The Sting Operation

Welcome to the revitalised FionaGrowsFood. It’s been a crazy, hectic, heady few months here in the garden and I’ve been holding off on writing about it until I got everything in the garden organised and the site up to date. So, here we are.

2015 has been a spectacular year in the garden, despite the god-awful weather. This year, the plot is flourishing more than any previous year and I’m up to my eyeballs in produce. I’ve so much to catch you all up on over the next few days/weeks so apologies in advance for the upcoming blog post overload.

In what has probably been my greatest buzz (sigh) this year, I had an infestation of wasps a few weeks ago. Now, me, being me, I didn’t even notice the monstrous nest inside my birdhouse, until it began to spill outside the box and there were hundreds of angry wasps crawling on everything; including my arms and legs. By the time I realised I had a serious problem, it was too late to just smoke them out. The wasps had taken over and I was run off my allotment in an embarrassing incident involving much squealing, yelping and maniacal flapping of my arms.

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The scene of the crime (no photos of actual wasps because I was too afraid to get close)

Over the following weeks, I exhausted many options attempting to get rid of the nest. Despite the fact that wasps are the only insect to really terrify me and turn me into a total wuss, they are also quite beneficial in the garden and I really didn’t want to kill them off. In the interest of being an environmentalist and a bit of a wildlife fanatic, I made a few attempts to remove the hive without killing the wasps but to no avail. I attempted to remove the birdhouse myself, which was an absolute disaster. I tried to block up the entrances to the hive, which was an even bigger disaster. Imagine hundreds of wasps dive-bombing my person with reckless abandon and you get the picture.

And so it came to pass, after three weeks of avoiding my allotment like an accidental right swipe on tinder, I had to take the bull by the horns (the wasp by the wings even) and reluctantly kill them. I bunkered down in my war room (shed) to come up with a strategy for the elimination of the enemy. A plan was drawn up, codename: Buzzkill, a covert guerrilla warfare operation to be carried out against the nest at 0900 hours on a rainy Saturday in July.

Let me set the scene:  A young soldier inches her way towards a wasp nest with a giant plastic bag in hands. She’s doing a bit of a backwards-Michael-Jackson-in-Smooth-Criminal-stance (you know the one) and attempting to throw the bag over the birdhouse. All the while, she’s gathered quite the audience of bemused fellow allotment holders – who have since dubbed her “waspy” – who not so much egg her on, as laugh at her while she jumps and twitches around the plot. After much hesitation and twenty minutes of backing away at the last moment, she throws the black sack over the nest to rapturous applause and some pats on the back. Her work, however, has just begun. 

Now, my reasons for putting the bag over the nest were twofold; not only did I assume it would keep the dying wasps from escaping the nest and stinging me to within an inch of my life, but I also had to use a poison to kill them and those of you who read my blog know how I feel about chemicals and pesticides. Sadly, after three years of never using any chemicals on my plot, I had no choice but to use a pesticide to kill the nest. The plastic bag was an attempt to keep the poison localised to one place and away from my precious veggies. Once I had the bag in place, I emptied a full bottle of wasp poison into the nest and ran like hell yelling “you may take my birdhouse, but you may never take, my freedom”. Then, I was arrested, hung drawn and quartered, and my remains scattered around the four corners of the plot (I’d like to point out that sometimes I get myself confused with Mel Gibson characters, it’s an ongoing problem, I’m seeking the appropriate help).

The wasps all died within the hour, the queen and her subjects annihilated and I was safe to garden again. Nothing like a bit of casual regicide on a Saturday afternoon.

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The birdhouse, with bag still in situ

I’ve kept the birdhouse, sans wasps, on my shed for the past two weeks as a trophy. The black plastic blowing in the wind as a warning to all other wasps to stay away. Well, either that or I’m a little bit afraid there may still be a renegade wasp in there waiting to attack me. You decide.

The only real positive outcome from all this excitement, is that I was unable to stray near one side of my plot for a while so I had time to tidy up the bad corner of the garden. The corner I’ve never done anything with and had allowed to become an overgrown, weed-choked wasteland, is finally weed free. I’ve even planted a flower bed along the border and installed a raised bed which I intend to use as a hot bed. As such, the great wasp invasion of summer 2015 resulted in the reclamation of unused land and finally, the knowledge that there is now, no unused space on the plot. Success.

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The badlands in January
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Hell of a difference in July!

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As for the wasps, I have minimal guilt. The real sting in the tale is this: I spent four weeks doing battle with wasps and I didn’t get one sting. Five minutes after I killed them, I was assaulted by a five foot tall rogue nettle and ended up with nettle stings all over my face, neck and arms.

The perils of gardening…

Decked Out

Hello all. I know it has been quite a while since I updated the blog, apologies, it’s been a very busy couple of months in the garden. Mostly, I’ve been growing food instead of writing about growing food. I spend a lot of time writing here about my plot but nowhere near as much time as I should on the actual plot, so I put aside the blog for a spell and concentrated on getting the allotment to where I wanted it to be, and oh boy, it was worth it. Rest assured, I am back in full swing now so expect a return to normal blogging services.

It can be difficult to juggle a full time job and a full time allotment and I often get tired/lazy/disillusioned with the garden. It had often become a chore, a task, something I had to make an pained effort to do. In the past few months, my attitude has shifted. I now crave the garden, I feel the draw to it every day (though sadly I can not be there every day). I think I’ve done more on the plot in the past ten weeks than I did in the entirety of last year and it’s really beginning to show.

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The plot has seen some pretty big changes lately, I’ve been doing a lot of the work I’d been putting off for the past 2 years. I’ve filled all my raised beds to the brim with healthy compost, the soil had been in very bad condition and it was a job that was essential this year if I wanted healthy crops, I also finally filled the last of the six large beds which had lain unused for over 18 months. I’ve filled all my pathways with bark mulch and repainted the beds. I’ve planted my onions, shallots, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, kale, broccoli, sorrel, rocket, peas, scallions, radishes, lettuces, cabbages, cauliflowers and more.  I have a polytunnel full of plants including tomatoes, chills, peppers, courgettes, herbs, loads of summer flowers and this years biggest challenge…..watermelons (more on these later in the week). I have new flower beds, new borders, new fruit bushes, new everything really. There is now very little wasted space on the plot.

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I even built myself a small decking area. I have very heavy clay soil and it tends to flood, particularly in the area outside my polytunnel which has always been wasted space and I’ve been itching to do something with it. After a heavy rain, getting into my polytunnel was akin to wading through a swamp, something had to be done. So, feeling productive, I got my thinking cap on. Not to mention my sexy work gear: ripped shorts, raggy t-shirt, gardening gloves, knee high socks, polka dot wellies, you know, standard construction worker ensemble. I also had a scaldy brew on the go, a breakfast roll and a pack of Tayto; perfected my wolf whistle and made sure my crack was on display when I bent over, for the sake of continuity.

I needed to create something simple, affordable and rustic looking but that would provide good drainage too. I dug over the area, but leaving a small ridge on either side, creating a dip in the ground. I placed some scaffolding planks across this dip, held up at either end by the ridge and then slid a few planks lengthways underneath to brace it. This way, the decking is straight but has a bit of give in it when walked on and has a space for water to drain into underneath. Now, either I am an engineering mastermind or it’ll all fall apart but only time will tell. I make it all sound very easy and a well executed undertaking but believe me, it was not. Scaffolding planks are heavy, and awkward, and likely to cause injury. I got one splinter so large in the palm of my hand it could have been mistaken for stigmata.

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The deck looks pretty snazzy though I do want to add a seating area next. I’ve been spending many an evening, sitting on the plot with my tea and some music on, just enjoying the peace of the garden.

I would venture so far as to say that to date, this is my most successful year on the plot. It seems that I have finally found my rhythm and I now love the garden more than ever. The only real issue this year has been the weather. It’s mid-May and today it is cold, raining and windy. Everything is a bit slower to get started this year (except for my spuds, I’m convinced they’d grow in cement) even my peas are struggling, which is a first. The garden isn’t as green as it usually would be in May so here’s hoping we get a few weeks of summer heat to give everything a boost.

I have absolutely loads to share over the coming weeks so keep your eyes peeled. Until then, get outside and plant something. Give life to something, take care of it, watch it grow, there is nothing more rewarding in the world.

Birthdays

This week was a big week for me, not only was it my birthday (I’m crazy old now guys), it was also the birthday of my allotment on the same day. I’ve come a long way in three years, I’ve had some highs, many lows, blight, mildew, bumblebees and butterflies. I’ve had successful crops, disastrous crops, snails, more snails, compost, slugs, even more snails and a lot of muck under my nails. It has been a huge learning curve and I’m still learning something new every day but this year, is the first year that I feel like I’m not as much of a novice anymore, although I am still a complete amateur. I’ve put a lot of work into the plot over the past month and it’s beginning to show already. I have three of my large raised beds fully planted up, everything had been pruned, I’ve finally begun to deal with the disastrous corner and I’m finding myself spending more time on the plot this year than in previous years.

Three years ago, when I first began my little gardening project, I never expected it to turn out the way it has. I thought I would have a perfect garden in no time, with bounteous harvests all summer long and nothing but long days to spend in the garden in the sunshine. How wrong I was. Life you see, has this funny way of throwing spanners in the works and every now and then, something comes along that takes me away from the garden. Such is the nature of things. As such, I have not been as dedicated, as hard working as I would have always liked to be, and my garden is far from perfect, and that is just fine by me. A garden shouldn’t be perfect, just as life isn’t perfect. (I am of course, perfect. Modest too).

Malahide Allotments, year 3
Malahide Allotments, year 3

Three years since I first stepped on to the plot and it’s still a mess, there are still empty spaces, messy spaces, wasted spaces and poorly planned spaces. On Tuesday, I woke up feeling a lot older but no wiser. I made my way out to the garden, to celebrate our joint birthday and I realised that despite the fact that the garden isn’t always the way I want it to be, it is intrinsically perfect because it makes me happy all the time, and what else could I ask for really.

Planting my spuds
Planting my spuds
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Ready for planting

March is a time of new beginnings in the garden, it’s getting into planting season and everything is coming back to life. My perennials are beginning to throw up new growth and I’m beginning to get some planting established. On Tuesday week I planted a bed of first early potatoes, some shallots and about 60 red onions. I dug, dug and dug some more and finally got rid of the four foot tall mound of muck in the corner of the plot. I figured it would be nice in a few months time to harvest my onions and potatoes and be able to say “I planted these on my 30th birthday”. Yes, I’m thirty *insert over the hill joke here*.

I also planted 18 strawberry plants, which is probably a stupid amount to plant but I haven’t grown them successfully before and I’m hedging my bets. Get it? Hedging? Because it’s  a garden? Yeah, I’m a comedian.

My new strawberry beds, complete with spring crocuses
My new strawberry beds, complete with spring crocuses

I’m really happy with the plot so far this year, It’s gotten off to a great start. Here’s hoping that I’ll be able to visit it next March, and every March afterward and celebrate my birthday in style. Here’s to another year!

Turn, Turn, Turn

Hello, and Happy New Year from Fiona Grows Food.

It has been a bit of a strange few months, hence the lack of blog posts, many apologies to my regular readers. I’ve been pretty busy in work (Christmas is silly season in retail), busy partying, busy living, busy having a bit of an existential crisis. I’m not trying to sound melodramatic, I’ve literally been busy questioning my life choices, and in turn, questioning whether I even wanted to continue gardening anymore. As such, my allotment and the blog have gone to the wall a bit. In fact the past few months, I could have realistically renamed my blog Fiona Drinks Booze with the caption “scene missing” and it would have been a more accurate reflection of my lifestyle.

However, last Friday, something wonderful happened. It was the 2nd of January and I woke up, still nursing a bit of a sore head from New Year’s Eve and decided to get some fresh air, clear the cobwebs a bit and see what state of disarray my poor garden had fallen into over the weeks of winter neglect. I hauled myself out to the plot, expecting the worst horrors that a neglected allotment had to offer. On arrival, however, that feeling came over me, that “I love this place” feeling that I only get in the garden. That complete happiness.

It was cold, wet and grey, there wasn’t a soul to be seen on site, aside from a hare who was fast asleep beside my shed who ran thundering past when I woke him. I remembered just how good the garden made me feel, there’s a sense of peace there, a sense of belonging.

Needlessly to say, the plot was looking a bit anarchic. There were – somehow, despite the cold months- weeds everywhere. There was a huge pile of muck and debris in one corner where my old compost heap had been which I tore apart in a rage in November, on my last visit to the plot in 2014.

The bloody state of the place!!
The bloody state of the place!!
The terrifying fennel, this thing was bigger than my head
The terrifying fennel, this thing was bigger than my head

There were last year’s unharvested vegetables: some sad looking brussel sprouts, a patch of limp leeks, a monstrous florence fennel, the world’s most overgrown sage plant, a bamboo wigwam chocked with the dead foliage of broad beans, bare arsed raspberry canes towering like seven foot tall harbingers of death over everything. Mud. Mud everywhere. More weeds. I sighed, put on my wellies, my trusty fingerless gloves, then I got my hands dirty.

You see, the past few months, I’ve been finding it difficult to get to the plot for varying reasons, work, social commitments, but also, a lack of motivation to get out in the cold depths of winter. I’d lost that thing that makes me obsess over seeds, soil and spades. It was gone. I had no desire to garden at all. I was bereft. But the moment I plunged my hands into soil last Friday, it all came flooding back, I was back in touch with my garden again, with myself.

I spent the day moving around my plot with a natural gardener’s kinesis, pulling up unwanted plants, turning over the soil in the beds, smelling handfuls of muck, talking to worms (yes I do that), building a new compost bin, stopping every now and then to smell the salty sea air, to feel the rain on my face.

I was refreshed, full of excitement at the potential of a whole new garden year. A clean slate, a chance to do better, to do greater. A chance to grow. Consequently, the planning has begun.

I often think January is the best month of the year for a gardener. There is next to no planting or harvesting, there is little in the way of work in the garden, apart from cleaning up the ravages of winter and preparing for a new year. There is simply hope. I spend the long, dark evenings dreaming up what weird and wonderful plants I can grow in the following months. Thus, the lists have begun. I have about 12 lists as of today. What to grow, where to grow it, how to grow it, when to grow it, where to get it, how to get the soil ready for it. The year stretches out before me like a blank canvas waiting to be painted and the garden is my brush.

The canvas awaits
The canvas awaits

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about seasons and time. Maybe my waning interest in the garden lately was simply a matter of seasonal affective disorder, maybe when my garden dies in winter, my desire to be there dies along with it. Thankfully, the seasons change and the garden changes with them, as does the gardener.

I am waiting with great excitement for this season to change, for the days to get longer, for the grand stretch in the evenings, for the spring sun to warm my soil and give light to life on the plot. Until then, it’s lists and seed hoarding and planning for me.

On a final note, as I stood on the plot the other day listening to the radio, this song came on which make me snort with laughter, talk about appropriate timing. I sang it while I thought of Summer, and of all the hopeful things to come in 2015.

Irish Water Charges: How To Conserve Water For Your Garden

The word on everyone’s lips in Ireland this week is water. Last Wednesday, after months of bemoaning, dread and consternation, Irish citizens began being charged for their domestic water usage. With water meters being installed country wide, there is currently a capped charge for the first nine months, afterward each household will be charged on water usage, with special compensations for children per household, oh and of course, some reduced rates for our dear politicians who have a second house. Poor things, I suppose they will feel the pinch when washing their Rolls-Royces, so it’s only fair.

There has been a huge backlash from the Irish people in recent weeks, with many people engaging in protests outside their homes during the installation of meters and a number of people refusing to send their details to the Irish Water Company.

Many people are angry to be charged for what is considered a basic human right. While I do think the charge is just another in a long list of austerity measures forced upon us in recent years, I am tempted, every day, to point out that we are consuming treated water from state funded water sanitation sites but that doesn’t seem to be a very popular stance. That’s not to say I necessarily agree with the water charges or the manner in which they have been introduced, but I do think to claim our basic human rights are being breached is an almighty stretch of the imagination at best. Human beings were more than capable of finding water to survive long before modern plumbing was invented. There are a huge amount of ways to conserve water in the home and garden and I’m hoping that the one positive to these new charges it that it will make people more aware of their water usage.

Now, water is probably the most important resource to any gardener and with the new domestic water charges being introduced, I felt it might be of some help to share what I do know and what I have learned about water conservation in the past two years. I’m no expert but I have become hyper aware of environmental issues since I began to garden and I’ve picked up a few tips. If you are a gardener who wants some tips on how to prevent the water charges from having a disastrous effect on your garden, there are a number of ways to save water with very little effort and great reward.

Water Butts:

Water butts are perhaps the most common way to collect water in your garden. A water butt is a large container or barrel for collection rainwater, often connected to a run off pipe or guttering from your roof or shed.  If you have a water butt collecting water from your roof, you can collect up to 24,000 litres a year, don’t forget, we live in a very wet, rainy country, we’d be mad to waste all the valuable rainwater.  Water butts can be homemade if you have the resources, a large plastic barrel or tank will suffice and some piping to collect run off rain. Water butt kits can be bought in most garden centres or hardware shops and usually cost between €50 and €100 depending on the size. You can also get water butts from many local city and county councils for cheaper than in store so contact your local council to see what is available to you.

Grey Water:

Many gardeners and householders save what is know as grey water. This is the water left over from household cleaning such as dish-washing and washing machines, hand basins, baths and showers. You can do this by collecting the water with a bucket or you can install specific outlet pipes for your grey water to redirect it for use in your garden. Keep in mind, if you do plan to use grey water in your garden, make sure to use biodegradable soaps and detergents. I did a bit of research on this and when water meters were introduced in the UK, residents collecting and recycling their grey water cut their water bills by 5%.

Mulching:

The great thing about mulch is it keeps your soil from drying out and therefore, you will need less water. Make sure to use mulches in your garden, it helps to prevent water evaporating from your soil. Another trick is to use plastic sheeting on your soil and simply plant your plants in incisions in the plastic, this also prevents water evaporation.

Garden Watering Techniques:

Water is the giver of life in the garden, without it, out plants would not grow, however, a lot of us are very guilty of over watering our plants, not only is this a waste of water but it drowns the roots, inhibiting proper growth. When you do water your garden, do it early in the morning or in the evening, when the heat from the sun won’t dry out and evaporate your soil.  Oh and please stop using sprinklers. Please. They’re just not necessary in Ireland. Other simple tricks like placing your potted plants in a bowl or saucer to catch the run off water can save a lot of water. You can also take a plastic bottle, cut off the end and place it in your pots, when you fill it with water, it will slowly drain into the pot at the roots, just where the plant needs it.

 

If any of my readers have some other water saving tips, please feel free to share them with me. And don’t panic fellow Irish citizens, if all else fails, you could simply leave your wellies outside, they’ll definitely fill up, it’s happened to me very time I’ve left them outside my shed. Every single time.

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Shocktober!

October has landed with a bang. Literally. Having had a glorious summer and a beautiful, warm, September, the weather here in Dublin is finally catching up with the calendar. Last night saw a bad storm with gale force winds and driving rain, knocking trees over, downing power lines, dislodging slates from rooftops and causing a bit of a commuter’s-hell-on-earth this morning. There was flooding, lots of flooding, not quite Noah’s Ark level of flooding, but enough flooding to create holes in the road and for the trains to be cancelled. I even have a friend whose car was crushed by a tree.

I have fears about the structural integrity of my shed and polytunnel, but due to other commitments, I can’t even check the damage until the weekend. *cue the tense music from countdown*

All that being said, I absolutely love this time of year. I love the smell of Autumn, I love the falling leaves, the colours, I love the fresh weather, the impending festive season, and of course, I love Halloween.

With harvest season drawing to a close and the long winter months stretched out ahead of us, us gardening folk can forget that this time of year is one of the most crucial in the garden. It’s time to get dirty, really, really dirty. It’s time to pull up all the dying plants, it’s time to compost, to mulch, to leaf mould, to manure. As my Dad eloquently put it yesterday, having spent a day wheelbarrowing manure in his own garden, “It was the sh*ttiest day of gardening all year”.

I haven’t had the best of luck this year with the garden, truth be told, a combination of bad weather, a bad experience and some bad motivation led to a bit of a lazy gardening year. I need to get my bum in gear and quickly if I want to get ahead of myself for next year. I am going to plant some over wintering alliums this weekend, garlic, winter onions and shallots benefit from being planted now, just before the cold weather really kicks in and hopefully I’ll plant some other veggies too, any suggestions are very welcome.

I also have great plans for a leaf mould mountain this year, having never made leaf mould before. So, if you see me walking around with great black sacks, stuffing them with leaves, I haven’t gone crazy, leaf mould is a great soil improver. I’ll just find it hard to resist kicking through the leaves, is there any better feeling then kicking a pile of leaves in autumn. No, the answer is no, and if you disagree, you are wrong.

I have a very busy few weeks of gardening ahead so I’ll be ploughing away as much as I can (see what I did there? I’m hilarious).

Quick FionaGrowsFood news round up:

I’ve been doing some volunteer work at a local garden project which I really love and which I am planning to continue for the foreseeable future.

In other news, FionaGrowsFood was also announced as a finalist in the Irish Blog Awards which took place last week, and although I didn’t win, I am honoured to have even been nominated so thank you to my readers and friends who nominated me, your continued support means the world to me. Huge congratulations to the winners, especially David over at Beyond The Wild Garden, his is my favourite Irish blog and I’m delighted for him, very much deserved.

Oh and in one last update, I have a super-secret, super-exciting trip coming up in a few weeks to somewhere super-awesome and will be flooding my blog with pictures and stories so keep an eye out. I’m super, SUPER, MEGA, SUPER, AWESOME, EXCITED.     SUPER.

Love Bites!

I must admit, so far, this Autumn has been a  joy in the garden, the sun has been shining, the leaves are turning golden,  gardeners and farmers everywhere are enjoying harvest season. The days are bright and fresh and the evenings are beginning to shorten significantly,  with sunsets that paint the sky in warm pinks and hot oranges. Along with sunny Saturdays in my garden,  I’ve been enjoying evening walks, evening strolls, evening rambles. It is a happy time in my life……mostly.

Love does hurt however, my penchant for going out in the lovely Autumn air has left me covered in bites from a few swarms of midges and some rogue mosquitos. Over the past four weeks, I’ve had at least eight or ten bad insect bites on my arms and legs that have swollen and itched and driven me positively mad.  Unfortunately, my favourite time of year to be outside also happens to coincide with hungry insect season and I seem to be attracting a crazy amount of bites this year. It must be my animal magnetism.

All of this I can live with, I can deal with itchy arms and legs, unsightly bumps and sneezing, I can deal with antihistamines and the scratching and discomfort. I can NOT however, deal with what I woke up to this morning: a large insect bite on the left cheek of my bum! Not only do I have no idea how in God’s name an insect managed to bite my arse throughout my jeans on my walk yesterday, but I had to spend the whole day trying not to scratch the bite for fear of being one of those people who scratches their bum in public. The shame.

Now, I’ve been told that insects are attracted to sweet blood, so I’ve decided that this obviously means I have a sweet ass. Obviously. I’d even share a photo of said bite to show you just how biteable my arse  is only I’d be worried you’d be jealous!

So, if you see me over the next few days awkwardly “adjusting” my jeans or conveniently rubbing my backside off a wall to scratch it, don’t judge, just know I am just the victim of the least sexy love bite of all time.

Mucking around in my garden

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