It’s been a very busy few weeks in the garden. It’s mid September and harvest season is drawing to a close. My raised beds are beginning to look very empty, the polytunnel is bare and my perennials are beginning to wither away for the winter.
Strangely enough, even with the plot looking worse for wear, it’s a great time of year in the garden. The weather is good, there’s always something to harvest and all the plans for next year begin to form. On Saturday, the weather was surprisingly hot for this time of year, it seems we’re having an Indian summer. It hasn’t rained in a few weeks, which shows on the plot, my soil is dry and cracked and very difficult to cultivate. That being said, I’m not complaining, I’m enjoying the nice weather while it lasts.
A few weeks ago, I harvested my red and white onions and I’ve had them drying in the polytunnel. I didn’t have a huge amount of success with my onions this year, most of my red onions didn’t bulk up, no doubt because of the very dry summer. However, I did get a lovely crop of Stuttgarter Giant onions. I’ve had another rhubarb rich year, it just thrives in my soil and is no doubt my most prolific crop. Every time I visit the plot lately, I have peas to harvest too, it’s just a shame I never get them home as I have a tendency to eat them while on the plot, they’re just too irresistible.
With growing season all but winding to a close, I’m beginning to clean up the plot (and believe me, it needs it) and plan for next year. It won’t be long before I’m covering up the raised beds for winter. I do plan on planting some over wintering crops like purple sprouting broccoli (a personal favourite), winter cabbages and garlic. It’s also the time of year to begin planting spring bulbs, this year I hope to plant a full array of spring flowers to begin next year with a splash of colour. For now, I’ll just have to be content with the beautiful Autumn blues of my herb garden.
I’ll also be beginning to collect fallen leaves to make a leaf mold to use on the plot next year. A gardeners work is never done, in fact, I dont think I’ve ever had such a long to do list for the garden. In part this is due to a busy summer during which, I didn’t exactly neglect the plot but I didn’t get to put in as much time as I would have liked.
The past few weeks I’ve put in more work on the plot than all year and it is beginning to pay off, though there is still a huge amount of work to do. The messy corner is still a disaster and the whole section outside my polytunnel lies empty.
We had a harvest day on site a few weeks ago so I’ll be writing about that tomorrow. Until then, happy growing and happy harvesting.
Beetroot is, without a doubt, my favourite crop to grow in the garden. have more success with beetroot than any other crop in my garden to date. It’s easy to grow, looks pretty and it is extremely tasty and beneficial. As a food source, beetroot is extremely versatile, with many ways to enjoy this lovely earthy vegetable.
As the name would suggest, beetroot is a member of the root family of vegetables and is grown for the tasty root of the plant as opposed to the foliage or fruit, however, the leaves of young beetroot plants are delicious, they belong to the same family of veggies as chard and make a lovely addition to any salad.
Sowing: Beetroot is best planted in well drained soil between late March and early June. You can grow it in module trays or plant direct. I prefer to plant beetroot directly where it is to grow as this means I can eat the young plants when thinning out my crop. Germination usually takes about 10-14 days. You can succession sow beetroot every two to three weeks for a continued supply of baby beets during the summer.
Spacing: Plant rows of beetroot about 30 cm apart and each plant 10cm apart.
Growing: I find beetroot needs very little tending while growing. It is a hardy enough plant and will do well once the weeds are kept in check. Thin young plants as they grow so your beets have space to expand. Water your beetroot well but don’t drown it, this can cause the plant to put all the energy into the leaves instead of the root.
Harvesting: I’d recommend harvesting your beetroot as baby beets, pulling every second plant so the ones left behind have space to grow even larger. These larger beets are the ones I usually pickle for storage. Simply lift the plant our the soil. Try not to damage the root as you do this or you’ll be washing purple stains off your hands for days.
Storage: Beetroot is a great vegetable for storing. Most like to pickle it in vinegar. You can experiment with different vinegars to get different flavours. You can also store beetroot in sand or peat, in a cool dry place, it should last this way for about 12 weeks.
Pests: Beetroot is generally a trouble free plant and so a perfect addition to the busy garden.
I am accident prone. Just putting it out there. I have a serious propensity for injuring myself in ridiculous and often embarrassing accidents. Never before though, has an injury annoyed me as much as this broken toe. Now I’ve broken toes before, and of course it’s painful and debilitating, and a little embarrassing. This one though, this broken toe has hurt me to the bone (sigh). As a result of limping around for the past three weeks, I’ve been unable to get out to my allotment at all. I’ve missed glorious sunny days and a few weeks worth of planting and weeding. Worst of all though, my broken toe has killed EVERYTHING in my polytunnel. Every last little seedling, every tomato plant, every cucumber, every delicious pumpkin and aubergine. It’s all dead. Gone.
Yesterday, I took a trip (a few trips actually, due to the limping) out to the plot, braced for whatever disaster lay ahead of me. When I arrived, the plot was weedy. Very weedy. There were tall weeds where three weeks ago, no weeds resided. So I, of course, got to weeding. I spent a good three hours hopping around the garden, Joe the robin in tow (toe?) pulling weeds and tidying my beds up.
Now, I knew my polytunnel was in a bad way but I was afraid to go inside. It was as if the longer I put it off, the less likely I would be to cry. Though my tears would have been significantly better irrigation than the scant water my plants had gotten over the past few weeks. Eventually though, I had to venture in. Filled with trepidation, I hopped inside and surveyed the damage that a three week drought in summer could do to my plants.
A lot is the answer. It could do a lot of damage. My beautiful tomato plants had all but withered to a crisp, my cucumbers were all limp and yellow and everything else had simply vanished.
I resigned myself to the fact that it was my own fault and decided to just suck it up and chalk it down to experience. I disposed of the dead plants – always a horrible task – and got planting again. Then, something truly wonderful happened, one of my friends on site, on hearing of my plight, brought me a gift of a beautiful healthy tomato plants and a cucumber plant. Now, this is what I truly love about gardening, particularly community gardening. It’s just that, a community. Gardeners truly are the most generous, friendliest people in the world. Never before I started my allotment, had I experienced such community spirit. I worry sometimes that communities are dead, that the only ones left are those we like on Facebook or Twitter, that our only new friendships are formed through the keys on a laptop or a smartphone. I worry because every hour of every day I see people, friends, lovers, families, sitting together but not really being together.
I even experience it myself most days. Dinner with friends and their phones, cinema with friends and their phones, commutes with strangers and their phones. Next time you’re at a bus stop or train station, look around. How many other people are doing the same? Very few I’d imagine.
When I go to my allotment, people talk to me. Really talk to me. They tell me their stories, they ask me mine. They drink tea with me and swap seeds with me. They ask me for help or offer the same. Nowhere else in my life do I experience this anymore.
I realised that other people are the threads which hold the tapestry of our lives together, which help us make sense of our world, and by cutting ourselves off, we are sure to unravel.
I do believe that community gardens are the way forward. They are about people of all walks of life, coming together to grow. To grow food, to grow plants, to grow their understanding of the world around them, the grow their knowledge, and that of their children. To grow.
Last summer, I had a bit of a rough time. To be completely honest, I was very depressed. Now, mental health issues are not something we like to talk about, hear about or even read about, but there they are anyway and there it was, every day for months. I was suffering with insomnia, I couldn’t eat, I lost over three stone in as many months. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning, I struggled to even leave my house. Here is what saved me: a community garden. Not mine, mind you, but a beautiful walled garden in a local park. St Anne’s Allotment Gardens is the site on which my parents have their beautiful plot and each year they hold an open day to coincide with the annual rose festival which runs in the park. I was dragged along to this by my parents when I was at my lowest point.
On arrival, I spoke to seven people in twenty minutes who I had never even met before and felt like I knew every single one of them. Within an hour, I was helping to sell plot grown veggies on a market stall, chatting and bartering with everyone passing by. An hour after that, I was enthralled by a beekeeper who opened a hive to let me photograph the queen. And as the day cooled down and the crowds dispersed, I sat with a group of 30 or so gardeners, eating delicious bbq food and salads from their plots while enjoying a cold beer and learning about how they each garden and what it means to them. And that day helped saved me, that community. I realised that other people are the threads which hold the tapestry of our lives together, which help us make sense of our world, and by cutting ourselves off, we are sure to unravel.
And, I do believe, we all need gardens. Some may not want them, or even like them, but we need them if we are to survive. That is a fact. My reasoning is this: we were born to survive. To procreate and to provide sustenance for ourselves and our loved ones. And I believe the satisfaction of gardening harks back to the hunter gatherer sentiment in us, we need to know how to hunt, how to gather. We need to know how to grow our own food. I believe it satisfies in us, our basic, primal instincts.
So, in effect, community gardening encompasses two of our most basic needs as human beings. I am never really as happy as I am when I’m out on the plot, doing my own thing, growing food, being an important contributor to the planet in my own small way. Never as happy as when somebody approaches me for a chat about my plot, or theirs, or about how to grow a certain plant. Or when somebody knows I’ve suffered a setback and gives me two beautiful plants to help get me back on track. And how something that was probably so insignificant to them, was very significant to me and gave me hope that all was not lost.
And I know my plot will be ok, it’s already getting back on track, I’ve dealt with most of the weeds, there’s a mountain of produce growing already and it is still fairly early in the season. Currently I have Rhubarb, Kale, Spinach, Rocket, Pak Choi, Rapsberries, Blueberries, Artichokes, Asparagus, Blackberries, Redcurrants, Beetroot, Baby Carrots, Broad Beans, Dwarf French Beans, Climbing French Beans, Pumpkins, Squash, Courgettes, Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Onions, Leeks, Garlic and that’s not to mention all my herbs and flowers and the many crops I still have to plant this year. So, broken toe or not, I’m kicking last year in the arse in terms of what I’m growing.
So, to sum it up, If I could give you one piece of solid advice about your short life in this world, get out there and get yourself involved in a community garden, it’ll change everything, I promise.
Thank you to Pat for the wonderful plants, thank you to all my fellow plot holders for the chats and thank you to you for reading this so my friends don’t have to listen to me harping on about my garden again. If I’m not careful, one of these days they’ll plant me in it.
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with nettles. My garden is full of them, they have a nasty habit of hiding in my rhubarb bed and attacking me when I’m harvesting some stems. During the summer months, it’s not unusual for me to suffer a nettle sting on a weekly basis.
However, I do love finding nettles on my plot as they serve a very important purpose, natural fertiliser! Nettles are a great source of nutrients for your plants and using them to make a plant feed is easy, albeit a little bit stinky.
To make your own nettle plant feed, you will need a container like a bucket or similar, water, something to weigh down the nettles and some gardening gloves (I can not stress that last one enough).
Simply pull up the nettles, taking care not to sting yourself, and break the nettles up.
Place them in your container and weight them down, I usually use a brick or large rocks from the garden.
Add enough water to cover the nettles and place a lid over your container to make it airtight.
Leave this for a few weeks to work its magic.
After about 4 weeks, you can use your plant feed. Now, beware, when you remove the lid, this stuff will smell foul! Brace yourself.
To use your feed, dilute it with water, about one part feed to ten parts water and voila, homemade plant feed.
This week on Fiona Grows Food, I’ll be talking about weeds. Why they’re good, why they’re bad, how to deal with them, common weeds and their uses.
As some of you know, I had myself a bit of an accident a couple of weeks ago and I’ve broken my toe. Needless to say, this means my garden has had to be abandoned for the past few weeks. As such, I’m quite concerned about weeds. At this time of year, the weather in Ireland creates the perfect breeding ground for weeds. I have visions of chest high weeds choking my veggies. I’m having Day of the Triffids style nightmares.
Last summer, there was a period of six weeks when I could not visit the plot. This was in the height of summer, June/July, when weeds are likely to double in size overnight. I remember going to the plot after this absence, taking one look at it and bursting into floods of tears. Yes, I cried, it was just that bad. The weeds were thigh high and absolutely everywhere. It took me four solid days to sort that mess out, never again.
There are many ways to deal with weeds. Weedkillers being an obvious choice. However, I am one of those gardeners that refuses to use chemicals, weedkillers or fertilisers on my plot at all. I believe they are dangerous to the environment, particularly where my plot is situated. The site sits on a lovely estuary and I would fear the chemicals would seep into the water, having a disastrous effect on the local wildlife, in particular to droves of beautiful swans that live on the water. In addition to that, weedkillers can’t necessarily distinguish between weeds and useful plants and just kill everything in their path. Weedkillers would also damage my soil, and therefore my produce would be full of dangerous, unnatural chemicals and I strive to keep my gardening endeavours completely organic to the best of my abilities.
I am fairly lucky in that I actually enjoy weeding. It’s one of my favourite gardening tasks. Nothing gives me more pleasure than pulling up the weeds, roots intact, making my beds look tidy and pretty again. I love the smell of the soil as it’s disturbed.
Perennial weeds are the ones to really watch out for, these weeds establish a strong root system and spread out, coming back every year. These are the weeds that tend to be a problem when growing veggies as their root systems can choke the roots of your plants. The only way to really get rid of them without using weedkiller is to lift the whole root out of the soil. this can be difficult, some weeds, such as bindweed (a curse on it) send out lots of tiny roots and only need a small piece of root to re-establish themselves. Bindweed is a particularly nasty little chap, it’s extremely invasive, spreads like wildfire and is very difficult to remove from a patch of land. A few years ago, when my parents got their first allotment, they had a veritable war with the bindweed, they dug, they dug and they dug, and still, it came back. They dug some more. It came back again.
Perennial weeds are a problem on my own plot too, the biggest culprits being nettles and dock. Interestingly enough, both of these do have a use in my garden, I use the nettles to make plant feed (blog post on this to follow tomorrow) and dock leaves ease nettle stings when rubbed on the sting. Dock drives me mad though, its roots are huge and very strong and I’ve often spent ten minutes or more trying to get just one out of the ground, often fearing I’d beak my shovel in the struggle. Common perennial weeds include dandelion, scutch, creeping thistle, and even daisies. Generally, perennial weeds thrive in uncultivated soil as the root system is not being disturbed, this differs somewhat with annual weeds which benefit from the loose structure of cultivated soil.
Annual weeds aren’t quite as invasive, they are generally just wild plants in the wrong place. The trick with annual weeds is to disturb them before they develop flowers and therefore seed heads, doing this will prevent them from dropping seeds and diminish the likelihood of said weed returning. Annual weeds can be used in your compost once they haven’t produced seeds so can be a useful product in your garden if treated correctly.
There are a few ways to effectively deal with weeds by hand. The obvious one is pulling the weed up by hand, root intact. A hoe is also a brilliant tool in the war against weeds, it cuts the weeds at ground level, it’s best to do this when the weeds are still very young so they don’t establish a root system and try to do it on a warm breezy day so they dry out.
I also find ground cover effective when trying to permanently prevent weeds from growing in certain areas, like the paths in between my beds, I have these covered with weed control fabric and bark to save me having to weed the paths all the time.
If you are somebody who chooses to use a weedkiller, I would urge you to use an organic one, these are available from a number of garden centres and do significantly less damage than the highly toxic chemical weedkillers.
However, all this being said, weeds can be extremely useful, pretty and even edible. You just need to be selective in how you deal with them. You don’t need to kill every weed. If I am not cultivating a patch of soil and there are annual weeds growing, I often leave them to it, we as gardeners are essentially slaves to our environment and sometimes it’s better not to disturb our delicate ecosystems too much.
This week I’ll be doing some posts on weeds, how to use them for good, how to identify the worst culprits and even some tips on using them in the kitchen so keep an eye out for those. I’ll leave you for now with this adorable cartoon I found a few weeks ago which sums up my relationship with weeds perfectly.
In a new weekly feature on FionaGrowsFood, I will be sharing some weird and wonderful gardening stories and facts from around the world.
This week, I’ve a little gem for you from NASA.
A team of scientists at NASA, led by Dr. Gioia Massa, have developed a new system for growing food in space. The device, known as VEGGIE, is being tested on the International Space Station in the first attempt to successfully grow food in space.
Obviously as a gardener, I love to see developments in gardening and in food production, but more importantly, I am a complete sci-fi nut. I spend my free time watching Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, and any other TV show that involves space travel, aliens, FTL drives, phasers or food replicators. I’m a bonafide nerd! So imagine my interest in a story that combines my two favourite things in the world and brings me one step closer to realising my dream of being an intergalactic gardener who just also happens to be a fighter pilot.
The VEGGIE system is essentially a popup greenhouse that mimics the environmental conditions necessary to grow plants in space. To counteract the lack of gravity in space, Massa has created “plant pillows” which are essentially an advanced grow bag that prevent the soil from floating away.
As you can imagine, watering plants in zero gravity is problematic at best, the water doesn’t drain away but instead it pools around the roots, drowning the plants. The plant pillows use a permeable fabric at the base, covering a reservoir of water. This fabric allows the water to seep slowly up through the soil, much like when it’s raining out and you stupidly wore your baggiest trousers and the water creeps further and further up your leg leaving you with wet, frayed, heavy trouser ends (this is the state I spent most of my teen years in). A system of wicks not only guides the water to each individual plant but each wick also holds the seed in place and guides the plant to grow in the right direction. Light is provided by blue and red LEDs built into the top of the VEGGIE to stimulate photosynthesis.
Three of these plant pillows have been taken up to the ISS for testing. The first batch of veggies will be frozen and sent back to earth to be tested for safety and if they are safe to eat, the astronauts on the ISS will have the ability to grow food in space. Pretty damn cool right?
This system of growing plants in space could have significant implications on the future of space travel. In the past, it has been near impossible for NASA to launch a manned mission to Mars as there would be too many supplies to carry for the three year journey, with a system like VEGGIE, astronauts could become self-sufficient enough to make the long journey.
So, when we do get there, and find evidence of an ancient xenomorph race who are actually our ancestors, I’ll be able to say “I told you so” to all the naysayers.
Now 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.
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.
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.
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