April Topics: True Food Resilience Starts With Seeds.... What is an F1 hybrid? - The sad story of Rosada.... Sow Super-fast Seeds now for salad greens!.... Early Spring Aphid Problems?.... My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots.... Growing on onion seedlings to cheat the weather!..... 'Hardening off' early vegetables.... Stop weeds and slugs before they start!..... When growing your own - you can choose the best varieties for flavour and nutrients..... Get your seeds sown!..... Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden!.... and Last but not least - my thoughts on some 'so-called' scientists!
'Jack Ice' is so delicious that it almost needs no dressing - and is the most reliable winter lettuce ever
True Food Resilience Starts With Seeds
Over the last year of the COVID19 Pandemic - many of us have learnt for the first time what true food resilience means - and it doesn't mean having a weekly supermarket 'sweep' of hundreds of fresh foods imported from the farthest reaches of the planet! Because of the difficulty of sourcing fresh produce with restricted access to shops, many people decided to try growing some of their own food for the very first time over the last year, or more of it if they already did so, only to discover that unfortunately most seed suppliers, even the huge global companies, were overwhelmed by the demand, and either limited their websites, or closed them down completely temporarily as they couldn't cope with the demand. So what can we do now to ensure that we don't have the same problem in future? We can save our own seeds, that's what - just as man has done for many thousands of years since we started growing food, rather than just foraging for it, up until recent decades!
It's surprising how few gardeners save seeds now - but it really couldn't be easier. Saving seeds is something I've done for years of many open-pollinated kinds of vegetables, because apart from anything else - it saves quite a lot of money! In most cases, you don't even have to do anything much, except to choose which plant or plants you want to save seed from, then leave them alone and wait for either bees or wind to do the pollination and wait for Nature to do it's stuff - gradually developing and finally ripening the seed. Then hopefully giving us some good weather to harvest and complete the drying of them indoors until they are perfectly dry. This is why I grow many of the varieties of veg I want to save seed from in my polytunnel - as it's far easier to give them the perfect dry conditions in there in what often passes for our Irish 'summers', and when stored properly they will keep well and remain viable for many years.
What is an F1 Hybrid? - The sad story of Rosada
So how do you choose a vegetable variety to save seed from? Well firstly one which you like obviously, and which is an open-pollinated variety - rather than being an F1 hybrid. An F1 hybrid is a specific cross between two cultivars of the same variety of plant, performed under isolated conditions in commercial glasshouses, so that there is no possibility of the chosen known varieties crossing with any other plants. This is why F1 hybrid seed is expensive and is also why it is patented by the wholesale companies producing them, with the parents usually being a closely-guarded secret. This is sometimes how excellent varieties like the Rosada tomato - my favourite variety ever - are lost. There were many stories about how this happened, but I think the most likely (which I was told by a small family company who sell direct to the public) - is that one of the big seed companies apparently tried to buy out the Rosada patent from the original producer, but refused to pay the asking price for the patent of this amazing tomato, which came top of all tasting tests, and so it was lost to us forever. Rosada truly is the best tomato I have ever grown, from every possible growing perspective, and for every kitchen use. I still have a few packets of seed left which have a 2014 date - so hope that they will remain viable for another few years, and by only sowing half each year and then taking cuttings of the resulting plants to produce more plants, I hope to keep it going for as long as I shall be growing tomatoes anyway!
Many people have tried to reproduce Rosada from seed of it's fruits - but none come anywhere near to equaling that wonderful cultivar. Quite apart from the fact that one would have to grow literally thousands to even perhaps be lucky enough to find even one let alone several which compared to it in flavour, texture, disease resistance, ease of cultivation, open habit and productivity and usefulness in the kitchen - you would then have to save seed from and grow out 100s of your selections for at least 5-6 years before you could justifiably say that any cultivar was a 'stable' variety. I've tried one or two of those so-called 'Rosada seedlings' - and not one of them even has an iota of it's flavour, let alone disease-resistance. So sadly unless and until the original producer starts to produce that same hybrid again from the same parents plants - then it's lost to us forever!
However - there are many other good so-called 'heritage' varieties of not just tomatoes, but also other vegetables to grow, and growing them is extremely important. Doing this keeps them in general cultivation and preserves their genetic diversity so that it will be available for use in future breeding programmes. This is the major reason why I started The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012, and even before that I ran various pumpkin, potato and tomato days in the late 1980s and 1990s - with the help of the HDRA Heritage Seed Library. I was trying to raise awareness of the importance of preserving genetic diversity for future food security. Those open-pollinated varieties which have the ability to adapt to local conditions, environments and a changing climate, will be far more valuable to humanity in the future than fussy and expensive patented F1 hybrids, which need to have absolutely perfect and very specific conditions to grow well - and of which we have to buy seeds every year, instead of saving our own - costing nothing but a small amount of effort.
So what seeds shall I save this year?
Winter staples that I shall be saving seed of this year are those that I can't reliably buy either from shops or farmer's markets. Veg which are not just unobtainable favourites, but also those that I have found the most useful for reliably tiding us over the winter and the so-called spring 'Hungry Gap' every year - not just during the last year's lock-downs. Those ones that over 40 years of experience have taught me are the best and most productive, until our baskets are once again filled by abundant summer harvests. My criteria are always disease-resistance, productivity, and an ability to stand for a long time before bolting as the weather warms up in spring. Four overwintering veg that I'm specifically picking out now to save seed from this year, and the ones which I would never want to be without growing personally in winter are:
1. Perpetual Spinach Beet, which has been going strong all winter since it first started producing baby leaves early last September, and is still producing massive harvests now.
2.Ragged Jack kale - originally from the HDRA Heritage Seed Library about 38 years ago and which I've been saving seed from ever since.
3. Chicory Pain de Sucre/Sugar Loaf - which again has been producing leaves for the tables since last autumn, and also feeding the hens!
4. Lettuce Jack Ice - originally from "Real Seeds UK - which is truly the best lettuce I have ever grown in over 40 years of gardening and commercial growing. A 'loose-leaved' open-hearted variety - it produces huge crops of very substantial, crisp green tasty leaves that I pick individually all winter, it's hugely disease-resistant and is also very resistant to bolting if kept well-watered as the weather warms up. Lattughino Rossa is also a good variety.
5. McGregor's Favourite beetroot which I have saved seed from ever since Carters Seeds were taken over in the late 1980s by Suttons/Dobies - a subsidiary of global giant Vilmorin/Limagraine. Many people profess to have this variety, but none that I have seen look my genuine strain, with long, narrow, strap shaped leaves so decorative that the Victorians used it as a 'dot' plant in their amazing bedding schemes. It featured on the BBC TV series - The Victorian Kitchen Garden. It's stunning deep burgundy-coloured leaves are high in beneficial phytochemicals and make a delicious addition to salads and stir fries.
I shall pick out and mark the best plants of each now, and leave them to flower and then to set seed, rather than taking any more harvests from them. Then later on in summer I'll be picking out the best varieties of other veg then too - varieties of beans, peas, tomatoes etc. any of which I don't currently have plenty of seeds stored. I'll be talking more about how to do this in future blog posts.
If nothing else, the COVID19 pandemic has shown us that we humans are not totally in control of Nature as some of us mistakenly thought we were. But also perhaps it's taught us that Nature can truly be our ally when it comes to the true food security and resilience that comes from being able to grow our own food, or supporting reliable small local and organic producers nearby if we can't grow our own. It has also perhaps taught many of us never to take anything (or sadly anyone), for granted, to always be as prepared as possible for the unexpected - and that relying on our own ability to produce seasonal, healthy food basics that we genuinely need to survive locally, is a lot safer than relying on global supply chains of whatever out of season produce we happen to fancy - like avocado toast! Am I the only person left on the planet who has never actually eaten it?
Right now - I'm fantasizing about a world that could remain as unpolluted as it currently is without all the air traffic and other industrial pollution - with Beijing and the Himalayas being seen clearly for the first time in many decades. How I wish my much-missed cousin Mike, a big fan of James Lovelock's Gaia theory, and who having lived in Beijing for 15 years working for the British Council, could see everything he predicted 25 years ago happening now. He sadly died of a heart attack a few years ago - brought on by the continuous Beijing smog which doctors said had given him the circulatory problems of someone who would have smoked 100 cigarettes a day. And he had never smoked!
We have a choice now - we have reached a crossroads - and now must decide the kind of world that we want our children to grow up in. The old, polluted, unhealthy and undoubtedly dying world - or a brave new bright future for humanity and all biodiversity. It's up to us....... and to the leaders who WE elect to lead us into that future.
Sow some super-fast seeds now if you're desperate for fresh salad greens!
Some of you may know that I broke my left ankle badly in March two years ago - this put a lot of pressure on other old injuries to my right leg, which were then being an increasingly painful nuisance. As a result I had finally decided in January, after much dithering, to have the recommended reconstructive surgery on my right ankle and knee this spring as the pain was getting worse - and then the Covid_19 pandemic hit us, and all elective surgery was immediately cancelled! So now I have no idea when I may be able to grow very much outside - just when things should be starting to get very busy in the garden! I haven't been able to do much at all outside - but the raised beds are covered for now and in the next couple of weeks I'm going to sow a few fast-growing veg in modules on the kitchen table in anticipation of perhaps being able to do at least a little planting in the not too distant future - all being well. If my problems prevent me from growing much even then - then I shall grow them in pots or in a stepladder garden again just as I did last year! Having had a few injuries over my gardening lifetime, I've found plenty of alternative ways to grow things. It pays to be flexible, and determination will always find a way! Luckily I'm currently able to pick some wonderful fresh salads, chards, beets and kale in the polytunnel, which is easier to work in than outside. Having lots of fresh green food to eat and being able to get sun and fresh air is so important for both our physical and mental health - and I have genuine pity for those who can't do that right now.
The beautiful, delicately marked Rocket flowers taste deliciously of vanilla - so it's not surprising that bees love it!
The weather so far this 'spring' has been so erratic, that many gardens are still far too wet and cold at the moment to do anything - especially sowing any seeds direct into the soil. Many soils that were flooded are still saturated if they weren't covered or carrying a crop over winter - and even if not they will have lost a lot of nutrients. So if you're craving something fresh and green - sowing some fast-growing veg like spinach, baby leaf lettuce, pea shoots, rocket and Oriental veg into modules will gain you at least 2-3 weeks on anything you could sow outside now - that is if you could! You will be eating all of these within 4-6 weeks! If you plant them out on the ends of your veg beds where they won't be in the way of any subsequent crops - then after you've picked their leaves for a few weeks - later on you can leave one or two plants to flower. Doing this provides very welcome early food for bees and other beneficial insects that help with pest control. Many of their flowers are also delicious in our summer salads - especially the rocket flowers above - which actually taste of vanilla believe it or not! They look really pretty on salads or even on chocolate desserts due to the beautiful dark-brown veining on their flowers! A double or triple whammy!
Early Spring Aphid problems?
The insects that help with pest control love these early flowers as much as we do - they rely on them for food to kick-start the breeding season and also like to feed their growing offspring a little protein on the side too! So while they're shopping for nectar and pollen - they'll also pick up a few greenfly or some early caterpillars! The most likely time you'll see any pests like greenfly in an organic garden is on the very young and succulent emerging shoots of some plants at this time of year - roses in particular seem prone to them. If you've been attracting beneficial insects into the garden by growing lots of early flowers though - and also feeding your garden birds all winter - then you'll already have a willing army of pest controllers ready and waiting to help you dispose of them! All forms of gardening are to some extent disturbing Nature - but organic gardening tries to do this as little as possible and tries to encourage the most natural environment possible. Very often if you do see a large infestation of aphids - it means that plants are under some sort of stress, which makes them much more vulnerable to pests. This can often be because people have used too much manure, causing a lot of soft, sappy growth in the plants, which disrupts the plant's self-defence mechanisms and makes them much more attractive to pests.
I see so many people using home-made concoctions like garlic sprays, washing up liquid etc for 'killing' aphids at this time of year in particular - but many washing-up liquids contain chemicals like formaldehyde, hormone-disrupting artificial scents, detergents etc - and there is no such thing as an environmentally-friendly detergent! If these sprays kill aphids - then they must surely kill or harm other small insects like hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds - which are vitally important in controlling aphids. If there are too many greenfly for your resident predatory insects and birds to cope with, because their numbers haven't yet built up enough to deal with them all - then a quick spray with a jet of water from a garden hose, with your finger over the end, does the job just as effectively, and water doesn't kill anything! They won't climb back onto the plants, and most importantly, using only plain water renders any dead aphids still safe to eat, as they are uncontaminated with anything else, so that birds and insects can pick them up to feed to their young later! I have never had an aphid infestation that I couldn't cope with just by using my water method - ably assisted by the army of Dunnocks, Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and willow warblers here! When you think about it - isn't it timely that Nature seems to organise a glut of aphids just as baby birds need feeding? Nature never does anything without reason - as I'm always saying - truly 'everything is connected'!
My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots for guaranteed success!
Loo roll sown parsnips, hardened-off and ready for planting
My 'loo roll' sown parsnips are already hardened off and begging to be planted, they have two nice first 'true' leaves and they're waiting impatiently now - first in the queue. They don't appreciate being delayed at all! There's still plenty of time to sow them in long modules like loo rolls though - if you haven't sown any yet. If you don't have a propagator - they'll germinate far quicker at room temperature in the house than they will in cold, wet ground. Then as soon as they're up and need light you can put them out into the greenhouse or a cold frame for a couple of weeks before planting out. They'll be way ahead of anything sown in the ground even 2-3 weeks ago - which may well have rotted due to the cold wet conditions - and they won't have been eaten by the slugs which are sadly still really active now despite the cold!
Parsnips multi-sown 3-4 seeds per module of peat-free compost.
If the soil is still too sticky in the raised beds, I'll do what the show vegetable people like the wonderful Medwyn Williams do - and take out a trowel-full or so of soil, mix it with some organic peat-free potting compost to dry it out a bit, replace it and then plant into that. They'll really take off like rockets then. Nothing likes being planted into cold, sticky clay, as firming them into it compacts and squashes the air out of it. Roots need a certain amount of air. The very first 'module' will need easing out very carefully from the corner of the mushroom box that's been their home for the last two months. I use two narrow trowels for doing this - either side of the first loo-roll module - in a sort of 'pincer' movement which lifts the loo roll with it's precious package out very gently. Then I lower it into it's hole - pushing the soil gently towards the sides rather than pushing down from the top, which would squash the loo roll down and disturb the contents. Lots of TLC is the secret - but it's worth it to get those lovely straight parsnips later!
In over 40 years of organic gardening - I've learnt a great many things from bitter experience! One of them is that when anything has been grown either in loo roll 'modules' or in paper pots - It's really important that the hole is deeper than the loo roll module. I can't stress enough that it must be buried well under the surface and not exposed to the air - otherwise it will dry out at the top and act like a wick! Moisture will be drawn out of the module as the weather warms up and the soil dries out. The module will then also dry out and shrink - which can be a complete disaster! When well-buried under the surface, damp loo roll or paper modules will just rot away slowly, adding valuable carbon to the soil with no problems at all.
After you've extracted the first module from the box or tray of seedlings - you'll find that they're then much easier to carefully remove intact. I just take them out of the mushroom box with one long narrow trowel at a slight angle so the already rotting loo roll is supported and doesn't fall apart. Then I plant in the same way, about a foot apart, as there's three plants to a module. After that they'll only need a minor weeding once, mulching afterwards (I use grass clippings) then the light excluding leaves will close over the soil and I won't need to touch them again at all, until they're ready to eat after the first frost in the autumn!
Over the years I've found that my 'loo roll' module method is much the easiest way to get parsnips sown early enough to reach a really decent size - small ones never have the same flavour or usefulness. The ground is usually far too wet and cold with my heavy soil here in early spring for them to germinate well - even under cloches. We don't get much early warmth in this part of Ireland - it's different in the south east of England or even in the midlands there, where most of the books that give gardening advice tend to be written! They've been nearly 10 deg C warmer there for most of this last week! Parsnips take about 3 weeks to germinate even in a warmish soil. That leaves them far more vulnerable to damage by slugs etc. before they're big enough to withstand the odd nibble. That's if they don't rot in the cold soil. I always get fabulous parsnips this way, three to a module planted like that in each planting spot - with only one or two that are a bit odd shaped or curled around the others! Who knows, I may even grow show standard parsnips this year! Even if they're not - with parsnips at almost a euro each for decent sized organic ones that have any flavour - they're well worth that extra little bit of trouble.
After planting they're pretty much trouble-free, apart from keeping them well-watered in the raised beds. They just get on with growing themselves until the autumn frosts, when they develop their sweet flavour and I lift them as I need them for the kitchen. You can raise carrots just like this too, sowing a tiny pinch into each module, again eventually getting nice clumps a foot or so apart - just right for lifting a perfect bunch for each meal. A lot of people find carrots a problem because again they take ages to germinate, and they're tiny 'grassy' seed leaves are very vulnerable to slug damage just as they're germinating. This totally avoids the problem - and is a great way to raise the very expensive seed of the new purple ones. After they've reached a decent size in the modules you can plant into clean, weed free soil, so you won't have to weed, which attracts carrot fly. All you need to do after that is to keep them permanently covered with a fine mesh like 'Enviromesh' to keep carrot flies out.
My rather unconventional method of growing on onion seedlings also cheats the weather!
Onions from seed are always far more successful than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in any disease which sets can do. That can be even more likely in a wet year. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them if you get a move on and sow them now!
Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting on tray of compost
I also have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when something sensitive needs planting out from modules. I first thought of this when I was behind for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time - which meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and can cause bolting. The trick I use now is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily unawares, and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - taking each plug of plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success four years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long.
OK. Like so many of things I do - it's perhaps not the most conventional way of doing things - but it works! Being 'conventional' has never bothered me much anyway having been an organic gardener for 40 years! I've always felt that 'conventional' was always there to be challenged - (not a trait my school teachers appreciated though)! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience - and experience is always the best teacher. Otherwise I would have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often just as important as saving money for me! If you don't sit them on compost, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface, getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. They will then be far less efficient, the plants won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and they may be more inclined to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they start to root into the matting - then roots get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a shock that many of them will 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing a nice firm ripe bulb - which is a waste of all your work!
Leeks aren't quite as sensitive as onions - so if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way - you could just row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed instead of doing this - and plant them out as usual later - but this trick works fantastically well for them as well. I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions (Organic Catalogue) - and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind nowadays, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always has done - and we are all so busy! Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals, just because that's how things were always done, is always worth challenging. And as I often say - that's the only way science progresses too - but more on that later!
'Hardening off' early vegetables sown under cover
'Hardening off' is a term which first time gardeners often find difficult to understand. It's just a gradual acclimatising of plants to the outside world - after being raised in nice warm conditions inside. At this time of year I tend to operate a kind of airport style 'holding pattern' with plants in various stages of hardening off - gradually moving closer and closer to being completely outside. Gradually is the key though! Always be prepared to put them back under cover quickly if severe weather is forecast. I use this method for everything that's sown early under cover - including my onions. The weather's so bad here today that the gales would have battered and destroyed anything like tender lettuces in trays. Typical April weather! It really is worth taking that little bit of extra trouble to properly harden off module grown plants. If it's well done, in a few weeks time you will have perfect beds full of beautiful, healthy salads and other veg to start harvesting.
Normally at this time of year I'm running in and out of the tunnels morning and evening - putting stuff out during the day that needs to begin the 'hardening off' process - bringing everything in again at night in case of a sudden unexpected frost. I have trays raised off the ground on upturned plant crates, so any slugs can't get them - or sneak underneath and be brought unintentionally into the tunnel at night. When weather improves - I shall leave them out day and night at the side of the tunnels just covered with some fleece at night for a few days. After that they can be planted into the raised beds - which are looking like a very inviting (but very cold and wet) blank canvas right now - most of the winter crops having been cleared. The surplus late leek seedlings 'Bandit' which I couldn't bear to waste last year I planted out pencil thin - 3 in a clump in August or early Sept. - mulching them with grass clippings to keep the weeds down and the moisture in. Pictured here you can see lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates, to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
Stop weeds and slugs before they start!
If you're an all year round gardener like me, then you'll probably have already covered any ground vacated by any late winter crops lifted last month. If you haven't done that - then do it fast now! This is important to stop the weeds merrily growing away while your back's turned doing something else! Otherwise you'll seriously regret it in a few weeks time - when trying to get a bed ready for sowing or planting takes a couple of hours because there's a jungle of weeds to remove - instead of the few minutes it would have taken if you'd covered it before they start growing! Don't forget that weeds tend to encourage slugs as well because they give them more places to hide! You can use the time that the ground's covered to lift the cover every so often and pick up any slugs - or just cut them in half if you really can't bear the slime! Any light-excluding and also preferably rain-proof covering will do, to stop the weeds growing and keep the soil dry and in good condition until you can get round to preparing it for a new crop. As soon as we get better weather the weeds will simply leap out of the ground practically overnight! They're always the first to germinate at lower temperatures - that's why they're so successful!
Remember - Nature has strategies that can outwit even the best-laid plans of gardeners - that's why organic gardeners work with rather than against it. Nature is always wisest in the long run and no matter how clever we may think we are - Nature will always have the last word!
With growth fast now - plots can quickly become an unmanageable mess if weeds are not dealt with promptly!
If that happens - then it's often the time when many first-time gardeners give up - thinking that this gardening lark's just far too difficult! Either that or turn to weedkillers on the advice of chemical-minded gardeners! This is a disaster for all the soil life and also for your health if you eat vegetables grown in chemically weed-killed soil! Recently I bumped into a friend who opened some allotments on his farm - he said that several people had taken on far too much and ended up with a mess - so they've abandoned their allotments completely this year. That's a shame - with the right advice they wouldn't have been so disappointed. If that's happened to you in the past - but you're going to have another shot - then good for you but don't take on too much - a little bit of forward planning really pays off.
You're far better to get just one small area perfectly under control and cover the rest or just mow it for the time being. You can use the clippings to start a compost heap or for mulching potatoes to keep weeds down. They love the acidifying effect on the soil. While on the subject - only grow potatoes on one quarter of the plot in the first year - not everywhere as some 'know-it-all' people may advise! You could even grow some pumpkins, courgettes or even sweetcorn through any light-excluding cover later on too - or sit tubs on top to grow in this year.
If you spread manure or compost on the surface and just cover it until next year - you won't believe how much the soil will improve without you doing another thing - but it must be covered - not left open to the weather! Don't make it hard for yourself and attempt to be self-sufficient in fruit and veg if you've only got a couple of hours a week to spare. Grow just a few things that are easy - or perhaps are expensive and hard to find fresh in the shops - or things that are better picked fresh just before you eat them like salads. Don't bother trying to grow bulk crops like main crop carrots, onions or potatoes if you haven't got much room or time - organically grown ones are easy to buy almost everywhere now. Grow some permanent fruit bushes which aren't as much trouble and as time-consuming as vegetables. And most importantly - and this sounds obvious - grow what you know you like and will actually eat!!
Growing your own means you can grow the best varieties for flavour and nutrients
Two types of Oca tubers - 1 scarlet with white eyes on left & 2 orange oca on right
Commercial growers often have to use varieties that crop heavily, travel well and have a long shelf life - which usually means far less flavour! I find that the most difficult thing of all for me is restricting myself to things which I know I will realistically have time to grow! I want to grow everything - including many of the more unusual and exotic things. But surely one does have to have a little bit of gardening fun sometimes - otherwise life could be very boring. I also like to experiment with growing new varieties of old favourites, it's an interesting and useful way of discovering better varieties. The great thing about gardening is you never stop learning - and doing it is the very best way to learn!
Another great thing about growing your own is that you can try more unusual crops which are never available in the shops. I've tried many unusual crops over the years - some successful - others not so! One of them was Oca - (oxalis tuberosa) - an ancient Andean crop. The steamed tubers taste rather like a lemony/buttery floury new potato. You can also use the delicious, sharp lemony-tasting leaves and pretty yellow flowers sparingly in summer salads. Sparingly though - as like sorrel they have a high oxalic acid content which can cause kidney stones if eaten in excess! That's something that many experts fail to mention - or perhaps don't know? There are several different coloured ocas - but I'm interested in the more highly-coloured ones for their possible higher antioxidant content. They're fascinating little tubers and very pretty plants - but I found they made masses of tiny tubers wherever the stems touched the soil as well as bigger ones - and I have a funny feeling they may become as invasive and hard to get rid of as Jerusalem artichokes! They're popping up everywhere now, wherever they've been grown previously, despite being cleared up thoroughly - or so I thought! They don't form their tubers until really late in the season - November or so - but they make an interesting alternative break crop in the tunnel rotation where they were obviously very happy in 2012, and also outside for the last few years!
Get your seeds sown on time!
You can get on with lots of seed sowing now - the list is elsewhere in the blog. If you're short of time - (and who isn't these days?) then sow your seeds before you do anything else. As I've mentioned before - you can catch up with everything else when you have time - but seeds must always be sown at the right time otherwise you'll miss the boat! It can be a fine balance - I often make two sowings of a really important staple crop as an insurance policy. If sown too early some things may get a check if we get a sudden cold spell - then run up to flower and seed almost straight away instead of cropping properly. Alternatively if sown too late - they may often never have time to develop a crop at all - especially if we have a really poor summer. In Ireland, we're lucky enough to live in a climate where it's possible to grow most things in most years given a little care.
Seeds of some food plants like spinach and lettuce which grow best in cooler temperatures have a built in germination inhibitor that is triggered by high temperatures - so it's best to keep them fairly cool for the first 24 hours or so after sowing. Don't try to hurry them more by putting them in a heated propagator as they may not germinate at all. At 30 deg C the seed actually becomes dormant - this is nature's clever way of ensuring that they don't germinate in unsuitable conditions and have the best possible chance of growing on to adulthood and producing seeds themselves.
I know they look lovely, and we'd all love one - but the perfect picture book, 'Country Living' style old brick potting shed (as beautifully seen on Gardener's World) isn't really necessary, or even standing outside in a freezing cold greenhouse, with numb fingers trying to sow tiny seeds! I prefer to sow mine in comfort! I keep a large tray under my kitchen table at this time of year, with a few module trays and small pots, a bowl of seed compost, some vermiculite and a few labels, ready to snatch a few minutes between other jobs, whenever I can, to sow some seeds. The tray is actually a 'grow bag' tray - about 1m long by 45cm wide (a standard seed tray width) which I find is the ideal size. It has deep sides, conveniently keeps all the messy stuff together, is waterproof, and can be whipped off out of the way and shoved under the table at a moment's notice if someone arrives, or at mealtimes! I use a new cat litter tray to sit seed trays in for watering seedlings from below. You may think that sounds a bit scruffy but it's actually quite tidy, very convenient, and at least it stays where it's put - unlike the lambs, chicks or ducklings that often in the past frequented a snug cardboard box under the table in my nice warm kitchen, whenever they required a bit of TLC! I do rather miss those days now - and the children's delight with all our various little fluffy babies! It was a bit frantic sometimes though! Hey ho - life moves on.......
Yes - I know the books all tell us to sow seeds in a perfect 'friable seedbed'! But like a lot of you I suspect, when I first moved here I spent endless fruitless hours and energy, making an already bad back worse, struggling to break up the compacted, concrete-like, clods of clay that passed for soil! I was desperate to make 'the perfect seedbed' as recommended. That was before I discovered, more or less by accident, the more convenient and sure results that come from sowing seeds in modules, which I do most of the time now, even for many early root veg as I described earlier. Then I just made 'planting pockets' in the soil of the beds later, as I described in an earlier blog post. After years of cultivation my soil does now make a good seedbed - but I actually still sow most things in modules now because you can be more sure of the temperature, the weather and importantly - the absence of slugs!. Seeds are so expensive now that one can't afford to waste them - and the one thing that is totally beyond our control is the weather. The earliest sowings are inside in my polytunnel, and later outside sowing is done in modules in a raised, slug proof, outside propagating area. You could also make a raised seedbed, if you wanted to but I still find that sowing in modules avoids the setbacks and occasional damage which can be caused by 'pricking out', uprooting and transplanting. Plants establish so much better, far more quickly and more reliably if they already have a really good root ball.
Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden to do it!
As my stepladder garden and containers prove in the polytunnel diary this month, growing some of your own food is easy, really satisfying and can save you a lot of money. There's a lot of information here I know - but you don't have to do everything here! I just try to give the advice and encouragement that I know I would have found really useful when I was starting my gardening life. I hope that you can benefit from my 40 years experience of growing food for my family and for my veg box and co-op customers years ago (can't believe it!). Many customers became friends for life - because an interest in healthy food is something we have in common - as indeed so have you!
No matter how busy you are in the garden - I hope you'll take time to enjoy every moment of this wonderful spring time - it's such a joyous and hopeful time of year! The garden is bursting with hope. Planting a garden is really planting hope! That's something we all need plenty of - and it's something that we can renew afresh each year. Aren't we gardeners lucky?!
Last but not least! My thoughts on some so-called 'scientists' - after all, if science hadn't been challenged centuries ago - then we'd all still think the earth was flat wouldn't we?
Sadly too many so-called scientists refuse to accept that something they may have been taught in college may actually now have been proved wrong. This can particularly be the case if their science is biased by having a financial vested interest in maintaining the current status quo - as many of those scientists employed (either openly or covertly) by the globally-dominant, multinational seed and pesticide manufacturers have. In fact - today some science is for sale to the highest bidder and does not have the integrity it should! It seems to be a case of "Give me the money - and I'll give you the results you want" - rather than what may be the actual truth! Some scientists on social media may not always be what they appear to be - their often entertaining, amusing and seemingly innocent public faces may disguise a much darker, self-interested and commercially-connected side.
Saying such things obviously doesn't make me popular in some quarters - but that's never bothered me! In fact I was even threatened by DM - (a private direct message) on Twitter over 4 years ago by one extremely arrogant but very popular and well-known advocate of industrial chemical agriculture and GMOs. This was despite the fact that I had only mentioned "some scientists" - in a tweet referring to my feelings about such obvious financially motivated bias - and had not mentioned their particular scientific discipline! This proved to me that particular person had a vested interest at the time - and events since then have proved me to be quite correct!
To such people - using the hashtags #organic, #local, #wholefood, #processedfood or #realfood - seem to be like waving a red rag at a bull - they become almost apoplectic with rage! Their tweets infer that the proponents of sustainable organic agriculture are ignorant Luddites and hippies - using such hashtags as #SenseAboutScience, or #FactsNotFear - which are real favourites of the biased, pro-chemical farming brigade!
Some pro-chemical journalists even say that we are suffering from 'orthorexia' - a curious one that - since if you look at the Greek etymology of that word it actually means 'right diet'! They're clearly not fans of evolutionary science - since if we weren't eating the 'right diet' - surely humans wouldn't have got as far as the 20th century, when artificial fertilisers and pesticides were invented? An not only that - the emerging science on COVID19 is that it appears to be those who eat the most processed food, or perhaps have underlying health conditions in part caused by such foods, who are sadly among the worst affected by complications caused by the virus. So cheap processed food and pesticide manufacturers may have a lot to answer for when all is known about how such diets may have affected our immune systems.
It was only in the 20th century that the chemicals which are now being used as pesticides
! If scientists are so confident that their way is the right way and that their chemicals don't harm biodiversity or people's health - you would think that advocates of what they call 'Luddite' organic farming wouldn't bother them in the slightest -wouldn't you?
were invented. They were originally used as poisonous nerve agents - weapons of warfare just like those being used in Syria and other regions where there are wars now
As I've said - it doesn't make me too popular to question them - and those who prefer a quiet life probably wouldn't. But it's too easy to look the other way and allow another Silent Spring to happen. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of good scientists out there who are as deeply worried as I am about the future. What makes me so unpopular is questioning those who only appear to care about amassing as much money as possible now - regardless of what harm it may do to Nature and our children's future! But I don't care about being popular - what I care about is the future of our children, their health and also that of Nature and the planet. Surely anyone who has children must care about such things?
Nature and my children are the only vested interests I have to declare. And I don't keep those hidden - unlike some people!!
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)