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

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.”

 

How To Rotate Your Crops.

Crop rotation is one of those essential tasks when it comes to growing fruit and vegetablexs. It is important not to grow the same family of crops in the same beds year after year as this can lead to a build up of pests that attack that particular family of plants. The best way to avoid this is to move the groups of plants around your garden year to year to prevent the pests from getting too comfortable in one spot. In order to do this, separate your crops into either a three or four year crop rotation plan based on the family of vegetables to which they belong. I follow a four year rotation as follows.

Brassicas:  cabbages, sprouts, brocolli etc.

Roots:  carrots, parsnips, beetroot etc

Legumes:  peas and beans etc

Alliums: onions, leeks garlic etc

I tend to keep my potato crop with my other root veggies but you can keep them as an entirely different crop in your rotation if you have the space.

Each year, I rotate my crops so the ground doesn’t grow the same type of crop for at least three years. If you are clever, you can ensure that each year, the crop that follows the one previous will benefit from the crop grown in that spot the year before. For example, brassicas are the best crop to plant where your legumes where the previous year as they benefit from the nitrogen rich soil left behind by your peas and beans.

It helps if you draw up a plan of your plot, however big or small it may be, and decide, before you plant anything, how you are going to rotate your crops over the following years. This also makes life easier when it comes to planning your plot in future growing seasons.

My rotation plan for 2014

My rotation plan for 2014

In the above image, you’ll see I’ve clearly marked which types of crops I plan to grow in each bed this year. My main rotation works among the 8 raised beds and runs in a clockwise direction, so last year, I grew alliums where the roots are going this year etc. I tend to grown my salad leaves in these beds when nothing else is growing there as to not waste any space during the growing season.

A good crop rotation can be difficult to maintain, particularly in a smaller garden but will pay off dividends in the long run.

If you want to ask me any further questions about crop rotation, or even give me some handy pointers or feedback, please get in touch below.

Happy Digging!

Fiona

 

February Jobs in the Garden

“Spring has sprung, and the daffodils are daffodillying”

Yes, in those embarrassing words of my second year school principal, Springtime has finally arrived.

The garden is just about to go into overdrive, with only four weeks until March is upon us, which is the craziest month of the gardening calendar really. So, to get you prepared for the weeks ahead, here’s some jobs to keep you busy in the garden before the serious planting begins.

Chitting spuds

Chitting spuds

  • It’s time to get chitting. Your early potatoes will do well if you chit them for a few weeks. Chitting potatoes is simply the process of letting your seed potatoes sprout before planting them. The best way to do this, I find, is to place them on a cold windowsill that gets plenty of natural light. I usually place them in old egg cartons, and leave them there for a few weeks to sprout. The shorter and thicker the little sprouts are, the stronger your plants will be.
  • Prune your fruit bushes if you haven’t already. Remove any winter damage and cut them into shape, trust me, this is especially necessary with the invasive fruits like blackberries or raspberries, otherwise they will take over come mid-summer and you will be doing battle with them all year. And believe me, I’ve done battle with blackberry bushes before, it’s not pretty, the thorns win every time.
  • If you haven’t began to warm up our soil, you should really do that now. Spread some manure over them, cover with a black plastic or mypex and the soil should warm up  in about two to three weeks, this will help ensure your seedlings get a good start in life.
  • SOWING TIME!! Yes, this is the time we can begin to do some serious planting. Leeks, tomatoes, chillies/peppers, lettuces, aubergines, celery and beetroot will all benefit from being sown indoors in February. Outdoors you can plant broad beans, kohlrabi, parsnips, and some early pea varieties.
  • There’s not much to harvest in February, unless maybe you have a polytunnel/glasshouse or have some overwintering crops like Purple Sprouting Broccoli or winter cabbages.
  • Build yourself a cold frame if you can, this is one of the things I have on my long list of garden projects. A cold frame will come in very useful in late spring/early summer for transplanting seedlings outdoors. You can’t just move a plant from the heat of a windowsill or greenhouse straight outside, the poor thing would be traumatised. You need to harden the plants off first. Usually this means, placing the seedling outdoors for a few hours a day until they have acclimatised. A cold frame will make this process much easier and help extend your gardening season by a few weeks every year.
  • If you don’t have a compost heap by now (I won’t shame you but I want to), this is the time to do it. You will need it, compost is the heart and soul of your garden, it’s gardening alchemy, turning waste into gold.
  • Dig. Do lots of digging. If your soil isn’t to wet or frozen, get it dug now.

And just one more tip, enjoy this month, it’s a lean one but the garden is beginning to wake up. Watch how the evenings get longer, watch your spring bulbs begin to come up, listen out for the birds singing early every morning, it’s lovely (I feel like I’m about to break into joyous song à la Maria in the Sound of Music).

It’s invariably our coldest month here in Ireland, today we have snow on the mountains, it’s currently 2 degrees Celsius outside (36 Fahrenheit for my American readers). However, the dark winter months have passed us by, the gardening year is getting into full swing now. Get your affairs in order and go out and enjoy the world this spring.

I command it.

All hail Queen Fiona

January Jobs In the Garden

It’s dark, it’s cold, there are only a few hours of light a day, it’s wet, it’s barren, the plot is a mess. Sound familiar?

It may be late into winter but it is a new year and the garden season is just about to kick off. Despite the cold and dull weather, there’s a tonne to do in the garden in January before the planting kicks off in a few weeks time.

  • Most importantly, it’s time to get your soil ready for planting. It’s no use planting seeds in terrible cold soil in spring, so spread some well rotted manure or compost on your beds, If you can get seaweed, do it, it’s great for your soil, packed full of nutrients. Cover your beds up with polythene to let the soil heat up for springtime.
  • If you still have winter veggies in the ground, this is the time to harvest them, parsnips and the last of your spuds need to be up in the next two weeks so if you have a glut, get yourself a decent soup recipe (watch this space).
  • It’s a great time of the year to get any infrastructural work completed in your garden. Fix your fences, mend your gates, reinforce your sheds and your beds, these are the jobs that you won’t have time to do during the summer months when you’re knee deep in weeds.
  • You can get some digging done too if the ground isn’t too frosty, wait for a good rain then turn your soil over.
  • You can of course, get excited and begin to chit your early potatoes.
  • Prune your fruit bushes if you need, especially your gooseberries and currant bushes.
  • Wash your tools and pots, seeds will do better if your pots are clean, it’s the little things like this that make the gardening year easier.
  • You can begin to force your rhubarb if you are so inclined. Cover it with straw and an upturned pot to keep out the light and force them, you will get lovely tender stems early in March.
  • Buy your seeds, this is often one of the most fun parts of the year, choosing what to grow, shop around for your seeds, have a seed swap with your fellow gardeners, order some heirloom varieties, have some fun with what you grow.
  • If you have a polytunnel, get some seeds planted, keep them warm, water them well and you’ll be well prepared.
  • Broad beans are great to plant this time of year but make sure they don’t get frost damage.

In a few short weeks you’ll be grateful if you get ahead of yourself in January, it’s worth braving the elements for.

My plot this morning, very chilly indeed.

My plot this morning, very chilly indeed.

 

For the Love of Gardening

I am often asked what it is I love about gardening. Why I spend my spare time ankle-deep in nettles, (don’t get me started on all the nettle stings I’ve had in the past week), why I go out in the rain and wind to pull weeds or plant seeds. I never quite know how to answer. The truth is, there are a million reasons why I garden. Far too many for me to even begin to articulate. But, if I had to give one solid reason, it would be this: I love gardening because, every time I go to my plot, I see something new. Something I’ve never seen before, something exciting or unusual or amazing. Whether its a hare or a pheasant on the plot, a new plant growing, the birds signing in the trees or a neighbouring plot with a great new feature, there’s always something that creates wonder. I don’t think I’ve ever been to the allotment without being amazed by something. It is an education like no other. I guess that’s why I continue to garden, why I go out in the cold and wet, even when my crops fail and the weather infuriates, there’s always a reason to keep going.

This morning nature surprised me again. I went to the plot for a very quick visit, it was wet and miserable and it wasn’t too easy to drag myself out there. I simply wanted to plant my celeriac which was given to me by my dad who grew it from seed. I instantly noticed how much has grown in the past week, the plot was looking green and pretty, but I always think it looks nicer in the rain.

I was inspecting my thriving rhubarb, when I noticed a huge mushroom growing on the path in the shade of the rhubarb leaves. Now, I am not a fan of mushrooms or fungi, but this was fantastic. It was very large and pretty, with a spongy texture, I’d never seen one like it before. I have since been informed that it looks like a morel, which are quite hard to find and very popular and supposedly delicious (I never thought I’d use the word delicious to describe a mushroom). It was a bit decayed though so I didn’t pick it, I left it there to continue on its fascinating life cycle.

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Morel

The mushroom isn’t the only thing to have shot up virtually overnight however. My peas have started to germinate, as have my broad beans. In my root beds there are beetroot seedlings and radishes and I think there might be parsnips but its difficult to differentiate them from the weeds. My fruit bushes have all taken a growth spurt, my blueberries, gooseberries and blackberries all have foliage now and my raspberries are flying up at an alarming rate.

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Pea

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Raspberries

The thing I was most pleased to see however, was my asparagus bed. Last year, I planted a few crowns in the hope I’d get some but they didn’t take too well and I wasn’t quite sure if they’d come back. I’ve been told for months to give up and plant something else but lo and behold, there’s some very small spears of asparagus beginning to come above ground. It’ll still be another year or two before we can even think about harvesting any but it’s good to know they’re there.

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Asparagus

There’s still a lot to be planted out, it’s still quite early in the season; and despite the bad weather, the garden continues to grow. I continue to grow with it.

If I’ve learned nothing else in the past year it’s this: life will always find a way, even when you’ve had no hand in it and that is why there will always be a million reasons for a gardener to keep gardening.

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