How To Make Your Own Planting Ruler

Planting seeds outdoors is one of my favourite things to do in the world, I love the smell of the soil, love the way it gets all lodged up in my fingernails. I love raking the soil until it reaches a fine tilth. I love marking out my rows with bamboo and twine. I love rolling the seeds from the palm of my hand into my seed drills.

Every seed or bulb requires spacing when being planted, this lessens the need to thin them out as they grow as all plants need room to grow and expand. Now, you can use a measuring tape for this, you can take your chances and guess, or you can do as I’ve done and make yourself a very simple ruler to mark out your spaces. I stole this little trick from my Dad last year and it has made planting seeds outdoors miles easier. Now, you can, of course, buy planting rulers but why would you bother when you can make a far cheaper one to suit your exact needs?

All you need is a long piece of bamboo, a measuring tape and a pen or marker. Lie your bamboo parallel with your measuring tape and mark off every 10cm with a pen or a marker. I have also marked in every 5cm with a red pen (I also have two more of these with 20cm and 30cm spacing just for handiness sake). Then you can just lie this on your soil, beside your seed drill and use it as a spacing guide for planting. I have used an 8ft long piece of bamboo so I don’t have to keep moving it during planting as it fits my raised beds perfectly.

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Marking out my spaces

A simple job like this can make planting so much easier, the less time fiddling about, the more work you can get done. And we all know a gardeners work is never, ever, complete!

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Simples!

 

Planting and Dancing

Early on Saturday morning, I stood in my polytunnel in a t shirt, it was 30 degrees celsius and it felt like gardening in the height of summer. Outside it was pouring rain, there were strong winds and it was a chilly 3 degrees.

I have spent just under two years gardening outdoors, victim to the elements. I always swore I wasn’t going to get a polytunnel, partly because of the price and partly because of the work involved. It means that during the summer months, I’ll have to get out to the plot at least 3-4 times a week to water my crops which is a task when you’re working full time, live miles away from your plot and don’t drive. However, on a whim a few weeks ago, I decided to get myself a polytunnel, I’m a terrible woman for expensive, impulse purchases. This one is paying off already though. Not only was I able to stand in there on a freezing Saturday in March, planting and dancing (yes, I dance in my polytunnel, I need to do it somewhere you know), I can now attempt to grow crops that I couldn’t even consider trying in the past.

The polytunnel will likely be my biggest project this year, I need to figure out the layout and install some raised beds. To start, I got myself a staging table for planting and for my seedlings etc. As such, I now have a proper potting bench, it was something I sorely needed on the plot. It’s my equivalent of a desk.

My new workstation

My new workstation

On Saturday, I got some serious planting started. I peeled off my hoodie, stuck on my iPod (for the dancing), poured myself a coffee from my flask and got my hands dirty. I planted celery, celeriac, cucumbers, basil (sweet and red basil), corriander and some sunflowers. These, along with my already planted tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and chillies means I have a good start on my polytunnel crops now.

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Planting season 2014 commences

I also got my red and white onions planted outside. The cold windy weather was a bit of a shock to my system after the balmy confines of the polytunnel. I love planting onions, for me, it’s the herald of a new gardening season. Within about two weeks, I’ll hopefully have lots of crops planted in my raised beds, I hate when they’re all bare.

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Onions planted and protected

My rhubarb is once again looking to be the king of my plot, there’s loads of it already and I reckon I’ll be picking some next weekend. In fact, I’m a little scared, last year it was monstrous, I had so much rhubarb that I thought I’d crumble (see what I did there?) under the pressure to use it all. Which is a good complaint to have I suppose.

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Omnomnomnom

 

The plot is in pretty good shape at the moment. She needs a bit of TLC though. I need to fix my fencing, build a gate, put up my birdhouse, plant lots of flowers, touch up the paint work and build myself a patio/seating area in addition to sorting out the polytunnel. My work here is never done.

Next weekend, I have aspirations to spend the whole weekend on the plot, it’s amazing how much you can get done in an eight hour gardening frenzy, so hopefully over three days I can get loads done. I even have an adorable portable gas stove now, to cook myself some lunch, courtesy of my parents. Best birthday present ever!

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I’m a proper allotmenteer now, little stove for my shed and everything

How To Grow Onions From Sets

Snowball onion set

Snowball onion set

Onions are one of the nicest things to grow in your garden and one of the first crops to plant in spring. I always feel that once I plant my onions, then my gardening year has really started. They are relatively easy to grow and once you follow a few guidelines, should provide you with one of the best crops of the year. They can be stored for months in the correct conditions and are a staple of most culinary dishes.

You can of course, grow onions from seed but I would advise against it unless you have the time, patience and a greenhouse/polytunnel. Instead, I would recommend you get yourself some onion sets. Onion sets are partly grown onion bulbs, they are usually more reliable than growing from seed and because you are growing from set, there will be less work as there is no thinning required.

Recommended Varieties:
White Onions: Stuttgarter Giant, Sturon
Red Onions: Red Baron, Karmen

Planting:

When planting your onions, prepare your soil a few weeks in advance by adding some compost or soil enricher. Onion sets will need to be spaced properly to give them space to mature and bulk up. Space your rows about 30cm apart and plant your sets about 10-15cm apart. Plant each set with the neck facing upwards, leaving the tip above the surface. Firm these in well and water.

Onion sets being planted

Onion sets being planted

Growing:

Young onion plants are very, very appealing to birds and because you leave them poking their heads out, you’ll need to protect them with some netting so the birds won’t rip them out from the bed. Frost can be another issue for young onions so wait until mid-late March to plant them. Frost can push your sets out of the soil so be vigilant and push them back in. I often keep an eye on the weather report and put fleece over my onion crop if a ground frost is on it’s way.

You will need to weed in between your young onions a lot as they hate weed competition. Take care not to disturb your sets from the soil while weeding. I have a great hand held onion hoe for this purpose, an old dinner fork also works well.

That's my onion hoe in the centre, brilliant for weeding between my onions

That’s my onion hoe in the centre, brilliant for weeding between my onions

Harvesting:

Onions are usually ready to harvest in mid summer. Their tops will start to fall over and yellow. Loosen the soil around them and lift them gently with a fork. Onions will need to dry out, it helps if you harvest them on a sunny day. Hang them in an airy, dry place (like your shed) for about three to four weeks to dry them for storage.

Dried onions

Drying onions

Bolted Onions:

The biggest problem I seem to have experienced when growing onions is bolting. Bolting is essentially when a plant begins to flower, which of course is pretty (especially allium flowers), but not very useful when producing food as you want the energy to go into the food and not into producing seed. It generally occurs when the spring and summer are particularly wet and chilly.  Bolted onions won’t store well at all and I have found red onions particularly prone to bolting early. If they do bolt on you, snap off the thick flower stalk just above the bulb. Bolted onions will not mature any further and could likely rot in the ground in wet conditions so your best bet is to harvest it and use it within a week as it won’t store well.

Bolted onion form last summer, very pretty flowers

Bolted onion from last summer, very pretty flowers

I just bought my onion sets today an will be planting them this weekend. This year I’m growing Sturon for my white onions and Karmen for my red onions as I have had success with both varieties before. I’m also going to plant some spring onions and garlic and have my leeks germinated and growing strong at home. Looks like I have my allium beds sorted for 2014.

How To Sow Seeds

IMG_9801Now this may sound like a ridiculously basic garden task, and it should be, but it’s one of those things we all just assume we can do. Bit of muck, a pot and a seed right? Wrong.

I had a conversation with a friend today about sowing seeds, and I realised, not everybody actually knows how to go about doing it.

March being the time of year to get seriously planting, I figured I’d do a very quick overview of seed sowing. First things first, always – and I mean always - read the information on the back of your seed packet. Read it properly. This should give you details about when to sow your seeds and where. Usually it will have a little calendar on it too with information about when to plant, transplant and harvest. It will also usually give you information about sun position and soil drainage that the plant requires so pay attention to these.

Outdoor Planting:

Quite a lot of plants, vegetables in particular, are very sensitive to being transplanted and need to be planted directly where they are to grow. To do this, first ensure your soil has been treated well, manured during the winter if necessary. You’ll need to make sure there aren’t too many stones or large pieces of rubble in your soil. This is where a rake becomes a gardeners most valuable tool (controversial? I’ve had a few arguments with people about this one). Use your rake to remove debris from the soil and create what is known as a fine tilth. Mark off your drills, I usually just use bamboo canes and twine. Use a hoe or a piece of bamboo to create a shallow drill for your seeds, then lightly firm the soil down when they are covered. Then of course, water them in.

Indoor Planting:

Now, to start, I would suggest a good seed compost or vegetable growing compost, these will contain the vital nutrients for germinating seeds. Do not use cheap, poor quality compost as your seedlings will suffer. When transplanting on, you can then use potting compost etc.

Some seeds require heat to germinate. I use a heated propagator for these, it simply plugs in and keeps your soil at a constant temperature, usually between about 19-22 degrees celcius. They usually have vents too for beginning to harden off your seedlings before potting them on. Otherwise, for indoor planting, I would suggest placing your pots and propagators on a sunny windowsill as seeds also need light to germinate.

When planting seeds in seed trays/pots, fill the tray to the top with compost, don’t skimp as it will sink when you water them. For some plants, it helps to put some fine gravel in the end of the tray for drainage. I always bang the tray on the surface of my potting bench a few times to level the soil out, then I use a piece of wood or a ruler to scrape away any access and create an even seed bed. Plant the seeds at the depth suggested on the pack. When you have the seeds planted, always water them in gently. What I do is poke small holes in the lid of a drinking water bottle and use that to water my seeds, it works as a mini watering can and it’s easier to control. be sure not to drown your seedlings, this leads to what is known as “damping off”, which is a disease caused by soil borne fungi when growing conditions are too wet and seedlings don’t have adequate ventilation.

Handy homemade watering can for seeds

Handy homemade watering can for seeds

Then, cover them if necessary with a plastic lid or bag. Don’t forget to label your seeds, it’s very easy to get them mixed up when you have trays and trays and pots and pots of seeds scattered everywhere.

Oh, and just in relation to my comment above about my rake. I’d be interested to know just what tool is your most valued in the garden, I’ve popped a little poll below.

As always, I’d love your feedback, or suggestions for my next “How To…” post

Happy Digging

Happy Birthday!

March 10th is a big day in my life. It’s my birthday (presents and cake welcome if you’re that way inclined). Not only that, it’s the two year anniversary of my plot. So, it’s a double birthday celebration tomorrow. Just wanted to share a few photographs of the plot from the last two years and a little story with each to explain the processes, simply hover over each image or click on the first one to scroll through them. Thank you all for reading and for all the support over the past two years. Big things coming in the coming weeks/months in the garden, watch this space.

Now, to go cry into my birthday cake and lament my misspent youth. Hold me.

How To Harden Off Seedlings

This is the time of year to be sowing seeds and if you’re anything like me, your house will soon be overrun with seedlings, no windowsill will be left empty. But what happens when these young plants are ready to go outside? You can’t just fling them out unceremoniously like misbehaving teenagers after a night out on the tiles. These seedlings have been wrapped up nice and warm in the comfort of your home, putting them straight outside would be like tearing the duvet off them as they slept in a warm bed on a winters morning. You need to slowly acclimatise them to the great outdoors before sneakily changing the locks some night when they’re out at a club.

You need to toughen them up, train them, inspire them. You need to start a baby-plant-boot-camp. You can do it seedlings, work it, sweat it, PUSH IT!

Optional, play this to them for some inspiration:

(Also recommended are some leg warmers, one of those jazzy sweatbands for your forehead and spandex everything.)

Most people harden their plants off by placing the young seedlings outdoors in a sheltered spot for about 3 or four hours a day, gradually increasing this time over the course of a week. Make sure to bring the plants back indoors each night for the first few nights. After about 7 to 10 days, you can leave them out all day and night until they are ready to be transplanted.

Another way to harden off your seedlings is by using a cold frame. A cold frame is essentially a small glasshouse used to acclimatise young seedlings before transplanting. They typically have a glass lid that can be opened and closed. To harden off your seedlings, place them in your cold frame and leave the lid open for a few hours a day, gradually increasing the amount of time over the course of a week. Close the lid at night time, particularly if temperatures drop. After about 7 days, the plants are ready to be transplanted outdoors.

A couple of tips:

As with all plants, keep an eye out for slugs and snails, they absolutely love young plants and if you’re not careful, will horse into them like a young wan into a Supermac’s on a Friday night after a few scoops.

Keep an eye out for dropping temperatures, it may be heating up but in Ireland, we can still get ground frosts at night up until May. Invest in some garden fleece, you can use this to cover your seedlings from frost damage.

Oh, and just for a bit of fun, what movie had this little gem of a quote in it? (hint: see above video)

“You know what you are?”

“No, what?”

“A tomato.”

“A tomato?”

“Yeah, and I’m running a business here, not a goddamn soup kitchen.”

 

Irish Seed Savers Need Your Help!

Over the past two years, I have been discovering the joys of gardening, the importance of growing my own food and adjusting to the significant changes this has had on my life. Not only that though, gardening has broadened my horizons, opened my eyes to a whole world of environmental interests that I’d never gave a second thought to in the past.

It’s no longer just about having a bit of fun going out in my wellies, weeding and watering (though that does continue to be the my favourite thing to do in the world). I have become hugely interested in our environment, in climate change, our agricultural heritage, our wildlife and countryside and in particular, our future. Our very precarious future. I’m a firm believer that this planet of ours is headed for an absolutely huge food crisis if we don’t soon get our act together. I’ve come to realise the absolute necessity for me to do my bit, however small that may be, in order to make a modicum of a difference, and perhaps help alleviate my guilt at the complete disregard for this planet we live on up until this point in my life.

With this in mind, I have become keenly aware of the danger our very delicate ecosystems are in. Rapid environmental changes and diminishing biodiversity are leading to mass extinctions species the world over.  Biodiversity, as it is defined, is the degree of variety of life. This usually refers to the diversity of species, ecosystems and genetics in any given region. In terms of growing food, genetic diversity is vital. A lack of diversity in crop varieties causes serious problems. The perfect example of this is the Famine in Ireland in the 19th century, this famine was a direct result of only planting two varieties of potato, both of which were highly suupespitible to the blight which essentially destroyed the whole island’s potato crop.

I’ve begun to do some reading and research on environmental and conservational organisations in Ireland in order to develop a further understanding of the challenges facing us, and perhaps get myself involved in order to contribute in some way towards a sustainable future. About six months ago, I discovered The Irish Seed Savers Association, based in Scariff, Co. Clare.
Their main goals, as stated on their website are

“……the conservation of Ireland’s very special and threatened plant genetic resources. Our work focuses on the preservation of heritage varieties form all over the world that are suitable for Ireland’s  unique growing conditions.”

The Irish Seed Savers Association was set up in 1991 by Anita Hayes, initially based in co Carlow, they moved to Scariff, Co. Clare in 1996. In this time, their work in the conservation of seeds and heritage varieties of vegetables and fruit had been significant. They have established a seed bank of over 600 vegetable varieties (which is of course, of serious interest to me). They have a special interest in apple trees, and have an orchard on site where they have established the Native Irish Apple Collection, with 140 unique varieties of apple tree. They’ve also established the Native Irish Grains collection which contains 48 different varieties of grain. The importance of their work in the conservation of our botanical heritage is undeniable. Once a species is extinct, it is gone forever. The more people making an effort to prevent or delay this possibility, the better.
I have recently discovered that the Irish Seed Savers Association is under threat of closure due to a lack of funding. They have put out an appeal to the public to help raise much needed money to keep their work going. The have set up an Indiegogo campaign in the hopes of raising €100,000, but unfortunately to this date they have only been able to raise €10,000.
You can help by becoming a supporter, when you sign up, you will receive five packs of organic vegetable seed, three varieties of organic seed potatoes, twice yearly magazines, a 10% discount on workshshops and free admission to their 8 hectare site in Scariff, complete with orchard, gardens, a café and a shop.
The charity also provide many workshops and classes on site which look super. It looks like a beautiful place to visit, I think I’ll have to take a week off and go visit Co. Clare this year.
If you can support in any way, I’d urge you to do so, even if it’s only to spread the news, read about their work, tell others about it, share this article, share links to their website, they need all the help they can get to continue on with their very worthy cause.
 For more information on the appeal and the association itself, visit www.irishseedsavers.ie
For more information on biodiversity in Ireland, visit www.biodiversityireland.com