Robin checking that the temperature is OK for the courgettes sitting on a tray on top of the compost bin in the polytunnel!
Crazy Mixed Up Weather again this year - Goodbye Summer - Hello Winter!
Some people dance around Maypoles on May Day - but I usually dance for joy around my Polytunnel Potager - as long as I'm not on dodgy legs as I am currently! Anyway - no matter how I am - it's always such a privilege to be in there working and listening to happily buzzing, busy bees and all the birds singing for joy. Especially when I'm accompanied by my dear little Robin friend sweetly singing, as I so often am this year. He tweets away happily to me while I'm working, looking all around all the time, constantly on the alert for insects - and then suddenly zooms off to grab one delightedly and rushes off to the missus with it! One of his favourite places to perch, which you can see here, is the tray which I've put on top of the compost bin in the middle of the tunnel, where I put tender plants that are en route from the warm, heated bench to the tunnel beds. There's a little bit of extra warmth there which courgettes and other more tender plants really appreciate at night.
The nettles along the side of the tunnel behind the compost bin look very scruffy currently - but I'm leaving them alone for now, as they are full of butterfly nests - just in case you wondered why! The polytunnel is a great resource for all biodiversity, including all the small birds here, as it's an insect-abundant space to hunt, where they are protected from predators. It's also an indispensable aid to being able to produce our own food all year round - especially in what has so far been a really erratic year weather-wise outside. Although the bank holiday weekend was like midsummer, and we'd had almost drought conditions for weeks, until the last 3 days of torrential rain and hail, and severe night frosts. The temperatures for the next week are forecast to often be below freezing again, despite hot days, and the long range forecast is predicting frost for much of next week. So I'm glad I haven't planted my tomatoes out yet into the polytunnel soil, as they would be far more difficult to protect with fleece in that case.
|Maskotka plants unharmed after -4C
||Maskotka plants in tubs on grow bag tray covered with 1 layer bubblewrap and 2 layers of fleece for frost protection
Three days ago I decided to start planting out the Maskotka into the large tubs I always grow them in, as some were flowering and one was even developing tiny fruits. I shall gradually plant two or three of all the varieties into the 10 litre tubs of organic peat-free compost on the grow bag trays, as they tend to be warmer in tubs than planted into the ground, and always produce my earliest tomatoes. They're also much easier to protect from frost when they're all grouped together. The other duplicate plants of the cordon (upright) varieties will stay on the warm bench for now as my insurance against disaster - and I may put them on into vine pots and feed them if the weather doesn't look like improving. Doing that is far better and less damaging for them than just letting them get pot bound and starved! They will eventually be planted out into the polytunnel soil and produce a slightly later crop, spreading the season and going on well into late autumn. Although the polytunnel soil is warm enough by now - it would be almost impossible to protect 40 individual tomato plants with the triple layers of fleece which I shall definitely be putting over them to avoid any frost damage at night. The tomatoes in tubs are each supported by a 1 metre cane with a rubber protector on top which stops the canes from piercing the layer of bubble wrap and three layers of fleece which I'm currently covering them with each night. I uncover them every morning for the plants to get some fresh air and for the fleeces to dry, as leaving the fleece on them could promote disease on the foliage, as the surface of fleece becomes surprisingly wet on cold nights.
Tomato Tumbler plants on stepladder with fleece folded back during the day
Watering the young plants is the other thing I'll be very careful about for the next week or so - only watering slightly in the mornings if absolutely necessary, so that if and when the frost happens, they'll be in dry-ish, warm compost, rather than having soaking wet, cold roots. The same will apply to the 'Tumbler' tomato plants on the stepladder, as the mushroom boxes have a shallow well of water at the bottom and I'm always very careful not to get them too wet in cold weather - although when the boxes are full of roots and the weather really warms up in summer they will probably need watering twice a day. I can never understand why some people water every day regardless of whether the plants need it or not. It's the fastest way to lose plants to root-rotting diseases and it's something to be really careful about when the weather is as unpredictable as it currently is. Just that little bit of effort and TLC makes all the difference to whether you will get good crops or not.
As I have often said here on my blog - too many people still 'go by the book' - or in other words listen to so-called 'experts' telling you to do specific jobs at a specific time - regardless of the fact that their readers may live in an entirely different climate and environment! The other thing I've seen a lot on social media recently is people planting out tomatoes in mid-April - advice usually written from old text books usually written by authors living in South East England! I hope their tomatoes didn't turn blue with cold or worse! Temperatures below 50 deg F or 10d eg. C will damage tomatoes, and affect their cropping potential.
There can never be hard and fast rules for any gardening - whether outside or in polytunnels. My advice is to get to know your particular local climate, and tailor your planting out times to that rather than what is the standard advice - and if in doubt - don't! Which is probably good advice for doing many things in life if one's not sure if one should! Ha!
The winter weather seems to be coming back for another bite at us now - just when we thought it had finally gone and summer had arrived - the seasons seem to be getting more unpredictable, muddled and mixed up! That's something that according to my Geologist/Archaeologist/Zoologist son is because of the jet stream and ocean currents changing due to climate change. The Gulf Stream which keeps our climate relatively temperate for thousands of years is changing. But whatever is responsible for this erratic weather - it's something that from now on we will have to be constantly aware of if we are trying to produce our own food. The good thing this year though, is that many of the winter vegetables like lettuces, chicories and chards have hung on much later than usual again, like last year. We've had just enough cold days at times to cool them down a bit after the hot days. Lovely to still have all these lush crops available in what is traditionally known as the 'Hungry Gap' - but it means that that they're still taking up space in the tunnel, when in theory they should be gone. I should now be getting beds ready for planting summer crops like tomatoes, French beans and early courgettes. The winter leaf crops are only just starting to bolt and run up to flower now, and will still be tender and usable for at least another couple of weeks yet, if well-watered - so it would be a sin to take them out! I just need a bit more time and freezer space to freeze some rather than the very appreciative hens getting all of them!
Jack Ice - finally starting to bolt after cropping since last October!
The bolting lettuce will also be used up to make one of my favourite early summer soups - lettuce and lovage - an annual treat that uses up fast-bolting tunnel lettuce in May. Many people would just throw it onto the compost heap at this stage - but it's still perfectly edible - even if a little stronger tasting. I have three large lovage plants growing in large pots for bringing into the polytunnel early, specifically for making this divine soup. It starts growing too late outside and would otherwise be too late for the bolting tunnel lettuce. So every March I bring them into the tunnel early to force them into growth in time to make the soup - plants growing outside would be far too late for the bolting tunnel lettuce. I really look forward to this soup every year. Oddly enough - I never make it at any other time of year - probably because the rest of the year there's just so much else to eat!
My soup (recipe below) is great for using up the last of the stronger-flavoured, bolting overwintered lettuce that is no longer nice in salads, and it avoids wasting precious healthy nutrients at a time of year when any fresh veg is welcome! Green lettuce is best for this soup I think - the red ones tend to make the soup look a bit of an unattractive 'mud'-colour! The last of the spinach is mostly frozen - making handy 'ready-prepared' veg for super-fast meals and also for throwing into soups and smoothies. I just wash it if necessary, dry it in the salad spinner to get rid of any excess water and then freeze it as fast as possible! The bolting chicory is enjoyed by the hens and I always transplant a few chicories outside into the bee and butterfly border for the beautiful blue flowers that bees and other insects love - and then later on the plants produce seeds which birds like Goldfinches enjoy. Nothing is ever wasted here!
We try to be as self-sufficient in both veg and fruit as possible here and rarely buy anything - I can't bear to waste any part of nutritious vegetables - so I try to make a point of using everything - even bolting veg which many people would just throw onto their compost heap. It's a sin to waste anything when it's still so full of healthy nutrients. If I can't use things immediately I usually freeze them for quick meals later. Recently I've been busy until late at night in the kitchen dealing with the spinach and chard mountain by washing and freezing it as fast as I can! Spinach is such a useful veg to have in the freezer as a standby for quick meals and can be thrown straight into the saucepan from frozen to make a great soup or side veg.
The Joy of Seasonal Eating!
Eating seasonally is what all humans always did until relatively recently, because they had no choice - unless they were very wealthy and used huge resources in terms of fuel to provide out of season crops in winter, as some of the old kitchen gardens did. But even then they were a treat and more for show at important dinner parties, than for the regular menu. There are many reasons that I personally believe that we don't need summer vegetables in winter - otherwise what on earth is there to look forward to? Seeing courgettes in winter at over €1 each I find almost obscene, and 200g bags of baby spinach, imported from Italy, sell in supermarkets for over €3. When wilted down that would give you about a tablespoon after cooking - barely a portion - that is a shocking price for something that's so easy to grow anywhere all year round, even without any additional heat, if you grow the right variety.
Shockingly - I read last year that some of the huge Mediterranean holdings on which this produce is grown use migrant workers who are subjected to the most horrendous abuses of their most basic human rights. In many cases not being provided with the most basic personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves! That's something I'm sure none of us would want to support this by just conveniently looking the other way, while buying that produce! Nor would anyone surely want to eat that produce, which may have been picked by someone who may be sickening with Corona Virus but desperately having to work for wages that are a pittance? If that isn't a recipe for simmering social unrest and food insecurity, I don't know what is! It's time to consider the cost of imported produce in more than just terms of money! It's not worth what amounts to virtual slavery!
Here's a link to that concerning article - "No food, water, masks or gloves" Migrant farm workers in Spain at crisis point":
Imports of such crops are driven by supermarkets looking for the lowest price possible from suppliers all year round. That is a practice which really needs to stop if we are genuine about reducing our carbon footprint, and trying to tackle climate change in a meaningful way! The only difference in terms of carbon footprint, between that spinach grown in Italy and spinach grown here is the distance it has to travel, from where it is grown to where it is consumed. The other important difference is that it is actually not as nutritious - having not just travelled further, but from a different time zone, which will have upset it's circadian rhythm. Yes - plants obey circadian rhythms or internal clocks just like we do - and they can get jet lag too, believe it or not. That means that the vital phytonutrients in that plant will have been affected, and not only are they linked to flavour, but they are also important in supporting our immune defences against pathogens and viruses like COVID_19.
That imported, out of season, cosmetically perfect produce often looks as tempting and attractive as 'Snow White's' poisonous apple! But that apple is almost always a huge disappointment in terms of flavour - often with bitter, tough, inedible skin and watery, over-sweet flesh. It's the same story with so much other produce that's imported. It's a pointless waste of money - usually full of chemicals if not organic, and often grown with many chemicals which are banned in the EU!. Again it will have a massive carbon footprint in terms of travel air miles alone!. Even when it''s organic - imported shop-bought, or even locally-grown organic food can never compare with the flavour, freshness or nutritional content of your very own fresh-picked, home-grown organic produce! The often poorer nutritional content of produce imported from the other side of the world, or even from closer to us in Southern Europe is something I talk about in this blog post here:
There is no doubt that buying something which is tired and already several days old from your supermarket can never rival the enormous sense of achievement and satisfaction you can get from enjoying the well-earned fruits of your own labours - especially if the produce has been grown in an organic, sustainable and nature-friendly way. There is simply nothing like the satisfying crunchy sweetness of that first mangetout, the first May strawberry or the first apple of autumn. There are so many mouthfuls of summer delights we have to look forward to at this time of year. The first of the cherry tomatoes in June, a sun-warmed juicy peach in July, or that August morning when you open the tunnel door and the scent of a ripe warm melon hits you - and you cradle it in your hand, the fruit slightly cracking where it joins the stem in readiness to drop off the vine. It doesn't get the chance here - the pruning knife slices into a juicy ripe melon in a very satisfying way! Simply nectar for the Gods - and the ultimate in take-away breakfasts! I have to admit that the very first of anything in this garden very rarely reaches the kitchen - that's the gardener's extra special reward!!
Is there ever anything to compare with the very first taste of anything seasonal, local, and home-produced each year? How boring would our annual food supply be if it was never punctuated by the season's first of anything - but instead we just had the same continuous diet of what the supermarkets want to sell us all year round? Year-round availability of the most common fruits and vegetables, out of their normal season here, imported from God-knows-where, has actually ruined the seasonal anticipation of crops for most people. That anticipation and then childlike enjoyment of the very first, mouth-watering burst of each new flavour in each season is so exciting! People who are limited to the range of what is now available now in supermarkets don't know what they're missing. No wonder so many children will only eat frozen peas, carrots and broccoli - when most of the time that's all that is available in supermarkets! Children need to get used to a wide range of different tastes at an early age - or they may remain 'picky', perhaps refusing to eat only the veg they know - or none at all - all their lives. This can have serious consequences for their health later on in life. Even farmers markets are often little better in the UK or Ireland - although to be fair, many of the organic growers are more adventurous, as most of the growers would be alternative thinkers in the first place! H
ow lucky we gardeners are - to be able to enjoy the - 'first taste this year' - of so many treats at so many different times, every single year!
Make more Wonderful Watercress
Thinking seasonally - one of my other winter standby veg that needs attention right now is watercress. Although watercress is a perennial plant - it needs renewing each year or it becomes tough, peppery and not nice to eat - rather than lush and delicious! It's just starting to flower now after a few very hot sunny days in the polytunnel - so now is the time that I take 'Irishman's cuttings'. That term means with a few roots attached - for further rooting in a jar of water, and then planting in a damp, shady spot outside for the summer. It will continue to provide lush crops there throughout the summer and then in August I will take more cuttings which will provide a polytunnel crop throughout next winter. Contrary to what many people say - it doesn't need running water or even a pond to grow. It just needs a constantly moist soil that doesn't dry out. In fact growing it at home is far safer than watercress growing beside or in streams - as that can provide habitat for a nasty little snail that carries the dangerous liver fluke pest - especially if there are sheep or cattle grazing nearby or upstream. So it's far safer to grow it in garden soil! I will leave the old plants in the tunnel for as long as I can, until I need that spot for another crop - because the bees adore the flowers.
If you don't have plants already - there's no need to sow watercress from seed. You can easily root it in just a few days in a jar of water, if you buy some watercress salad leaves in a bag - or find some in a bag of mixed salad leaves. Just pinch off any yellowing leaves at the bottom ends of the shoots and put them in a jar of water. When they have formed roots in 3-4 days - either plant them in garden soil or in pots of organic peat-free compost and keep them moist in a shady place where they won't dry out. In August you can then take more new shoots from those plants to root for planting in early September. Those plants will crop really well throughout the winter. I've kept the same plants going for about 12 years now by taking new cuttings twice a year. It's as easy as falling off a log! The only pests of watercress are slugs and cabbage white butterflies - whose caterpillars can decimate plants entirely almost overnight - because they're very difficult to see until it's too late! So keep an eye out for them!
(My easy recipe for the cream of spinach soup shown below - or any other greens such as watercress or lettuce can be found here:
There's a lot more to Polytunnels than just growing Tomatoes!
Me in the big polytunnel behind what I call the 'Emperor's New Clothes Plant' - Yacon. The latest fashionable 'must-have' plant!
Cucumbers, Melons and Courgettes - the Cucurbitaceae family
7 cucumbers ready to pick on this Burpless Tasty Green plant in large tub!
I think the next most common tunnel or greenhouse crop to tomatoes that people grow is probably cucumbers - because you really can't beat the taste of homegrown ones - especially the older varieties which I personally think have far more flavour. I've been growing Burpless Tasty green for around 35 years now - and I still think it can't be beaten for easiness of growing, flavour or productivity for home gardeners. Seed of BTG is also incredibly cheap compared to the more 'prima donna-ish' newer hybrids - you'll get about 20 seeds for the price of just one seed of those expensive F1 varieties! I always plant cucumber and melon plants on a slight mound, watering them in carefully with tepid water -never cold. After that I NEVER water very close to their stems again, as they can be very prone to root rots just where the stem meets the soil. I always use tunnel temperature water to water them around their outer root area - using water from the water butt kept in the tunnel specifically for that purpose. I never use cold water from a hose! I tend to give them a slightly richer soil than I would give tomatoes, again preparing the soil in the same way a few days beforehand but also forking in a nice bucketful of good compost or well-rotted manure per planting spot. I then water the prospective planting site thoroughly and leave it for a couple of days for the soil to settle and warm up. If I'm growing more than one plant I plant them roughly 3ft/1m apart. I plant my early tunnel courgettes in exactly the same way. Doing this ensures that I never have any root problems.
For those of you who are buying plants from garden centres rather than using plants you have grown from seed - make sure you inspect them very carefully! If there's any sign of browning, cracking or other damage on on the stem anywhere, particularly where it meets the compost at the top of the root ball - then DON'T BUY THE PLANT! That's always the first sign of root rots setting in. Very often these plants reach the nursery or garden centre from the suppliers perfectly fine - then they might get watered with a cold spray from a garden centre hose, very often by someone untrained, who wouldn't know a cucumber from a cabbage. That means that plants can be well on the way to root rots before you even buy them - but you won't know that, and think when they wilt and collapse a week or two later that it was your fault! Another tell-tale sign of this is wilting - even though the compost feels damp. That is always an indicator of root problems. A mistake many beginners often make is that because they see something wilting - they think the plants need more water (I can't tell you how many plants I lost that way when I first started growing things!) but it almost always means that there is a problem with the roots and the last thing they need is even more water, which will make things even worse! That's why it's generally safer to grow them from seed yourself, in a good, free-draining, peat-free compost, and once they have started growing well and need water - always water them from the bottom by sitting them in tepid water for a couple of minutes, so they can drink what they need, rather than giving them too much.
The other thing which may affect cucumbers is Sciarid fly maggots in the compost. These flies are particularly attracted to peat composts, and their tiny larvae or maggots will eat away at fine roots. So that's another reason why we shouldn't be using peat composts - apart from the fact that using them is destroying bogs and adding hugely to climate change! Once those flies are in the compost - you won't get rid of them, so you're better off taking them right out of your greenhouse or propagating frame, so they can't migrate to any other plants, and dumping them! Luckily cucumbers and courgettes are very fast-growing plants, so unless it's very late in the summer - you can always sow some more. When I have sown my cucumber seed, I always top the peat-free compost with vermiculite or sharp sand, and never over water them. If you follow this rule - you won';t have problems with Sciarid flies laying eggs into the compost.
There's still plenty of time to sow them now for a mid - late summer (or even an autumn crop with the small gherkin types). It's best not to start them off too early anyway, as it can be difficult to give them enough warmth at the roots early on to keep them growing on really well, because another thing that all the cucurbit family hates is being pot-bound and getting checked. Pumpkins in particular really hate this as they make huge root systems - and if they get 'pot-bound' before planting out they never really do as well afterwards. Some years ago I was sent some half-sized grafted cucumbers for trialling. To be honest I wasn't that impressed with them compared to my usual varieties and they also brought in red spider mite - which didn't please me, as I then had to go to the expense of buying a biological control! A very good half-sized cucumber, ideal if the larger ones go off before you use all of them is Restina - the seed of which I got from Lidl of all places! It's a really delicious gherkin type which is very useful for pickling or grows to make a very nice half-sized tasty cucumber too - just enough for a couple of good sandwhiches! It's also incredibly productive, as many of the gherkin types are.
While I'm on the subject of peat use - I'm always trying to think of ways that I can lower my personal carbon footprint, and not using peat in our gardens can make a huge difference to carbon emissions. NO gardener who is concerned about climate change and loss of biodiversity should be using it! Not using peat is something which all gardeners can do now that there are plenty of excellent peat-free alternatives available. Peatlands form only 3% of the planet's land surface - but they are massive 'carbon sinks' - storing twice as much carbon as all currently standing forests. That's a pretty mind-boggling statistic! We must stop digging them up now! In their natural wet, un-drained state - peatlands also sequester huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere through all the native plants which grow in them, especially Spaghnum mosses - trapping it underground as carbon. Their capacity for regulating climate is actually far greater than that of forests.
Pumpkins and Squashes
The sword in the stone! Attacking an 8 month-stored 2.8kg (6lb 3ozs) Queensland Blue in late April.
Pumpkins and squashes are one of my most important staple crops, which I start off from seed in late April to mid-May in the propagator. If ripened properly, they store incredibly well through the winter, and I always expect any I have left to keep well until I am sowing the next year's ones. I grow the really dense fleshed ones - and these actually increase in beta-carotene, as they ripen even more while they are stored over the winter. You don't think of vegetable crops as being alive after they have been harvested - but they actually are. After they've been harvested a lot is still going on inside the cells of the plant - whatever type of plant it is! It always fascinates me how a pumpkin that starts off with a turquoise blue skin at harvesting time in late autumn can gradually change over the winter to an even more beautiful deep orange pink, like the Queensland Blue pictured here, which is a fantastic keeper.
I usually grow at least six varieties of long-keeping squashes or pumpkins - and they are all so beautiful to look at, that being an artist I hate to cut them up for cooking! But the really good varieties also taste fantastic too, just like sweet potatoes but much firmer - so I get over it! The giant pumpkins sold for Halloween are totally useless for storing - and also cooking - they are utterly tasteless and watery compared to the ones I grow. Some of the best varieties to grow are Golden Hubbard, Blue Hubbard, Invincible, Crown Prince, Hokkaido, Giant Pink Banana, Buttercup, Marina di Chioggia and Queensland Blue. Cutting up a well-ripened Queensland Blue is a bit like breaking and entering! You need a really stout knife or hatchet to safely cut into those babies! We roast wedges in the oven with garlic and a little butter and oil - and they are absolutely delicious! They're also fantastic for the best ever pumpkin pies and soups (recipe elsewhere) and you can even use their flesh in cakes and smoothies too.
Advice for propagating and planting all the cucumber family
I propagate all my cucurbitaceae family (courgettes, pumpkins, melons etc..) in exactly the same way. I sow them in 3 inch pots singly, on their sides, edge of the seed up, about 1/2 in deep, covering with vermiculite, and water in with tepid water. After this, I cover the pot with a polythene bag and germinate them in a propagator at approx 20 deg C plus/68 deg F. After this - I NEVER water from the top again - always from underneath by sitting them in water for a couple of minutes. I keep them steadily growing well, even potting on if necessary, before it's warm enough to plant them out in the soil either in the tunnel or outside.
Cucumbers in particular need night time temperatures of at least 20 deg.C to grow on really well after planting out. Unlike tomatoes, cucumbers and melons love sauna-like conditions - humidity and warmth, so the place to grow them is in the middle of your tunnel or greenhouse where they won't be in a draught and it will be a bit more humid. Or if you have more than one tunnel - then give them a tunnel to themselves. I must say there are times when I really miss the four tunnels I used to have when I was growing commercially - my rotations were just so much easier. After planting, always water at the base of the mound they're planted on - not against the stem - and with tunnel temperature water, as I said previously. You shouldn't have a problem with rot if you do this. Don't over water, but never let them dry out either, or you may encourage powdery mildew to develop on the leaves, which is caused by dryness at the roots combined with high humidity. This is a particular problem in the autumn as cooler nights encourage it.
A good moisture-retaining mulch of grass clippings or compost after planting (again kept well away - about 10 cm or 4 inches away from the stem) will help to keep mildew at bay by keeping the outer soil and roots moist. With cucumbers - stop (pinch out) the main stem once it reaches the top of whatever support you're training it up, then stop any lateral (side) shoots at the fourth leaf joint and any sub-laterals (side shoots from the side shoots!) at the second leaf joint beyond the first good fruit. If you're growing an 'all female' variety of cucumber, take out any male flowers immediately if any appear - this sometime happens if the plant is stressed in some way. Female flowers have a tiny cucumber behind the flower, male ones just have a plain stem behind the flower. I let my pumpkins and squashes trail along the beds, stopping the main shoot at 4-6 leaf joints, and then stopping any side shoots that develop fruits 3-4 leaves beyond the fruits. Doin this stops them becoming too rampant, and concentrates their energy into developing their fruits.
I plant my melons on a mound in exactly the same way, but I prefer to grow them trailing on the ground, rather than climbing, using a side bed, rather than training them up a string or net, which I basically don't have time for as it's so fiddly. Again, I pinch out the main stem when five leaves have developed. The plant should then develop four or five side shoots, which will bear the fruits. Pinch these out when they reach the extent of their space, or at five leaves - these will then develop the lateral shoots which will bear more fruits. Bees will often pollinate these for you if there are lots around, but to ensure pollination, you can pick a male flower and push it gently into a female flower when they develop. The best time to do this is around midday when it's warm enough for the pollen to develop and the atmosphere isn't too humid. Careful watering of these in the same way as cucumbers is again absolutely key. When the fruits have formed - put each developing fruit on something like a piece of wood, slate or an upturned pot to stop any chance of them rotting where they're in contact with the soil and where there's less likelihood of slugs nibbling them. This also attracts warmth which helps to ripen them. (This is something I was asked about at a talk last year in respect of pumpkins - this is a good way stop them rotting outside in the garden too) You'll know when melons are starting to ripen by keeping an eye on the stem - when a crack start to develop just around where the stalk joins the fruit - and you also get that unmistakable scent - you can be sure they're ripe. I promise you that when you taste your first home grown, perfectly ripe, sweet and aromatic melon - you will be totally hooked!
Ridiculously productive Atena courgette in late May
There's still plenty of time to sow pumpkins, courgettes etc. for planting outside, or better still in the polytunnel if you have space. You are guaranteed a really good crop in the tunnel in our often unreliable and wet Irish 'summers'! My courgettes always crop until November in the tunnel, making them really worth the space - those outside always give up much earlier. I don't bother with green courgettes much now - maybe one or two plants - I grow the yellow one 'Atena Polka', a firm, deliciously sweet variety, not at all 'cabbagey tasting' like most yellow ones - and also far more productive than any of the other yellow ones I've ever tried. Everyone loves it's sweet flavour. It's very like the variety 'Eldorado' that Suttons sold in the early 1990's. I saved seed for several years, but then sadly lost it. It was quite variable though, as it had originally been an F1 hybrid. I prefer to sow all my courgettes in pots too.
Although in theory all the books say you can sow courgettes etc. outside from the beginning of June, in my experience those sown inside now (or inside anytime for that matter) will still be miles ahead, far less likely to be eaten by slugs or other pests, and will crop far more quickly than any sown directly outside. I often think that most seed sowing instructions are written by companies mostly located in the south or west of the UK. In our part of Ireland or the north of the UK, and the growing season is considerably colder and shorter than other places, so use every aid possible to speed things up! Sow them in exactly the same way as the pumpkins etc.above. I usually grow a couple of Atena in large tubs in the fruit tunnel for some early courgettes, then pull these out as soon as those outside, or planted in the ground in the other tunnel are cropping. After a while in tubs they tend to get mildew aa they hate the root restriction, but they provide a really useful early crop this way.
Planting Aubergines and Sweet Peppers
Aubergine 'Bonica' in July You can plant out Aubergines and sweet peppers towards the middle/end of the month too if it's warm enough - these like a really warm soil. If you have too many
Solanacae (tomato family) to fit in with your rotations these will grow well in large pots on grow bags trays or sitting on plastic. I grow them in 10lt. pots, 3 pots to each grow bag tray. This means I can water into the tray rather than the pots, when plants are bigger and need more watering or feeding. I like to plant both aubergines and peppers on slight mounds - with the soil sloping away from the stem - towards the sides of the pot, as this prevents root rotting - to which they are both particularly susceptible. Don't let the plants root through the bottom of the pots into the tunnel soil, or it will mess up your rotation plan in just the same way as if they were in the ground! They require the same careful watering as most other things, never against the base of the stem - always around the outside of the pot if necessary. Be careful never to over water in case the weather then turns cold.
Aubergines are the only one of this family that I would be inclined to mist over - but only if the weather is very hot and the atmosphere very dry in your greenhouse or tunnel, as they can be very susceptible to red spider mite. By the way - if you can actually see tiny very fast moving red spiders, these are usually the predatory mite - Phytoseilius Persimilis. This means you are lucky, as this is what you would normally have to buy to control red spider. Many people confuse it with spider mite but it is very fast moving and visibly red. I often see them in the tunnel and the conservatory. The real red spider mite pest you actually can't actually see, without a hand lens, and it shows itself by a sort of dusty, dry, silvering of the leaves, and if it is a very bad infestation, by dusty fine cobwebs on young shoots as well. Red spider hates humidity, so misting over any affected plants a couple of times a day with a fine mister spray is a good idea. If you get a bad infestation you will have to buy the predatory Phytoseilius. It is very effective - but as it costs around 40 euros for a decent sized greenhouse - you obviously want to avoid it if you can!
Climbing French Beans, early Broad Beans and Peas
Climbing French beans are a fantastically productive tunnel crop. You can always be sure of a good crop inside - even in a miserable summer. I grow the variety 'Cobra' (very cheap seed in B&Q)
it's a round-podded stringless bean - actually an improved form of 'Blue Lake' and is fantastically reliable - both indoors and outside in the garden. I always grow a lot as it also freezes exceptionally well and it's nice to have a bit of a change from cabbages, leeks and chard in the winter! I sow two or three seeds (pre-sprouted on damp kitchen paper) into a recycled 500ml plastic yogurt pot or milk cartons, gently pulling out the weakest if three germinate, leaving two, planting them out when they have a good root-ball but just before they get too friendly and start winding round each other! Again, always watering from underneath by sitting the whole tray of seedlings in water for a few minutes rather than pouring water into their tops. They are also extremely susceptible to root rots at soil level. Milk cartons unzip very conveniently along the join in the carton and then I plant the whole pot out about a foot/30cm apart on a very slight mound made by making a depression between each set of plants. After that I always water between plants - again never against the base of the stem. Follow these instructions and I can promise you that you will not only fill your freezer but be giving away beans! The flat podded French beans don't freeze as well as the round ones, but have a very good flavour fresh and are very productive. I don't bother with dwarf beans in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same ground space but don't crop anything like as well.
What I term 'high-rise' crops are much better value for the space they take up in a tunnel, cropping skywards as they do - just as long as you stop them at the top of their canes or supports, leaving enough room for air to circulate well.
The flat-podded mangetout pea Oregon Sugar Pod will be cropping in about four weeks. The mangetout 'Delikett' won't be far behind those. Delikett is a deliciously sweet sugar snap (round podded) variety which never gets stringy, and goes on cropping for ages. When it gets really huge it can also be podded and the peas used separately. It crops really well in the tunnel from an early February sowing, as does Shiraz. I sow these quite thickly in large recycled plastic fruit punnets, I never bother spacing them out too well. about 8-10 punnets gives me a 10 foot row from a whole packet of seed. That works well, as I usually then give the 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean - pictured here - the other half of the row.
Originally from the HDRA seed library - now known as the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library - I've been re-selecting and saving seed of this fabulous flavoured one for well over 30 years now, re-selecting for traits like taller, heavier cropping plants. At one time it was extremely rare and one couldn't buy it - but several seed companies are selling it now - although I don't think they are as good as my selection which is quite improved from the one I originally got. It's not the biggest cropper, only four or five seeds to a pod, but it does produce a lot of pods on the now taller plants and has an incredible flavour - the best of any broad bean. The small undeveloped pods are nice too if picked early and cooked whole - they have the same flavour as the broad bean seeds. It's also extremely decorative and worth growing just for the flowers and perfume alone, which really hits you when you walk into the tunnel in the evenings. The best thing for me though - is that when it's flowering it's full of deliriously happy bees all day long! They love it just as much as I do!
Sweetcorn - inter-cropping (or cover cropping) with late celery or squashes
If you've got a large tunnel and have room for a small block or row of sweetcorn plants, they're much more reliable in the tunnel than outdoors in our wet summers, as a dry atmosphere at pollination time is vital. In Ireland we often get a wet spell just when the outside ones are producing their pollen - resulting either in very disappointing cobs or none at all! Although they do take up a lot of space, I often sow late self blanching celery now or in mid June - to plant between the sweetcorn plants for a late autumn/Christmas crop. Celery appreciates the shade of the sweetcorn as long as you don't let the soil dry out and will crop well all winter if you just snap off one or two stalks at a time rather than cutting the whole head. Celery is one of the things I can't do without in the kitchen, so I like to have my own available for as long as I can.
Sweet corn can also be sown now in a deep pot, again removing the weakest to leave two in the pot, then planting them out into the tunnel bed when they're about 6-8in/15cm high, about 18in - 2ft./45-60cm each way, that leaves room for the celery. Sweetcorn hates root disturbance so be careful not to break up the root ball when planting. They're a great crop to follow on after my extra early potatoes, the bed should have been well composted or manured for the potatoes, so both the sweet corn and the celery will be very happy with just a light dressing of a general organic fertiliser such as 'Osmo Universal' certified organic fertiliser granules. The celery is slower growing, and after the sweet corn has cropped, I just chop the stems off at the base with secateurs and let the celery grow on into the autumn. It should keep well until at least Christmas, and you can always leave some of the bare sweet corn stems cut at about 2ft/40cm if you like - to act as support for the fleece which you may need to cover the celery with in late autumn! By the way - when the sweetcorn is pollinating - make sure to go along the row and shake some of them - around midday if possible, to spread the pollen, as they're normally wind pollinated. This way you are guaranteed great crops.
You could alternatively grow pumpkins or squashes with your sweetcorn as long as they can trail outside the rows to get plenty of light - thus again ensuring two crops that need dry weather - in case we get another awful summer! In my experience, the famous '3 sisters' Native American way of combining them both with climbing beans as well, doesn't work here in Ireland! Amusingly trendy right now, and a great talking point for those who want to try - but frankly not a productive way to grow them here, either inside or outside. We don't have the same hot, dry summers and intense continental light that they have in the USA. Low cloud and warm grey mist can often be the best part of our summers here. At the end of the day - productivity is the whole point for me - as we aim to be as self-sufficient as possible and don't have space or energy to waste on unproductive crops just to be trendy and talk about!
Sweet Potatoes, Oca, Yacon and Mashua
Another great crop which makes a good break in the tunnel rotation is sweet potatoes. These aren't related to anything else so make a really good 'break' in the tunnel rotation and can be very productive if you know how to grow them. Some of the 'so-called experts' obviously don't however - as they tell you to plant them in very fertile soil! If you do that - all you'll get is a great crop of enormous leaves!! Ignore their advice and plant them in a deep, well-drained soil used by a previous crop - and only add a light dusting of seaweed meal before planting - then mulch with grass clippings or comfrey to keep any weeds down and water just to keep the soil moist after that. Never over-water or they can start to rot. I plant mine about 2 ft/60 cm apart and just leave them to ramble along the ground. They are quite happy there - forming extra roots along the stems which you can use for 'slips' - or cuttings later on. I've seen people train them up trellises - but those seem far too lusciously leafy to me to be very productive tuber-wise! I've tried them in large pots before but they weren't very happy - but a few years ago I tried them in my new 'skip bag' raised beds. They were incredibly happy - I think they loved the great depth of soil. I planted them following on from some 'extra-early' normal potatoes that I'd grown in the skip bag. Again planting them and adding only a little seaweed meal until starting to feed in August in the same way as those planted in the ground. They produced a huge crop and it's something I do every year now.
Now for my top sweet potato tip! In early August I start to feed the plants with a high potash tomato feed like Osmo liquid Tomato feed whenever I need to water them. This is because it's only after then that they start to develop their tubers, triggered by the shortening days, as they are 'day length sensitive' sub-tropical plants. They will they go on developing the tubers until the soil begins to cool or there is frost, so usually early November here. Outside in most areas of the UK and Ireland they would be pretty much a waste of time as it's usually far too cold and wet in the autumn and they stop growing too soon to give a really worthwhile crop. A few years ago, I successfully overwintered late autumn 'slips' in well drained, barely watered pots in the house. Last year I thought I would try to overwinter some in very well drained soil in the cold tunnel but lost the lot. They seem to be very prone to rotting under about 50degF/10degC. and won't even keep after harvesting unless I keep them in the house somewhere over that temperature. Some of the garden centres and multiples may have plants of 'Beauregarde' fairly soon - which is a good variety to grow. It has delicious deep orange flesh and is the most reliable for home gardeners. Johnstown Garden Centre had one called Bonita for the last two years, a white-fleshed variety which did very well and produced even bigger tubers than Beauregarde, and also one called Murusaki which was similar. Orleans is an improved form of Beauregarde - giving bigger tubers but less of them. Two years ago I tried a purple one which I don't know the name of sadly - I bought tubers from organic grower friend Denis Healy's farmers market stall and managed to root cuttings of it. I thought they were worth trying as I love the purple ones - they were from Spain, rather than further afield, and they did well in a polytunnel here.
Oca is another tender-ish crop which forms it's delicious lemony flavoured tubers in the late autumn - but beware - once you have grown it in the tunnel you will always have it as even the tiniest tubers will grow again the following year! That said - it's not really a thug, is easy to grow and like sweet potatoes is a good break crop. The small tubers are like floury lemon flavoured new potatoes - nice steamed and served with fish. You can also eat the delicious sharp flavoured leaves and pretty, small star-shaped yellow flowers in salads in moderation. Moderation is the key though - you don't want too much of it! Here's the reason -
Something that again some 'experts' fail to tell you - or may not even know, is that Oca is actually a member of the sorrel family and so is extremely high in oxalic acid - too much of which could give you kidney stones, if you are susceptible! Some garden writers who should know better, are now even suggesting it as the new alternative to potatoes - as a staple root crop that won't get blight. Even those who write about 'healthy eating' - which is quite astonishing! They clearly haven't done their research properly! I've done a lot of research over the years into the nutritional qualities of crops, as it's something I've always been interested in - especially with growing all of my family's food and also being fascinated by plants. Apart from the fact that you'd really never get big enough crops here outside - I would suggest that they are a rather dangerous 'staple' crop to eat every day instead of potatoes! A nice alternative occasionally - as an interesting side dish - but not worth risking on an every day basis!
Now for another of what I love to call the 'Emperor's New Clothes' plant -Yacon - that I'm pictured with above!! It is undoubtedly an extremely handsome plant - but as the old saying goes - looks aren't everything! It's the very latest 'must have' plant - even what I would call a garden 'fashion statement'! Everyone professes to love it and to get great crops from it - but frankly I don't believe them and I have no problem saying so! Particularly if they live in the British Isles! I suppose it depends what you call great crops though? A few years ago I tried Yacon plants in the tunnel. I've tried them outside before - but never got much of a crop as they also don't develop their tubers until the days shorten so they need a long warm autumn - not something we usually get here! At €28 per potted plant as seen in garden centres over the last few years - it would need to be an awful lot more than just good looking for me! Plants in my polytunnels have to really earn their space! It did produce a good bunch of tubers per plant and even flowered with small sunflower like blooms - but quite frankly it's a waste of time unless you have acres of spare tunnel space - and who has, except a botanic garden? I certainly don't - for me it's a waste of valuable tunnel space (a minimum 2/3 sq.metres per plant) and outside won't produce a worthwhile crop in our cold damp autumns anyway!
In addition to that - all the' experts' (there I go again) say it tastes of 'Granny Smith' crossed with mild pear (copying each other - having obviously read each others articles!) - now come on please! I reckon I have very good unspoiled taste buds, loving as I do on a totally organic, low salt diet and being a non-smoker, I can usually taste the most delicate flavours - but apple and pear? I don't think so!! At best - weak water chestnut - but yes, a lovely crunchy texture, I'll give you that! It's also being promoted as a less 'windy' alternative pre-biotic vegetable to Jerusalem artichokes. Now there's a veg with attitude - it certainly makes it's presence felt - or otherwise! It's cheap to buy, overwinters outside because it's as hardy as old boots and it's almost impossible to lose. What's not to like - apart from the fact that it's just not as fashionable!? And it also has a most fantastic nutty flavour - valuable and versatile in countless winter recipes. Give me Jerusalem Artichokes any time over Yacon! This year Yacon will be relegated to my Jungle garden - with all the other interesting foliage plants. It will look absolutely splendid there, and I will just appreciate it's admittedly exotic looks!! By the way - you can reduce the bloating or aerating (to put it politely!) effects of Jerusalem artichokes by cooking them with a little lemon juice, and also by getting your gut used to them gradually, by not eating a lot at first!
Beautiful but hot - tubers of Mashua or Anu
Mashua or Anu - this is another crop that's suddenly become fashionable - although it's very much an acquired taste for most to say the least! If you like Wasabi - then you'll love it! It's actually a type of climbing nasturtium - Tropaeolum tuberosum - so the leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads and are just as tasty as it's cousin the more ordinary annual nasturtium that we all know and love. The roots are the real crop though - and these are far higher in some cancer-fighting phytochemicals than any other members of the wider cabbage, or brassica family, to which they belong. They can be grated over salads, accompanied by a lot of oth er cooler-tasting greens and then they're not too explosive-tasting! I still don't think Gerry Kelly's forgiven me for getting him to nibble one a few years ago!!
The very strong, if not to say explosively hot, radish-tasting tubers are beautiful but not for the faint hearted! Not bad grated very sparingly raw in salads or even fermented in Kimchi - and in South America they are greatly prized when dried, stored and later cooked. I haven't tried doing that with them yet!
Tropaeolum tuberosum aka Anu or Mashua in flower -
Other Crops - Figs, Grapes and Strawberries
Ever-bearing or perpetual strawberries are another great tunnel crop. They will of course produce good crops outside - but they will crop for far longer and more heavily in a polytunnel! The biggest problem with them is the blackbirds, if I put up netting fine enough to keep the birds out - it keeps out the bees as well, which pollinate them! I try to find netting which is about a 1/4 the size of pea and bean netting, as that will only deter pigeons and pheasants. The blackbirds have perfected a 'hobby-like' last minute wing-folding dash as they aim at the squares of pea and bean netting - I've watched them do it countless times - and I have to admire their ingenuity, but not their greed! If they get into the tunnel they will try nearly every single one - pecking at them all until they find the very ripest. I think they must be the avian equivalent of 'Goldilocks'! Encouraging wildlife is all very well - but it has does have it's limits!! Albion, Mara de Bois and Everest are great-flavoured, heavy cropping varieties that all do well for me - cropping from May until November - and you can't ask more than that!
'Lakemont Seedless' grape - September ripening
All of the grapes are producing plenty of flower buds now, and on both seedless and seeded grapes the main work is pinching out shoots two leaves beyond potential bunches, leaving only one bunch per shoot if you want decent bunches or if the vine is young, or two bunches if they are seedless and you don't necessarily want huge grapes. Be careful not to pinch out the last two shoots needed for any extension growth of the main rod or stem. Keep roots moist, but don't over water.
In a normal year I'd be doing the second thinning of peach fruitlets this week - when they're already the size of large walnuts. At the moment they're still only the size of large peas - about 3 weeks behind due to the weather - that's when I normally do their first thinning now - to 2 ins apart. At the end of the month or when they're walnut sized - I'll thin them to 4ins/10cm apart. It's a fiddly job I really hate - taking off all that potential fruit! But if you don't thin - either the whole lot could drop off because the tree has too much to cope with, or you'll just get very small stony fruits. I want big luscious ones - so I thin them! Keeping them well watered now is important too.
The figs in pots are also developing fast and are being fed a high potash tomato feed, as they kept their embryo fruitlets well over the winter. The 'brega' crop (the term for the overwintered early crop) looks like being really good this year on all of the figs. Brogiotto Nero is looking the best - it's a black fig with deep violet coloured flesh and has the very best flavour I think - but they're all delicious if you're into figs as I am! I've got about 20 varieties now. Figs are very easy to propagate from cuttings or suckers as they aren't grafted and so are much easier to grow than many people think - as long as you're very strict with them! They must be kept under 'house arrest' and restricted in large pots. In the ground - particularly outside - they will just produce masses of leaves and no fruit unless you have them on a very sunny wall with their roots severely restricted in some way. Nice foliage plants in a jungle - but not very productive! 'Violetta', 'Brown Turkey', 'Brunswick', Califfo Blue, Sultane and Rouge de Bordeaux are some that all have a fast-developing 'breba' crop of baby figs currently. They will need to be kept moist and feeding at every other watering - particularly as I want another later crop in the autumn.