particularly important crops to grow in winter - when there is almost nothing other than baby leaf spinach in the shops - and even then it's at least two days old at best, and already losing vital nutrients. Anyway - I could never bring myself to buy any sort of bagged salad. If I had no option - I would buy organic baby leaf spinach but only for cooking - never for eating raw!
Growing your own means zero food miles, fresher, cleaner and cheaper too.
Farmer's markets are the only other alternative if you want to buy a better selection of organicvegetables. But make sure they're genuinely certified organic by asking what organisation they are certified by - and checking, if you have any doubts. (They should always display their organic certification number on their stand. They won't mind you asking in the least if they're genuine organic producers, because checking the validity of produce is good for them as well, protecting them from fraudsters. They pay a hefty licence fee to be inspected and verified every year - so the last thing they want is anyone trying to cheat - by trying to pass off their produce as organic if it's not!) As salads are so easy to grow yourself though - they are always my first priority for sowing all year round. As soon as one crop is planted from modules - then another is sown in order to keep up the continuity - gradually changing over to sowing tunnel crops at the end of this month and throughout September. I'd far rather have too much than not enough - the hens are always grateful for any surplus and all the greens make for healthy hens which lay wonderful eggs with fabulous, orange-coloured, carotene-rich yolks!
There are some really good varieties of overwintering lettuce now - and you've still just got time to order them! Varieties like Jack Ice (from Real Seeds UK), 'Fristina', 'Belize' and 'Lattughino' are excellent. The Organic Catalogue in the UK luckily still has the wonderful winter lettuce Lattughino available this year - but how much longer they will have it is hard to know, now that it's been taken over by Suttons/Dobies - who are in fact owned by the global multinational seed giant Groupe Limagraine! If you grow Lattughino this year though - you can save your own seed next year as it's not an F1 hybrid. It crops for months - from late September until the following May, by just picking individual leaves from the outside every so often rather than the whole head,and also watering well in spring as the weather warms up. Another terrific lettuce for winter growing is 'Jack Ice', which I discovered a few years ago, and is from Real Seeds. It's a really good-flavoured, crunchy, loose-leaved lettuce with leaves like an 'Iceberg' but which don't make a heart - so you can go on picking the lovely crisp leaves all winter long. In addition to that, as the leaves are all green, they are far more nutritious than 'Iceberg'. So far I've found it to be very hardy both in the tunnel and outside - and I also find it doesn't bolt easily all year round - so it's at the top of my list now, along with Lattughino.
Even the very cheap 'value' ranges of lettuce seeds are also good for over winter. They're cheap because they're usually open-pollinated, easy-to-grow varieties that are tough, hardy and grow like weeds! I mean seriously - where else could you potentially get 1200 lettuces for 60 cents - if all of them germinate? That's about 5 year's supply at least by my reckoning! I buy those to grow for my hens, to supply some of their winter greens when grass is short - but we often end up eating them ourselves too! Those I tend to sow in a pinch of 5-6 seeds per module and don't bother to thin at all, planting them out just as they are, because they seem to mostly be the loose-leaf types which don't mind this treatment one bit. Endive is another great winter salad that crops all winter. White Curled is a very good variety that will go on cropping well into early spring - under cloches, in a cold frame or in a polytunnel.
If you don't have a garden, then it's easy to grow salads in pots, in a good peat-free organic compost. If you're short of space you could even try my 'stepladder garden' idea which produces an amazing amount of salads throughout the winter from plants growing in recycled mushroom boxes, again filled with peat-free organic compost, on each step! Recycled skip or log bags make great raised beds too.The picture above was taken in March but they're useful all year round, being warmer and more well drained than anything growing in the ground in winter, particularly if they're sited against a south-facing wall. Lamb's lettuce is another good, very hardy winter salad for outside - and even watercress can be grown from seed or from cuttings. It's much hardier than many people think - it should overwinter well under cloches. It does so brilliantly in the tunnel and you can keep picking it all winter.
This year I'm planting a stepladder salad garden, crammed with as many fast growing salad leaves as possible, to prove that you can grow something useful to supplement your diet even in the smallest space. Fresh veg may be in short supply, as Brexit may affect fresh food supplies from the EU - where a lot of veg imported into the UK and Ireland comes from now. Get some seeds sown in modules and in Sept I'll show you how to plant it up. - So watch this space!
Why not try some Claytonia (also called miner's lettuce or Winter Purslane), if you haven't done before? It's higher in Vitamin C than anything else you can eat in the winter. It's also very hardy, very attractive in salads and if left to go to seed in the spring, you will have it forevermore, so you'll never have to buy seed again! One well known garden writer who came to stay here a few years ago said that she thought it was an absolute nuisance - but I love it and any stray seedlings are easily hoed out. If ground is bare it also sows itself around conveniently making an instant, well-behaved and quickly biodegradable green manure which worms absolutely adore! It's a really good-natured and adaptable plant that I would really hate to be without!
Another staple of mine here both in the tunnel and outside is chard - which is almost two vegetables in one, with delicious spinach-tasting leaves and crunchy coloured stems. Ruby, Silver or Golden stemmed Swiss chards are all easy to grow - I sow them two seeds to a module and then thin to leave three plants per module. My favourite is Ruby Chard which is more nutritious than the plain white variety, being higher in phytonutrients. Chard seeds are really clusters of seeds - so you may often get 3 or 4 plants from one seed but you can't always guarantee that - so that's why I always sow 2 as you can't afford to lose time by having to sow more at this time of year. When they're big enough, I plant out about 45cm/18ins apart both outside and in the tunnels and they produce a far bigger crop this way than thinned to one plant per spot. Although they're a very hardy crop - they really appreciate some protection from wind and cold and will crop reliably all winter. The same goes for perpetual spinach beet. My other winter favourite that I'm never without is my own wonderful strain of Ragged Jack kale, which is one of the most useful vegetables I grow. I multi-sow it in blocks at this time of year, plant the block out as they are - not thinning, and then pick it all winter, both in the tunnel and outside. First as baby salad leaves, then as bigger leaves and then finally it bears wonderful flower buds in spring which we like better than sprouting broccoli. It's an absolute paragon of a vegetable!
Keeping crops harvested regularly is vitally important
August is also the month when many people are away for a week or two, especially if you're tied to school holiday times. The weather is so unpredictable that it's hard to know how much things will need watering - but if you water thoroughly and then give everything a really good mulch,with grass clippings (which I use a lot as you will know) or with compost, before you go away - this will help to stop water evaporating and also keep weeds down at the same time. Any weeds that do come up while you're away will be very easily pulled up later from the moist, friable soil under the mulch. Most things should be safe enough for a week or so. If French or runner bean plants dry out at all the flowers tend to drop off before setting - they need consistent moisture at the roots if they are not to drop their flowers before they set pods. Mulch them well with grass clippings - keeping them about 6ins/10cm away from the bases of the stems to prevent causing possible rotting. The value of mulching can't be underestimated - bare soil heats up much faster and loses both water and nutrients very quickly. Mulching also encourages good worm activity, as worms prefer cooler soil. Perhaps you could persuade a friend or fellow allotmenteer to water if the weather's extremely dry and hot - as long as you tell them to pick whatever crops need picking and keep them for themselves - that's usually a pretty good incentive! Always make sure that you water well before you mulch and then the mulch will stop the water evaporating and seal it in.
If crops aren't picked - as soon as the plants have set their seed, a hormone signal is sent to the main part of the plant to say 'job done, seed set, so no need to produce any more'. This is one of the reasons for picking things when they're young and tender rather than when they're older and would give a heavier crop. It's so easy and tempting to overdo that! They tend to taste far better when young anyway. If they're not picked, you will have to pick a lot of old pods bulging with set seed when you come home - they will be inedible unless you want to shell them for winter bean stews but the actual pods will only be fit for the compost heap at that stage, and it will take at least a couple of weeks for the plant to get back to producing more flowers. That means that you may not get many more beans before the colder autumn weather and reducing light stops growth. Keep picking and they'll keep coming!
Much better to give away all of your crops for a week or so, while you're away - and keep your plants continually producing, so you can come back to some lovely home grown food. And it's always a useful way to cultivate some goodwill and store up some 'Brownie points' at the same time!!
Mulching well looks after vitally important worms and also soil fertility
One of the main reasons for mulching is that if soil is bare at this time of year your worms will also go much deeper to avoid dryness and high temperatures, which they don't like, so mulching to keep soil cool and moist is a must.You really want worms to stay in the upper layers of the soil, working through organic matter to make any plant foods available for your crops. Although there's an increasing awareness now about how vital bees are, which is excellent, worms - like bees, are absolutely vital to the whole ecology of the garden and in fact of the whole planet! Many people don't appreciate this.A friend rang me a while ago to say she had just read a book on pests and diseases which actually listed worms as a pest, because they make worm casts on lawns! Absolutely unbelievable.- When you think about it, after people kill all the worms in their croquet lawns or bowling greens (why else could you possibly want an immaculately smooth lawn?) they must have terrible drainage problems - having to scarify, to kill the moss growth caused by the lack of drainage, spike them to aerate and then add sand, then fertilise! What a palaver and what an amount of chemicals - all just to get a smooth green lawn! Worms would have done all that for free - if you let them!Thereby saving an awful lot of man-hours, pollution and carbon! You can just sweep the worm casts in with a good stiff bristled yard brush - they're a free natural fertiliser of the very best kind. Ditto golf courses! These days one might describe the game of golf - ("a good walk spoiled" as someone once aptly described it) - as also coming with a massive carbon footprint - despite the fact that golf courses need grass which in theory absorbs carbon!
Pesticides and herbicides don't just kill bees! These toxic man-made chemicals also kill worms and other essential soil life - without which mankind won't be healthy for very long. Next time you walk on the earth - don't think of it as just so much dirt under your feet. Think of it as the living, breathing, complex and multi-layered world, full of the life-giving organisms contained in it - and give it the respect it truly deserves! We depend on the earth for our survival and abuse it at our peril! There's a lot of talk about vertical farms and hydroponics lately - but plants drip-fed with nutrient solutions can't produce healthy food, as they by-pass all of the vital soil-dwelling organisms that plants need to keep both themselves and us healthy, and which also fix climate-changing carbon from the atmosphere.
The actions of worms makes plant foods more available to all the billions of soil bacteria which then act like a digestive system in the 'gut' of the soil to make nutrients readily available for plant roots to absorb. A healthy range of bacteria in the soil helps the plant's immune system to function correctly in exactly the same way that a healthy gut is essential for our immune system. You may remember this is something I talked about in more depth a couple of months ago. It's a vitally important process. Without worms and their associated bacteria, and other soil organisms like mycorrhizal fungi, plant debris does not break down into what is known as humus, which is gradually absorbed into the soil and fixes carbon. 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 - when you put compost or a mulch onto the surface - it just stays there in exactly the same state, instead of gradually disappearing as it should. Nature worked out this perfect ecological balance - where everything works together.
My son caught me apparently talking to myself in the potting shed several years ago (I do it all the time!) I explained that I was talking to the worms in my homemade worm bin - Dendrobaenas - 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 I would be delighted as there could actually be far worse things to talk to! Anyway I love my worms - they're doing such a great job and I was just telling them so!! Hey - I talk to plants, so what's wrong with talking to worms? I mean I can see them actually doing something! They do react suddenly to loud noises, so they can in effect hear or feel sound waves - so why might they not react to my positive and encouraging dulcet tones?!! I've had those Dendrobaena worms for a few years now - they do a fantastic job of processing our kitchen waste with great gusto. I got them mail order from Finnis worms in the North of Ireland. 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. They will even eat mouldy bread and left over pasta - which you can't put onto the normal compost heap.
You mustn't put meat scraps, fat or dairy leftovers into worm bins - so our dogs get those, but you can put finely-ground eggshells into it as this is beneficial and provides calcium which worms need, as they prefer a soil pH of about 7. I dry them out in the bottom oven of the range oven first and then put them in a tough plastic bag and stamp on them. Doing a bit of creative visualisation at the same time - it's very therapeutic - especially if someone has annoyed me! I'm particularly thinking here of people who keep lifting ideas, content and even sometimes photographs from my blog, barely disguising stuff and presenting it as their own work with no attribution or credit to me!
The other people who seriously annoy me are the pro-glyphosate nutcases who just keep quoting mindlessly straight from the Monsanto PR playbookand refuse to read recent studies showing how toxic the stuff is! - Anyway - the only thing here that actually goes into the brown recycling bin now is bones - after stock making of course (or broth as some trendy people now call it!) I wonder 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 means I'm still finding bones in the garden which my old labrador Lara - the children's gentle nanny for 14 years - buried in her favourite spots more than thirty years ago! Those and the old half-eaten tennis balls I come across occasionally bring back so many happy memories and make me smile - so they're now serving another purpose!
Remember - love and respect your worms! They make it possible for us to exist. Don't kill them by using weedkillers, artificial fertilisers and poisonous pesticides which are death to all soil life - not just worms! Remember that a healthy living soil is vital for our health too. Perhaps we could instigate a 'Wonderful Worms Week' to make people more aware of their importance and celebrate them, instead of trying to get rid of them because they think they're a nuisance. Now there's an idea!
(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 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 u.)
August contents: Tomato Memories and New Discoveries....A gloriously abundant but hectic time in the polytunnel!.... Growing new potatoes for Christmas.....Barely controlled chaos!..... Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes..... How to get a second crop of Climbing French Beans.....Time to think about winter now!..... Routine jobs......
Baselbieter Roteli - truss, with 2 already picked!
Baselbieter Rotelli halved
Ripe Thorburn's Terracotta - halved. Showing green gel in seed cavity
Thorburn's Terracotta - a real find this year
Tomato Memories and New Discoveries
Tomatoes must surely be one of the most universally-grown fruits in the world. Almost anyone who has a garden grows them, as they're so redolent of summer and so useful in the kitchen. If not - then almost everyone certainly eats them! As I've mentioned before, a few years ago I invited Dr Matthew Jebb, the director of our National Botanic Gardens here in Ireland and a fellow tomato fancier to speak at one of the early Totally Terrific Tomato Festivals. He has spoken at every one since, and in fact now hosts it at the Gardens. He produced this amazing statistic for one of his talks - that "the human race eats half it's own weight in tomatoes each year". At first incredible to imagine - but when you start to think about the mind-boggling amount of processed products which contain them - then it's not as fantastical as it at first seems.
My first encounter with tomatoes began almost before I could walk. The scent of them is one of my earliest memories. Every early spring, that first evocative whiff of tomato foliage when separating tiny seedlings, takes me instantly back to the old greenhouse in the Edwardian garden where I grew up, and the warm, comforting greenness of it. Enclosed by high, red brick walls which seemed bathed in perpetual warm sunlight, that garden only exists now in my memory, having long since disappeared under a housing estate in the late 1960's, like so many lovely old gardens. I never did any gardening at home, although I enjoyed the garden and the food it produced. I was too involved in horses then. However when I got married and had children, I started to grow my own tomatoes for the very first time, and began to discover their seemingly endless diversity. They have fascinated me ever since. It isn't just their shapes, colours, textures, flavours and uses which fascinate me - but also their individual histories. The heirloom varieties especially, as because someone else found them delicious, useful or particularly tasty, they have been handed down, often through families and friends for centuries since humans first grew them.
While on the subject of heirlooms - I really wish people would stop calling ALL unusually coloured or shaped tomato varieties "heirlooms"! They are only heirlooms if they are rare old varieties, the diversity of which has been preserved from the past. While it may be a catchy selling point for tomato producers and supermarkets to use - it's not only very confusing and untrue, but also incorrect. Especially since most of them are tasteless, modern F1 hybrids!
This year though I almost didn't grow any tomatoes for the first time in over 40 years! Between the Covid Pandemic resulting in no prospect of a Tomato Festival again this year, Brexit unavailability of many organic ingredients which I had been able to easily source in the UK for years, and constant pain from my ankle problems - I have to admit that I was thoroughly depressed. But as ever they drew me back again. The Rosada plant I had overwintered on the hall windowsill as a cutting taken last autumn started to produce some new growth in late January and began whispering to me - "Please don't let me die - you have to try keep me going if nothing else"! So guilt motivated me, but instead of growing the same old tried and tested favourites I've grown every year for the Tomato Festival for years now, I decided I needed a bit of incentive to excite me as I so nearly gave up. So I tried several new varieties, and I'm glad I did!
I'm happy to say that I have discovered at least two wonderful new varieties - which I shall now definitely grow for as long as I grow tomatoes. I normally wait until late autumn to recommend new varieties - but we seem to have experienced almost every season of the year over the last 3 months, from freezing to intense heat to almost freezing temperatures again - the last week having been only 3 degrees centigrade almost every night in the polytunnel. So I have no hesitation in recommending the two easy to grow, disease resistant, absolute gems pictured above which seem so far to have stood up to everything thrown at us! Both are sumptuously tasty, and have resisted heat stress of well over 40 deg C for weeks better than any other of the tomatoes growing here except the always fabulous Rosada. I only grew two plants of each this year, but next year I plan to grow more of both. Thorburn's Terracotta is a beefsteak has been a juicy and aromatic new star turn in Caprese Salads - and from it's meaty texture and flavour, I know that the delicious medium plum variety Baselbieter Rotelli will definitely dehydrate well, and also quite possibly freeze without collapsing. Both are open-pollinated varieties which can be grown either as cordons or semi-bushes with several stems, and this is useful, as I've been looking for a replacement for the F1 hybrid bush Chiquito. I prefer to save my own seed, and I want to grow all non-F1 hybrid varieties from now on - with the exception of Rosada which I shall endeavour to keep going from cuttings for as long as I can.
A small selection of just some of the produce currently available here. It's a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the body and the brain!
A gloriously abundant but hectic time in the polytunnel!
At the moment every day seems to be a mad dash to get some crops preserved - and to think up some new recipes for using the produce which just can't wait another minute to be picked and eaten NOW!But time and the days are getting shorter for gardeners and polytunnel growers. We urgently need to think ahead to winter and possible shortages of veg later on. If you haven't already got more than enough seedlings to fill your tunnel or greenhouse for the winter, then sow some more while there is still some chance that they will make enough growth to give you good crops over the winter, or you won't have any until early spring. I always think that it's far better to have too many in case I have a disaster with one crop - rather than not enough. And if I end up with too many seedlings, surplus to requirements - then there are always plenty of delighted recipients! I've already sown crops like Sugar-Loaf chicory, kales, perpetual spinach beet, and chards etc which I find so useful over winter, and I've also rooted lots of new watercress plants - but there are still plenty of faster growing crops you can sow now that will give you useful crops this autumn, as well as continuing on through the winter if we have a mild one. With our winters having been so wet over the last few years, I've tended to rely on the polytunnel more and more as the most reliable source of fresh winter food - particularly salads. I'll be sowing more of those this month.
Before our supper every evening - I like to mindfully say the 'grace' which I unthinkingly repeated parrot-fashion, as fast as possible, before every meal while at school - but which now has so much more meaning..... "For what we are about to receive - may we be truly grateful" - Because we truly are so grateful to Nature for her abundant generosity, and to all of the wonderful creatures which help us to grow such vibrantly life-giving food.
Growing new potatoes for Christmas
What a colour! Fab blue smashed potatoes - 'Blaue Anneliese'
I've already potted up some potatoes for Christmas, and I'm repeating this advice in case you didn't read it last month. This year I grew all of my potatoes in pots large and small again and none outside in the ground. This was because the surgery for my dodgy ankle was postponed again due to Covid19, and I wasn't able to get enough ground ready early enough, so we've eaten a lot of those already. The only potatoes which I did plant in the ground were planted in the polytunnel, I planted just one row of the healthy, anthocyanin-rich, maincropvariety 'Blaue Anneliese' down one side of one of the raised beds. I can't tell you how impressed I am with this new potato from Fruit Hill Farm in Co Cork - it's a wonderful variety - and is without doubt the best-tasting and best-textured blue/purple variety I've ever grown. It's fluffy when just cooked, and yet oddly enough - waxy and firm when cold. Not qualities usually found combined in one potato, but which make it very useful. It makes fabulous potato salad, wonderful saute potatoes and deliciously fluffy purple smashed potatoes - what more could one ask of any potato?
In addition to that though, so far it's also the healthiest looking, and clearly the most disease-resistant of all the purple potatoes I've grown over the 35 years I've grown them! It is still growing so strongly and looking so healthy that I'm leaving it be for now, until we've eaten all of the rest in pots. It's more than happy to be left alone, with just an occasional careful watering at the roots and never wetting the foliage, which would cause blight. At this stage it has already covered the entire bed and is now half covering the main centre path on the opposite side of the bed, and still looking astonishingly healthy again! I could really do with the space to plant some autumn and winter crops now - but far be it from me to upset a potato which is clearly so thoroughly still enjoying itself at this time of year! I think I shall leave it to grow for as long as it wants to - as an experiment. It will be interesting to see if it finally goes down with blight - although the Fruit Hill Farm website said that it is resistant to late blight. I usually lift all my potatoes before the end of August because rodents often become a problem, and I doubt it will be resistant to them!.
You can use any sprouted potatoes to plant for Christmas potatoes, as all of them will grow, but first and second early types are the most reliable if you have any left from early crops. Alternatively you can buy suitable tubers for growing Christmas crops from garden centres now - although these may not necessarily be the best-flavoured types. These are just tubers which have been kept in cold storage from the same spring planting seed tuber crops that suppliers would have been selling in spring. I do that every year with some of my spring planting tubers saved from the previous year - which by this time look shrivelled and often have very long sprouts on them - often 30 cm or a foot long! Long sprouts aren't a problem though - I just lay them on their side and wind them gently around the pots - usually using 2 or 3 litre pots for these Christmas crops. They soon take off like rockets as they're so delighted to finally be planted. I also normally save healthy some small, healthy-looking tubers from the current year's early crops. Either way works just fine.
If I'm saving some of my early crop from the same year for doing this - I dry them off in the sun for a few days and let them go green, then I put them in the fridge to chill them for a week or so before planting in the pots. But I'm not sure doing that is strictly necessary. Potatoes are always keen to grow whatever the time of year - as anyone who has ever accidentally left a forgotten bag of them half-finished at the back of the veg cupboard will know! When they're potted, just keep them outside for a few weeks somewhere where they'll get good air circulation, to hopefully avoid late blight. Then bring them into the polytunnel as soon as any frost is forecast. From then on always cover them at night with fleece just in case, and don't over-water or they may rot at this stage as they won't be growing strongly any more - just 'ticking over'. It may seem like a bit of a faff I know - but at Christmas your 'new' potatoes will be a real treat - and you'll be so glad that you went to the trouble of doing them!
If the variety you are growing isn't a first or second-early one, and isn't ready in time for the festive season - then just as long as you don't let them get damaged by frost, and keep covering them at night with some fleece - then they'll just keep growing on after Christmas, through a few more weeks until they are finally ready. I've often done that depending on what variety I'm growing - and in fact they'll be even more welcome in a dismal, dark January than they will be at Christmas - when there are so many other goodies to eat! I may even plant some more of the 'Blaue Anneliese' to see what they do - although they're a late maturing, maincrop really, so I doubt they'll be ready for Christmas. They're also so vigorous that they're not very happy in pots either - but I might put a few in very large tubs as an experiment. Apart from the obvious advantage of growing our own fresh food, especially varieties which I could never buy - experimenting is what keeps me interested in gardening. Finding new and better varieties and new ways of growing them is always exciting. When I stop being excited by that - then I shall give up!
The most important place in my Polytunnel Potager - my seat under the peach trees. Here I sit and think - surrounded by scented herbs & flowers, with lemon verbena either side of me, Nicotiana behind me - bees buzzing, butterflies dancing around me and birdsong.... This is my personal Narnia - pure Paradise!
Barely Controlled Chaos best describes the polytunnel right now!
The picture above showsa small selection of some of the produce which I'm picking from my polytunnel now. Trying to take a picture that shows you the entire polytunnel would be absolutely impossible - you wouldn't be able to see a thing, except leafy jungly abundance! It's a veritable fruit and veg festival at the moment - stuffed with good things to eat in every possible corner - in every nutritious colour of the rainbow! And the kitchen is full of crates of produce being preserved for the winter - so that's even more chaotic! The picture shows just how much fabulous produce it's possible to grow in a polytunnel without using any chemicals - just by working with Nature and a bit of TLC. I love to take lots of pics at this time of year - it's so nice to have them to cheer myself up in the depths of a long wet Irish winter! It's also nice to have lots of produce stored for the winter. Anything that doesn't get eaten fresh makes it's way either into the freezer or dehydrator. There are 11 varieties of tomatoes in the picture, most of which are either made into my 'Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce'and frozen in portions (recipe in that section) - or just frozen whole for saucing later, if I'm short of time. Only Rosada and Incas dehydrate really well - but Blush is quite good too. And all the fruit makes a really special treat when semi-dehydrated to soft 'leather' stage into chewy fruit sweeties! They're the only kind of sweets that get eaten here - with the occasional bit dunked into melted dark chocolate - now that's serious decadence!
Borage, sweet potatoes behind - with convulvulus, marigolds, feverfew. Endive & beetroot flowering for saving seed at far end & also peaches - with a Flame grapevine in middle in the right hand side bed!
A few years ago, someone who had just put up a new polytunnel asked me if I could put on a whole page of tunnel photos as they needed some inspiration! Someone else asked me if I could walk around once a month and take a comprehensive video. While they were both brilliant ideas - apart from the time it would take which at this time of year I don't have with so much work to be done - when I walked round my tunnels later with these ideas in mind and tried to take a few photos, I realised that it would be impossible to get a real idea of what's going on in them without a lot of description too - which is what I've tried to do in my blog over the last few years, also in my 'Late Lunch' radio feature on LMFM, and more recently in my daily Tweets. You don't need to have a Twitter account to see these - you can just enter through the Twitter window here - and then just go down through my timeline - which good friends of mine do who don't want to be on social media.
The picture above provides a small 'vignette' of my polytunnel potager garden - which is repeated in various combinations all around. I try to have a balanced ecology which echoes the garden outside and because of this it's almost impossible for anyone to get a true picture of what's really happening in there - especially at this time of year. Unless one examined it inch by inch - it's so like a jungle that it's impossible to see it all! So many things are growing through things, around things, underneath and up and over things - just as Nature grows things. There's a riot of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs, with happily buzzing bees and butterflies everywhere - and also sparrows and other small birds flitting around hunting for insects to feed their broods. There's even a few resident frogs.
It's very hectic and really difficult to see anything too clearly, and to get a sense of just how much is really going on - one just sort of 'feels' the energy of it. There are no neat rows of crops with wide, uncultivated bare spaces in between, like one sees in so many polytunnels, because that's not how Nature grows things. I think the best term for it is 'controlled chaos' - barely! It's a fine line I know - and one has to take care that things don't sometimes get smothered, or that by reducing air circulation too much one encourages disease. Science is now proving what I always knew in my gut from observing Nature - and that is that communities of plants are actually much healthier than monocrops of just one type of plant. Plants are just much happier growing together. I don't give the way I grow any special title - like Permaculture, or No Dig, or Agroecology, because I don't feel the need for a 'badge' - and because it's all of those things and more. It's just gardening with Nature without synthetic chemicals, exactly how Nature does it. That's what organic gardening is!
So often the photos of my vegetable beds look more like flower borders - but then that's just how Nature loves to grow things - and that's why the plants are happy and healthy! Sadly though, it does make it rather difficult to take photos that don't just end up looking like one great big colourful and leafy blur! You can see what I mean about being hectic from the picture of the sweet potato bed above!They actually have very beautiful flowers too. So as a result - this month, my polytunnel looks like a very colourful jungle! But there's a very fine line between trying to make every possible inch productive, or the whole lot descending into total chaos - and believe me - it's not far from that right now!! Hardly any space to walk around the tunnel at all without tripping over or walking on something!
I've been growing with Nature in this way ever since I started vegetable gardening - for well over 40 years now.Before that I just used to arrange flowers from my parents garden - and I think I'm probably still doing that subconsciously! It always just seemed a far more natural way of growing to me - and I love creating attractive and successful planting combinations. Back then it was called 'inter-cropping' or 'catch-cropping', and companion planting. 'Permaculture' enthusiasts have now re-named it 'Polyculture' - but they didn't invent it - they're just using a fancy new name for something good organic gardeners have done for centuries - and Nature has done forever! Nature doesn't do 'monoculture' and neither do good organic gardeners! Over the last few years I've seen so many people announce they've discovered so-called 'new' ways to garden - with either very inventive new names, or using old names forgotten except by older people. I have a huge collection of old Soil Association magazines going back to long before I was born and they're utterly fascinating. They knew about the benefits of soil bacteria back then - even without the benefits of modern electron microscopy!
For instance there was a debate about the merits of 'no-dig' way back in 1947 - and the inter-planting of maize with cover crops like legumes in the former Rhodesia was nothing new - likewise 'no cultivation' and 'surface mulching' of fruit. Equally fascinating was the fact that camel dung was not used in Mongolia!! I would love to have been able to ask "why not?" Seriously though - there's nothing new under the sun and I often wish that the people who originally discovered and wrote about different ways of growing things were actually given some credit for their original ideas - rather than others claiming to have invented it and giving it their own name!
Lady Eve Balfour, H. J. Massingham and Lawrence Hills may not have had the advantage of all the modern scientific instruments that we have now - they just did what they felt was right in their gut - and observed their results closely. They knew then, as apparently so many people are only just 'discovering' now - that proper stewardship of the soil was the only sustainable way to grow healthy crops. They were constantly experimenting to find out how to mimic Nature and to grow crops better. It's such a great pity that more people didn't listen to them back then - instead of being seduced by the impressively fast results of the synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and other toxic chemicals which have been responsible for destroying so much precious biodiversity, and have caused so much illness, misery, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution!
In photos of other people's gardens or tunnels, who perhaps grow commercially - there are often beautiful long rows of crops which one can take lovely clear photos of. Funny - but I don't think that's so beautiful! Controlled - yes. Natural - no!Some of them look more like monocultures - with great swathes of bare soil between the rows - and those people quoting the old-fashioned phrase that "we should be keeping the hoe moving"! - Sorry but that's rubbish - science says different now and it's also not the way that nature grows things. Nature never leaves soil bare as I've so often said before. It always covers it with some plant or other, unless it's too poisoned for anything to grow at all! I rarely see those people growing flowers among crops either - as I do. Apart from wanting to grow my plants as naturally as possible - I also want them to have the highest nutrients possible - and you don't do that by leaving huge areas of exposed soil. In addition - now that I don't grow commercially any longer, I want the widest possible range of crops for myself and whichever members of the family happen to be around at any given time.
Things need to be a lot more flexible and I like to have a good choice available all the time. I like to experiment too, so I tend to grow quite short rows of many things, depending on how productive they are. I try to use every possible inch of valuable tunnel space either to provide food for us, or for the wildlife that helps to keep any pests under control, whether that's outside or inside in the polytunnels. I try not to have large expanses of bare earth that I hoe or weed - which would obviously make it far easier to take nice clear photos. That's not very good for soil though. Nature doesn't grow things like that - and I try to replicate nature as closely as possible. I think this is why everything works and I don't have any so-called 'pest' problems - even when growing in containers. Nature invented a food chain where everything depends on everything else and it all works perfectly. It has a beautiful equilibrium. It's only when man intervenes with chemicals that some species are wiped out, others get the upper hand and then perhaps become what we humans have termed 'pests! I try to mimic Nature by growing as many things together as I can, as naturally as possible.
Here on my blog I try to show people that you don't necessarily need a large garden, to be able to grow some healthy food for yourself and your family that can make a contribution towards the household budget. I also try to convey that 'growing your own' shouldn't have to take over your life either - and that it is possible to fit it into a normal busy life full of other interests that we all have. Organic gardening is only part of my life, although it's a very important part as I try to grow all the fruit and vegetables that we need all year round. But I do many other things like most normal people. I don't just garden and do nothing else - so time is also a factor. I have just the same amount of hours in a day as anyone else! The garden often has to look after itself for much of the time. I just dash in and out to water occasionally in the tunnels or to grab something for supper! I have to say though - that without the tunnels I'm not sure I would continue vegetable gardening! The challenges of increasingly unreliable weather would make it nearly impossible in our wet climate. With a polytunnel large enough to supply a family of four with a good range of food all year round costing probably less than most family holidays these days - I think they're terrific value. I worked out years ago that if they're used properly, all year round - they should pay for themselves in two years - if we're eating the correct amount of fruits and vegetables we are supposed to eat in order to be healthy!
Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes
Aubergine'Bonica' (pictured here) is as usual cropping really well. The fruits look so beautiful it's almost a shame to pick them!. Each of the plants has already produced 5 or 6 fruits and has loads of babies developing. Many companies sell the seed of this one and it's the best variety I've ever grown - it's thoroughly reliable and I now grow really good aubergines every year - despite our unreliable climate here in Ireland.
'Bonica' came out top of the Royal Horticultural Society trials about 10 years ago and it's easy to see why. It's currently producing huge, beautiful minimum 12-13oz plus aubergines faster than we can use them - some weigh over a pound or around 500g! I freeze any that I don't use immediately. They're sliced - brushed with olive oil and frozen on sheets of grease-proof paper, then bagged for winter use. They can then be oven roasted straight from frozen. By the way - I never salt them - it's not necessary with home grown ones and ruins their sweet, almost meaty flavour. Considering that even non-organic, chemically sprayed ones are over a euro each at least in some supermarkets - they're well worth the extra TLC and they're very happy in the recycled coleslaw buckets as you can see from the picture here! Aubergines need careful watering - never soaking them near the stem as they are very susceptible to stems rotting near the base. Peppers need the same careful cultivation and watering for the best results.
Tomato art! Some favourite delicious beefsteaks.
We always look forward to our first Caprese salad of the year with huge anticipation! This year because of the heatwave we enjoyed it earlier than usual - and we've had several since. Although our absolute favourite for this is Pantano Romanesco - which has no equal for flavour if it gets plenty of sun as it has done this year - I discovered a lovely new variety of tomato a few years ago. It's a heritage variety called Moonglow which came from Simpsons seeds and has a lovely fruity, quite unusual, almost 'apricotty' flavour. We really enjoy it with Green Cherokee, Nyagous and with a huge slice of Ananas Noir in the centre of each plate - it looks almost too good to eat, as it looks so pretty - but we manage to force ourselves! Add to those the two new varieties I discovered this year which I talked about earlier - and our plates look just like an artist's palette.
Our classic Caprese though is usually thick slices of juicy beefsteaks Pantano Romanesco and John Baer (a wonderful very early tomato with a split personality which produces some beefsteak-like and some classic medium tomatoes with a fabulous flavour). With it we have some really good yieldingly-soft buffalo mozzarella (pizza standard cow mozzarella just won't do for this salad!) - dressed with my pesto dressing (a frozen pesto cube dropped into in more olive oil which thaws and dilutes it), a few grinds of black pepper and prettified with some shredded basil. Accompanied by some crusty home-made ciabatta still warm from the oven, to mop up the juices, it's heaven on earth. One is instantly transported to the Med.! What more could you want? You can close your eyes and feel that you're perhaps sitting in a little sun-warmed piazza somewhere in Italy, in late evening - and almost imagine that when you open them again you will see a gilded campanile silhouetted against a cloudless turquoise sky!............Ah well.......dreams cost nothing!
Tomatoes Amish Paste, Green Cherokee and Indigo Rose
I can't believe that it's already time to 'stop' the tops of the tomato plants. This year seems to have flown. When the plants have reached the top of the 8 ft bamboo canes which support them - normally when they have 7 or 8 trusses on them depending on the variety - I cut the tops off. I like to keep a bit of air circulating above the tops of the plants, so I don't like to let them grow right up to the roof of the tunnel, as many people do. Usually the plants won't ripen more than eight trusses anyway in a polytunnel in our climate here, because the air becomes more humid and the light much less as autumn approaches. In a tunnel which is only growing tomatoes, where you can keep the air much drier for them, you could allow them to carry more, by training them up twine which you let out, lowering the stem along diagonally - I used to do this when growing commercially. But most gardeners want to grow a wide range of different crops in their tunnels at the same time - this makes it more difficult to keep the air as dry as possible for crops like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. Some other crops like cucumbers and melons need more watering - making the air much more humid, so it's really a bit of a juggling act. At this time of year it becomes even more important to be really careful with your watering - watering in the mornings if possible to allow the atmosphere to dry out a bit - rather than watering late in the evening - particularly when a cold night is forecast - as this will hasten the demise of most tender summer crops! Careful watering will ensure they last that bit longer without disease.
Pantano Romanesco - in my opinion the easiest and also the best tasting beefsteak
I walk round at least two or three times a week now with a large bucket, cutting off any damaged, diseased, or dead foliage (the 3 D's), or whenever I see something as I'm picking crops. Using a knife or scissors for a clean cut - otherwise stems may tear and then let in disease. This is really important. Diseases, particularly grey mould (botrytis) can spread like wildfire on the muggy, gloomy grey days we often get in August here in Ireland, even with all possible ventilation. It's a particular problem where we live - where we can get a sort of low cloud/sea mist for days on end, which often only lifts for an hour or two around lunchtime, often descending again around 3pm. Tomatoes really hate that sort of weather!
The continental beefsteak types are the most vulnerable, and must be watched really carefully. I actually pick them with secateurs to avoid tearing the truss stems. Take a look at them every day and pick off anything dodgy-looking immediately. You'll often see the shrivelled dead flower petals still clinging to the end of the swelling fruit, it's a good idea to gently pick these off, it is a bit fiddly - but if you don't - disease can often start there and very quickly turn the whole fruit mouldy and rotting, and then spread to the rest of the truss. The trusses need to be kept really clean and free of any detritus. As I've said before, they are not really that happy growing here in polytunnels, they'd really much prefer the hot summers and brilliant light of the Med. - but their wonderful flavour makes a bit of extra TLC worthwhile!That thought keeps me going through the winter. You can't buy a tomato that tastes anything like them anywhere in Ireland - but they do bruise incredibly easily when properly ripened. The commercially grown types are bred for 'travel-ability' and shelf life - not tender, melting, luscious flavour! Basil is a bit fussy too, but if you're really careful with watering, pick off browning or diseased leaves immediately and keep pinching out the flower buds - it should keep going well all summer.
Don't cut off curling up tomato leaves unless they are discoloured or going brown, or grey and mouldy at the tips - curling up is normally caused by excess heat a couple of weeks earlier, or depletion of nutrients as the plants get older. Only take off the first couple of leaves below the ripening trusses to help improve air circulation - even if they are still green. The others further up are needed to help the plant to photosynthesise and to keep drawing up the sap. Keep looking for any side shoots which may still appear all down the stem.Be very careful with the watering in the whole tunnel now. Try to water in the mornings if possible, on a day when sunny weather is forecast, this gives surface moisture a chance to dry off before the tunnel is closed in the evening. Watch the weather forecast, try to plan your watering and don't go soaking the whole tunnel thoroughly if wet dull weather is forecast for a couple of days. Try to keep the moisture content of the soil fairly even. Fruit may split if the roots have dried out too much and the plants are then soaked, and uneven, erratic watering can also cause 'blossom end rot' (where the fruit gets round black patches on the flower end) or the small fruit may even drop off altogether.
Tomato & herb stepladder garden
I feed all the tomatoes now, with a half strength feed, at every other watering, as the slightly yellowing lower leaves with paler top leaves can be a sign of lack of nutrients. The top ones should still look healthy and green. The 'Maskotka' bush cherry tomato in large pots is looking particularly hungry now, as it started cropping really well at the beginning of June. It's a fantastic little cropper - every time I think it surely must finish soon, another flush of flowers appears! I think just one or two bushes would definitely keep one person in tomatoes for most of the summer- and could even be grown on a sunny balcony as they don't make huge plants. They hang from the plants like bunches of grapes and the flavour is utterly delicious! I have had a few split ones - but this was my really fault as in the hot weather they've really needed watering every day, because of being in pots instead of the tunnel soil, and there were one or two days where I was very busy doing other things and just forgot! This year my stepladder garden is tomatoes and herbs - Basil and Oregano. It's been hugely successful. This would fit onto any balcony or into even the tiniest of gardens! This year I used Tumbler this year on every step, and we were eating them in mid-May!
How to get a second crop of Climbing French Beans
'Cobra' French bean top & 'Golden Gate'
We're starting to get a good crop now from the Cobra climbing French beans I sowed in mid-June. I normally start them off much earlier, but many sowings this year have been delayed due to my dodgy ankle. I keep picking them regularly, because French beans will quickly stop producing more if they get too big and stringy and start developing seeds. If your French beans have just finished cropping, and you don't want the ground immediately for something else, you can carefully strip all the leaves completely from the plants, snapping them off with your finger and thumb just where the leaf stalk joins onto the stem. They do this quite readily. Then give them a feed and water (avoiding the base of the stem as usual), and give wider the root area a nice mulch too - avoiding the base of the stems or they may rot. Within a few days - you should see tiny new flower shoots developing in the leaf axils. These will carry another later crop on into the autumn.
French beans are one of the most productive crops you can grow in a tunnel and well worth growing, particularly in Ireland, where our summers can often be wet - which French beans absolutely hate.They're one of the very best crops for freezing too. Just loose freeze quickly without blanching, bagging up afterwards. The round podded, stringless variety 'Cobra', is totally reliable, incredibly productive and absolutely delicious. It's actually an improved form of the old variety 'Blue Lake'. Beans fit well into the rotation plan in a polytunnel, making a good break between tomatoes and cucumbers, and also fixing nitrogen for following winter salads and greens. I trialled a new French bean - 'Golden Gate' a couple of years ago. This was supposed to be really early, with good setting of flowers, very tasty and productive, ideal for tunnel growing. It was none of those things, in fact it was absolutely pathetic and tasteless into the bargain! So I won't bother with it again - I shall stick to 'Cobra' as ever! Quite apart from anything else, 'Cobra' seed is about a third of the price (particularly in B&Q). Golden Gate was an attractive golden bean, that's all - and a few people commented that it looked pretty!
Delicious white flowered runner bean Moonlight
A few years ago I tried another bean experiment! As you'll know if you're a regular reader - I love experimenting with different ways of growing. I also love the taste of fresh runner beans, but I live in a windy spot here - and every year, when growing runner beans outside, as soon as they're carrying a full crop in August, along come the early autumn gales and destroy them. Literally blowing them to bits - no matter how well-supported they are! So I decided to try some inside! As white-flowered runner beans tend to set pods more easily, and I always have a lot of bees in the tunnel anyway, I thought it might be worth trying what was then a new partially self-fertile variety called Moonlight - bred by crossing a French bean and a runner bean - thinking they might be amenable to growing in the tunnel. Lo and behold - I was right! I know most people grow them easily outside - but we seem to get particularly strong 'autumn' winds up here in mid-August. Since there are always plenty of bees in the tunnels because I grow so many flowers in them - there is no problem with pollination and for the last 6 years I've had delicious runner beans from them. Moonlight is a stringless and really delicious variety - which I think has just as good a flavour as Painted Lady which was always my favourite - but sadly it didn't really like tunnel cultivation.
Time to think about winter now!
An old freezer basket covered with fine Enviromesh protecting seedlings from bad weather and pests
In the midst of all this glorious abundance though - it's time for a serious reality check! I just want to remind you that you really have to start thinking really seriously NOW about winter tunnel crops- if you want any! This month is your last chance to sow many of them if you want a really good selection of salads and other crops throughout the winter.Although there won't be room for some time yet to plant most in the tunnel and it may also be still much too hot for them on any warmer days, if you don't start sowing winter crops now - it will be too late by the time you actually have the polytunnel space clear for them. There is a marked difference between many crops sown now and the same ones sown in early September. Sown now - most things will start to crop well in late autumn and be productive through the winter - but put it off for another month and they may not start cropping until well after Christmas. This particularly applies to calabrese (broccoli), Swiss chards, Sugar Loaf chicory and some types of lettuce. I generally do two sowings of all these veg. as a 'fail-safe' method to ensure I have them, just in case some disaster befalls the first lot I've sown. If they all survive successfully - you'll find a space to fit them in somewhere and will be so glad of them in deepest winter! You can start sowing these in modules outside now (if you haven't done so already) then bring them in as their space becomes available as summer crops are cleared. By the way - if you have any old freezer baskets never throw them out - they're endlessly useful! At this time of year I use them to protect small seedlings which need to be outside, but are very vulnerable to slugs or cabbage root fly, which is still very active at this time of year! An old freezer basket covered with fine Enviromesh is perfect for keeping them out completely, so that you're not disappointed by finding they have no roots, when you come to plant them in September!
Now is when good planning really pays off and it ensures that your polytunnel is as productive as it possibly can be all year round.To make the most of expensive tunnel space, you should always have something ready to plant as soon as a previous crop is cleared. There's a list of what you can sow now in the 'What to Sow in August' bit as usual. It's also a good idea to make a few notes now about this year's crops when things occur to you as you go round the tunnel - what's done well - what maybe needs a bit more space - or something you will do differently or maybe try next year, while it's still fresh in your mind. Keep a notebook and pencil in there - you'll forget by the time you get back to the house and something else interrupts your train of thought! This will help you to draw up an even better plan for next year's crops. You'll be ordering the seed for them this autumn if you want to get the best varieties as many quickly sell out.
Keep ventilating as much as possible, leaving doors fully open during the day if you can. I always close my tunnels at night as even at this time of year a strong wind can suddenly get up from nowhere on the odd occasion, particularly before a sudden thunderstorm - and if it's from the wrong direction, it can rip off the doors and destroy the tunnel, as I've learned from bitter experience twice in the past! Closing the doors will also keep badgers and foxes out too - as they're extremely fond of the odd bit of ripe fruit or an easy to dig up worm or two!
A little extra care and time spent now, will pay off hugely, by keeping all your crops going much longer into the autumn. What often happens is things can get into a bit of a mess when people are away on holidays, they look at it all when they come back, lose heart and then just give up! If you let things become a disease-ridden jungle at this time of year - and don't deal with it - then you're just storing up a lot of disease which you will get even earlier this autumn or next year. Good housekeeping now is absolutely essential! Be vigilant - it pays off! Clear any diseased plant material and also anything that isn't productive any more - and plant something useful for the winter. Soil likes to be kept working - and even if you just plant hardy vegetables that you could grow outside - things like lettuce, winter spinach, kales and chards still be two or three times more productive inside instead of being blown around by freezing winter gales and rain outside.
If like me you have very raised beds either in your tunnel, you almost have to treat them like giant containers or pots, asthey do need watering a bit more often. On the other hand, the crops do tend to be slightly earlier because the soil is warmer - and the drainage is so much better. I get a very graphic illustration of this sometimes when we get floods elsewhere and there is water running between the beds! They are also an awful lot easier on the back too - which is why I put in mine! Mulching really well does help too - as always - stopping evaporation, conserving moisture, providing nutrients and encouraging good worm activity. Preparing the soil well beforehand with really good homemade compost or other well-rotted organic matter, to provide lots of 'sticky' water-retaining humus, is most important too.
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
Remember the Golden Rule: "Always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else later except that!" With day length shortening and decreasing light available to plants - it is vital that some crops are sown as soon as possible now if you want plenty of winter food.
Two varieties of mangetout peas for soup, sprouting & seed, kale rear centre beside peach, and perpetual spinach beet. Growing and saving our own seed is growing our own food security - and in these uncertain times everything we can do for ourselves gives us more independence!
Sow outdoors in pots or modules:
(For planting later in the tunnel or greenhouse, when summer crops are cleared. These will all crop in late autumn/early winter - some like chard, perpetual spinach beet & kale will crop steadily over the winter.)
Calabrese/broccoli* ('Green Magic' is a great variety that crops well all autumn and over the winter in the tunnel if picked regularly, and protected from serious frost with fleece), 'Kaibroc' (Marshalls - fast cropping, delicious kale/broccoli hybrid). Cabbages 'Greyhound' & leafy non-hearting spring collard types, carrots (early 'Nantes' types, in long modules or pots), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack, lettuces** non-hearting leafy types (like Lattughino, Lollo Rossa, oak leaf & Jack Ice), winter 'Gem' & winter butterheads, endives, kohl rabi*, Swiss chards & leaf beets, beetroot 'Bull's Blood' and 'McGregor's Favourite' for salad leaves**, peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf chicory* (Pain de Sucre), Claytonia**(miner's lettuce), American land cress**, watercress, leaf chicories (radicchio), rocket**, summer turnips**, coriander**, chervil**, plain-leaved and curled parsley, and sorrel.
Covering seed trays while they are outdoors, with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche, gives young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also provides shelter from scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain.
You could also now plant a few early variety potato tubers in pots anytime from early to mid-August - to bring inside later for a Christmas crop. 'Autumn planting ready' types are available now in garden centres if you haven't saved your own seed tubers from your first or second-early crops, or held some back from earlier spring planting.
Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:
(To possibly cover with cloches or frames later in autumn.)
Beetroot, Brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', early 'Nantes' type carrots for late autumn cropping, cabbages (red round head**, 'Greyhound' and leafy non-hearting spring types), peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf and leaf chicory*, radicchios*, endives, Japanese overwintering onions**, salad onions, Claytonia (winter purslane/miner's lettuce)**, lambs lettuce**, American landcress**, winter lettuces, kales, radishes, rocket, Swiss chard and leaf beets*, summer spinach, summer turnips, Chinese cabbage* and other oriental greens such as Choy Sum, Pak choi, mibuna, mizuna, mustards 'Red & Green Frills', Chinese kale (Kailaan), Komatsuna**, winter radishes, quick maturing salad mixes, parsley, chervil*, buckler-leaved and French sorrel. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (a brassica so careful with rotations) and Phacelia, to improve soil, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (digging them in later after the first frosts, then covering to protect soil, preventing nutrient loss and possible pollution), on any empty patches of ground cleared of crops that won't be used over winter.,
(*Sow Early Aug. only, **sow mid-late Aug.)
If you don't get many crops sown now, they won't have enough time to develop to crop well over winter, as with the shortening days now all growth slows dramatically within a couple of weeks. Another thing! - Please remember that these are just suggestions - you don't have to sow them all!
If I was forced to choose only six veg to grow over the winter in my polytunnel they would be Ragged Jack Kale, Ruby or Silver Swiss chards, Perpetual Spinach Beet, Watercress, lettuces Lattughino and Jack Ice, and Sugar Loaf Chicory. They are all incredibly productive over even the hardest winter in a polytunnel, or protected with cloches outside - often continuing well into late spring.
N.B. Sow seeds in the evenings if possible as germination of some varieties of seeds can sometimes be affected or even prevented altogether by too high a temperature during the first 24 - 48 hours - this applies particularly to lettuce, spinach, celery and also greenhouse sown carrots. Protect module-sown seedlings outside from heavy rain or strong sunlight with a plastic mesh such as 'Enviromesh' - which also protects against carrot root fly, cabbage white caterpillars and cabbage root fly - all of which can still decimate unprotected seedlings. Old net curtains work well too! Sowing in modules on a table, or raised area outside also provides seedlings with good protection from slugs.
(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 hard won-experience. Thank you.)
Contents: Summer prune apples by the seat of your pants - not the textbooks!.... The 'June Drop'.... How to Grow Fabulous Figs..... It's another fantastic fruit year!.... Give thanks every time you see a bee! - Pollinators are vital to fruit growing.... Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!.... Raspberries.... Strawberry Fields from the past!.... Grapes..... General Fruit Care.... and Why I don't accept advertisements or editorials!
1. Badly placed branch of 'Tickled Pink' apple growing up through crown of the tree - arrow showing direction of adjustment
2. Branch on 'Tickled Pink' with water-filled plastic bottle attached. The angle can be adjusted by squeezing out water
Summer Prune by the Seat of your Pants - NOT the Textbooks!
Gardening 'by the seat of our pants' and not by the textbook - is something I've been advising since I first started this blog 11 years ago, and the recent weather proves that this is becoming increasingly more important every day. We can't just slavishly follow the standard advice given in old textbooks which were written decades or even centuries ago, when weather patterns were much more predictable, and before our weather became increasingly erratic due to climate change. Despite this many 'experts' still seem to be lazily quoting from those old books, rather than thinking independently, and adapting their advice to prevailing conditions now. This year our weather has almost seemed to have gone crazy again! We had what used to be normal June/July hot dry weather in March - and then quite the opposite - freezing cold temperatures with -6 deg C in late April and May, with blazing heat and drought all of this month! This means that in some cases, depending on where you live and the weather you've had in your locality, the side shoots on apple trees - or fruiting laterals, as they are more correctly called, may not have ripened fully enough yet to summer prune, as they put on a lot of soft new growth after the torrential rains arrive in June. When they will be ripe enough, only you can judge yourself - as this will depend not just on your area, but the weather you've experienced this year and even possibly the variety and how well-established it is. It truly is 'seat of the pants' time for making decisions!
When the new shoots at the base of laterals or sub-laterals carrying first 2-3 buds/leaf joints feel really firm and woody and no longer pliable enough to bend - then they should be ripened enough to prune. If in doubt, leave them for another couple of weeks to firm up. If you do it too early - additional later soft growth may develop which you don't want, but you should be safe enough to prune if you do it by late August. This helps to promote the formation of flower buds for next year. As it's the side shoots or laterals which carry the flowers and subsequently fruit, the aim in pruning an apple tree is to develop a good open, cup-shaped framework of main branches, carrying fruiting spurs, or clusters of fruit buds, which develop from the sub-laterals. Occasionally you will get side shoots about 6-8 ins or 20 cm long which terminate themselves naturally in a fruit bud - you'll recognise this as it's round and fat rather than pointed. You can leave those unpruned as they won't put on any further extension growth, but will carry fruit next year instead.
Sometimes you may find a new, long vigorous shoot growing very upright from the main trunk of the tree, not from the existing branch system. You don't want that growth crowding the centre of the tree, and even if you prune it it will still grow in the same direction - but if the shoot is well placed, where there is enough of a gap or space lower down for it to form another main branch, you can weigh it down to almost horizontal, as you can see I have done in the picture of the young 'Tickled Pink' tree above with a water-filled, recycled plastic bottle. You can vary the weight of this according to how much you want to lower the branch and how supple it is. Doing this will encourage the branch to form fruiting spurs next year, which you can summer prune the following year as I've already described. The incredibly skilful kitchen gardeners of former centuries used to do this with lead weights which clipped neatly onto branches to train fruit trees into wonderfully intricate shapes - but try as I might, I haven't been able to find a supplier for these anywhere. Perhaps it's because lead is so expensive now - or too toxic?
Commercial chemical apple growers nowadays limit growth and promote fruiting buds on apple trees by using extremely toxic, growth-retarding sprays.... not what you want in your apples! Anyway, when you have your branch lowered into position and the wood has set firmly into shape - no longer springing back up when you remove the weight - during the winter you can then prune it back by a third or half to encourage further new growth from it's tip. Again - think about the cup shape you want the tree to have in a few years time, with well-spaced branches to allow for good air circulation to prevent disease. If you're not sure about the shape, take your time - always take a few steps back and have a good look at the shape of the whole tree - before you prune in the wrong place! Think of it as tree sculpture!
The 'June Drop'
Apples should by now have done their age old 'June drop' - a self-thinning which often doesn't normally happen until early to mid July in Ireland, due to our wetter climate. But this year after the hot spell in March and then severe frost in April/May there were fewer fruits on the apples anyway. Then due to drought many apples dropped some or even all of their fruit very early. It really was a tragic sight to see so many tiny fruits on the ground! Luckily the rain has come just in time to save the remaining ones I hope - although apples will again be very scarce this year! If yours haven't dropped their fruit and fruits are still overcrowded - thin them out, taking off any misshapen, scabby or damaged ones first. In some cases where they have enough soil moisture available, trees could still have up to five fruits or even more on each spur - thin these to just one or two every 3-4ins/10cm. Don't let young, newly planted trees crop too heavily - as this can encourage some to start 'biennial bearing' where the tree may only crop well every two years. Some varieties like Ashmead's Kernal and Bramley's Seedllng are more prone to doing this than others.
When the bottom third of lateral/side shoots from branches has ripened - in other words really firmed up, feels 'woody' and is no longer easily bent, then you can summer prune.This encourages the wood to ripen more and produce flower buds for next year's crop. Make a cut slanting down and away from the leaf joint about two or three buds above the basal leaf cluster. I don't normally summer prune here until the end of July or August, as with our often wet summer, wood isn't usually ripe enough until then. Don't prune the main branch leader (end) shoots of branches, that's a job that's done in the winter - in order to stimulate extension growth. Keep trees watered well in this dry weather we're currently experiencing and also well mulched, to retain moisture and discourage mildew.
A few years ago I recommended a book called "Pruning and Training" by Alan Titchmarsh.I still think it's an excellent and comprehensive book with plenty of good photographs and diagrams - ideal if you want information on pruning a wide variety of fruit as well as trees and shrubs. I wish there had been a book like this when I was first learning about gardening - it would have saved a lot of trial and error! Alan Titchmarsh is a Kew-trained, qualified horticulturist, who really knows his stuff - unlike some of the unqualified presenters of current gardening TV programmes, who often broadcast totally incorrect information without even bothering to research what is glaringly obvious they don't actually know! I think that people presenting gardening programmes should have a really 'in depth' horticultural knowledge if they are advising people what to do - not just be visually attractive and confident TV presenters! There is an old saying - "It is a wise man who knows what he doesn't know - and a brave one who admits it" - they should have the humility to learn what they don't know before often advising others wrongly! But if you don't want to buy a book on pruning - free fruit catalogues can often be a mine of information - the one from Deacons nursery on the Isle of Wight (now sadly gone) had particularly good illustrations! They also had lots of incredibly temptingly named, wonderful old varieties - I do hope that some other nursery took over their collection when they closed down. Sadly Read's Nurseries are now closed too - and they had the National Fig collection.It's such a pity that the range of varieties available to gardeners seems to be narrowing all the time - just when it's ever more important that we have a diversity of varieties to choose from, given the unexpected challenges we may face with climate change.
How to Grow Fabulous Figs!
It's another good fig year in the polytunnel - all the varieties have been enjoying the sun and heat in there and we've already enjoyed many of them. These delicious fruits, which have been valued since ancient times, are super-healthy for us to eat.They're chock-full of vitamins, essential minerals and gut-friendly fibre. The early 'breba' crop, which formed on last year's ripened wood and overwintered as tiny figlets in the leaf axils, are all ripening fast in the fruit tunnel now - and it's very tempting to eat too many of them!! Breba comes from the Spanish word 'breva'. I haven't got quite enough fruit to justify using the dehydrator yet, as they're so nice to eat fresh - but I'm hoping there could be an autumn glut later on, judging by the vast amount of small fruit already forming nicely on this year's shoots. I might even try making a fig liqueur - I had the idea for doing that the other day, when I was making peach Schnapps with the early peaches. That way I could preserve the figs for eating with cheese perhaps and also make a fabulously rich and slightly naughty mouthwatering drink or ice cream! Finger's crossed! They'll definitely be getting even more TLC from now on! I get a lot of questions about growing figs - so here's my guide. As I've learnt from experience and lots of trial and error rather than books - this may not be identical to anything you may read in the 'expert' textbooks - but this is what I've found works for me here - in often damp and sunless Ireland!
Figs are always expensive fruit to buy - even the non-organic figs in most shops here are around €1 each! They are really easy to grow though, if you have a very warm spot in the garden - or even better a polytunnel or greenhouse. I don't grow them in the ground, as they can become too vigorous and produce little if any fruit. They will fruit well in relatively small tubs, although naturally they need a little more care when totally dependent on you for their food and water. I grow all my figs in tubs of various sizes - gradually moving them on in size every couple of years, depending on how old they are and how congested the roots. It's really important at this time of year to keep all figs in containers constantly moist - never saturated - but at the same time never drying out completely either.
It's also important to feed them regularly so that they can develop all of their fruits. If you let them dry out completely they will drop shrivelled, small fruits about 3 weeks later when you've already forgotten that you may have let them dry out at some point! If you water erratically, letting them dry out too much and then later drenching them - any fruits that have already developed may split and be ruined before they ripen. Remember - evenly moist is key - and they need both regular watering and feeding now, to develop this year's crop. They depend on you for their food supply if they're in pots. I feed them with Osmo certified organic tomato food at every other watering now - but stop feeding once the fruit is ripening. I start to feed again later when the autumn crop is developing on the new green shoots made this year.
Figs Dauphine, richly-flavoured Sultane, & again Madeleine des Deux Saisons
Figs Rouge de Bordeaux, Précoce de Dalmatie and Madeleine des Deux Saisons
Figs in containers must never be allowed to wilt - so they need regular attention, but they're worth it! If you're not sure they need watering - then scratch the surface of the compost with your finger - if it feels and looks moist then don't water. If it's dry and the compost is shrinking away from the sides of the pot - then water quickly! On the other hand - wilting if the compost feels wet means that the roots are in trouble and may possibly even be rotting. That is almost certain death to a fig - so if in doubt - then don't water! Figs outside need very little feeding or they may grow too leafy and less productive even with their roots restricted - but again keep them watered and mulched, as if they are growing against a wall they can dry out very quickly in hot sunshine. I've never managed to successfully ripen figs outside here - but some friends only a couple of miles away, nearer to the coast and lower down, have a fig tree that ripens fruits every year - although, in my opinion, not enough to justify the space it takes up - even though it does look very ornamental and Mediterranean-like! (It's OK - they don't read my blog!) You really need a very sunny, sheltered spot with some root restriction for much success outside here. In the warmer climate in central or southern UK - many varieties will fruit well against a warm wall. We used to have fabulous figs every year against a warm, south facing old brick wall where I grew up on the edge of the Cotswolds. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I love them so much - their taste brings back so many childhood memories. The grown-ups often wondered why there were so few in the school holidays! We always blamed the birds!!
I have over 15 varieties now (lost count!) all of them are slightly different - and all of which ripen at varying times - which altogether give me some fruits most days during the summer. I grow them all in my standard mix of half organic peat-free compost/half garden soil with a small handful of bonemeal and seaweed meal when planting. I also dust the roots directly with 'Rootgrow' mycorrhizal fungi when potting on or planting - this definitely helps to develop the vital symbiotic fungal threads they need to help their roots to access more nutrients. I always put a few broken up bits of polystyrene (from those horrible un-recyclable plant trays that bedding plants come in and kind friends land on me periodically - saying "You recycle stuff don't you?....Thought you'd like these" - Bless them!). These are useful for important extra drainage in the bottom - and are a lot lighter than heavy gravel! Don't over pot them to start with - just move them up gradually to 15 litre pot size or they will produce too much leafy growth at the expense of fruit. If you keep the roots fairly restricted - they will form sides shoots without pruning and fruit earlier in life. If they are over-potted and produce too much growth in summer, it helps to prune back branch leaders to about 4 leaf joints of new green growth beyond the last fruit. It's on this growth that next year's baby figlets will form in the autumn. Figs don't need pollinating - their flowers are actually inside-out and are the lovely fleshy part that forms inside the fruits.
Fig 'Violetta' - ripening overwintered fruits at bottom picture, autumn fruits developing above on this year's growth.
Several people have asked me to list all the fig varieties I grow - so here they are. As they are easy to propagate from suckers or cuttings, I have several Brogiotto Nero - one a small tree-size in a huge tub and three of its offspring, in 15 litre pots. All the others are also in 15 litre pots. Rouge de Bordeaux, Sultane, Dauphine, Bourjasotte Grise, Brown Turkey, Califfo Blue, Violetta, Madeleine de Deux Saisons, White Marseilles, Brown Turkey, Panachee, Icicle (for decorative leaves not fruit), Bornholm and Precoce de Dalmatie (thought to be variants of the same Danish Variety. I also have a couple of unnamed varieties - one given to me by a friend which originated in an old Co. Meath walled garden here in Ireland (I think possibly Brunswick), one other and three plants of one variety that I picked up just labelled 'Fig' for €5 in a garden centre sale. That find was the best of the lot - with massive blue-black fruits similar to those huge ones that one sees sold in shops. If I were to recommend only one variety as I've been asked to many times - then Rouge de Bordeaux or Dauphine are I would say possibly the most productive and easiest to obtain of most of these apart from Brown Turkey - which you see recommended everywhere and but doesn't have anything like the rich flavour of either! All of them in my experience will produce two crops per year in July and then Sept/Oct in a polytunnel if well looked after.
Figs aren't bothered by many pests here. Scale insects may be a problem on bought-in plants - but brushing those with melted coconut oil kills them by blocking up the pores in their shell which they breathe through. That generally gets rid of them permanently. I also keep an eye out for small rodents and blackbirds - as they really love them! So do wasps in the autumn unfortunately!
It's another fantastic fruit year!
Melons raised up on pots ripening.
Last year's warm autumn ripened the fruiting shoots and wood really well on pretty much everything - so there's been masses of blossom on all kinds of fruit. We're already enjoying summer's abundance! Strawberries, gooseberries, currants, raspberries and even blackberries - both in the tunnels and outside - with figs, apricots, cherries and peaches undercover in the tunnels and cape gooseberries just starting to ripen on last year's over-wintered plants in tubs. The earliest grapes in the fruit tunnel are almost ripe too. Rose Dream and Summer Red are a little sweet and insipid for my taste - but they make good sultanas when they're dehydrated. Although it may seem a bit of a luxury to some people using a tunnel mainly for growing fruit, it ensures that I get good crops here in my very windy, often cold and wet spot, and we can enjoy all of our harvest undamaged (apart from wasps that is!). The vines in particular are protected from the weather, warmer and the blackbirds can't reach them since I finally discovered how to keep them out, but still let the bees in!
The only fruit that no pests have discovered so far are the Cape gooseberries or golden berries - and there's only so many of those you can grow as they take up so much room! They're far too vigorous to grow in the ground, but really appreciate the warmth of the polytunnel - where I 'm growing them in large tubs, which reduces their vigour slightly. I like to have the broadest range of fruit possible all year round. Variety doesn't just stop one getting bored with too much of the same thing, but it also ensures there will always be some kind of fruit available which gives us a good range of important healthy phytonutrients. In many fruit growing areas like Herefordshire, fruit like cherries and strawberries that birds love, are all grown in tunnels now. They have sides that can be lifted for ventilation and pollination as and when necessary. It's my dream to own one of those if I ever win the lottery!
Give thanks every time you see a bee! - Pollinators are vital to fruit growing
The other thing I've been talking about since I began this blog 10 years ago, and in fact long before that - is that we must do everything we can to help pollinators. That's not just about growing pretty flowers for bees, or not using peat composts - it's also about helping other pollinators like moths, butterflies and other insects. It's also, and most importantly, about NOT using pesticides of ANY sort. There should be no need for pesticides in an ecologically well-balanced organic fruit garden or orchard. There is NO pesticide of any sort which kills insects but doesn't harm bees - so please would people stop saying that there must be an organic one? Pests in an organic garden or orchard are kept down to a manageable level by beneficial insects and birds hunting them for their food, or sometimes by using clever things like pheromone traps for codling moth.
There should never be a situation where you try to 'get rid of' all insects of any kind- remember - BEES ARE INSECTS TOO! This is something I am constantly asked about and it makes me so angry! If you have an insect problem - then look to your methods of growing, or perhaps the variety you are growing, and asking if it is suitable for your conditions - rather than looking to kill things! The late physicist Prof Richard Feynman was a great fount of common sense and had a wonderful phrase - he said that "the job of a scientist is to listen carefully to nature, not to tell nature how to behave" - that is something I've always felt should apply to organic gardeners too!
Bumble bee on orange blossom in the tunnel
Without bees we wouldn't have so many healthy citrus fruits
Fostering a balanced ecology with plenty of biodiversity in our garden or farm is something that ALL of us gardeners and growers can easily do.And supporting the products of organic farming is another way of supporting pollinators, as it does the same but on a larger scale. That way we CAN all make a huge difference - not just to pollinator health - but also to our own. If we don't buy crops that are grown with pesticides, then everything we buy makes a difference to bees and other pollinators, as well as all other biodiversity somewhere -. Here's an article which was published in the Guardian newspaper last year which makes pretty frightening reading for those who haven't thought about this problem before, and take most of our food crops for granted. The article seems to give more importance to the lack of habitat and climate-change as being the main causes - but in fact both of those are in a large part due to the monocultures of industrial chemical farming. It's PESTICIDES which are without question the cause. We could replace habitat tomorrow - but if we don't stop using pesticides - bees, insects and all the associated biodiversity which depends on them won't stop disappearing! .
Most people by now appreciate that bees pollinate about 2/3rds of the food we eat either directly or indirectly - so without them we would be very hungry! Sadly there is a huge amount of money invested in producing and promoting pesticides by the multinational chemical companies. These pesticides actually disable and kill bees - so this causes bitter divisions between those who believe that we can't possibly produce food without pesticides - which is patently rubbish since humanity ate and evolved for millions of years before they were invented - and those who know without question that they are destroying not just bees but endangering all of biodiversity. This has become so bitter recently that even genuinely neutral but extremely concerned scientists such as Prof. Dave Goulson - professor of biology at the University of Sussex are being attacked by the so-called Big Ag pro-pesticide lobby who naturally want to continue profiting from their bee-killing poisons! Dave specialises in the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and has written a number of terrifically informative books on bees. Of course Big Ag's natural reaction to anyone questioning the safety of their pesticides is that 'attack is the best form of defence' - just like the poisons that they peddle! Here's a link to an article which demonstrates this very thing - https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/07/17/syngenta-bayer-ceh-study-neonicotinoids/
The summer fruit season is in full swing now, mostly thanks to the good offices of the above bees! It's really difficult to keep up with all the picking and preserving as well as the watering and the rest of the garden work - especially with this year's heatwave and drought! I'll be so glad I did though, during the long cold winter months when we all need plenty of vitamin C and other health-promoting antioxidants to keep winter colds at bay! Freezing fruit is by far the best way to preserve all that freshness. Making jams adds a lot of unnecessary sugar to fruits and the cooking destroys much of their nutrients, so we eat very little jam here - hardly ever in fact. We prefer our fruit straight and fresh mostly. Taste buds get used to the natural flavours of fruit without sugar very quickly. Anyway - if you're a jam maker and can't live without it - you can easily just chop and freeze the fruit to make jam in the winter when there's more time - a nice job for a cold day!
A mixed fruit and kefir smoothie made from either fresh or frozen fruit is just the way we like to start the day any time of year.A handful of mixed berries and nuts, some kefir and full fat milk, blitzed in the blender with a little raw unfiltered organic honey if necessary and anything else you like to throw in. That is an ambrosial breakfast - fit for the Gods! It looks like there'll be a huge blackberry crop again this year - the bushes are absolutely smothered with several different sorts of bumble bees right now - everything from really tiny to huge! All carrying huge orange pollen sacks on their hind legs. I'm so thrilled to see them. The loud sound of buzzing is amazing when you walk up the garden to the tunnels at midday currently. There's already a huge crop developing, and a couple of the Himalayan Giant x wild bramble hybrids I've developed for earliness and flavour over the years are already starting to turn colour and ripen very early due to the warm weather. There are also masses of bees in the tunnel right now - pollinating the Cape gooseberry (golden berry/physalis) flowers on the plants grown from seed this year, and we're already eating the ripe fruits on last year's overwintered plants.
I'm so grateful for bees - and we all should be - as without them we would have no fruit crops or indeed many other healthy foods like almonds. There are quite a few nests in various places in the long tufts of grass around in our wildlife meadow and new orchard now - as well as solitary bee nests in the dry raised bank of the bee and butterfly border at the north end of the polytunnels. A few years ago a swarm of native honey bees moved into the roof of my late mother's old cottage opposite my back door. I was so thrilled to see them - and they must think this is a pretty good spot with all the fruit blossom and other flowers. They do a great job of pollinating everything. I felt we'd been given the 'beeswax seal of approval' !
So much of the intensive agriculture all around us has wiped out the habitats that they naturally depend on like hedges - and food plants they need like wildflowers. Bees really need our help to survive - and it's in our interests to make sure that they do! We tend to take them for granted - but without all of their hard work - there would be very little fruit or many other crops for us to eat. Nuts like almonds, and fruit like apples, pears. plums, oranges and lemons for instance entirely depend on pollinators. That more than ever proves that we must do all we can to help them. We certainly do everything we possibly can to help them here - by growing everything organically without sprays of any kind - organic or otherwise, by providing lots of nesting sites like dry sand and gravel mounds, piles of dry logs under hedges and bee hotels for overwintering habitat, and also by growing lots of flowers that provide both nectar and pollen all year round - even in the tunnels. It's especially important to provide flowers in winter for bees that don't hibernate. They will often come out to forage on mild winter days - and if they don't find some food - they may use all their energy and die. There are lots of winter flowering shrubs and flowers you can plant to help bees, but in wet weather it really helps to grow some winter flowers in greenhouses and tunnels too - where they can forage in the dry. That way they remember where the food sources are - and will keep coming back time after time - helping to pollinate all your crops.
Pollinators are all industrious workers, so there's already a great crop on the earlier fruits - and there promises to be an enormous crop on all the varieties of cultivated blackberry - which are the proverbial 'hive of activity' at the moment! Blackberries are one of my most valuable staple fruit crops, as they freeze fantastically well and are so useful. I froze about 80 lbs last year, and we should have enough for smoothies and puddings until the next crop starts to ripen in August. We already have the earliest ones ripening in the fruit tunnel now, where I allow just a few to grow at the edge - keeping them under strict control! My late mother brought her Himalayan Giant blackberry with her when she came to live with us in the late 1980's. It's the very best-flavoured blackberry if you have the space for it - and the time to keep a very close eye on it! The small cutting she brought with her now covers about 1/8th of an acre! It's hybridised over the years with the native ones in our hedges thanks to the bees, and has produced some very good new varieties, some earlier, some with a more 'bramble'-like flavour. Gerry Kelly my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' feature on his Late Lunch radio show begged one off me a few years ago - I did warn him that it would look very innocuous for about a year until it got it's feet under the table and felt safe - and that then it would take off! Being kind-hearted though, he planted it in a choice south facing spot in his lovely fertile veg garden - some people just don't listen. When he was here for our last programme he told me I was right - that it had started looking just a wee bit scary! It has a habit of creeping up on you quietly while your back's turned! I told him to move it even right now and not to leave one scrap of root behind - even a tiny thread!
Talking of fruit in tunnels - the raspberries on pots are doing incredibly well and are already ripening their second crop of fruits this year! Each year they keep repeating and giving us tasty ripe raspberries up until Christmas! I also have some pots of black raspberries in there too, to keep them away from birds, as I didn't have any room left in the fruit cage! The fruit I got from them last year had a really intense flavour - rather like the raspberry boiled sweets I used to be able to get as a child. They're supposed to be exceptionally high in good phytochemicals - but they're a bit pippy though - and mine tend to fall to pieces when they're picked. I still have an open mind about them, which is why I have them in pots - as in addition to the pips - they're looking dangerously like the invasive Rubus Cockburnianus which is taking over the place wherever I haven't got time to control it by cutting it down! There are 'celebrity gardeners' endorsing them - but then they're paid to do that! That's again why I don't take ads of any kind on this blog - then I can be totally honest and tell it like it is! I think that's what people really want - not expensive celebrity endorsed stuff that's a complete waste of space? I would never use weedkillers of any sort to try to control them even if they did work - and I doubt they would on the aforementioned rubus! A non-organic friend of mine - who still uses Roundup/glyphosate despite my pleas - can't control it at all either - even with an absolute arsenal of toxicchemicals!
Raspberries can often need picking over twice a day on hot days - at this time of year they can ripen astonishingly fast.
When summer varieties have finished fruiting, I cut down the fruited stems to ground level immediately, give them a general purpose organic feed, water it in well and mulch with something like grass clippings, to encourage new stems to grow for next year's production, and to keep weeds down and moisture in.
Autumn 'primocane' varieties, which will carry another early crop on last autumn's fruited canes, have been cropping for over a month now. When those 1 year old canes have finished producing fruit, cut them down immediately to give the young stems already growing which will carry this autumn's fruits more room to grow. The previously widely available varieties - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' can become invasive weeds and don't have half the flavour of newer variety Brice, and another which I planted on Joy Larkcom's recommendation - 'Joan J' . They both have a wonderful flavour - Joan J in particular seems to have a little more acidity, which you really need for that 'full on' raspberry flavour that's lacking in the older rather insipid autumn varieties. The berries are huge too and it's very vigorous and productive. I started them off in pots when they arrived and left the newly planted canes about 18ins/45cm high so that I could try just a few early fruits to see what the flavour was like and also to see if they were worth planting - they were!
This autumn I'm looking forward again to a plentiful autumn crop of the really huge, mouthwatering 'Joan J' berries you can see pictured here - both in the tunnels and outside. It's definitely the best flavoured of any of the autumn ones I've tried yet and I can't recommend them highly enough. 'Joan J' also freezes exceptionally well. 'Brice' would be a very close second though. In general the autumn fruiters are much more healthy, vigorous and productive than the summer fruiting varieties, and also much less fussy about soils, so if you don't have a lot of room - grow the autumn fruiters which will crop well twice pretty much anywhere - giving you twice the value from your space. They'll even grow well in containers as I do in the tunnel - but are thirsty and need regular watering and TLC. Definitely a possibility though if you don't have much space in the garden. Last year I trialled a new autumn raspberry - a variety called Erika - and so far it's looking vigorous and very promising. The flavour compares well with 'Joan J', and it's very productive.
Raspberry Joan J size comparison with 1 euro coin
Tayberries and loganberries are also ripening now. Tayberries have a wonderfully rich, almost scented 'raspberryish' flavour and grow like weeds. Both of these two and also blackberries will grow in a shady place or on a north wall - a very useful attribute which means that even if you don't have a sunny garden - you can still produce lots of your own fruit. Or if you want to extend the season by a few weeks, put one plant in a sunny spot and another on a north wall or shady spot, as long as it has good soil and good top light and is not overhung by trees. I get a lot questions these days from people living on housing estates with ever-decreasing sized gardens - but if you're really determined to grow your own food - nothing will stop you! I lived in a house with a tiny garden for a couple of years, more than 38 years ago, but still managed to produce masses of fruit and veg. in containers. Currants, gooseberries and Morello cherries will also all grow in a north facing spot, as well as 'Conference' pears and some apples. Again, any good fruit catalogue should tell you which varieties are most suitable for particular spots.
Strawberry Fields from the past!
Old white strawberry - name lost in the mists of time - possibly a Chiloense hybrid?
Another old variety I grow was given to me many years ago by my dear and very much missed friend the late Dr. Wendy Walsh - the well known botanical artist - who used to live nearby and had a lovely old walled garden. It has a pinkish-white berry, similar in size and shape to other regular strawberries, with a delicious 'pineappley' flavour. She didn't know it's name and said it had always been there in the garden. I'm guessing from looking at old fruit books and botanical plates that it is Victorian, or possibly earlier. The Victorians bred a great many varieties as they had a fascination for endless variety in all fruits - as have I. That's why I've kept it going for many years - and I would hate to lose it, so I gave some runners several years ago to a friend who I knew would also treasure and keep it, just in case.
Josef Finke of Ballybrado House in Co. Tipperary had a similar looking variety, which I remembered seeing in the old Victorian walled garden there, but he grubbed it out many years ago, saying it was like a weed everywhere. It is indeed vigorous, seems disease and virus-resistant and is clearly a great survivor. A living relic of the past - I wonder who bred it and where? I would dearly love to discover it's name if anyone knows anything about old white varieties, of which there were once many. As you can see from the picture taken a couple of weeks ago, when very ripe and almost falling off it turns the very palest, most delicate pink and is very attractive mixed with other varieties. For the time being, I shall just go on calling it 'Antique White', until I discover it's true identity. A fragarian mystery if ever there was one! Some years ago - one fruit catalogue announced a NEW strawberry called Snow White. It looks identical to this one I've had for 30 years!
Grapes need regular feeding and watering now too as the bunches are developing fast. Never let them dry out too much or the skins may split if you then go and drench them! You can grow them very easily in large bucket-sized containers, training them on a single stem or rod, around a framework, in a spiral fashion works very well, and being containerised means that you can protect them from the birds and bring them inside for their flowers to pollinate properly - which doesn't happen if they get wet when flowering, It also helps to ripen them if they are late varieties like 'Muscat of Alexandria' or 'Flame' - both fantastically flavoured, very heavy croppers but very late so won't ripen outside here in Ireland, even against a south facing wall. Grapes in containers need watering almost every day now while they are swelling their fruits, particularly if they are in a greenhouse or tunnel. I'm also feeding these at every other watering now - again with the useful high-potash Osmo tomato feed. All the vines are carrying huge crops. Promising lots of lovely fruit for eating fresh, for dehydrating and freezing!
Grapes grow really well in containers, and growing them this way allows you to grow many different varieties to spread the season in quite a small space. It's very hard to find organically grown, chemical-free grapes for sale anywhere - and even if you can - they'll cost an absolute fortune! In the picture here - the seeded grape 'Bianca' - growing in a large pot, is trained around supports in a spiral but with so much foliage and fruit it's difficult to see the support! 'Bianca' is an early variety, ready in mid-late August, and is one the first of my grapes to ripen.
Lakemont seedless grape climbing over south doorThe grape Lakemont Seedless is now taking off even more and venturing up over the door at the south end of the larger tunnel. As this is space which is normally wasted in most tunnels I'm delighted to encourage it! I like to have every possible inch of my polytunnels filled with fruit flowers or veg! On entering the tunnel we're met by an incredible curtain of grapes - a lovely sight - especially since they are so delicious dehydrated! Yummy scattered over winter salads, and irresistible straight from the freezer in snatched handfuls! I freeze them because they don't keep well semi-dehydrated and I don't want to dry them out completely. It's an excellent variety - totally fuss-free and if you only have enough space for one - it's happy everywhere, easy to grow, doesn't need any tedious thinning and above all - is utterly scrumptious!
Other General Fruit Care
There shouldn't be too manygreenfly and other pests around in thegarden if you've carried on feeding your birds to keep them around- the sparrows and blue tits deal with most of them here - they're always busily hunting around the garden. If you do find a lot of greenfly - it's often a sign that either you are overfeeding your plants, leading to a lot of soft sappy growth, or that the plants are stressed in some other way - perhaps the growing conditions aren't quite right. Healthy, happy, organically-grown plants are rarely bothered by any pests in my experience, as they can produce their own defences. The secret of organic gardening is to achieve a balance of everything - both pest and predator. In the healthy ecosystem that you are trying to achieve in an organic garden, you should always see a little bit of everything - but never enough of any one thing to seriously damage crops. Growing lots of flowers among crops helps by attracting beneficial insects, looks wonderful, and also attracts pollinators. Correct growing conditions and thorough good housekeeping - removing diseased or dodgy looking growth as soon as possible, should cope with most problems and prevent themt spreading if you do have any.
The main thing to remember with all fruit at this time of year, apart from picking (which I'm sure you don't need any advice on!) - is to keep everything watered in dry spells and keep mulching to reduce competition from weeds, reduce evaporation and keep roots cool and moist which all fruits appreciate.And also to keep the birds out! Check fruit netting regularly to make sure there are no holes in it - I caught next door's cat climbing up my fruit cage the other day, and found some of the netting pulled down leaving a gap which birds could easily have got in. If there's even the tiniest chink in your fruit cage armour - those crafty blackbirds never miss a trick and don't wait for an invitation! Today I spent ages chasing a particularly persistent young one out of the polytunnel - as soon as my back was turned - it was in again! There's plenty of fruit for them outside - but some - like some humans (not you dear readers) are just plain greedy!
Remember - Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!
Nature doesn't have the big PR budgets that must be paying for the multitude of seemingly innocuous/impartial (not!) journalists to write the endless 'pro-pesticide & GMO/anti-organic ignorance' articles I'm seeing so much of online right now! Nor does it pay for certain minor celebrities - (indirectly paid by those same chemical companies) who say they are 'pro-science' - unlike the 'organic ignoramuses' - like me!Nature relies on us folks - ordinary people like you and me - to spread the word that we MUST protect it with every fibre of our being. Nature is vital to the future for our children and their children - just as much as it was a vital part of our past.
I'm often asked to write articles for some publications, and also to accept 'editorials' (so-called) for this blog. I want to make it quite clear why I don't allow anyone else access to write any articles for my blog despite the large number of email requests that I get - and I also refuse advertisements.Some may well be innocent - but some - especially the more flatteringly admiring ones - may well be Trojan horses. And quite apart from that - the fact is that I don't know anyone else who can write about organic growing from more years of practical experience than me - and whatever you may think about my occasionally odd ideas - at least they're mine!
(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.)
Contents: Sets versus Seed - Why it pays to know your onions! Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is easy if you grow it yourself!.... Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!.... Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - A daft idea!... It's the season of firsts - but also gluts!.... Soil is more precious than Gold!.... Splendid spiralisers!.... Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now.... Carry on composting!.... Drown perennial weeds.... Keep mulching....
1. Multi-sown onions 'Golden Bear' & 'Red Baron' - in module tray hardening off before planting out 30th March
2. Multi-sown Golden Bear onions in clumps of 4 or 5 - pushing each other apart to form medium sized bulbs.
3. Multi-sown red and green onions starting to die back and ripen in late August - only a few have bolted,
4. Multi-sown Onions ripened, harvested and drying off well in the polytunnel. 17th September. They will keep for months
Sets versus Seed - Why it pays to Know your Onions!
The end of July and beginning of August is the perfect time to plan for one of next year's most important and nutritious culinary crops - onions. Seed companies are just starting to advertise next year's seeds and sets now, and as I'm always saying - planning really pays off. Recently on social media I've seen a lot of pictures of onion crops being incorrectly harvested, long before they are ready, while the growing tops are still beautifully green and the 'neck' of the onions is still thick. Often the gardener has actually bent the tops over while they are still growing well. It's such a pity to see this, when a few more weeks growing would have given the crop a chance to die down naturally, drying off gradually from the top down, and bending over as they do - with the necks narrowing and the bulbs becoming ripe enough to dry off and store for months. Many of the crops I've seen have clearly also 'bolted' - producing tall, hard flower stalks which are pretty much unusable in the kitchen as they're so tough and woody - unless one spots them very early on and uses them immediately for some onion flavouring. Most of those crops have been grown from 'sets', which are basically just immature onions, grown to a small size, with growth then artificially halted and the tiny bulbs heat treated to prevent them from 'bolting' or running up to flower after re-planting - which isn't always effective.
While planting these sets is undoubtedly easy and quick, and will give you slightly earlier crops - 18-20 weeks to harvest, as opposed to 20-24 weeks for seed grown crops - sets can be unreliable and may come with a host of problems.So what are those? First, from experience, I find that sets are much more sensitive to the fluctuating weather conditions which we seem to be experiencing more frequently with climate change. They're more sensitive to sudden heatwave and drought, and less frost-hardy than onions grown from seed, with many more likely to bolt. This is the same whether the sets are organically grown, or if they are conventionally, chemically grown with pesticides and fungicides. Even when grown in the well-drained conditions they like - in a cool, wet year, onions from sets are also far more prone to diseases like downy mildew and neck rot than those grown from seed. The worst disease of all that onion sets may bring in is onion white rot - something you really don't want in your garden! This will infect any members of the onion family, even ornamental ones, which are grown in the same soil within 15-20 years, and can even be carried around on your tools and boots! Chemically-grown sets are far more likely to bring this disease in, despite being treated regularly with toxic fungicides which leave residues in the sets. This is because conventional growers don't have to worry about crop rotations, and may grow plants destined for sets in the same soil for many years, resulting in that soil becoming unhealthy, and if not infected, definitely lacking in biodiversity and trace elements. Certified organic growers can't do this, as they have to agree under the legal requirements of their certification agreement to provide cropping plans for their holding for inspectors approval every year, and they can also be spot-checked at any time without prior notice to check if they are following their plan and doing things correctly. Organic soils are also far more healthy and contain more biodiversity, so any plants grown in them will naturally be much healthier, having the ability to protect themselves better from disease.
In general I prefer to grow onions from seed - multi-sowing them in March in blocks or modules of organic, peat-free compost, for planting outside in April. As I don't want huge exhibition onions - just a usable size for the kitchen,I tend to sow 5 or 7 seeds to a block, without thinning - the higher number of seeds giving smaller onions. But if I want some really early onions in the spring to guard against my stores running out - I plant some 'autumn planting' sets in well-drained, peat-free compost in large tubs, which means that I can vary their cropping time by growing some inside and some outside. These can be planted quite close together, about 10 cm (4 in.) apart giving medium to large bulbs which push each other apart as they grow. Growing sets this way also means that any diseased sets can be yanked out immediately they're spotted, with any compost surrounding the roots, and put into the recycling bin. - NOT the compost heap! My favourite red onion variety is Red Baron, and my favourite white or yellow onion is Golden Bear. Organic seed of both of these reliable and tasty varieties is quite widely available now. Organic sets are also available if you prefer those, or want to grow an earlier crop in tubs. I shall write more on growing multi-sown onions early next spring.
Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is so easy, more healthy, fresher and more delicious if you grow it yourself!
One of the greatest joys of growing your own organic vegetables is being able to eat seasonally and rediscover how really fresh organic vegetables, untainted by chemicals, should taste. I believe it satisfies a very deep-seated need in us - and that's not surprising since humans evolved to eat food grown by nature, in its purest form possible, in an unpolluted world - each type of food in it's proper season. I think that all year round availability of everything has ruined many people's anticipation and enjoyment of food. It's lost much of it's excitement and has become almost boring! These days you can find vegetables and fruits from the furthest corners of the globe on supermarket shelves which are all particular varieties chosen for productivity, uniform appearance, ability to travel without bruising and for long shelf life. They're sadly not chosen to taste fantastic and to be as nutritious as those you can pick fresh from your own garden. They are often picked long before they are ready to eat, and are devoid of most of their natural taste and nutrients. They are mere commodities, conveniently packaged into whatever form makes them the most commercially profitable for the 'pile it high and sell it cheap' supermarkets! Low cost food seems to be more important to some people than food quality - but you get what you pay for! It's definitely worth growing a few vegetables yourself if you possibly can - even if you only have the smallest patch of ground, a tub outside on a path or a window box.
Increasing numbers of scientific studies suggest that long-term consumption of a diet high in a wide variety of colourful plant phytonutrients - 'eating the rainbow' in other words - offers protection against the development of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases.The healthy exercise and fresh air that gardening entails is also good for us - both physically and mentally! Only organic food, free of man-made synthetic chemicals, grown in it's natural season and then harvested at it's absolute peak, can ever have all the properly-developed nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. I would also suggest that chemically-grown produce and processed foods have ruined people's taste buds - so that they have become dulled, less sensitive and discriminating. Taste is very often tied to nutrition in fruits and vegetables. Many of the aromatic compounds which actually give fruit and vegetables their wonderful array of flavours are in many cases the very same ones that give them their health-protecting phytonutrients. And of course, as I'm always pointing out, studies by Newcastle University some years ago proved that organic fruits and vegetables are up to 70% higher in such valuable phytonutrients.
Just how wonderful is it that you can grow and eat so many things that are not absolutely delicious but are actually good for you? We vegetable gardeners are so lucky! Far luckier than those unfortunate people who are restricted to just buying and eating the often days or weeks old produce they can find in shops!
Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!
Potatoes are one good example of a colourful veg that packs a very powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits. In the last few years, many scientific studies have found that the antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients in purple potatoes like those pictured above, combined with other compounds they contain, can lower blood pressure and actually even kill cancer cells in the lab! That's not the only reason I'm such a big fan of them though! They look utterly fabulous and taste fantastic too! What's not to love as they say? Happily a lot more people now seem to be interested in the stunning looks and health benefits of the blue and purple potato varieties. This was very much shown by the huge reaction on Twitter when I posted a tweet about the very attractive but rare variety Peru Purple. That's why I decided to write about a few of the ones which I have personal experience of. As you will know if you're a regular reader - I never write about anything unless I can write from my own personal experience.
I found my very first purple potatoes, Truffe de Chine - about 40 years ago in Harrods Food Hall in London of all places - which used to be a treasure trove of unusual vegetables then. They were such an exciting find - I'd never seen them before!Since then I've discovered that upmarket veg shops are always well worth investigating for interesting things to possibly grow if you're in London, or any other large, ethnically diverse city. It's amazing what you may find!
I got my original elephant garlic bulb in a small fruit and vegetable shop on First Avenue in New York of all places, many years ago on a rare holiday - long before I decided that I didn't want to fly anymore and contribute to climate change. My very rare holidays or short trips anywhere have always included visits to the local food markets and shops, to see what treats I can find to save seeds or tubers from! If my children are on holidays they are always instructed to do the same! To me, such shops are just like sweet shops are to children, or handbag shops to some 'fashionistas'!! I can never resist that childlike urge to try to grow anything different from pips, seeds or tubers. I grew Cucamelons and Kiwanos that way many years ago - long before anyone had even heard of them. I find it hugely amusing that certain 'celeb veg writers' have apparently only just now 'discovered' them! I've been growing them since before many of them were even born - as I've been a keen 'food tourist' for years!
I've always grown for taste and nutrients rather than bulk, and being an artist, looks are also important for me. After all - we eat with our eyes! As I've already mentioned, both looks and taste are often linked with nutrients.We don't need to eat potatoes 365 days a year - in fact they could become boring if we ate them every day - rather than the treat they are when you grow only the very best-tasting varieties. Food should never be boring - it should be a joy! I like eating tasty potatoes but we don't eat them more than two or three times a week at most - due to their high carbohydrate content. By the way - I never, ever boil potatoes - I always steam or bake them. Boiling potatoes means that you are pouring many of their valuable nutrients straight down the sink! That means they're also losing much of their flavour - which you can see very clearly if you boil the purple ones - as the water turns bright blue! We also always leave the skins on when eating any potatoes. Not only are many of the nutrients actually in or just beneath the skin - but again there's lots of gut-healthy, satisfying fibre in them too - so it's incredibly wasteful not to eat them!
Purple Majesty is an interesting and delicious variety that makes large tubers. This is the particular potato which featured in the blood pressure reduction study. Unfortunately a problem with plant breeders rights means that you can't get Purple Majesty seed tubers here in Ireland. So I'm afraid that being a bit of a rebel - I've always ignored that legal restriction! I've saved my own seed tubers for about 15 years now from some which I originally bought in a Northern Ireland supermarket about 10 years ago, and I've grown them ever since. As long as you don't sell them - that is perfectly legal! And as long as you always ONLY save tubers for seed from the healthiest plants - you can keep your stock healthy so you won't have problems. Purple Majesty is a main-crop variety which really benefits from my method of starting tubers off early in pots. This gives them the longest season possible before the dreaded potato blight hits. As soon as I see evidence of blight I take off the tops, cover the bed with something waterproof and they keep really well for months that way, as long as you don't have slug problems. They also keep well in normal cool storage if you do have slug problems. Purple Majesty retains its colour and phytonutrients well when cooked, has a lovely floury texture for making mash and a fantastic, 'nutty', sort of 'baked potato' flavour - despite being a relatively new introduction compared to some. It's so far proven to be the highest in antioxidants of all purple potatoes and is one of the best tasting varieties too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years. It bakes, fries and steams well - and makes a lovely fluffy mash.
Salad Blue is another potato which is a great masher and baker too.It is an early maincrop heritage variety, thought to have been bred in Victorian times. It's recently become very popular again and well deservedly, and is fairly widely available online. It also keeps very well in storage, after growingin my particular way. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots to give them a long season - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using this method and I never need to use any spray for blight - even copper-sulphate. Fruit Hill Farm in County Cork had it again this year.
Violetta is a deep purple, second-early variety. It's the earliest of the purple varieties to be ready here, and it crops well both in the polytunnel and outside. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some of the non-organically grown Violetta which I tried seven years ago from a well-known Dublin food shop - but I've since found that growing them organically, without the chemicals that make them absorb more water, really makes a huge difference to the taste! I got my original seed tubers from Tuckers Seeds in Devon, who used to sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and were good about sending to Ireland - but sadly they no longer sell online and are now only open to customers at their shop in Devon. Violetta is delicious steamed and eaten with lashings of butter - when it has a nice 'waxy' texture. It's good cold too, in tortillas and potato salads. Sadly it doesn't mash well or make good scalloped potatoes though, as it absorbs a lot of oil when cooking and doesn't crisp up well. It's not a bad baker though.
Attractive Vitelotte Noire after steaming
Vitelotte Noire - (otherwise known as Negresse or Truffe de Chine) is a very old heritage variety which was first recorded as being sold in the early 19th century, in the markets of Paris markets - but it is thought to be originally far older than that.Also a maincrop variety which is fairly late to bulk up - it is a salad type with a similar long shape to 'Pink Fir Apple' but not as knobbly. It has very dark purple flesh sometimes marbled with a lighter colour and has a wonderful flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket vegetable shops. Vitelotte is more resistant to blight and other diseases than many other potatoes - so it is well-suited to organic growing. This was that first potato that I found among the tempting exotic-looking displays in Harrods Food Hall all those years ago. I've been growing it ever since and have passed it on to many people. One of my favourites, I love that I'm growing history too.
Peru Purple, steamed, chilled overnight & scalloped in olive oil
Peru Purple is extremely rare and currently only available from seed banks such as The Irish Seed Savers Association or possibly other keen potatophiles - which is where I obtained mine. It's well worth growing if you can find it! It is very pretty with a deep red-purple skin, and is a slightly lighter colour, marbled with white inside. Although I've found virtually nothing about this particular variety online - (only that purple potatoes originally come from Peru!) - it seems to be a maincrop cultivar. I can certainly vouch for the fact that it makes the most deliciously fluffy, pale mauve mash. It also makes absolutely THE most fabulously crispy scalloped-potatoes ever! It quickly crisps and browns on the outside while staying light and fluffy on the inside. This is an aspect of their cooking qualities that I'm sure you'll understand I naturally felt that I had an obligation to research extensively on your behalf! It will definitely make fabulous oven fries or crisps......but more research will undoubtedly be necessary to investigate this! It definitely deserves to be far more widely known and grown! If you have it - share it - that will ensure that it not only survives but thrives!
A much newer variety which I grew for the very first time last year, looks set to become a firm favourite, is Blaue Annaliese, and I can tell you I'm already completely hooked! A hybrid between Violetta, which I've talked about above, and another purple variety - it was selected for its excellent disease-resistance from its breeding trials and was launched in 2007. It's now late July - there is blight everywhere and so far it is looking beautifully healthy again. despite being in the polytunnel, as I couldn't get any ground ready outside early enough due to my ankle problems - so finger's crossed! It's tubers are such a gorgeous deep violet/indigo- blue colour that they're almost black, so are clearly very high in healthy anthocyanins. They look absolutely stunning cooked too, and have a lovely sweet, almost chestnutty taste. I think it certainly has the most vigorous and healthiest-looking foliage of any potato I've ever grown, but clearly likes plenty of room! It's already smothered the Peru Purple which was 4 feet away! In future I shall give it an entire bed to itself, where it's wandering, far-reaching roots can't get mixed up with any other varieties. Although it is a maincrop variety rather than a first or second early which are more suitable, I held back some tubers from my spring planting to plant in the next week or so as an experiment for Christmas potatoes. I shall report back. Seed tubers were available this spring from Fruit Hill Farm in Co. Cork. https://www.fruithillfarm.com/seeds-and-propagation/organic-seed-potatoes/gourmet-potatoes/blaue-anneliese-organic-seed-potatoes.html
Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - A daft idea!
Purple Majesty left showing its violet-purple flesh colour - with the deeper-coloured indigo blue-black Blaue Annaliese on right
Blaue Anneliese looking healthy and vigorous - taking over an entire bed!
While talking of polytunnel potatoes I want to knock this misconception on the head once and for all! I NEVER keep my polytunnels closed to prevent blight at this time of year - because it doesn't! In fact if anything, it positively encourages it! As always - I write this blog from 45 years of personal experience - not from something daft that I've read in a book! You cannot possibly keep a tunnel so airtight that it doesn't allow any air in. And anyone who grows in a polytunnel can tell you that when they are closed, even on a dull day with no sun at this time of year, they can feel like a sauna - especially in Ireland with our higher air humidity, even if the soil in the tunnel were to be so dry that nothing would grow in it! I've grown in a lot of different-sized polytunnels for many years now, starting off with a tiny, 6 ft by 4ft, 'Garden Relax' polythene-covered greenhouse in my very first garden 44 years ago. I now have 2 large, quite high ones with good air circulation - but I can still confidently say that THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO WAY YOU CAN SHUT POTATO BLIGHT OUT OF A POLYTUNNEL! Blight spores are always circulating in the air at this time of year, and all they need are the right conditions to germinate and grow on either potatoes or tomatoes. Those conditions are humidity and warmth, both day and night for 48 hours - and keeping a polytunnel closed day and night for that length of time at this time of year does precisely that!
Careful hand watering of potatoes, ONLY when necessary, in a polytunnel or outside, and NEVER, ever, watering from above or wetting the foliage are key to avoiding blight in hot, dry weather. Automatic watering systems often encourage blight by over-watering and never allowing the surface of the soil to dry out. That's one of the reasons why I hate them, as I mentioned in the polytunnel blog this month. OK - I know standing and watering plants is not everyone's most favourite occupation, but not only is it a lot cheaper than an automatic system - but it allows you more control and also gives you time to really see what's going on with your crops. And that observation and knowledge is what makes the difference between being a really good gardener and just an adequate one.
It's the season of 'firsts'....
Nothing ever tastes quite like that very first bite of truly seasonal produce at it's best - whether you're a new gardener or if you've been growing you have grown your own food for many years! The first strawberries, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas...etc. One of the simplest, most satisfying and most joyous pleasures in life is to be able to cultivate a garden, and to produce as much of your own food as possible - while at the same time helping all of the other creatures that are part of Nature, just as we are. Our garden here has not just been a source of sustenance for many years - but also a source of great joy, health and peace for the soul.
This picture here was taken in 1983, of some of my first summer's produce here at Springmount. It was proudly displayed on the then kitchen table. It gave me such a great sense of achievement back then - and a feeling that no matter what life threw at us - we would survive it all and feed ourselves well! .... I still hope that will be the case for many more years to come - but in the future with the erratic weather of climate change - that is definitely going to be more of a challenge!
I could already clearly notice the effects of climate change beginning to happen here 36 years ago. But few wanted to listen then, and many denied it - when something might still have been done to mitigate its worst effects!In September of 1992, just after the first Rio Earth Summit that June - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. It was given by Alan Gear - then chief executive of the HDRA (now re-named Garden Organic) - the local Irish group of which I organised at the time. His lecture was entitled 'The Road From Rio - Where Do We Go From Here'. His warning was stark - act NOW or it will rapidly get worse, and all of Nature, including humans, will bear the consequences of our inaction! Even then it was clear that soil was part of the solution - and increasingly science is showing this to be more true with every passing day.
Restoring soil carbon through regenerative organic agriculture, by gardening organically without using climate-destructive peat products, or by supporting organic farming, are the best chance each of us has to truly be able to do something personally to help mitigate climate change. The soil was so bad when I started growing here, after years of chemical agriculture destroying all of its carbon, that it was almost like lifeless concrete when it was dry - and like sticky glue when it was wet! It is so much better now after 38 years of minimal digging, constant mulching and loving organic husbandry that I can plant just with my hands - I don't need tools! It is now completely transformed, and it is so wonderful to sink one's hands into it, with its vibrantly alive community of creatures and microbes - truly plugging into the earth and the source of our earliest beginnings. Is it any wonder that it benefits our mental health just to feel it and to inhale beneficial microbes like Mycobacterium Vaccae - which has been scientifically proven to cure depression? It is so sad that so many people never get the chance to experience that.
There have been many changes here since those early days. The children have grown up, various people - some much loved family, assortments of animals, and momentous life events have all come and gone. But one thing never changes - that is that my enthusiasm and desire to learn from mistakes and successes, to constantly look for good new varieties or better selections of old ones and ways to do things even better so that I keep improving the soil with every year that passes. Also to find easier ways of growing that will allow me to continue my gardening even after accidents have left me partially disabled and now less able to do many things. Experiments continue. That's the wonderful thing about gardening - and why it holds such a continuing fascination for me. One never stops learning and no one ever knows it all, no matter how long we do it. Nature doesn't give up all of her secrets easily - but if you work with her - the rewards are plentiful.
Take good care of your soil - it is more precious than Gold!
Gold can't grow food either! We didn't evolve to eat commodities grown with chemicals in the poisoned, impoverished and lifeless medium that conventionally farmed soils have become.Neither did we evolve to eat foods grown in chemical hydroponic solutions, with artificial light where the plants are fed with fertiliser (also often fungicidal) solutions and deprived of all the vital symbiotic bacteria & fungi that are present in a living soil which they need to produce all their proper nutrients! To be healthy and productive - soil and all it's microbial life needs to be replenished, encouraged and protected constantly. That's what Nature does.
We cannot keep taking crops from soil without helping it to regenerate all those natural things it needs. Soil is a living community of microbes - or it should be. In some parts of the planet - soil has just become a completely lifeless, carbon-depleted dust which simply holds up plants while they're fed with chemicals. It has so little organic matter left in it that it erodes, washes away or blows away very easily. We can't keep taking crops from the soil and not replacing all those elements that made them - any more than we could give up real food and just live on vitamins and protein supplements! Soil loss is also becoming more and more important from an environmental, as well as from a food growing perspective, as it traps carbon dioxide and is a massive carbon sink, so it is absolutely vital to mitigating climate change. Only a healthy, living organic soil can do this!
If you would like to know more about how us gardeners can restore soil and by doing so help to mitigate climate-change - here's a link to the soil talk which I gave at our National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin in 2016:
The soil gave us our past and nurtured us. We now hold its future, and ours in our hands. We must use it more wisely. If we keep taking more and more from it without giving anything back, what we are actually doing is robbing our own future - and so are the multinational manufacturers of these planet-polluting chemicals which are destroying it! They don't care about the future of our children - or even apparently theirs! Their only concern is big profits now!
The season of Plenty - but also gluts!
There is no more delightful and satisfying sight than a really well organised and productive vegetable garden at this time of year. It's so satisfying to stand back and look at everything after a hard day's work. The whole garden has a summer carnival atmosphere about it - like a glorious celebration of Nature's abundant generosity. We're surrounded by masses of delicious vegetables - so many luscious things to choose from that we could have several different ones in gluttonous portions every day! Mother Nature has pressed the 'fast forward' button and everything is growing so incredibly fast that it's hard to choose what to eat next!
Of course with seasonal growing and eating - gluts of many fruits and vegetables can naturally sometimes become a problem. It's always a feast or a famine!One minute you're dying for that very first taste of something - then all of a sudden there's far too many! It's a good problem to have though. In these times of fast rising prices for so many things, and even food shortages lately due to COVID19 - it's not just a good feeling to be as self-sufficient as possible in most things. but also sensible. Particularly with the other uncertainty brought about by the forthcoming Brexit - but I won't start on politics! When under pressure I tend to try to find positive, practical side ways to cope! This is when it's so useful to have a freezer - particularly since we're not that into chutneys or jams, all being high in sugar! Priority for eating fresh has to be given to those that perhaps don't tend to freeze quite as well as some others. Most things freeze well, but some veg need cooking first.
Courgettes, which we've now been eating for over a month from the tunnel, don't freeze well raw but do freeze very well as a component of my caramelised roast red onion ratatouille, which is totally addictive, incredibly useful, and a brilliant standby to have in the freezer (if it makes it that far - because it's so delicious cold it's hard to resist! You can find it in the recipe section). It's a terrific way to use up too many courgettes - something which always happens! They freeze very well cooked like this and are so useful to have put by to use as a side vegetable or to throw into sauces.
Broccoli is another brilliant freezer candidate which always seems to be all ready at once - particularly the more productive F1 varieties like 'Green Magic' from Unwins - my all year round favourite.I pack the small individual florets into recycled plastic take-away boxes. Donated by other people I hasten to add! We don't eat Chinese takeaways - but it's amazing how many so-called healthy eaters do! I'm not complaining though, I'm only too happy to do their recycling for them - one box holds two portions of broccoli very nicely. That way they don't get smashed up in the freezer. There's no need to blanch them before freezing quickly either - it just wastes nutrients! They are perfect if tipped straight into fast-boiling water from frozen when you want to use them. I always sow a late crop of 'Green Magic' calabrese this month for planting in the tunnel in September - this will give us useful pickings all through the winter if covered with a bit of fleece when a very hard frost threatens.
Some crops like climbing French beans, broad beans and peas, I tend to grow specifically for freezing - firstly because they obviously don't grow over winter in the polytunnels but also because they are mostly unaffected by several months in the freezer, and make a very welcome change during the darkest months of the year. They are mostly 'squirrelled' away for winter suppers, after enjoying the novelty of the first few platefuls of fresh ones. It can be hard to keep up with filling the freezer as well doing all the garden jobs that all seem to need doing at once, but it will be so welcome during the long winter months when organic vegetables and fruits are scarce, expensive, depleted of nutrients and without much variety, unless they've come from God knows where, along with a massive carbon footprint! . It feels so good in the depths of winter to enjoy a bit of the summer's sunshine - captured in the harvest from your own garden!
Things like pumpkins or winter squashes that will store for a long time overwinter are also a major priority crop here. They don't need valuable freezer space either, just a cool dry place. With careful ripening they can often be stored right up until next year's are sown or even later - increasing in vitamin A while in storage. So they are a very valuable winter staple. On the subject of pumpkins and squashes - unless you're entering giant pumpkin competitions you don't want huge ones, so encourage fruiting side shoots to form by pinching out the main shoot after 4-5 leaf joints. Then each of the side shoots produces flowers and that way instead of just one huge pumpkin - I get 3 or four good sized ones which store very well for the winter. Last week I had my first major basil harvest of the year, grown in the tunnel as it's far too windy here to do well outside. To me - my vegetable garden is far more important than money in the bank. It's so comforting knowing that I have a really good range of foods preserved for the winter. In fact. even if I had oodles of money - I could never buy most of the things that I grow.
A few years ago I discovered another fantastic way to use courgettes - and I promise that I could never have believed that their taste could be so utterly transformed just by the way they are prepared! I first read about them in Domini Kemp's column in the Irish Times Magazine. They looked fun so I bought a cheap 'Lurch' model just to try it - half expecting it to be rubbish! I couldn't have been more wrong! Fabulous 'courgetti spaghetti' in an instant - but watch your fingers!! 4 years ago my June 'Tunnel to Table recipe was Spaghetti Courgetti with Pesto and it was really delicious (in the recipe and 'listen' sections if you want to try it). The 'courgetti' are also delicious, just very simply stir-fried with a clove of garlic and some soy sauce - from the taste you would think you were eating a whole Chinese stir-fry, they're just fantastic! The very best way to cook them in my opinion though is in my Creamy Courgette and red onion Gratin - also in the recipe section. It's my most popular recipe ever! Everyone loves it and now we don't have enough - something that's never usually a problem at this time of year!! Another of my recipes - my Lemon Courgette Cake - is I think is my best cake ever! It keeps brilliantly, getting better over three or four days (if it lasts!) and also freezes fantastically well. I don't know why some people make fun of spiralisers - they clearly haven't tried them properly - they're brilliant! I wouldn't be without mine now!
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!
Talking of the winter months- it's now that we need to think about next year's 'hungry gap'! Difficult I know - with everything growing so quickly and so much staking, watering, weeding and mulching etc. to be done! It can be difficult to remember that a great many winter and late spring crops take almost a whole year to grow. Some, like Brussels sprouts and leeks, should have been sown a couple of months ago. At the same time as storing some of the tender vegetables for a bit of winter variety - we have to think about planting the hardy ones that will be the mainstay of our diet then. This may seem an odd time of year to be thinking about winter veg, when we hope we still have a lot more summer to enjoy - but it's just a reminder that if you don't think about them right now, then come winter or next year's spring 'hungry gap' you won't have any! You need to plan now for what's going to follow on after your summer crops - both outside and undercover - and then make sure you have the seeds or the plants that you will need.
From mid-June to the end of August is when most of the seeds need to be sown for many things like chicory, oriental veg., winter lettuces etc. If you sow them from now on in modules using organic seed compost - you will have them ready to plant as soon as early summer crops are over - thereby making the best use of your growing space. If you haven't already sown things like leeks, kale and purple sprouting broccoli for growing outside - then garden centres should still have good plants at the moment - but get them as soon as you can because plants that are still hanging around in a month or so may have become starved or root bound in their modules and won't produce good crops. There's lots more info. on what to sow now and next month for winter and also quick growing crops to mature this autumn in the sowing list for this month. There's also still some sowings to be done of vegetables that will mature in the autumn. Some, like Chinese cabbages and radicchio, actually prefer the shortening, post-solstice days. If sown before then they'll often run straight up to seed in the late summer heat (we hope!). Again there's a lot more suggestions in my 'What to Sow' section of the blog.
Cabbage damaged by root fly on right
It's time to transplant winter brassicas like Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflowers, kales and cabbages to their final winter cropping quarters if you already have the plants - the bigger and more well established they are before the autumn - the better your crops will be. Don't forget to put brassica collars around the stems to keep off the cabbage root fly and also to suspend netting above them to stop the cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs on them. If you just rest the netting on them, the butterfly will still manage to lay her eggs onto the topmost leaves! I find that carpet squares are best for making brassica collars, as they are flexible and don't shrink. I tried to make some from old, paper backed carpet underlay but when they dried out a bit one had shrunk so the root fly got in - you can see the result here! You could still sow some kale, if you can cover them with cloches later on - these won't make huge plants but can still be well worth picking as 'baby' leaves, even if we get a cold autumn. Kales will also do very well over the winter in a polytunnel and will be far more productive than they ever would be outside. If you didn't sow any brassicas, a friend of mine bought some very good organic plants online last year, so you could try that - or visit one of the good local garden centres who are worth supporting in these days of big DIY multiples. You can also sow spring cabbages and swedes - I find sowing in modules under fine netting best, to avoid any pests, and also seedlings possibly getting smothered by weeds, as can easily happen with everything growing so quickly now.
Keep sowing lettuces and other salads little and often - I sow a few lettuces in modules each time I'm planting some out- this keeps up a regular supply, as I never like to be without the makings of a good salad. There's lots of great lettuces to sow in July. I grow 'Little Gem' baby cos because I love their crunch and I also grow a lot of the loose leaf types like the wonderful Jack Ice too - as they can crop for months, particularly in the spring and autumn if you keep them well watered, just picking a few leaves from each plant every time you need some. They're really useful in an ornamental potager, as they're very attractive and picking a whole head of lettuce does tend to leave rather a hole in one's planting pattern! Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is always a reliable one for this, very colourful, disease resistant and full of antioxidants, the seed is cheaply available everywhere now - and is often given away free with gardening magazines. 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino are my favourite loose leaf winter lettuces now, but 'Fristina' (pictured) and 'Belize' are also very tasty, bolt-resistant green ones, which both have nice firm leaves and are nicely 'crunchy' in the middle, not 'floppy' as some of the loose leaf types often can be. I've found that 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino also overwinter really well in the tunnel, are very disease resistant and also slow to bolt. 'Cherokee' is a really good crunchy leaved Batavian which everyone remarked on last winter/spring - wanting to know what it was. Nymans is a great red Cos variety. Like a lot of the red lettuces - it seems quite hardy, has a lovely flavour and eventually makes nice crispy hearts in spring, after picking a few leaves from the outside over winter. All of these benefit from cloche protection later on in autumn if outside rather than in a tunnel - more to prevent excess wet than cold.
'Sugar loaf' chicory - Pain de Sucre is another old favourite standby for sowing now or up until mid August that will grow well all winter both outside and in the tunnel - making nice big, tightly wrapped, blanched hearts like cos lettuces in late winter and early spring - and with slightly more bitter outside leaves that make a great late winter tonic for hens. Early July sowings seem to make the biggest hearts - so don't delay sowing it!.
One winter veg I would also never want to be without, no matter what, is Ruby Chard - and now is the perfect time to sow it for good winter crops, before the end of July. I particularly like the variety Vulcan - I've found that it's far better in terms of productivity than any of the other coloured chards, which tend to run up to flower very easily at the slightest excuse. It's very easy to grow and much more bolt-resistant than those as long as you give it plenty of root room and keep it well watered in hot weather, especially in polytunnels in spring. It has equal standing ability to the plain white stemmed one - and of course it's far more nutritious than that, having a lot of the phytonutrients I mentioned earlier, due to the red colour. We think it tastes better too.
Carry on composting!
Keep collecting compost material, mixing it up well as you do, particularly if you're incorporating grass clippings which can be very wet and slimy put on in an anaerobic, unmixed layer.Their very high-nitrogen green sappiness needs to be balanced with plenty of high carbon, brown and more stemmy stuff, or ripped up newspapers, cardboard etc. Keep your compost covered, so that it heats up really well, destroying any weed seeds and breaking down the plant material quickly. You could fry an egg on my compost heaps at this time of year! - The hotter it is - the better! It's easier to get the heap to heat up if it's fairly big. Compost bins are OK but don't heat up so much. They're very useful for keeping rats out though if you have a lot of fruit waste which tends to attract them. A very hot heap also puts them off, and by the time it cools down - everything in it should be well broken down and not so attractive to them. I use old pallets to make my compost bins, they allow air in at the sides, and then I cover the tops and front with heavy gauge black polythene silage cover. This also keeps the rain out and so keeps all the nutrients in the compost where I want them. I'm always astonished to see 'experts' on TV not covering compost heaps - haven't they heard of nutrient loss, 'run-off' and pollution? Uncovered compost may still make a good soil conditioner - but most of the nitrients will have been completely washed away, wasting all the valuable soil-enriching fertility, polluting groundwater and emitting climate-change accelerating Nitrous Oxide!!
Drown your perennial weeds!
I don't put perennial weeds like docks, scutch (couch) grass and mares tail onto the compost heap, as it wouldn't kill them - I reserve extra special treatment for them in order to recycle the nutrients they've robbed from my soil!First I put them in a black bin bag in the sun to wilt & cook for a week or so, then I put them into a large barrel of water beside the compost heaps, with about half a bucket of chicken manure to get them festering nicely! Or you could alternatively use HLA - 'household liquid activator' as the wonderful late Lawrence Hills euphemistically called it! (use your imagination - the final insult to a weed!!) This is added to throughout the summer and by the following year everything has rotted nicely, any fibrous plant material remaining can at that stage go onto the compost heap with the rest of the now benign liquid being used as a liquid feed, diluted about 10-1. Warning here - cover this when it's festering - the smell is appalling and attracts horse flies like a magnet! It's actually very good for seeing off unwanted visitors though. Just invite them to admire your compost heaps and give it a really vigorous stir while they're standing beside it - it works like magic!! Don't get it on your hands though - or you won't get rid of the smell for a fortnight! The same goes for comfrey, borage and nettle feed - much the best when all mixed together in a large barrel - as the high nitrogen nettles help the high potash comfrey to break down quickly, the borage supplies valuable magnesium, and they make a nice balanced feed for most things when diluted to the colour of weak tea after a few weeks, when the smell had mostly gone.
End of brassica bed planting of Nasturtium, Tagetes & Viola, to attract beneficial insects.
The first runner beans will be flowering soon - but you won't have any problem with pollination if you've been encouraging bees and other pollinators into the garden by growing lots of flowers among your vegetables as I do.It makes the 'potager' or kitchen garden look beautiful too, and flowers such as Nasturtiums and violas are also edible and can be used in salads.
The value of mulching
Talking of runner beans - it's important to keep them evenly moist at the roots as any dryness at the roots encourages the flower buds to drop. A good mulch now will help to etain moisture . Grass clippings are brilliant for this - also keeping weeds down. As I've said so many times before - always mulch on already damp soil, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the direct stem area to avoid possible rotting, and watering in well as soon as you put fresh grass clippings on - to avoid any burning of the roots by the high nitrogen in the clippings.
Keep mulching everything you can, as this stops evaporation, saves on water, protects the soil surface from heavy summer rain (I wish!), encourages worms and keeps the weeds down by excluding light. Plants and worms love mulches rather than bare soil. A nice cooling mulch keeps the worms working in the upper layers of soil - rather than disappearing lower down, away from the dry summer heat. That means they're making more plant nutrients available to the roots of crops. Worms like green food - it's much better for them than newspaper or cardboard, although they do need carbon too. I know a lot of people use newspapers under grass mulches, but all I can say is they can't have very many birds in their gardens! I tried that years ago around shrubs and fruit bushes, but the birds here had one helluva time scratching them up everywhere looking for worms! The garden quickly resembled the local rubbish dump - so I just use grass clippings on their own now! They still get scratched about but don't look so bad and after a few days they fade to a nice light brown colour!
Don't use massive mulches of manure - doing that promotes soft growth that's far more vulnerable to both diseases and slugs! It also buries too deeply and suffocates many of the vital organisms that live in the top layers of the soil, which plants need to be healthy. The majority of soil-dwelling bacteria need oxygen to survive and do their job of interacting with plant roots. If you make life hard for them, you make it much harder for them to do their job. Lashing on tons of non-organic manure can also contain chemicals which can unbalance the population of soil bacteria. This is something many people don't know. In every layer of soil there is something that specifically evolved to live in that particular place. Leave it where it evolved to be - don't make life hard for it!
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and over 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
Topics for July:Growing New Potatoes for Christmas..... Polytunnels should be available on prescription!..... A Polytunnel can be your alternative to a 'Mediterranean' holiday in Summer!.... Holiday time and watering plants..... Rough guide to watering/feeding Tomatoes in containers & in the ground..... Side-shoots on Tomatoes.... Pollination of Tomatoes..... Other Tunnel Crops..... Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads......Thinking ahead to late autumn and winter crops
Potato 'Lady Christl' pot-grown for new potatoes at Christmas
Potato Apache - pot-grown for new potatoes at Christmas
Growing New Potatoes for Christmas
You can use any variety of potatoes to plant for Christmas and New Year potatoes, as all of them will grow, but first and second early types are the most reliable ones to count on being ready for Christmas - other varieties may be later cropping, but will still be welcome.If I'm saving some of my early spring crop from the same year for doing this - I dry them off in the sun for a few days - don't worry if they go green, that won't matter. Then I put them in the fridge to chill them for a week or so to fool them into thinking that winter has arrived and they're having their 'dormant period'. I don't wait for them to 'chit' or sprout then - I just plant them about 10 cm deep in 3 litre or larger pots or tubs, in organic peat-free potting compost - and they then think it's spring and simply romp away! Potatoes are always keen to grow whatever the time of year, bless them - as anyone who has ever accidentally left a forgotten bag of them half-finished at the back of the veg drawer will know very well!
After you've planted them in their pots, keep them outside for a few weeks somewhere where they'll get really good air circulation, but not where they will get too hot- perhaps in the shade of a north facing wall - but definitely not in full sun. Plenty of good air circulation is key to avoiding late blight. Also key is only to water only into the top of the pot or from underneath. Never spray overhead with water - as wetting leaves encourages blight in warm humid weather. Then bring them into the polytunnel in autumn as soon as any frost is forecast - again ensuing good air circulation. From then on always cover them at night with fleece just in case. Be careful not to over-water, or they may rot at this stage, as in mid to late autumn they won't be growing as strongly any more. Just keep them barely 'ticking over' then until Christmas - never letting them get completely dry. It may seem like a bit of a faff I know - but at Christmas your new potatoes will be such a treat - and you'll be so glad that you went to the trouble of planting them!
Alternatively - tubers for growing Christmas crops are available from most garden centres now and can be planted without chilling - although these may not necessarily be the best-flavoured types. These are just tubers which have been kept in cold storage from the same seed tuber crops that suppliers would have been selling for planting earlier this year. I do this every year with tubers which I've saved from the previous year in a cool room, and held back from spring planting in the current year. By now they may look pretty shriveled and often have very long sprouts on them - often 30 cm or even a foot long! But long sprouts aren't a problem - they will still grow! I just lay them on their side and wind the long sprouts gently around the pots - usually using 3 litre pots or larger for these Christmas crops. They soon take off like rockets, as they're so delighted to finally be planted! Either way works just fine. In fact - you could even buy a variety of salad or other potato which you happen to like from shops or farmers markets, and treat them in exactly the same way I do my homegrown ones, leaving them out in the light for a few days, then chilling for a couple of weeks in exactly the same way, and then planting. Do make sure they're organic though - then you can be absolutely sure that they won't have been treated with the toxic, anti-sprouting chemicals which conventional, chemically-grown crops are. Apache, Lady Christl and Red Duke of York are ones that I love to grow for Christmas as they are early/second early varieties and have wonderful flavour. Red Duke of York can be quite susceptible to late blight in September though, so needs care in growing.
If the variety you have chosen isn't a first or second-early one, and isn't ready in time for the festive season - then just as long as you don't let them get damaged by frost, and keep covering them at night with some fleece - then they'll just keep growing on after Christmas, through a few more weeks until they are finally ready. I've often done that depending on what variety I'm growing - and in fact they'll be even more welcome in a dismal, dark January than they will be at Christmas - when there are so many other goodies to eat!
Is there anything as wonderful as this time of year in the garden? If the glorious abundance of healthy foods that surround us everywhere now doesn't excite you and make you grateful for Nature's generous abundance - then you're a lost cause as far as organic, real food gardening is concerned!
Polytunnels should be available on Prescription - they are so beneficial for Mental Health!
Many doctors are now prescribing Nature's medicine for people with mental health problems, but none as far as I know are prescribing polytunnels - despite the fact that they can provide all -weather gardening and healthy organic food all year round!
Most kinds of gardening can be challenging at times - especially when you have any sort of movement-limiting disability, but having an area which is accessible in all weathers like a polytunnel can make it very much easier! Having a polytunnel means that even if you're in pain or just don't feel like doing anything on that particular day - you can still get your daily dose of sunlight and Nature watching, even if it's lashing with rain! This is especially so if you plant your polytunnel as I do - with lots of flowers, herbs and fruit, as well as vegetables - which attract bees and other beneficial insects, frogs, hedgehogs and birds all year round. I make a point of sitting in there for at least 20 minutes at sometime during each day. But usually the sitting doesn't last very long - there's always something which needs doing - especially at this time of year.
One of the reasons I started this blog was because I wanted people to know that no matter what your problems - if you're really determined to grow healthy food, it's still possible to find a way! It's often just a matter of thinking laterally - and finding another way rather than giving up and saying "I can't"! I refuse to say that, and I always prefer to get on with things no matter what my problems - because I feel that doing anything rather than just sitting and complaining is far better and more positive - no matter what one's situation.
This year, just like last year - I've seen so many people complaining about being 'locked down' due to COVID19 - how bored and stressed they are, how much they are missing socialising with other people and how it's badly affecting their mental health. Very often they say that because of that they're eating cake, chocolate or crisps, or finding themselves at the bottom of a bottle of wine - but believe me - I've 'been there and done all that' many years ago. I have the ultimate Tee Shirt - with probably more excuse than many! NONE of those are the answer to any problems and will only make them feel worse! So although I'm not a fan of complaining about personal problems - I thought I'd share just a little bit more about my life experiences with you, in case you might think my life has all been easy!
Before we moved here, I spent 5 months in 1980 unable to walk due to a fall, on top of which I contracted viral meningitis and was seriously ill. Luckily my children didn't catch it, and I think the only reason that I did was because my immune system was already at an extremely low ebb, low due to taking so many painkillers, serious antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications for my spinal problems. These are drugs which no matter what problems I've had since - I have refused ever to take again! They gave me a stomach ulcer on top of already serious problems - which I cured purely by natural means - as I also did the M.E./Chronic Fatigue/Post-Viral syndrome which I suffered from after recovering from the initial viral meningitis infection. I think the meningitis may have been brought in by my doctor, who was visiting another unfortunate woman on the same road who had caught it, and who I learnt afterwards, sadly subsequently died from it. Anyway, I spent the time I was unable to move very much reading everything I could lay my hands on about soil, and potager gardens and no-dig, raised or deep bed gardening, so that I would somehow still be able to garden and grow my own food - even if I was confined to a wheelchair. I also read anything which was available at the time about natural health cures, as I had plenty of time!
Luckily I very slowly recovered, but what kept me going through that awful time and kept me sane were the dreams, hope and inspiration I found in those gardening books! As I got better, although I'd been an organic gardener for about 5 years by then, we had sadly moved from our first house and I had no garden to speak of. So I experimented and learned even more about how to grow a huge amount of organic food just in tubs and strong carrier bags - even though I could often do little more than 10 minutes activity before almost fainting and having blackouts due to the ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I was suffering from. That time was good practice for what unfortunately followed only 2 years later, after we moved here - when once again I was in severe pain and unable to do anything, after simply bending down to undo a very stiff bolt on the bottom of a stable door, something which when I straightened up from doing it, left me with rapidly progressive weakness in my left arm, serious pain from nerve damage, and needing cervical spine surgery to remove pieces of collapsed discs which were pressing on my spinal cord and impacting on nerves originating in my cervical spine area. It was probably the final straw for my spine which had already been damaged time and again from many years of falling off horses (or them falling on me!), which had culminated in the 5 months flat out in bed, after which I was banned from ever riding again, which was a severe blow. So I had to face the fact that I was never going to be able to fulfill my lifelong ambition to be a Grand Prix dressage rider! That undeniable fact was pretty heartbreaking to deal with, as I'd ridden ponies and then horses since before I could walk.
Up to that point - horses had been my life - with growing organic food for my severely allergic child as a necessary side occupation. But once again gardening saved my mental health from severely deteriorating. Over the next 20 years or so, thanks to a wonderful neurosurgeon who performed surgery which cured my severe cervical spine and arm pain, I even became a commercial organic producer for a time, also fulfilling my other ambition to become a sculptor (with a little success). But throughout - although progressive and debilitating degenerative disc-disease was gradually making things more difficult - I was constantly finding new and easier ways to do things, so that I could continue to grow our own food, which was my first priority. I've always treated whatever life has thrown at me as a bit of a challenge - saying to the fates "OK - whatever you throw at me - I will NOT be defeated, and will damned well find some other way to do it!". I won't bore you with any more about all the various other accidents etc along the way - including three life-threatening car accidents - none of which were my fault! Suffice to say - that I think I can say with authority that there is always a way to do things if one is determined enough! Well done if you've got this far!
Fast forward to 2021 - and although the left ankle which some of you may know I broke badly in 2019 has healed brilliantly - all through natural healing, for the last year things have been made really difficult once again by me having to spend most of it on sticks due to the planned reconstructive surgery for a very old injury to the other right ankle, exacerbated by hopping about on it after breaking the left one! This had been postponed due to COVID19. Anyway, despite being unable to do very much - I've still managed to do a bit of gentle planting and clearing and also writing this blog four times a month. It's surprising how much one can achieve even if sometimes you only have half an hour's 'standing time' as I call it - as long as you just make a point of doing it every day. I know from experience that it makes one feel so much better to achieve that. It's also wonderful to be able to go out every day and pick some fresh veg for our meals.
The tunnels are both looking a bit hectic right now! You won't find bare soil and neatly weeded rows of anything anywhere! In the bigger east tunnel, along with the few crops like lettuce, spinach, watercress and kale which I had left over from last autumn until last month, I still have the other perennial fruits and veg that I grow, which means that there's always something to be found for a meal. There's peaches ripening now, sorrel, perennial Welsh and Egyption Walking Onions, garlic, Red Leaved Dandelion (a chicory actually), Vegetable Mallow (like spinach), watercress, herbs, self-sown Nasturtiums and Glin Castle perennial kale to pick. I'm also sneaking off a delicious few of the incredibly vigorous and healthy-looking Bleu Annaliese potatoes - which were planted quite late, on 21st March inside, purely because I wasn't able to clear any space outside. They've taken over an entire bed in the tunnel, completely smothering the extremely rare Peru Purple potatoes which had been planted 3 weeks earlier - so I don't mind stealing any of their tubers that I can find just under the surface! Grapes are looking very promising too, and the blackberries which keep returning from the remains of those growing in the spot where I put up the new polytunnels 13 years ago, are fruiting deliciously in the fruit tunnel right now. I've never been able to completely eradicate them - so now we've reached a sort of uneasy truce! I allow them to form early fruit on the canes that keep coming back - and then I cut those right down the minute they've finished fruiting - when the rest of their siblings outside have started ripening their early ones! That way I get a longer season of fresh fruit and they produce new shorter growth after this month, which they will fruit on next year, and don't become too dangerous!
The early French beans Cobra are already cropping, mangetout peas and runner bean Moonlight are only a couple of weeks away from cropping - despite being sown late due to my ankle problems delaying the clearing of winter crops. Although most people grow those outside at this time of year - we always get severe gales in August which flatten them, just when I hope they'll start cropping. They'll be fine in the polytunnel and they will also go on cropping much later than any grown outside, so worth doing. There are also figs, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and potted mulberries ripening.. And of course there's always lots of flowers for the all important wildlife - that look after the pest control for me. I also have Maskotka tomatoes ripe in the smaller and warmer fruit tunnel (or west tunnel), gherkin baby cucumber Restina is producing delicious baby-sized cucumbers, and early Atena courgettes are cropping so well.
Also in the bigger east tunnel, I'm saving a lot of my own seed again this year. I hadn't done so of some crops for a couple of years, but the unavailability of several varieties last year, and some seed companies running out completely of others, due to the sudden rise in popularity of growing your own veg during the pandemic, reminded me that it was time to do so again. This will ensure that I will have plenty of seed of all my staple crops like winter spinach, lettuce, purple carrots, kale and celery! Potatoes I save each year as a matter of course, as many of those I grow are rare and can't be obtained anywhere. As you may know I start all of my potatoes off in pots now, and each year I hold back a couple of pots to save for seed tubers, when I'm planting the rest. I've found that to be the most successful way to ensure that I don't lose them. It's such a satisfying thing to know one is reasonably self-reliant - particularly when Brexit is affecting supplies of many things both in the UK and here in Ireland.
A Polytunnel can be your alternative to a 'Mediterranean' holiday in Summer!
Protection from the elements and warmth, even on cloudy days in summer, means that with the almost Mediterranean climate in a polytunnel at this time of year - you get so much more in return for the work you put in compared to growing fruit and vegetables outside. As I've already said, they're a great 'uplifter' on a grey gloomy day and also an incredibly cost-effective method of food production - no matter what size they are - if every inch inside is used as efficiently as it should be. They're also a way of keeping us gardeners sane when the weather's against us! Inside a polytunnel it can feel more like southern Europe - especially on a sunny day or even when it's so foul that you wouldn't even put a cat out - which can often happen in our Irish 'summers'! Mine certainly feels like that in most summers - a Mediterranean banquet! It's a real feast of colours, scents and tastes - of tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, courgettes, French beans, melons, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, figs, lemons, oranges, blackberries, cherries, cape gooseberries and grapevines literally dripping with fast-swelling, emerald bunches. The list goes on - with scarlet geraniums, nasturtiums, feverfew, orange marigolds and many valuable herbs like Perilla dotted about wherever they can be squeezed in, attracting insects like butterflies, hoverflies and with the constant hum of happy bees. I also grow some flowers in big pots which like hot dry conditions too - like some of the most richly-scented but slightly more fussy roses that don't flower well outside here - like Emporeur du Maroc - which really hates our damp weather. Its scent hits me when I open the polytunnel in the early mornings at this time of year. It flowers in the polytunnel for months, repeat-flowering well, and it's wonderful for using in recipes especially for making Rose Petal Syrup. With the scent of the citrus blossom, lemon verbena and Jasmine filling the air too - it's really like being in another country altogether! Who needs Mediterranean holidays? I personally think that money is far better spent on a polytunnel where you can grow healthy food and enjoy relaxing in sunlight almost all year round! It's absolute heaven - and I can't bear to be away from mine for very long!
Things grow so incredibly fast in the almost tropical atmosphere that it can be all too easy to let yourself become a 'polytunnel slave' (a willing one in my case!) and rush round all the time watering, tending and harvesting. There just seems to be so much to do and so little time - even if you're up well before 6 am and working until it's dark! It's definitely necessary to relax in a chair in the sun occasionally though, admire it all and just enjoy the moment - something I try to do for at least a few minutes each day no matter how busy I am. I've never seen organic peaches or grapes for sale anywhere other than on very rare occasions in farmer's markets and even then they're imported from a long way away - with a huge carbon footprint and a horrendous price - but they're easy to grow once you know how. At this time of year if you have a tunnel - you can bite into gloriously mouthwatering, properly ripe tomatoes warmed by the midsummer sun, with just a hint of a basil leaf. Or perhaps pick a few cherries and raspberries for a pre-breakfast snack, then sink your teeth into a lusciously yielding peach running with juice. I feel really sorry for all those poor souls who have to buy their fruit laced with chemicals, plastic wrapped, picked half ripe, bred to have skins tough enough to withstand the rigours of travelling hundreds of miles across Europe or from further afield to reach the customer's plates days, or sometimes even weeks later!
I know I'm still so lucky to have two large polytunnels to enjoy gardening in - I used to have four when I was producing organic crops commercially. Now it's a bit of a luxury to be able to grow whatever I want and to have fun experimenting with exciting new crops - rather than being tied to the same old purely commercial crops. But do you know something - they're still not big enough - I could fill at least four more polytunnels and still need more covered space! I would love to have a dedicated vine tunnel for instance. Or even a cherry tunnel! Just as the old walled gardens had their vine houses many decades ago - and a fig tunnel and a citrus tunnel and.................! The problem is - I could do with a few assistant gardeners as well! Especially now - since my ankle problems, which are really slowing me up! Ah well........a polytunnel is also definitely a place to dream in. And dreams are free!
They may not be the most beautiful structures in the world from the outside - but polytunnels are like people - it's what's on the inside that really counts! The more traditional greenhouses are very beautiful things architecturally speaking I'll grant you - and who wouldn't want to own one? But they're also an expensive luxury item! Not only that - but as I've already said - being on a windy site here I lost three greenhouses, before I gave up and decided that the only way I would ever be able to grow anything in the teeth of almost year-round south-westerly gales was in polytunnels! They may be slightly less attractive - but they're around half the price. Still not a cheap item - but I've proved over many years that any decent sized tunnel, if used properly all year round, will pay for itself in about 2-3 years. There's quite a lot you can do inside not only to improve their rather utilitarian looks, but also to attract in all sorts of beneficial insects and bees, to keep pests away and pollinate your crops. Sometimes my tunnels are so full of butterflies they feel like a butterfly farm - and people actually pay to visit those! If the many treats inside are eye-catching enough - one tends to overlook the less than beautiful surrounding structure. What I call my 'Polytunnel Potager' can look really stunning inside all year round with the addition of many flowers and herbs growing alongside the vegetables! Not only that - it's a far more natural way to grow anything. Nature doesn't do acres of bare soil between neat rows of vegetables. In a polytunnel - just as in Nature - diversity is strength!
As I've already said - at this time of year, if the voluptuous abundance of your polytunnel doesn't make you feel smugly satisfied, or if seeing a friend's productive one doesn't make you long to own one yourself so that you too can grow all manner of good things - then you are a totally lost cause! There really is no hope for you!!If you don't have one, but are just thinking about it - then do go and have a look at one owned by a good gardener now, and just imagine how much money it could save you - because it really will! A polytunnel can fill your freezer and keep you in salads and a huge variety of other super-fresh, super-healthy vegetables, fruits and herbs all year round! Granted - polytunnels can be a huge amount of work - but they're really what you make of them - that's up to you. You could just grow perennial crops instead of changing them 3-4 times a year with the seasons, or mix perennial and annual crops as I mostly do .
Holiday time and watering plants
If you must go away on holiday - I've always found mid-October to be the very best time for a polytunnel owner. By then you've had the best of the summer and early autumn crops, and your tunnel should already be fully planted with crops to see you through the winter. These crops won't need too much tending or watering in October unless you're going away for weeks - as the weather's cooling down a bit. The tunnel needs much less fussing over at that time of year, and instead of the usual deflated feeling when you return from holidays - because of nothing to look forward to except long, cold, miserable grey days - it's nice to be able to look forward to continuous all-weather gardening, eating fresh salads and other delicious treats every day throughout the grey winter days!
On the other hand - watering can be a huge problem if you go away in high summer. A few years ago I had a query from someone who'd spent a fortune on an automatic watering system for his polytunnel, got it all properly set up and went away with the family for a couple of weeks. He came back to find all the tomatoes blighted and everything dead poor man! I honestly think they're a complete waste of time and money for home gardeners, who want to grow a broad range of different crops in their tunnels, all with differing requirements. I personally think they just encourage disease! There is no automatic watering system that can ever be a substitute for the gardener's observation and care. Even if you have the same one crop throughout your tunnel - there's still no guarantee it will work properly anyway. I have a friend who hates watering and spends ages fiddling about with hers! She could have watered her tunnel ten times over in the time she spends faffing around with all the bits and pieces!
I always think it's rather unfair of people to ask non-gardening neighbours, or even experienced gardening friends or family, to attempt to look after their polytunnel or greenhouse in the height of summer unless it's very small. Things can go badly wrong so very quickly. You've lost a whole summer's crops if they do - and perhaps good friends too! It's far too much of a responsibility. In the autumn most holidays are far cheaper anyway. If you can't afford one because you've just spent hundreds of euros or even a thousand on a new polytunnel - then instead of feeling deprived - just congratulate yourself instead for making a clever investment that will give you huge returns for many years to come! Most holidays cost far more than a small polytunnel - which unlike a holiday will bring you joy and good health every single day, all year round for many years - and also a comfortable place to sit in warm sunshine even on a frosty day in midwinter. (You won't believe this - but I promise you I have a friend who even has an old sofa in hers!)
I made a decision many years ago to not fly anywhere any more, due to its carbon footprint - but only to go to places where I could go by car. It's far more carbon-friendly than flying to some crowded, noisy, garish and utterly pointless holiday resort! I used to love visiting the quieter parts of the Mediterranean many years ago, where I used to pick up lots of ideas for food and planting - but even those are far less quiet nowadays. I have a confession to make here - my very rare holidays now are usually spent taking off in the car for just a couple of days and visiting gardens - or the best nurseries either here or in the UK - hunting for unusual fruits or 'jungle' plants - my secret addiction! I used to manage sometimes to combine this with work, in the form of my portrait sculpture - but sadly I can no longer do that now either since smashing my right shoulder in 2013! Although my right arm's still ok for not too heavy gardening - I now no longer have the perfect control and reach necessary for very finely detailed portrait work. Luckily my gardening, especially in the polytunnels, more than satisfies my creative urges now.
At this time of year, I usually get up around 5.30 and do all the watering, feeding and side-shooting etc. of tomatoes before 9 am - as then it can become far too hot to hang around for long in the tunnels. Then mid-morning and mid-afternoon I damp down the tunnel paths with plenty of water so that its evaporation helps to lower the temperature a little and keeps the air moving. I'm having to water the tomatoes and aubergines in containers twice a day at the moment. They're doing well though - and the aubergines in particular thoroughly enjoyed the recent very hot days of last week. 'Bonica F1' is the variety I always grow now, after trying many other varieties over the years. It's always the best performer whatever the weather does in our 'summers'. We often get low grey, cloud for days on end here up on a hill not far from the coast. That is death to most aubergines - but not this one. As long as you're careful to gently pull fading petals away from the end of the developing flowers just as they start to fade to brown after the fruit has set - it always produces it's huge fruits. If you don't do this - they often start to rot. Do try it next year if you haven't tried aubergines before, or had no luck with them. Bonica is thoroughly reliable and came top in the RHS trials of aubergines a few years ago.
For a 'tomatoholic' like me - THE TOTALLY TERRIFIC TOMATO FESTIVAL, which I founded in 2012, was the perfect excuse to go a bit over the top a bit on the tomato front! It was also a great way to trial new varieties and compare them with my tried and trusted 'old reliables'. When one is sowing tomatoes in March it's impossible to know what the summer will bring in terms of weather - some may hate cold nights - while others may be less fussy. In May again this year, temperatures were so hot that the developing plants were quite literally 'fried' at the top - looking as if someone had blasted them with a blow-torch! They were curling up their top leaves and looking 'fern like' - almost as if they had been sprayed with weedkiller. A lot of people have asked me about this leaf curling. It's the extremes of temperatures affecting the plants. Unfortunately in a polytunnel you have less control than in a greenhouse where you can apply shading paint to the glass. Even if you have one of those expensive, side opening tunnels, the sun can still scorch the tops of plants when it's at its most intense. If any tomato variety can withstand those extremes and still produce a really good-tasting and worthwhile crop - then it's a pretty good one in my book! I'm growing most varieties both in the ground and in pots so that I can compare which do better in one or the other, or both. The ones in pots do need quite a lot of watering at this time of year or they can get stressed pretty quickly.
As tomato crops everywhere are starting to develop their fruits now - I'm getting a lot of questions about feeding and watering them. People always want to know how often you should water but there's no absolute rule. It's impossible to say - because you should only water when they need it - and every tomato plant and situation is different. It's something you just have to learn to 'play by ear'. Every garden situation is different too - depending on how you're growing things, whether they're in the ground or in containers of commercial potting compost or in the soil. It also depends where your greenhouse or tunnel is situated - whether it's in a very sunny spot or partly shaded and even how big it is. This is especially the case with a polytunnel - as smaller tunnels can tend to have less air circulation. So these are just very general guidelines. Every year is different too - the weather obviously has a huge influence on how often things need watering. This year in May and early June, I sometimes had to water containers twice a day because of the heatwave.
As with most gardening - it's all about common sense and observation really - getting to know your plants, playing it by ear and noticing their needs daily in order to get the very best crops. Oddly enough - even different varieties vary in how you can get away with watering them. Sungold for instance, will split immediately if you water it just a bit too much when it has already 'set' it's skin and is ripening - but Rosada won't - unless you absolutely flood it! It's much more good-natured and far less temperamental. Individual varieties can all vary in their water requirements. Just like people - they're all different! You can't possibly make hard and fast rules - every tunnel, greenhouse or garden varies. Never just water a bit every day as a matter of course - that can lead to over-watering, and also cause roots to stay far too close to the surface, rather than going deeper to search for water and nutrients. Give plants a good soaking at night when watering in warm weather, so that it doesn't evaporate quickly as it would if watering during the day. And in the autumn do the reverse - if plants really need watering - then do it in the mornings - so that damp cold air isn't hanging around at night which can cause disease.
Rough guide to watering and feeding Tomatoes in containers.
I get a lot of questions about this. I grow some of my tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in 10lt containers on grow bag trays. This is because I only ever use a quarter of the 'in the ground' ground space in my tunnel for the tomato family - which also naturally includes peppers and aubergines. In the tunnel - just as in the outside garden - I always operate a strict minimum four course rotation. Many people say there's no need to and don't bother for a few years, getting away with it for a while - but without doing that you can encounter soil problems like diseases and nematodes sooner or later. The containers I use are either recycled empty coleslaw buckets from the local deli, which I cut drainage holes in around the base - or sometimes 12 litre containers which I get from the local horticultural supply shop very cheaply compared to the DIY multiples! They are a similar size to the average large bucket. I start to feed with the brilliantOsmo organicTomato Food (which is high potash and encourages fruit production) as soon as the first truss has set. Why is Osmo so brilliant? Because you will never get magnesium or any other sort of deficiency when using this feed - and as it's also organic, it's safe to use and totally natural. When Dermot O'Neill came out to look at my tomatoes a few years ago for RTE's Mooney Show - he was amazed at how healthy my tomatoes in containers looked and how much fruit they were producing!
When plants are in containers - the roots are restricted and they can't forage far to find their own food, so they're obviously totally dependent on you.I start feeding as soon as the first truss has set, I then use the tomato feed at every other watering - half strength (i.e. at one watering I feed at half strength, and at the other watering - I just use plain water.) I keep a water butt at tunnel temperature in the tunnel for watering the tomatoes - so that I don't use freezing cold water directly from the hose. Plants don't enjoy cold showers any more than people do! I don't water automatically - I play it by ear depending on how dry the growing medium is. I use a fifty/fifty peat-free and garden soil mix which I find best cushions the plants against heat or any variations in watering - I'm only human! Consistently just moist is the key - neither being permanently soaked and sitting in water - nor alternatively bone dry with the compost shrinking away from the side of the containers. I don't like to feed at full strength all the time as I feel the roots are more vulnerable but if I think something is looking just a little hungry - I will sometimes feed at full strength once or twice. The Osmo feeds are very gentle as they don't contain synthetic chemicals but just natural, safe plant foods and won't burn plant roots - so you can feed at full strength if necessary, just as long as the compost is moist first.
It's fine to water into the top of the container top as long as you don't do it right against the base of the stem. This avoids possibly causing rots where the base of the stem joins the roots especially in cold weather. This is always a vulnerable spot - particularly with aubergines and peppers. Always water around the edge of the container if possible - letting it drain through into whatever the plants are sitting in or on - they should usually soak this up over the next couple of hours if it's not too much. I sit my buckets on grow bag trays and if the plants haven't soaked up all the water after a few hours - I would tip it out. I never leave them sitting in water in the trays more than overnight - and only then if the plants have dried out a bit too much - but I try to prevent that. As I've already said - you sort of have to 'play it by ear' and get a 'feel' for it. I will often lift the edge of the container to feel it's weight before the plants get too big - over-watering is death to all plants in containers. If the top looks dry-ish but it still feels quite heavy, then it's probably ok for water but don't forget that the plants will make it feel heavier as they get bigger. If I'm not sure, I'll sometimes just scratch the surface of the compost to feel it. If the top is very dry and the container feels a bit light then I know that water is needed immediately. Sometimes the compost will look a bit lighter in colour too - depending on the make.
I never let plants get really parched to the point of almost wilting with the compost shrinking away from the sides of the container - this makes it far harder to re-wet any compost and can also make them drop their flowers or fruit. Drying out too much or erratic watering can stress the plants very badly and makes them far more vulnerable to physiological problems like 'blossom end rot' - which is caused by poor calcium transport in the plant tissues due to lack of consistent watering. Erratic watering also makes them much more attractive to pests like aphids and red spider. Stressed plants are always more vulnerable. Just like you and I - their immune systems are affected too, and they may not always be able to mobilise their defences as fast as they can when growing in ideal conditions in soil in the ground.
I know it does seem like a lot of trouble but when you get used to it, it becomes routine and is well worth it.You will have terrifically healthy crops of delicious tomatoes this way. Last year I grew about 70 plants in containers - mostly getting 8 fabulous trusses of fruit per plant. They certainly repaid all the TLC! All the expert books say you can only get 4 trusses from tomatoes when growing in containers. I do love to prove all those so-called 'experts' wrong! Successful organic growing is all about understanding your plants' needs, anticipating and preventing any possible problems. Proper old fashioned good gardening in other words! There's no substitute for knowing your plants!
My 'Tomato Report' gives information on the soil/organic potting compost mix I use in my containers. Many Garden Centres now stock all the Osmo organic feeds etc. and Klasmann Deilmann organic seed and potting composts - they're also available from Whites Agri, Lusk. Co. Dublin and Fruithill Farm in Cork. I wouldn't use anything else now - even for ornamental plants - all plants love it and grow very healthily. It's worth every cent of the extra expense! It's also well-worth knowing that I'm not destroying all the vital and wonderful biodiversity in bogs in order to grow my plants - which is what peat users are doing!
Tomato plants growing in the ground
These are much easier to deal with, as because the roots aren't restricted - so they're naturally far less vulnerable to fluctuations in watering.The same rules still apply though, of not watering directly against the base, not using freezing water from the hose and not letting them dry out completely. In the ground plants only need feeding about twice a week with the high potash Osmo Tomato Food - but again it depends on your soil and how fertile it was at planting. If I think plants are running out of steam and the leaves are maybe starting looking a bit 'yellowy' then I would give them a boost with the Osmo Universal feed which stimulates growth - but if they're growing in the ground and it's reasonably fertile - this shouldn't be needed. The last thing you want is too much lush leafy growth, which can cause disease if too crowded. If you only have a small number of plants to feed though - it's possible to make a fairly balanced feed from comfrey, nettles and borage stuffed into a water barrel. It stinks to high heaven - but is very effective! It's impossible to make enough to feed a lot of plants regularly though.
Side-shoots on Tomatoes
Last month when talking about side shoots - I forgot to say that all tomato plants constantly keep trying to outwit you - as they are really genetically programmed to be bushes in actual fact - so they go on trying to be those by producing more side shoots all the time even where you've already taken lots out. This is how they perpetuate themselves in the wild - by 'flopping' shoots over and 'walking' along to a new spot. You just have to be strict with them - otherwise they can very soon become a tangled, disease ridden, unproductive mess! You must keep having a good look every couple of days to spot any more which will develop.
I look over the plants every day, as I can guarantee I'll miss the odd shoot because I grow so many plants. Don't just do it once a fortnight, as I saw one gardening 'expert' journalist recommending recently in a local newspaper - they could be 60cm or 2 feet long by then at this time of year! The journalist in question, who shall remain nameless, is obviously not an experienced tomato grower! As you can see from the pictured examples here - which I left deliberately, to photograph -in just a week they can be very long, wasting the plant's valuable fruiting energy and seriously reducing air circulationif you leave them there! On the continental beefsteaks in particular, especially 'Pantano Romanesco' and occasionally even on cherry types, they may also make new 'side shoots' - like the ones pictured here, on the end or even the middle of flower/fruit trusses, so check there too and nip out immediately if necessary, otherwise they can attract moisture and set up ideal conditions for disease.
1. Side shoot developing on end of flower truss.
2. One week later - flower truss with new shoot on end getting much larger.
3. Same flower truss, after remedial action with secateurs!
Air circulation is absolutely vital to tomatoes especially, particularly all the continental beefsteaks, which can rapidly go down with botrytis (grey mould) and also blight at this time of year in very humid, damp conditions.Ventilating as much as possible, even on dull or rainy days, is most important. Leaving doors shut can even hinder pollination of flowers, as too high a temperature can actually damage the plants and the bees can't get in either! My tunnel doors are always open every day - unless there's a howling gale blowing from the wrong direction. And if the temperature on a very hot day still gets too high - then 'damping down' the paths, not the plants, will help to reduce the temperature by water evaporating - keeping the atmosphere 'bouyant' and the air moving.
Unlike conventional chemical growers, organic gardeners don't use synthetic systemic fungicides - although some occasionally use surface, copper-based ones. I never have done as I have a very heavy clay soil and any copper-based product is specifically restricted for use on clay soils, both in the UK and Ireland, due to the fact that copper can build up in them over years of constant use. I am amazed that anyone would still recommend spraying tomato plants with water - apparently in order to help pollination! That's rubbish! I've even seen people recommending that you spray with garlic if you see aphids! It's totally unnecessary and as I mention again later - wetting tomato foliage encourages diseases like blight.
As I'm always saying - aphids are a sign of stressed plants which have probably been grown with too much manure or synthetic chemical fertiliser, which makes them far more vulnerable. Now I know some of the old 'conventional' text books used to recommend spraying with water many years ago - but then they also used to recommend all sorts of nasty fungicides like arsenic or nicotine too! Our knowledge has moved on a bit since then, and cultivating plants organically means first and foremost giving plants the optimum conditions they need to promote healthy growth - that can mean taking a little bit more trouble occasionally but it really works. The old-fashioned 'fire brigade' mentality - of reaching for the sprayer for a quick fix whenever something goes wrong - instead of preventing it in the first place - doesn't have any place in an organic garden. I know it's a bit challenging trying to give everything the best conditions you can when you're growing so many different crops in one tunnel - but it is achievable with a little thought and care
Pollination of Tomatoes
Don't mist over tomato plants as I've already said! Tomatoes don't like the same humid conditions as cucumbers. Misting them frequently with water produces just the sort of damp conditions which are ideal for encouraging blight. Blight and other fungal spores ideally need a fine film of moisture on the leaves in order to germinate and multiply rapidly! All that is really required for good pollination is the right temperature, with even soil moisture at the roots, and encouraging pollinating insects into the tunnel to do their job, by growing flowers to attract them. Many of the more enlightened big commercial growers now use bees and even flies to pollinate crops in their vast greenhouses - something that crop research stations have always done. As I'm constantly saying - just grow lots of single, nectar producing flowers among your crops, both inside and outside, and you won't have any pollination problems.
Tomato 'Maskotka' in a 10 litre bucket
Other Tunnel Crops
Cucumbers and melons are also growing really well in large containers now. Again, fruiting much earlier than those in the ground - by a couple of weeks. I'm experimenting a lot more again this year with containers, I have far more growing experience now than I had 39 years ago when my whole vegetable garden was grown in containers for two years, while renting a house en route to where we live now! That year I grew 45 lb of Runner beans on wigwams in recycled Marks and Spencer carrier bags (they were the strongest!). The other cucumbers are doing nicely in the ground, they're at the side of the tunnel where they don't get draughts and it's a bit more humid - they and melons are just about the only plants that really love sauna-like conditions! But even though they like warmth - they must be kept evenly moist at the roots - if they dry out at all at the roots and the air is humid they'll get powdery mildew very quickly - particularly as the air gets colder at night in autumn.
Aubergine 'Bonica', first fruits just set, in 10litre buckets on staging mid June
Aubergine 'Bonica' pictured here is growing in the same 10 litre buckets in a well-drained peat-free compost/soil mix and have just set their first fruits.I'm always careful to watch the flowers after they are just set - and when they start to fade I gently pull the browning flower downwards away from the calyx as that's where rots can set in- which is one of the main problem with aubergines in our climate. The other problem is stem rot where the stem joins the roots at the top of the compost. I avoid this by planting them slightly mounded up in the buckets and never watering against the stem but always around the outside of the bucket.
Pumpkins planted either side sweet corn, trying to take over tunnel
The yellow courgette Atena which I always grow as part of the cucurbitaceae rotation in the tunnel is already starting to produce well. They will go on until early November with luck, the last few weeks under fleece. French bean 'Cobra' is as delicious and reliable as ever, and also Calabrese 'Green Magic'. It's really important to keep on top of picking all of these, and also watering regularly. If the plants dry out for too long in hot weather or if the pods, fruit or shoots get too big, that sends a hormone message back to the plant to say 'job done - we're on course to produce seed' and the plants will stop producing any more.
If you're growing early sweetcorn in the tunnel, when the plants start producing pollen give them a bit of a shake every day - wait until about midday if possible when the atmosphere has dried out a bit - so that the pollen dusts around nicely - it's often too humid first thing in the morning just after the doors are opened. Even if you've only got one plant in your greenhouse as one questioner at one of my recent talks said she had - it will still pollinate better if you do this. I always shake the outside plants too if there's no breeze to do the job - but that's rarely the case here on my very windy hill!
My tunnel sweetcorn 'Lark F1' will be planted between pumpkins as usual- Queensland Blue, Jumbo Pink Banana, Golden and Blue Hubbards, Hokkaido etc. They are some of the best dense, deep orange fleshed ones for really long term storage and I won't ever risk the entire crop outside again in case we get yet another poor summer. They are too valuable for the winter larder. I will at least be assured of some then whatever the weather. I am being really strict with them though - and keeping them under strict 'house arrest' - pinching out all the shoots at four leaves or they would take over the entire tunnel. I've planted more outside too. The sweet corn is sown 2 or 3 to a pot and not thinned, then planted out 60cm/2ft intervals in a row. That way they pollinate each other well even though they're in a row rather than a block and produce at least 2 delicious cobs per plant.
If you're growing sweet potatoes, they don't want too rich a soil starting off otherwise they just produce masses of foliage - not tubers. They need similar soil to carrots, deep and well drained. They just get a light dusting of seaweed meal when planting and mulching with moisture retaining grass clippings to prevent weed growth. After that they only need watering occasionally to prevent them drying out. Like Oca and Yacon they don't start to produce their tubers until August - so from then on they get fed weekly with a high potash tomato feed - I use the Osmo food for them too. If you want to try growing them it's still worthwhile planting them now - and if they're a bit hungry in their pots by now just give them a liquid feed just to encourage them, then plant as above. Once you have good varieties you can keep tubers from your own crop each year and propagate slips from them.
Luscious looking - but not quite ripe just yet.
The early peach on the north-east side at the end of the tunnel is covered with a fleece curtain, fixed with clothes pegs, once the fruit starts to change colour - as the rapidly ripening fruit screams 'eat me' at every blackbird within ten miles! There's always one or two in there doing a 'recce' - but no matter how gorgeous they look, they never touch them until they are just ripe - just when I say to myself "I'll pick them tomorrow" - I can almost guarantee they'll have a go at them. They seem to have a radar for ripening fruit! It doesn't seem to matter what netting I put up at the doors either - they always manage to ruin a few if I don't do this, but hiding them hiding them generally does the trick! The peach on the other side of the door doesn't ripen until early September. I bought both trees from Lidl - one just marked 'peach' and the other 'nectarine' from Lidl 12 years ago. Magically one turned out to be a yellow-fleshed early peach and the other a late white-fleshed one - serendipity at work! Couldn't have planned it better! They're due for their summer pruning now, when they've finished fruiting. Leaving one or two good shoots to develop at the base of each branch to bear fruit next year. All other new shoots will be removed completely to let in air and light.
Buried treasure - ripening peaches under wraps away from birds!
It's really important to prune tunnel-grown peaches properly, otherwise they quickly become an unproductive mess, taking over the entire tunnel, as they can make five or six feet of growth in a year. That happened to me many years ago when I didn't know how to prune them properly and the tree almost went through the roof! Practical experience is always the best teacher - you never forget your mistakes! The most important thing to remember is that they always fruit on the new green shoots made the previous year. Mine are trained as sort of half fan/half bushes or 'fushes' at the north end of the tunnel either side of the door, with roughly 9ft or 2 & 3/4m of width each, a space which is often wasted or full of rubbish in many tunnels. There, they are in full sun, but don't cast any shade on anything else, don't get peach leaf curl as they are protected from rain, and produce over 100 peaches every year! With my mini-gardens of flowers and perennial herbs like thyme and oregano at their feet they look good all year round and not an inch of space is wasted.
Some of the figs are ripening their early crop now - the necks of the fruit have weakened and fruits have started to 'flop', now drooping downwards, they will need another few days yet. Brogiotto Nero and Sultane are the earliest - but Rouge de Bordeaux won't be far behind and then all the others will follow. I wait until I can see the first fruits starting to crack at the 'navel' end - that means they're really ripe. There is nothing more disappointing or wasteful than picking an unripe fig - they are so precious. It's what the Italians call the 'Breba' (overwintered) crop that is ripening now, and this autumn's main crop is just developing as smaller figlets on this year's new green shoots. Figs are very reliable in large containers - withstanding even really low temperatures in winter for short periods. I've got over a dozen varieties now with a range of ripening times. With even non-organic figs around one euro each in shops - they're well worth growing, very nutritious and dead easy. They are much more productive in a tunnel - really appreciating the extra warmth and shelter, where many varieties will crop twice a year.
While I'm on the subject of fruit - don't be tempted as I very stupidly was a couple of years ago by those lovely juicy-looking grapes trained as bushes in containers, which some of the garden retailers have at this time of year - the dead give away if you look at the label is that they usually have Italian wine names on them! They are grown in massive nurseries somewhere like Sardinia or southern Italy, and are totally unsuitable varieties for growing in Irish gardens - or even Irish greenhouses - we just don't get enough light and sun. If you only want vine leaves for 'Dolmades' that's fine - but they won't ripen their wood enough to produce decent grapes outside in our climate! I've also seen 'Muscat of Alexandria' for sale everywhere recently - that will do well in a warm greenhouse here - but not outside. Even in a greenhouse or tunnel it won't ripen until mid-late October or even November and is completely useless outside - but the labels don't mention that - if the importers even actually know! Mine is in a large tub, which I think hurries it up a bit - and it is utterly delicious, with a juicy muscat taste - in late OCTOBER! You could possibly ripen it in a warm porch too. Keep grapes under control (see June). I'm feeding all my grapes and figs in containers with every other watering now as the bunches of grapes are developing very fast. Never let them dry out completely, or the grapes shrivel and stop developing. The vines in the ground are all fed with tomato food once a week.
Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads
It's worth taking some new cuttings of watercress now, to produce nice plants for September planting to give good winter crops.It's by nature a creeping plant, and as soon as it's shoots are 4-5 in/10cm long - it starts to produce lots of roots at every leaf node in order to root itself into the soil. This is a great thing for grateful gardeners who may be short of salads - because as soon as you cut off those rooted side shoots and replant them they take off like rockets - and you will have a metre square bed of watercress in no time at all! It's a terrific plant for the damp, shadier parts of the garden or tunnel polytunnel which many other plants don't like. If you can buy a nice bunch, or a very fresh bag of watercress, choose the healthiest looking shoots, take off the lower leaves which may rot quickly in the water and infect the stems, put them in a jar of water for a few days and they will quickly start to produce roots. You can then pot these up in organic potting compost and away you go! When they're big enough - plant them out in really fertile, moist soil.
Contrary to popular opinion - watercress doesn't need running water - and indeed is not safe growing in damp mud or running water in a stream, as it may act as host to the tiny snail which can pass on liver fluke - not something you want! Keep the plants well watered after planting though, or they will become tough and too peppery, particularly at this time of year. Also pinch off any flower buds you see developing, or they will flower and set seed, which stops them producing the lovely lush growth you want. Watercress is a brassica, so needs to occupy that spot in your rotation, but is otherwise mostly trouble-free and hugely productive all winter. I keep watercress growing indefinitely by propagating plants like this. I always keep a pot of newly rooted shoots in a shady spot in the tunnel or outside in summer and then I propagate more for the winter from those. Mine just goes on from year to year. Even more plants for free - nothing better!!
Think ahead to late autumn and winter crops
I've already mention Christmas new potatoes above and I'm sorry to spoil the summer party further, but if you don't think about autumn and winter crops now - you won't have very much!Many of these are better sown outside in modules now and brought under cover later on, as it's far too hot in tunnels at the moment. See my 'What to Sow Now in July'list.
It's also time to order saffron bulbs now as they will need planting by the end of August. If you like living dangerously - you could wait until the beginning of August - when they're often discounted hugely so that seed/bulb companies can get rid of them. That's how I got mine originally. They're quite hardy and will grow outside, but they like to be baked in summer. Not only that - in my experience, we never get dry enough autumns to collect the saffron's valuables styles as it's always far too wet here! So I grow mine in the tunnel now - you can even grow them in well drained containers. Good drainage and a summer baking is all that they need. If you live in the drier climate of Essex you may be able to grow it outside. Saffron Walden was named after saffron - it grew well there in the Middle Ages. It's worth taking a bit of trouble with it as it's so expensive to buy. The ultimate in cheffy 'one-upmanship' is a risotto made from your very own homegrown saffron!!
Hearting chicory Sugar Loaf or 'Pain de Sucre'
Don't forget that forcing chicory needs to be sown in the next week or so - or it won't be big enough to force for chicons in the winter. I also grow the very reliable 'Sugar Loaf' chicory,which folds up it's huge outer leaves all by itself and makes lovely crunchy, light green 'cos-like' hearts after Christmas - not too bitter, delicious and very welcome healthy winter salad. It grows exceptionally well in the tunnel too - and the hens love the outer crunchy green leaves in late winter when there's not much in the way of green foods about for them.
Swiss chard also benefits from being sown before the end of July for winter cropping in the tunnel,it's well worth sowing into modules outside soon, to plant in the tunnels later - where it's incredibly productive until the following late spring.
Now is also a good time to sow another crop of carrots now as they should miss the later hatching of carrot fly. An early, fast-growing variety such as Nantes is good they'll produce good sized sweet roots in the autumn
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)