Talk Dirty To Me

I’m going to put this out there: I’ve been single for an age! I’m pretty sure there are glaciers that have moved miles since my last date, mountains have been formed and cliffs slightly eroded, the world has spun on its own axis approximately 800 times. I’ve eaten about 700 potatoes since I last felt the warm embrace of romance. I’ve owned at least four new pairs of wellies. Sown thousands of seeds. Filled countless watering cans. In short, I’m really just looking for someone to talk dirty to me.

Tinder has become a bit of a casual hobby for me lately, but all that swiping is not so good for the gardening guru. I’ve seen too many tiger photos, six-pack-in-the-mirror shots, cross-fit fanatics, selfies with Conor McGregor and “I love to travel” bios (saying you love to travel is kind of inconsequential, it’s like saying “I breathe in, then I breathe out, then I repeat the process ad infinitum until I die”).

In light of the desire to just meet a bloke who has a normal job, drinks beer with the lads and perhaps likes to garden, I’ve had a brainwave. We need a tinder for gardeners. A place to weed out the undateables. I shall call it Digger. Instead of swiping right, you’d be able to “dig” someone, instead of swiping left you could throw them on the compost heap and instead of super-likes, you could request that someone talk dirty to you. I’m a genius.

Now, before you all start sending me wildly inappropriate messages, I just want to talk about muck. Dirt. Soil. Earth. It’s been a very long time since I had a filthy conversation over dinner about soil structure and nutrient content. So, since I don’t have a fella to annoy with these things, I turn to my readers.

Soil is something I obsess about a lot so it’s surprising I haven’t really written too much about it on the blog. I love muck. I love getting my hands dirty, they haven’t been clean for years. I suppose, it’s not the most glamorous thing in the world to write about. It’s literally dirt, and the last thing any writer wants to do is churn out muck, but soil really is the single most important factor to consider when gardening, especially in a food garden, where the soil can literally make or break you. So, I’ve decided to write about soil structure, nutrients, pH, and if you’d like to talk dirty back to me, just leave a comment or get in touch, you never know, it could be the filthiest conversation of your life.

Soil Structure 

Soil Type

Clay soil (which is what I have in my garden) is fine particle soil that clings together. Clay soil is nutrient rich but difficult to work with as clay soils tend to bake and crack in the summer and turn to an absolute waterlogged mush in Autumn. It compacts easily when wet and is slow to drain. Basically, clay soil is an absolute nightmare to dig, rake and work with but it’s given me very toned muscles and healthy vegetables so I don’t complain.

Sandy soil is easier to work than clay soil but it has fewer nutrients and doesn’t retain moisture as well. Sandy soil heats up far quicker than clay in spring but it really dries up easily as the water runs right out of it, often dragging the nutrients with it.

Loam soil is a mix of clay and sand and is considered to be the best soil for gardening as it’s fertile, drains well and is easy to work.

The structure of your soil is very important when growing food. If, like me, your soil is heavy and clay based, this is the one thing you will spend the majority of your time doing battle with in your garden. My soil structure has caused me so much heartache you wouldn’t believe. Muck: my second worst love affair to date.

IMG_3288

The difference between bad soil and good soil, both in my polytunnel, but the top is a bed that hasn’t been worked in a year.

Soil particles need to be pretty small in order to allow seeds to germinate. My soil requires a serious amount of raking to get it to a fine tilth (for the record, tilth is one of my favourite words). It’s pretty redundant to sow seeds in soil that’s packed tightly together with no space for the seedlings to grow so you need to get the soil to a fine, crumbly consistency for planting. This is one of the many advantages to raised bed gardening. It is easier to control the soil structure in a raised bed than directly in the ground. A raised bed is easier to dig, easier to rake and easier to maintain.

If you don’t have good soil structure, your plants simply won’t thrive, they won’t have room to expand, their roots will have nowhere to go and they’ll be stunted.

Worms

Not just the subject of a very addictive video game and one of the best cartoons of my childhood (he was just a dirt eating, chewing length of worm); worms are one of the most important creatures in a garden. Worms break down organic matter and expel a natural fertiliser. Worms also aerate the soil and improve water retention. You can literally buy boxes of worms to add to your soil if you don’t have any in your garden and you can also create a wormery to break down your food waste into compost for your garden. They really are such groovy guys.

Nutrients

Good soil is packed full of nutrients which are vital for plant growth. Plants need a surprising amount of nutrients in order to thrive. I think there are something like 18 nutrients important for plant growth and the majority of these come from soil (the rest come from the air and water but I’ll get to that in another science lesson). The three main nutrients in soil are nitrogen (N), Potassium (P) and Phosphorous (K) and this trio of nutrients is known as NPK. These are the nutrients that farmers pack into their soil as they are absolutely vital when it comes to growing vegetables. But soil is also full of other nutrients like calcium, magnesium and iron which are all vital for plant development. Over time, when soil is used to cultivate crops, the nutrient value of that soil decreases. This is due to watering and of course the plants themselves using up the nutrients. Which is why we add organic matter to the soil. which leads me to….

IMG_3368-1

(not my compost heap, mine is far smaller)

Compost

Compost is the single most important thing in my garden. I just couldn’t garden without it. Compost is nutrient rich, decomposed organic matter that results in a dark, gorgeous soil, teeming with nutrients for your plants. Now, you can of course buy compost and I would urge you to use compost if you are growing in containers, do not go out and put a load of clay from your garden into a pot and expect your plants to thrive. Compost is vital. Where possible, use organic compost.There are many different types of compost available to buy and it can actually be a little overwhelming at first. Seed compost, potting compost, multi purpose compost, peat composts, soil enrichers, manures, sand, grit, mulch, etc. I won’t get into every single one of these but I will say this: avoid peat based composts, always use seed compost for germinating seeds and don’t use manure in a bed where you intend to grow carrots. Trust me.

Compost isn’t just vital for growing in containers however, compost is used in the garden to add nutrients back in to your soil. Most productive gardeners will have a compost heap for their waste. The idea is to add all your organic matter to the compost heap. This is all the foliage from plants you don’t use, twigs, grass clippings etc. Food waste is also added (vegetable and fruit waste, tea bags, egg shells, just avoid meat, fish and dairy), and cardboard and non-dyed paper. For good compost, you need to add a balance of green and brown material. Green materials are nitrogen rich matter such as grass clippings and brown materials are carbon rich matter like dead leaves and twigs. In the garden, there will naturally be a good balance of green and brown matter being added to the compost heap all the time. Try to make the stuff going into your compost small, tear up the leaves and twigs as they’ll break down far quicker. Compost needs air and moisture to decompose. You’ll need to turn your compost every few weeks to move the air around the heap. You can buy plastic or wooden compost bins or you can make them yourself out of pallets but I suggest if you are gardening and don’t have one, give yourself a telling off and get to it immediately. Compost is gold dust.

Leaf Mould

Leaf mould is another brilliant way to use garden waste to add nutrients to your soil. Leaf mould is created by collecting fallen leaves in Autumn and allowing them to decompose to add as a mulch to your soil. Most people make a leaf mould cage using wire or netting and leave (pun intended) it to decompose, it can take years to fully decompose so it helps to shred the leaves.

leaf-litter-cage-1024x768

This is the leaf mould cage on my parents plot last autumn

Coffee Grounds

Used coffee grounds are a brilliant way to add nutrients back into your soil, especially when growing in small containers. Container soil loses its nutrient value far quicker as regular watering washes the nutrients out. Most coffee shops will be happy to give you coffee grounds for free. They’re packed full of nitrogen and are a great way to recycle something that would otherwise be thrown away. Worms love them, slugs hate them, they’re an excuse to drink more coffee, everybody wins

Soil pH

I don’t want to get too technical by harping on about soil pH levels but this can have an effect on your plants. Acidic soil is great for growing rhubarb, blueberries and gooseberries and alkaline soil is perfect for asparagus. Most veggies prefer pH neutral soil but it’s better to have soil that errs on the alkaline side than acidic. You can buy soil testing kits in most garden centres and it can’t hurt to be aware of your soil pH. Sandy soils in particular tend to be acidic. I add a pine needle mulch from christmas trees to my blueberries and rhubarb every year as it helps lower the pH a little and make the soil more acidic for these plants.

 

I spent six hours today just working on the soil in my raised beds. I’m tired, I’m dirty, my legs are killing me for some reason but my soil, it’s beautiful, rich and fertile.

IMG_3199

Before

IMG_3314

After

 

I believe you need to be in touch with the soil to know what it needs. So, take off the gardening gloves and plunge your hands into the soil. Smell it, rub it in between your palms, waterfall it between your fingers. Recent studies have found that soil contains micro particles that act as a natural anti-depressant, which is probably why I’m happiest when I’m working the soil on my plot. If you know your soil, you’ll know how to treat it and that is the key to growing good food.

Currently searching for web developer to help with creating my dating app, Digger. Preferably male, preferably sound and preferably someone who can really talk dirty to me. 

 

 

 

Green Manure: Why You Should Grow These Crops In Your Vegetable Garden

One of my biggest pet peeves in the garden happens right around this time of year when I’ve harvested an entire bed of crops and then it lies empty until the following spring. There’s nothing that annoys me more than an empty bed. Forever alone. Sob. While there are plenty of crops to plant over winter (more on that later),when you have a large vegetable plot, it is inevitable that some of the space in your garden will be unused at different times throughout the year. This is where planting green manure is a godsend for the industrious gardener. 

What exactly is green manure? Nope, it’s not as you might imagine, the product of a pony who’s had too much Thai curry (I’ll let that lovely image sink in for a moment); green manures are quick growing plants to sow in your garden where you have free space in between crops so as not to leave your soil bare. They are then dug back into the soil in as nutrient rich organic matter. Green manures also suppress weed growth in your idle vegetable beds and some varieties even fix nitrogen in your soil. Nifty! 

Green manures prevent the very upsetting but necessary task of covering up your veggie beds with black plastic or mulch over the winter months and look a lot more appealing than sheets of black plastic or beds full of weeds. 

This week, I harvested my onions and potatoes which leaves two of my beds empty until I plant something else in them. The soil in the onion bed isn’t in the best condition after a pretty bad year for onion production so it needs some love. I don’t want to plant my spring cabbages or overwintering onions in that bed as it doesn’t fit in with my carefully planned crop rotation. 

Rather than see this bed lying unused for the next five months, I intend to plant this bed with some green manure. There are plenty of different varieties of green manures and some are an attractive addition to the garden. In my recently harvested onion bed, I’ve decided to grow mustard as a green manure. Mustard is an excellent grower and can be planted between March and September which makes it the ideal for a vegetable bed that is lying idle in August. As a member of the brassica family however, it’s not the best one to use in a bed where brassicas will grow in the following cycle. I’ll let the mustard grow until mid-October then dig it into the top of the soil.

I’ve grown mustard and red clover as green manures before and found it a great way to use my empty raised beds that would otherwise be unproductive.

Benefits of Growing Green Manure

Fertilising

Green manures grow for about two to three months and are then dug back into the soil. This organic matter is absolute gold in a vegetable garden and means you don’t need to use as much of your precious home made compost and is another valuable way to fertilise your soil without resorting to chemical fertilisers (aka pure poison).

Weed Suppressant

Green manures prevent weeds from taking over a patch of soil. I’ve often found that even during the winter months, the weeds keep growing and I have to weed a lot in early spring before planting. Growing a green manure provides ground cover and prevents the dreaded weeds from taking over your beds between crops.

This is what happens when you dont cover up your beds properly. Bad Fiona!


Food for Pollinators 

If you’re a wildlife fanatic like myself and want to have a bee friendly garden, some green manures like clover provide much needed nectar for bees and other pollinators. I’d urge you to plant some clover during the summer if you have an empty bed. We need to do every little thing we can do to help our bees. Added benefit: clover is beautiful and reminiscent of childhood days spent picking it and sucking on the sweet stems  below the flower (yes, I did that, I was one of those kids).


Soil Improvement

Green manures improve the quality of  your soil which is of huge assistance when you’ve had a bad year and your soil is in poor condition. Planting a green manure helps to aerate soil which means far less back breaking digging the following spring. 

Nutrient Fixing

During autumn and winter, rain can wash the nutrients away from the top layers of your soil, which is why we cover our vegetables beds up during winter. A green manure will inject more nutrients into your soil and prevent those vital nutrients already there from washing away.Green manures from the legume family help to “fix” nitrogen in the soil during summer, meaning they take in nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots (further proof that plants are amazing).

Sowing Green Manure

Sow green manure direct where it is to grow. I find it best just to broadcast sow the seeds as opposed to sowing in rows as this cover more ground and provides better weed suppressant. Rake the seeds into the soil and water. The seeds usually germinate very quickly.

Digging In Green Manure
After three months of growth, dig your green manure into your soil while it is still alive and green (it kind of defeats the purpose to let it wither and die). Let the soil rest for about two weeks before planting anything as the green matter can make it difficult for seeds to germinate. 

Popular Green Manures

Mustard: Sow March-September. 

Grazing Rye: Sow September-November. A good choice for an overwinter green manure.

Red Clover:  Sow March-August. This attractive plant is great for pollinators

Buckwheat: Sow April – August. Grows well in poor soil.

Field Beans: Sow September-November. Another great over wintering green manure and as a member of the legume family is high in nitrogen.
Let me know how you do get on if you plant some green manure. Try tasting the clover too, it won’t kill you.

I don’t think I’ll be ordering Thai food for a while though….

Plants vs Zombies 

The premise of the adorable, popular game Plants vs Zombies is a simple one: collect sunshine to grow plants, fill your garden with plants to protect your homestead from the oncoming zombie horde. I, like many, have wasted many a lunch hour playing this silly but addictive little game. Now, while this game is in no way akin to real life, I like to think it has a strong message behind it, grow a garden to survive the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps, as an avid gamer, I’ve spent far too much time projecting philosophical meaning and ethical reasoning to a pretty basic video game; or perhaps I’m simply drawing a parallel to my theory that this world we live in is headed for a great disaster and the solution is literally in the ground below our feet. 

Cutest peas ever!

As a huge fan of science fiction and disaster movies, I love nothing more than sitting down with a bowl of popcorn and watching the world fall spectacularly to pieces. Aliens, zombies, nuclear winter, viral outbreaks, earthquakes, dystopian societies, sentient apes, giant underground worms, storms, tornadoes full of sharks, the bigger the disaster, the greater my enjoyment. I’m not quite sure where this stems from, but it possibly has something to do with Jeff Wayne’s war of the worlds being played in my house at obscenely loud decibel levels, invading my dreams with huge mechanical tripods shooting lasers out of their eyes. There was a brief phase (by brief, I mean about a year) when I woke up every single night racked with terror having being caught in volcanic eruptions. I was seven. So, needless to say, I’m no stranger to an apocalypse.

However, the best thing about these movies, is when the credits roll, the popcorn bowl is full of those infuriating uncooked kernels (rage inducing) and the real world around me is still the same as before. Relatively safe. Relatively. 

You see, I know this world is on track for a huge disaster. A zombie apocalypse of sorts. Before you think I’m sitting here in a tin foil hat and begin to break out the straight jackets, consider this: there are over seven billion people on this planet, two thirds of whom live below the poverty line. That’s seven billion mouths to feed. Seven billion hungry humans. 

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the “first world” (I’m not a big of the suggested superiority of this phrase) have easy access to food, running water, shelter and electricity, not to mention all the other luxuries we have come to know as standard. However, therein lies a pretty big concern, food has become a currency, a status symbol. Food doesn’t come from the ground, it comes from a freezer, a restaurant, from a phone call. Go to your supermarket, buy your pre-packaged frozen meat. Fill your trollies with imported fruit, defrosted breads, carbonated drinks, brand after brand after brand. Eat battery chickens. Eat meat packed with antibiotics. Eat blueberries from a different continent. Snapchat your Starbucks, tweet your take out, Facebook your falafel, Instagram your instant meals. Socialising? Order a meal. Exercising? Powder a meal. Eat what you’re told to eat. Eat what’s on trend. Eat vegan. Eat gluten free. Eat low carb. Eat protein rich. Eat what you saw celebrities eat. Eat your weight in Michelin stars. Eat whatever you can afford. Eat whatever takes your fancy. Eat your bloody braaainnnnsss out. Zombie food culture. 

Welcome to the horde

I think we’re in crisis. Maybe not of apocalyptic proportions. Yet. Our relationship with food is toxic. It’s killing the planet and leaving us brain dead. So what’s to be done? Grow our own food of course! (What did you expect me to say, I refer you to the name of my blog 😛)


I’ve been saying for a long time that I have a genuine in-depth zombie apocalypse plan. I won’t share it here as it’s top secret and shall only be shared with a select few whose valuable skills I need to improve my chances of survival and perhaps my loved ones if they haven’t been bitten. However, should you find yourself in your house or office some day and hear a low groan, shuffling feet, see the undead lumbering towards you with an appetite for brains, here are my top tips to survive the onslaught. 

  • Hole yourself up in a walled garden or compound with large sheds or storage lockers. The number one cause of bites during a zombie outbreak is exposure, without a shelter to hide, you’re a definite candidate for brain fodder. 
  • Grow your own food. Not only will this provide you with much needed sustenance, but will give you a purpose when the world as you know it ceases to exist and the days are an endless cycle of living in fear of the walking dead. 
  • Grow nutrient rich vegetables to keep yourself in fit and fighting shape, kale, potatoes, spinach, carrots, beans are all excellent, filling, easy to grow crops.
    • Grow some medicinal herbs and plants in case of illness or injury. Echinacea, sage, feverfew, mint, aloe vera, lemon balm, ginger, thyme and comfrey are just a few that spring to mind with anti inflammatory and analgesic properties. Unnecessary dangerous outings to pharmacies/shops/hospitals for drugs are the number two cause of bites in zombie outbreaks. 
    • Dig. Dig and rake and dig some more. This will keep your body lean and muscular and build up your biceps for swinging weapons.
    • The number three cause of zombie bites is the lack of a well stocked armoury. Arm yourself with garden tools, spades, hoes, rakes, forks, scythes, pick axes, all very worthy weapons capable of zombie decapitation. 
    • Waste nothing; these are desperate times, compost, upcycle, recycle, save seeds and replant. Diminish the need to ever leave your garden and risk the running into an army of zed heads.
    • Collect rain waiter in water butts, basins, barrels, bottles. Local water supplies may be contaminated with rotting flesh, also, It’d be pretty embarrassing to survive a zombie war for months only for you and your plants to die of dehydration.
    • If you make it to year two, rotate your crops to ensure maximum productivity and higher chance of survival. 
    • Roll around in your compost heap and manure at regular intervals to mask the smell of your sweet human flesh. 
    • Enlist the help of some fellow, trustworthy survivors. Delegate tasks to each member of the commune. A community garden will have higher productivity and keep the lonely gardener from going slowly insane from lack of human contact.

    In fact, if you really want to be fully prepared against the walking dead, start now. Grow some lettuce in a pot first, then work your way up. 
    In short, if you want to avoid becoming a zombie? Get bitten by the garden bug. Grow your own brain food. 

    I’m genuinely considering turning this idea into a book guys….

    World War Fee: A Practical Guide To Surviving The Zombie War by Fiona(Fee) Kelly

    Plants Bants: How To Care For Tomatoes

    Let me tell you something that not many people know about me, my favourite smell in the world is not fresh baked bread, freshly brewed coffee or lavender (though these rate pretty highly) but the the smell of tomato plants. It is the ultimate smell of summer. My earliest memories of anyone growing their own food are those of my father growing tomatoes in our back garden at home. Each summer, he would plant a few tomatoes in pots in our garden and I loved to watch them progress throughout the summer. The smell of tomato plants reminds me of home, it is nostalgic and gorgeous and comforting.

    Most people think you need a greenhouse or polytunnel in which to grow tomatoes, and while this does help, tomatoes will grow relatively well outdoors in Ireland, provided we have a good summer. Tomatoes are excellent container plants and as such are a good choice for the gardener with limited growing space.

    Being July, it is too late now to sow tomatoes, however if you have started them, I have some tips for caring for your tomatoes during the summer months.

    There are two main types of tomatoes, indeterminate (vine or cordon tomatoes) and determinate (bush tomatoes). The type of plant you are growing will determine how to care for it through the growing season.

    Fun Fact: Tomatoes are a member of the Solanaceae family of plants, making them a cousin of the potato, aubergine, tobacco and deadly nightshade plants.

    Sowing Tomatoes

    I usually sow my tomatoes in late March or early April. (Confession: I didn’t sow any this year, my Dad is solely responsible for 2016’s tomato crop).

    Sow tomatoes in individual 9cm pots using good quality seed compost, level and firm the compost before sowing and water them in well. A heated propagator comes in quite handy for germinating tomatoes in our climate but if you don’t have one, you can keep them on a windowsill above a radiator or in full sun. Covering your pots with cling film or plastic also gives the soil some warmth to help germinate your tomato seeds. Tomatoes usually germinate within seven days.

    Leggy Plants

    One common issue I’ve had with tomato seedlings is their tendancy to become “leggy”. Now, being a leggy individual myself, I’m fully aware of how much of an advantage this is as a human female, but leggy tomato plants are not so desirable. The stems grow really tall at the expense of fruit development. This is usually caused by the seedlings reaching toward the available light which is often in short supply in Spring. It helps to rotate the pots once a day or to move the pots to a brighter location, sometimes I have found this means moving the pot from the front of my house to the rear of my house as the sun moves across the sky during the day.

    Tomato plants are very clever though, they will form new roots at the point where the stem hits the soil so if your seedlings do become leggy, plant them into a larger pot with the stem buried deeper so they can form new roots. Amazing!

    Potting On

    Tomatoes are another one of those plants that need to be potted on regularly in order to thrive. You’ll need to transfer your seedlings into larger pots after about three weeks so they have new nutrients and have space for their roots to spread out.

    Tomatoes in Containers

    I’m quite lucky as I have a polytunnel and I can just plant my tomatoes directly into the ground, but tomatoes make excellent container crops in smaller spaces. Tomatoes have a rather large root structure so need room to spread out so if you are growing in pots, use a large pot for each plant, you’ll want a pot of at least 12 inches.

    You can also buy grow bags for tomatoes. These are like large bags of compost in which you can grow up to three tomato plants and are a really good choice for the novice tomato grower with limited space.

    Keep your tomatoes in a warm spot with plenty of sun, a south facing garden or balcony is preferable.

    IMG_1577

    Support

    Sometimes, we all need someone to lean on and tomatoes too need support as they grow. Tomatoes can grow quite tall and they become laden down with fruits in the summer which often causes the plant to topple over. Stake your tomatoes using bamboo and tie them in as they get larger

    Watering and Feeding

    Tomatoes need plenty of water in order to bulk up and prevent the tomatoes from splitting. I water my plants a little every day in summer months and give them a really good soaking once a week. Tomatoes need a regular water supply to prevent problems with the ripening fruit.

    When growing in containers, you can use an upturned water bottle buried halfway in to the soil to direct water to the roots of your plants. There is no need to water the tops of the plants (this actually goes for most veggies) aim your water at the base of the plant.

    Tomatoes grown in containers will probably need to be fed also, use an organic tomato feed once a week when the fruits are ripening, or better yet, make your own plant feed with nettles or comfrey.

    Truss Issues

    Tomato plants form what we call trusses. A truss is a group of smaller stems which produce flowers and fruit.

    When growing vine tomatoes, pinch out the side shoots (these grow between the leaves and main stem). This allows the plant to put all its energy into the trusses, this producing more fruit.

    It also helps to pinch out the main growing stem on tomatoes once they are bearing fruit, this will encourage the tomatoes to ripen and subsequent fruits formed above these trusses will often fail to ripen anyway.

    IMG_2403

    Tomato Problems

    Tomatoes are prone to a few diseases, much like their cousins, the potato, tomatoes can suffer from blight in poor conditions, keep an eye out for rotting leaves and brown patches on the fruit.

    Blossom end rot is caused by calcium deficiency and is usually indicative of irregular watering. Tomatoes can also be prone to fruits splitting and cracking if they are not watered.

    However, I have been super lucky with growing tomatoes and haven’t experienced any major problem with the exception of the the fruit splitting due to lack of water, bad Fiona!

    Harvesting Tomatoes

    Harvesting tomatoes is pretty easy, follow these steps:

    1. Pick tomatoes.
    2. Eat whole like apples.
    3. Pat self on back for job well done.
    4. Never buy tomatoes in a supermarket again.

    Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 22.08.07

    Tomato Varieties

    This year I’m growing a variety called Moneymaker, a reliable cropper much loved by gardeners. Sungold are a spectacular cherry tomato and if you’d like to be a bit more adventurous, Tigerella are the tiger-striped, glam-rock icons of the veggie garden.

    It’s unusually hot here in Dublin this week, the temperature outside today is 28 degrees celcius and my tomatoes are currently sweating it out in a closed polytunnel. Panic stations! I’ll have to swing by after work lest I end up with tomatoes that are as sunburnt as my thighs.

    Tomato toned thighs, not a good look. Truss me. 

     

    Seasonal Container Growing with GIY at Bloom Festival

    [soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/273719844″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

    Hello All!

    As most of you know (mostly because I’ve hardly shut up about it since), back in June, I had the good fortune to spend a few days with GIY at their Food Matters tent at Bloom festival. Well, the lovely GIY gang have a soundcloud page on which they have recordings of all their talks over the weekend (including the one with yours truly from Monday which I’ve included at the top of this post).

    There were some amazing talks over the weekend, I’d highly recommend you check out their page and listen to them.  I loved the talks on Growing Communities through Food and Food Waste. I personally learned so much from these talks and felt really inspired by the knowledge and passion of the panelists.

    I met with Lyda Borgsteijn from theprimalrabbit.com last week and she’s super sound so I have to give her a mention. Lyda is really inspiring and knowledgable (not to mention LOVELY) and featured on two of the panels over the weekend too so give them a listen. The talk about bread and gluten intolerance is really excellent.

    Anyway, if you are listening to my chat with the gorgeous, funny, red-lippie queen Karen, and wondering what the hell we’re talking about when we mention the planters, I thought I’d pop in a few photos for reference so you have a visual aid when we’re like “Oh, isn’t this gorgeous, look how easy this is to make” and you’re feeling a bit lost.

    Let me know what you reckon and if you’ve any questions at all, get in touch.

    IMG_2170

    IMG_2169-1

     

     

    The Water/Gate Equations

    One of my favourite things to do is take a walk around the allotments and see what the other gardeners on site have going on. You see, gardens are very personal spaces and I love seeing the individuality and creativity on display. You can tell a lot about a person by their garden. You can tell if they’re industrious or lazy, you can tell if they’re arty or logical, spud lovers or flower fanatics, DIYers or GIYers. Yes, you can learn a lot about a person by spending time in their garden.

    There are close to three hundred plots on site in Malahide Allotments and with some inevitably lying idle or unworked every year, there are about 250 plots for me to explore when I go for one of my strolls and not one allotment is the same as the next. Some are simple rows of potatoes, some are taken up by huge polytunnels, some are manicured and some are meadows. There are sheds of all colours, pathways, raised beds, sunken beds and no beds, but each plot has one thing in common, it is inhabited by a gardener with a unique view in what it is to have an allotment.

    For me, not only is my allotment a place in which to grow dinner but it is my haven. I have no garden where I live so my allotment has become a garden to enjoy as well as a place to grow crops. I have spent a lot of time on the layout and the structure of the allotment. I have a shed, six large raised beds and three small raised beds. I have a herb garden and a fruit section, flower borders, a polytunnel and a decking area. My allotment is very much a pick ‘N’ mix plot.

    I’ve worked hard to have a pretty plot and spent quite a lot of time in recent weeks touching the place up and adding some new fun elements to the garden. A couple of years ago, I painted my raised beds bright blue, much to the amusement of many fellow plot holders. However, blue wasn’t just some colour I plucked out of the sky (see what I did there?) I chose blue because I adore blue flowers. My blue beds have kind of become a defining element in my garden, not only do they give the plot some personality but they are the focus around which I have expanded the allotment.

    Last week, I took a well earned week off work to spend some time relaxing in the garden. Now, if you currently have images of me in a floaty summer dress, gracefully moving through the garden, collecting flowers in a wicker basket while singing arias, you definitely don’t know me very well. My “lovely relaxing week in the garden” consisted of me in grubby shorts, legs covered in muck and paint and nettle stings, digging up a storm, only taking breaks to spend some valuable time in bed with my new boyfriend, Nate Flicks.

    OK that’s a lie, his name is Netflix, it’s getting rather serious though.

    Fiona❤️Nate 4eva

    One of the most important structures on most allotments, and perhaps the one thing that most allotment gardeners use to declare “this is my garden, this is who I am” is their shed. I’ve had a shed in my plot since year one and I usually just treat it with wood stain and use it as a dumping ground, so last week I decided it was time to spruce it up a bit.

    Yes, it is pink and yes, it does look a bit like a wendy house but I love it and that’s what matters.

    For a long time, I have yearned for a proper gate on my plot. I’ve always just had a gap where a gate should be and for years I’ve put it on the long finger as I’m petty terrified of shortening my own fingers with a saw. I am the most accident prone person on the planet so I’ve broken this down into a new universal law of mathematics to better explain my lack of gate:

    Where F=Fiona, S=Saw and Di=Digit(finger):

    F + S = -(Di x 2)

    I mentioned this to a fellow plot holder, Paddy last week and lo and behold, when I arrived at my allotment the next day, there was a new gate hanging where there was no gate before. Paddy had made me a gate and hung it for me in an act of kindness, once again proving that gardeners are the most generous people in the world. My gate is now painted pink to match my shed and is hereby dedicated to The Gatefather himself, Paddy.

    So now, I have a pink gate, pink shed, pink chair and blue beds! (Wait until you see what colour I have planned for my decking!). My plot is significantly girly and pretty for someone who is a self confessed tomboy.

    In the final major development on the plot this week, I am currently working on adding a wildlife pond to the garden.

    img_2545

    Wildlife ponds are a valuable addition to any vegetable garden as they attract frogs which are the ultimate slug control! It took me a couple of hours and about 10 barrows of muck to dig the pond. I have one side of the pond deep enough for frogs to live in during winter months and created shelving for plants too. The pond is still waiting to be filled and planted so I will keep you updated and write a post on how to create your very own allotment pond.
    On that note, my second new universal law of mathematics is as follows

    Where F=Fiona, I=inevitability and X=making complete show of self by falling in to pond:

    F + I = X

    Therefore, whenever I fall into my pond, you’ll hear me claim it was a fix!

    Plants Bants: Kale, the superhero of the veggie garden

    You know on Halloween, just before you’d go out trick or treatin’, your Ma would serve you up a steaming plate of colcannon which you’d eat reluctantly in the wishes of finding some cash hidden inside? No? Then you’re not bleedin’ Irish.

    Colcannon on Halloween is a distinctly Irish tradition for a distinctly Irish holiday. Plates piled high with potatoes mashed with onions, kale and butter has pretty much given kale a bad name (though whoever thought of it was a genius because it’s a seriously hearty nutritional winter dish and absolutely delicious). Most Irish people only know kale as “curly kale” or in it’s sloppy colcannon form and it was always a decidedly unglamorous food but in recent years, kale is making a serious comeback as a super food. You can’t enter any health food café or shops without encountering kale smoothies, kale crisps, kale salads, raw kale, kale is the current trendiest veggie going. Now, if you find yourself a bit turned off the idea of this super healthy veggie by the memories of mashed kale goop on Halloween, I’m here to change your mind.

    Kale is hands down my favourite leafy vegetable to grow! In fact, I’m considering donning some spandex and fashioning myself a curly kale cape and swooping into people’s gardens and guerilla planting some kale. Fiona Kelly Kaley: The Curly Avenger. 

    A member of the brassica family, kale grows supremely well in our temperate climate and is very easy to grow from seed. A large, leafy vegetable, kale is a welcome addition to any vegetable garden. Its beautiful broad leaves bring rich shades of colour to any garden and there are so many varieties to try which all have distinct flavours. Kale is packed full of Vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and antioxidants and is pretty much the best veggie you can add to your diet. So, if you’re looking for tips on growing this super food in your garden look no further, I’m here to champion this humble hero of the brassica bed.

    IMG_2509

    Kale Varieties:

    Now, most people think of kale and just think of the curly green variety we were subjected to as nippers but there are many varieties of kale to try in your garden.

    My favourites are Russian Red Kale & Cavolo Nero. This year I’m growing three different varieties of kale and currently have 18 plants which is definitely overkill but kale is ready to harvest later in the season than most other leafy veggies and it’s always nice to visit the plot in October and have plenty to still harvest.
    Red Kale and Cavolo Nero taste distinctly different to green kale too so it’s nice to have a variety of flavours.

    Sowing Kale:

    Most people sow kale indoors and transplant it outside but I urge you to sow kale outdoors if you’re in Ireland, it will germinate in most soil, though rich, fertile soil is best as with all brassicas. I always sow my kale outdoors between May and June for an Autumn crop. Plus, sowing outdoors means less of the tricky transplanting business. Space your rows about 45cm apart and sow your kale and thin it out as it grows. Kale grows to be quite a large bushy plant so ensure you space the plants out enough to give them room to grow.

    Transplanting Kale

    If you have started your kale indoors, then it is essential to water your soil well before planting and give the plants plenty of water when you plant them, in fact, drench them in, create a puddle around your kale, it will love you for it. Space your plants 45cm apart.

    Caring for Kale

    Kale requires little care but it is very tasty so everything loves to eat it, slugs, pigeons, humans, more pigeons so it needs some protection.

    Protecting your kale from slugs when they are young plants is essential. Beer traps are great for keeping slugs away from your plants and I’ve had great success with these. This year, I’ve also mulched my young kale plants with coffee grounds as a fertiliser and slug repellent and I have had zero problems with slugs on my kale this year. None. It’s a miracle. Coffee is just the gift that keeps on giving really.
    Netting your kale is also essential to keep the birds from demolishing it (although eating kale is a pretty holy experience in itself the last thing you want is hole-y leaves).

    Harvesting Kale

    Kale is usually ready to harvest about three months after planting. Kale is a great cut and come again crop, simply pick the leaves from the top of the plant as needed.

    I have a recipe here for kale and apple soup if you’d like to try something a bit different with your crops (it’s yummy, trust me). My Mam also has a super recipe for kale gnocchi so I’ll ask her can I share it with you guys during harvest season. I do urge you, if you are Irish, rekindle a love for colcannon, it’s really a great dish and if you’re not Irish, give it a try, it’s a carby-gloopy-buttery-tangy-kale-slop and it’s glorious.

    Now, I’m off to get my sewing machine out, this Curly Kale Cape won’t make itself.

     

     

    Fiona Goes Wild: Marcel the Field Mouse

    I’ve had a very busy few days at the allotment the past week and I have plenty to write about over the next few days, however, I just wanted to share a bit of drama I had on the plot today. I recently wrote about the wildlife I have encountered in the garden and wanted to write a series of posts about wildlife, well, what better way to start than by writing about the adorable field mouse I found today.

    I had just finished up at the allotment on another humid day in Dublin. Tumultuous ashen clouds were rolling over site which saw a mass exodus of gardeners running for home before the heavens opened. Dressed in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, I decided it was probably in my best interests to wash my hands, get changed and go home for a well earned glass of wine. I was making my way over to the tap to grab some water, when I almost stood on a tiny field mouse, sitting in the middle of the path. The poor little chap was looking very ill, swaying side to side and trembling. I had spotted it two days ago while tidying up my shed and I’m pretty sure I disturbed it in the process.

    Field mice are cute little rodents with long legs and a long tail. They’re very active little mice and like many rodents are usually nocturnal. It was strange to see one so listless, it didn’t even budge when I approached it so I knew something was wrong straight away.

    IMG_2573-1

    I was alone, on site with an injured animal and had no idea what to do. After a cry for help on Instagram, my parents suggested I put the mouse somewhere sheltered away from the sun and rain and possibly provide it with some food. I picked up the mouse (wearing little gloves) and wrapped it in a comfy old t-shirt I had in my shed. The poor creature squeaked as I picked it up but seemed to snuggle right in to the makeshift bed right away. I placed him in a cosy spot under my shed with a little tray of water and some raspberries and I found a few woodlice I put in there too so it could eat something. I had a little cry. I’m a sap.

    I’m hoping little Marcel (name suggestion courtesy of my best friend Holly) makes a quick recovery, I’ll keep you updated.IMG_2574-1

    Plants Bants: How NOT To Grow Courgettes 

    Last week, I wrote about how to grow your own strawberries and I received a few requests from readers to feature a post on growing courgettes. Courgettes are one of the staples of a vegetable garden, they are prolific croppers and supposedly very easy to grow. 

    I had a brief embarrassing moment a couple of weeks ago. I was at the FoodMatters tent at Bloom festival, giving advice on how to grow vegetables in containers, when an audience member asked me about growing courgettes. I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret of mine: I’ve had an absolute disaster of a time attempting to grow courgettes every year. Cue me, standing in front of an audience with a microphone, having to admit that I have in fact killed every courgette plant I’ve tried to grow. 

    WANTED Notorious Courgette-Killer-Kelly, for crimes against gardening. So scary you might just wet your plants


    In fact, this is the first year I have been successful in my pursuit of these elusive veggies which every other gardener seems to grow with ease. So, in this week’s plants bants, I’m going to talk about how NOT to grow courgettes as I’m pretty sure I’ve done every single thing wrong that you can do and as such, am an expert courgette killer.

    Courgettes, also known as Zucchini are prolific growers, producing two or three courgettes per week in the height of growing season. They grow very well in warm climates which is why we often associate them with Mediterranean dishes. Courgettes in fact, originated in Mexico so they need a warm, sheltered spot in order to thrive.

    Sowing Courgettes

    Courgettes are best started indoors and moved to their final growing spot in June when the chance of frost has passed. Plant one seed about half an inch deep in 7cm pots. The pot size really does matter here as courgettes use up the nutrients in the soil very quickly so don’t plant them in seed modules. Keep the soil moist but don’t over water your courgettes while they are germinating. Keep the pots on a warm windowsill or in a greenhouse/polytunnel. Courgettes germinate very quickly in the right temperature, in fact, mine germinated in three days this year and within a week they were pretty large already. 


    Fiona’s crimes against courgettes part one: Not potting on

    Because courgettes grow so quickly, they’ll use up the nutrients in these pots in about three weeks so they need to be potted on. This was my big mistake in year one, I had no idea they would grow so large so quickly and left them in the small pots for about 6 weeks, causing the plants to become too large for the pots and the stems to snap. Heart. Broken. 
    You’ll need to transfer your courgettes to larger pots. 

    Courgettes get too big for their boots (roots?) and need more space to grow. Much like my efforts to squash myself into skinny jeans in winter, there’s no point in squashing your courgettes into tiny pots that don’t fit them anymore. Nobody wants muffin-top plants, and seeing that there’s no weight watchers or slimming world for plants, simply go large or go home. Use a good quality organic, nutrient rich compost and keep your courgettes well watered. Keep the plants indoors until all chances of frosts have passed. Young courgette plants hate frost. This leads me to my next sin…

    Fiona’s crimes against courgettes part two: Not hardening off

    My second attempt at growing courgettes was going really well. I had potted them on, kept them well watered and the plants were huge. I had decided to grow them outdoors, courgettes do well outside in our climate as long as they are not planted out in cold weather and the plants are hardened off. Hardening off plants that have been grown indoors is essential if you are transferring them outside.

    I eagerly planted out my courgettes on a warm summers day and within three days, the weather turned colder, my courgettes went into shock at the temperature change and simply withered away and died. Devastated.

    Check out my guide to hardening off your seedlings here.

    Fiona’s crimes against courgettes part three: Not watering regularly

    Once established in the ground, courgettes need plenty of water. Two years ago, I was having major success with my courgettes. I had potted them on, hardened them off, planted them out all with success, everything was going swimmingly, until I broke my foot. I was unable to visit my plot regularly, meaning I was unable to water my plot regularly and my beautiful courgettes once again died. Water your courgettes every day, but water the base of the plants to direct the water to the roots. Under watering courgettes will prevent them from bulking up. 

    Pro tip:  It helps to avoid smashing your bare foot off a door frame.

    Fiona’s crimes against courgettes part four: Not spacing them out

    Courgettes grow very large with a huge leaf spread so need lots of space between plants. Leave about a metre between each plant, this might look a bit ridiculous when they are small plants but trust me, they will take over this space in no time. Their large leaf spread also creates a haven for slugs, which brings me to…

    Fiona’s crimes against courgettes part five: Not protecting my plants

    Last year, I decided to double my chances of success by planting courgettes both outdoors and in the polytunnel. Clever Fiona. Alas, I never foresaw the complete destruction of the polytunnel courgettes by slugs. It is essential to go on regular slug patrol and take whatever steps you can to keep them from your plants, beer traps, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells, whatever it takes.

    The great courgette slug demolition was the moment I decided I might have to hang up my trowel. I’d been told that courgettes where the easiest thing in the world to grow and three years on the trot I’d murdered mine from lack of knowledge or proper care.

    This year, all has changed. My courgettes are thriving in the polytunnel. I’m keeping them well watered, protecting them from slugs using coffee grounds (more on that in a later post) and singing to them regularly, it can’t hurt right?

    I have of these monsters in the polytunnel


    Courgette Crop Care and Tips

    Because of our temperate climate, we often have to give courgettes a helping hand when growing outdoors. If you have the time, make yourself a hot bed for your courgettes. Prepare the bed in spring, dig about a spades depth into the bed. Fill the hole up with well rotted manure and cover with compost. The manure heats up the soil creating a hot bed for your plants and also provides the fertile-rich soil that courgettes love.

    Protect your courgettes in colder climates with a cloche or plastic sheeting.

    Courgettes are hungry plants so will benefit from mulching. Please, I implore you as always NOT to use a chemical fertiliser. Use seaweed, comfrey, nettle feed, ANYTHING but a chemical based fertiliser! 

    Harvesting 

    Plants should produce two or three courgettes a week in good conditions. Harvest the courgettes when they are still small as this is when they taste best. You can of course leave the courgettes to grow into huge marrows but they taste awful and as much as its great fun to grow giant marrows, it’s a bit pointless growing inedible food in my humble opinion.

    Did you know? You can eat courgette flowers. They are delicious stuffed with cous cous or cheese and tossed in a light batter and fried. Bliss.

    If you’ve any tips for me on growing courgettes, let me know, I need all the help I can get so I don’t end up incarcerated for a courgette serial-killing spree.

    Take A Walk On The Wild Side

    (A bedroom in Dublin. Monday. 5.30am. A rooster crows in the mid-summer rain. A young woman hauls herself out of bed. She throws open a window into the morning. A grey tit hops along the wooden fence below. The distinctive call of a pheasant. The trill of a tit. The thrill of the wild.)

    This is how my days begin now. I wake to a symphony of birdsong. I wake to a wild life.

    I’ve always loved animals and nature. As a child, there was nothing I loved more than being outdoors. I, myself, was a little bit wild. I was always climbing, running, exploring. I was less of a barbies and dolls girl and more of a climbing walls girl. I had far more interest in catching bees and butterflies than sitting at home playing dress up. I was a scuff-kneed, rock collecting, river wading, bird chasing, tree hugging wild child.


    Growing up in a city suburb never really held me back from loving my natural environment. There was quite a lot of green space where I lived, there were local hay fields, farms and parks. I spent a lot of time in the wild Irish countryside. My parents brought me on holidays all around Ireland and I’ve had the privilege to see and explore so many of our wonderful landscapes. I’ve spent entire summers in the midlands, playing on farms and bogs. I’ve travelled along the whole west coast; the rugged Burren, wild Connemara, the lakes of Killarney, the beaches of Achill. I’ve visited forests, cliffs and caves. Climbed mountains and fished in rivers. I’ve collected turf, shorn sheep and plucked pheasants. I have been in love with this lush island my entire life.

    However, living in Dublin, I haven’t always been as in touch with the natural world as I would love to be. The rapid development of large housing estates in North County Dublin during the boom years, rendered many of my childhood exploration haunts into haunted ghost estates. There are acres of unfinished houses, scaffold cities, empty developments and abandoned building sites. Where I once spent my summers picking wildflowers and hunting for frogs, there are now apartment blocks, parking lots, train stations, space-wasting NAMA-NAMA-NAMA-NAMA-CRAPLANDS!

    Now don’t get me wrong, I adore Dublin. I think it’s a great city. I love the culture, the food, the nights out, the festivals, the history, the hustle and bustle, the atmosphere; but sometimes I look at some of the suburban areas and despair. When we were so busy building and planning and expanding, where did all the wildlife go?

    IMG_2493

    Living in a city, it is easy to forget that it is populated by more than just people, more than shops and offices and pubs. It is populated by more than human beings. It is so easy to forget that there are entire populations of wildlife living in Dublin too. More animals than humans, more insects than animals.

    This is one of the many reasons that gardening has become so vital for me. The garden is not just a place in which to grow food and flowers, it is a place of sanctuary for me and for many others. It is trembling with life. My garden has reconnected me with wildlife in this great urban sprawl. Four years ago, I’d have been hard pressed to identify a breed of bird. I’d have had no idea that it was a pheasant call I was hearing every day. I’d have been unable to tell you the birds living in my neighbours garden were in fact grey tits. I’d have probably been quite annoyed at the rooster waking me every morning.

    I’d have never developed an obsession with bees, collected worms, discovered that ladybirds are ruthless killers, gone on regular slug patrols or learned what an ichneumon wasp is.

    IMG_1494

    Aphids Beware!

     

     

    I’d never have developed a tenuous relationship with a hare. When I visit the plot in the early mornings, when there’s not another soul around, I often stumble on a slumbering hare in my rhubarb patch. We’re developing a bit of an understanding, she sleeps on my plot and leaves when I arrive. She often stares at me for a moment or two before bolting. I’ve yet to take a photo of her as I don’t want to spook her for the garden is her haven too.

    I’d have never met Joseph Gordon Levitt. No, not the actor, the robin who visits my plot (if you get the reference, a virtual high five to you).

    I’d have never learned that wasps build their nest from their own homemade scraps of paper and spit. I’d have never seen a fox chasing a hare while I was picking beetroot for dinner.

    I have seen buzzards circling my plot, hunting for prey. I’ve seen sparrow hawks, thrushes, finches, blackbirds, chaffinches, pigeons, crows, the list is endless. I’ve even found a family of ducks, waddling past the plot. I’ve discovered xenomorphic looking chrysalises in nooks and crannies all over the garden. I have a shed full of giant spiders. Last week I found a song thrush egg lying on a rhubarb leaf.

    IMG_2197

    My garden is not just mine, for a garden does not belong to the gardener. A garden belongs to everyone and everything in it. Gardening taught me to be excited by insects and birds and animals again, to scuff my knees and climb and explore and to still freak the hell out when I accidentally touch a slug.

    Gardening allows me to be a wild child again.

    Sometimes that rooster really does annoy me though.

    I have learned more about our wildlife in the past four years of gardening than in the previous twenty-eh-something. With this in mind, I’m going to write a series of posts on encouraging wildlife into your garden. If you are one of those people who is terrified of creepy crawlies, I’m going to tell you why you shouldn’t be (except maybe earwigs, nobody likes earwigs). If you find yourself running away from bees, I’m going to tell you why you should be chasing them in to your garden. If you’re afraid of butterflies, I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you, you’re a lost cause.

    I’m popping some useful links below if you want to learn a bit about Irish Wildlife, these sites are brilliant resources for amateurs like myself who want to know a bit more about our indigenous species.

    Irish Wildlife Trust 

    Bird Watch Ireland

    Biodiversity Ireland