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.”

 

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.

 

The Fat of the Land

And just like that, It’s a new year.

Fresh start, new plans.

Last year, I had many plans. So many plans. Some came to fruition, some not. Mostly not. I had a list of resolutions a mile long and a spate of good intentions.  But, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. That Robert Burns was a smart man. I was thinking that the other day on the way to my allotment, how the best laid plans always go awry, and of course I began to hark back to that great Steinbeck novel. How all Lennie wanted to do was to “live off the fatta’ the land”. The simplicity of it. His simple plan, it’s not too far off from mine (I don’t however want to end up like he did, that would be all sorts of a headache).

I realised today that I can plan the garden all I want, life will always come along and throw me a curve ball. Mother nature will whip up a storm, a blight will hit, a slug will eat a cabbage, I’ll be stung by a nettle, I’ll have a work crisis, a family crisis, a personal crisis. However, I have a constant. I have a constant desire to garden, to grow, to get my hands all dirty. To dig up weeds, to drink tea while picking herbs, to squelch around the mud in my wellies. To plant seeds and watch them grow. To taste carrots straight out of the muck. To make fresh mojitos from my mint. To chat to my fellow gardeners, they know all of the dirt.

So I guess my plans can fail all they want but I will continue to try, because it gives me such joy and sometimes, the unexpected can make the garden far more interesting.

For 2014, I have huge plans, serious plans for the plot. I want to install a polytunnel, I want to grow tomatoes and chillies and peppers. I want to finally grow some courgettes! I want to have a pretty plot, I want flowers and herbs and pretty colours. I want a sanctuary for me and the bees. I’ll call it my very own bee loud glade, I’ll do Yeats proud with it.

We’ve had some really bad storms in Ireland the past 10 days. Floods and high winds, serious damage to roads and infrastructure. On site, there were sheds littered around the site, I saw a few destroyed greenhouses and polytunnels. Somehow, I escaped relatively  unscathed. One of my fence posts snapped so that’ll need to be replaced but otherwise all is good on plot P26, albeit a bit barren and forlorn after the winter months.

It’s the lean season, when you can’t plant much and there’s not much to harvest. Except of course for my parsnips, of which I dug some this week, it made me deliriously happy. I also dug up some Jerusalem Artichokes and picked some of my asian winter greens. It might be winter, but there’s life in the old girl yet.

First harvest of 2014

First harvest of 2014 and my rhubarb having a cheeky peek at the January sunshine

This is the perfect time of the year to plan. To plot and plan, plan the plot. Get digging, get growing, get a small pot on your balcony, build a raised bed in your garden, grow some herbs, grow some potatoes in a sack, get a bee hive, some chickens, a pig. Experience they joy of producing food.

Last year was a stormy one for me, but here I am, after the storms, still planning, always planning, still yearning to grow and ready to garden the hell out of the year. I’m currently drawing up the layout of the plot for this year so I’ll share it as soon as it’s done. Always interesting to see how differently it works out come the following winter. Best laid plans……etc, going over old ground now (see what I did there?).

Happy New Year to you all and get growing, you’ll thank yourselves this time next year.

xxx

Seamus Heaney, The Loss of an Idol

Last Friday saw the death of beloved Irish writer Seamus Heaney. He was one of my favourite writers, his words inspired me when not much else did in my teen years and made me want to write. His poems evoke in me, memories of my own childhood here Ireland, our unique landscape and history, the beauty of this island. So, on this, the day of his burial, I wanted to share one of his poems. It’s very apt considering the theme and the season and one of my favourites.

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney

Thank you for all the wonderful reads, you will be sorely missed.

Rest In Peace

Bounty

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It has been a number of months since my last blog post. Summer has been and gone, the weather has changed and my life has changed along with it.

It has been the hottest summer here in Ireland for over a decade. The days have been long hot and the nights humid and sleepless. I’ve seen more scantily clad, sunburnt bodies than I care to remember. I’ve been to barbecues and beer gardens, birthday parties and Boston and it’s safe to say that I will never forget this summer for as long as I live.

My poor allotment bore the brunt of my hectic life the past few months, with everything else I’ve had going on, it faded in to the background. That’s not to say however, that nothing has grown or that it doesn’t continue to thrive.

It has been a summer of rhubarb, non stop rhubarb, mountains of it, jars of it, bowls and bowls and bowls of it smothered in custard and vanilla ice cream.

Shallots

Shallots

I’ve harvested giant beetroots and impressive red onions, pitiful garlic and beautiful pink shallots, red and green lettuces, raspberries and strawberries and every little thing tasted as sweet as only food you grow yourself can taste.

I’ve visited other community gardens, some here in Dublin, some across the water in Boston, and enjoyed the inspiration I found in the ingenuity and creativity of fellow gardeners.

Squash Cage gate in community garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Squash gate in a community garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts

My parents plot with it's lovely neat grass pathway

My parents plot with its lovely neat grass pathway and red clover

I’ve sold some plot grown veggies on a stall at a summer festival.

I’ve had the pleasure of tasting huge courgettes roasted on a barbeque in a sun soaked walled garden surrounded by friends and family.

I’ve seen a beehive up close and personal and I witnessed the workers tend to the queen, among their combs of wax and honey.

Queen and workers

Queen and workers

I’ve had the pleasure of spending an hour on my plot with a pheasant, who pecked around my herb garden while I pulled weeds on the other side of the plot. She would stop every now and then to eye me suspiciously, then carry on about her business.

I’ve witnessed my dad become a rhubarb and ginger jam making machine.

Yum

Yum

I’ve cursed the loss of my snowball onions to mildew and rot and lamented the complete failure of my garlic.

I’ve taken a swig of a can of fizzy orange and felt something furry crawling around my tongue. It was a wasp. The absolute terror.

I’ve learned that no matter what happens, even if you abandon your garden for a while, even if your world as you know it ends up on the compost heap, that life goes on and you will always get from a garden more than you put into it. I may have been away for a while but my plot is as productive as ever and now, here I am, in the heart of harvest season; I’ve done less in my garden this summer than ever before and it still provides great bounty.

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I have many plans for the plot over the coming months so it’s time to get back to basics, do some digging, some weeding and tidy the place up. I’ve planted a bed of winter salads, pak choi and red mustard, I plan on getting some kale in too and some spring cabbages for overwintering. Before we know it, it’ll be winter and I’ll be munching on my parsnips and my jerusalem artichokes but for now I hope to enjoy what’s left of this long, long, long, hot summer.

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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Blue Beds, Blue Hands

It’s amazing the difference one weekend of hard work can make in the garden. Last week, I was beginning to panic at the lack of progress on the plot this year, I’m at least three weeks behind with my planting and the place was looking very bare and brown and boring. Something needed to be done.

My new herb garden

My new herb garden

The sun was mostly shining this weekend, with the exception of some lovely rain showers and the temperatures are finally up after what was the coldest March on record. Last week I dug up the terrible wasted area outside the shed, this weekend, I used the space to create a small herb garden. I planted rosemary, sage, lemon thyme, French tarragon (avoid planting Russian tarragon if you can, it has very little flavour), chives, lavender plus some echinacea, chamomile and bergamot. I also have some mint and lemon balm (bee balm) from last year and after saying I was not going to plant borage this year, I found a borage plant growing under my artichokes, it obviously wants to grow so I might as well let it. I’m also going to add some parsley, basil, coriander and caraway later in the year. It looks a bit bare at the moment but should be a lovely addition to the plot once it’s established.

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The shed area, big difference from the mound of weeds and rubble that was here two weeks ago. I love that you can see a neighbouring plot in the background with its lovely neat drills. 

I had been meaning to treat the wood on my raised beds for a while but kept putting it off. I decided this weekend that I should get around to doing it as the beds were looking a bit worse for wear after the winter. I toyed with the idea of getting a natural colour wood stain but I eventually chose a bright blue, I wanted to give the plot a bit of personality and thought blue would be nice and bright during the lean months when there’s little colour in the garden. It took me hours to do but it was well worth the effort, I’m hoping to add some more blue later, maybe a blue gate. Though maybe next time I’ll wear gloves, my hands were an almighty blue mess when I was done.

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Blue Beds

 

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Blue Hands

Having painted the beds, I spread a mountain of bark mulch along the paths, these had just been muck and weeds before so I was very eager to do something with them. It really makes a difference to the plot.

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I’m planning on using the empty bed in the left foreground as a hotbed.

 

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The entrance to the plot, definitely an improvement

I planted very little at the weekend, just some beetroot and radishes. Next week I need to get my peas and beans planted before it gets too late. Despite all my hard work, there’s still a huge mess to deal with next weekend, one whole end of the plot needs to be dug as it’s where the legumes are to be planted. It has been started but it’s a big job. It’s the embarrassing messy end of the plot and it must be conquered, especially now; no point in having pretty raised beds and a big pile wasted ground beside them.

Also, there’s not much point in having pretty beds with no veggies so this week I’m going to do some serios planting, excited!!

What The Fliuch?

View from my window on Tuesday

View from my window on Tuesday

The weather this week has been almost unbearable, at least it has been for gardeners. We’ve had cold, some freezing cold, sunshine cold, snow cold, wet cold, a little-bit-less-cold-than-yesterday cold, then back to snow cold. Today is the 29th of March and it is currently 3 degrees celcius outside. Three! This time last year we were experiencing a bit of an unusual hot spell, I was at the plot every day in a t-shirt; so this year I’m getting very frustrated at the lack of gardening. Somebody may have to restrain me before I eat all of the easter eggs in Ireland in an act of despair.

I have done, literally, no gardening since I planted my onions two weeks ago. Even my seedlings on my windowsills won’t grow as there’s no light in the sky. Last weekend the rain was absolutely torrential, constant rain causing floods country wide and making every one very miserable. There were dark grey clouds for six consecutive days. This week, it has been mostly snow, rain, sleet, some rain, some snow, more rain. Today is thankfully a bit drier. It’s a long weekend this weekend, I do have to work tomorrow but have a half day. I will be visiting the plot come hell or high water (likelihood of high water is great). Or even snow. At least I have these bad boys to keep me warm.

The warmest mittens in existence (possibly)

The warmest mittens in existence (possibly)

For those of you wondering about my title, “Fliuch” is gaelic for wet. And yes, it rhymes with the F word.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig

Happy St Patricks day from a cold, wet and snowy Dublin. Today is our national holiday and I suppose we are lucky that it is celebrated all over the world but there’s nowhere I’d rather be than here in Dublin, the weather might be terrible but that won’t dampen our spirits (especially if those spirits are whiskeys, vodkas or rums). I tend to avoid the city centre on Paddys day, the parade is great for the kids but I’m not a huge fan of the crowds of drunken idiots. I had planned to spend the day on my plot but the weather is far from being gardening friendly, it’s cold and wet with heavy snow and sleet showers.

St Patricks Day is traditionally the day to plant your first earlies but I’m not growing spuds this year. I did visit the plot yesterday morning in the glorious sunshine (I’m beginning to see why we call it “March many weathers”).

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Whiter than white “Snowball” onion set

It was bright and warm yesterday morning, the sky was blue and I spent a few hours on the plot, getting my soil ready for my onions. I planted two types of onion and some shallots. I planted some Red Barons, which I had great success with last year, I also planted some shallots, a variety called red sun which have lovely pink flesh and are slow to bolt. I planted a variety of white onions called Snowball which are lovely pure white onions with a mild flavour. I also have some 50 Stuttgarter sets to plant later this week. I realised after planting my onions that I had no netting to protect them from the pesky birds, who love plucking onion sets out of the soil, so I covered them with some fleece which I had. I’m glad I did now, while onions don’t mind the cold, the frosts can force onion sets out of the ground.

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Onions ready for planting

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All wrapped up

The plot still looks very bare and messy, it’s going to take some serious hard work to get it the way I want it. Good thing I love getting out and digging because there’s plenty of it to do over the coming weeks.

I hope you all have a great Paddys Day and don’t get too drunk, if you were planning on planting your spuds today, maybe hold off for a few days or you’ll freeze your hands off.

Lá Féile Pádraig Shona Daoibh.