The top random number of somethings to something in the garden at sometime

So, I’ve noticed a little trend among garden blogs, in garden magazines and publications and I’m sure it’s very helpful and informative:

The list.

You know the list.

  • The top five jobs for the garden in July.
  • The top 9 herbs to grow on your windowsill
  • The top seven things to plant in February

Etc:

Anyway, as you all know, I like to buck the trend slightly and always swore blind I wouldn’t be one of those bloggers who relied on lists for clicks; but I’ve realised it’s been ages since I shared a how to or a plants bants post and I feel I’ve let you all down.

How are you even coping without my tips for parsnip growing in the nude or planting garlic to stave off vampires??

I’ve let you all down, so in an effort to apologise and make it up to you, I’ve decided to do what I always swore I wouldn’t and give you a “top random number of somethings to something in the garden sometime” post.

And in even better news, you’ll be getting one of these a month from here on in.

Boom.

You’re welcome.

I’m warning you the December one may well be a video special called “The twelve days of Christmas songs to sing in the garden this December.”

So, to get us started…

The top, eh, 10 let’s go with 10, things NOT to do in the allotment in October.

1. Do not think that now summer is over you get to go into hibernation and do nothing in the garden for winter. This is the busiest time of year for veggie growers. There’s serious cleaning up to do. If you take a break all winter because it’s cold or wet, good luck ever clawing back any semblance of structure in your garden next year.

7. Do not leave all your used up summer plants in their beds over winter, no matter how tempting. It’s so easy to want to leave them in the ground because it’s cold and miserable and you’d rather be at home. It’s easy to think sure the soil won’t be used over winter so what harm can it do leaving the plants there? WRONG. They’re fucking dead lads, get rid of them. I mean, have you ever left a cabbage or lettuce in the ground for months and then tried to pull it out? That shit is dangerous, you’re liable to either tear a muscle from trying to pull the root out of the soil or worse, pull too hard and go flying backwards, awkwardly grasping a cabbage mid air, wondering how this is even your life.

4. Do not leave the weeds because you think they’ll stop growing over winter. Weeds will grow anytime, anywhere. And yes the growth slows in winter but if you don’t dig them up, the roots will just get bigger and good bloody luck to you next year. Trust me, I’m paying for that little gem (boom) this autumn.

2. Do not leave your garden without planting over winter. There are tons of plants you can grow this time of year. If you don’t plant some winter food, you are wasting valuable space and time when you could be being productive! Chard, Kale, Broad Beans, Garlic, Onions and Oriental Greens are all excellent winter growers and require little or no care.

9. Do not leave your digging until spring. I don’t care what everyone says, turn your soil over NOW! You don’t need it to be perfect tilth, you don’t need to remove every little stone or bit of debris, but please, for the love of god, at least dig a little bit.

5. On that note, do NOT let your soil go hungry in October! Now is the time to feed it. Get yourself some well rotted manure. I cant stress well rotted enough here guys and add it to your soil where you intend to grow nutrient heavy crops like brassicas next year. It’s also a good time to get some compost into your beds.

8. Do NOT lose heart because your plot looks like shit. It’s October, it always happens. There’s one week every year when everything just gives up the ghost and dies. That’s normal but overwhelming. Simply accept the fact that nature is sometimes a hard mistress, accept and lament the loss of your crops then get busy tidying up.

2. Do NOT leave all those fallen leaves around the place on the ground. Those babies are gold, and I don’t just mean the colour. Dying leaves are packed full of nitrogen and make an amazing addition to your compost heap. Or you could go one better and make a leaf mold cage. Do not kick through the leaves no matter how tempting, collect them, use them.

3. Do NOT do what I’ve done and decide to redesign your whole garden in October. Don’t do it, it’ll break your heart. But do throw out old wood, rusted crap and general worn out pots etc, they’re just litter, you’ll thank yourself in spring.

10. And last, do NOT get disheartened by the darkening days and lengthening nights. Use this time to take stock of your mistakes and successes and begin the plan for next year because before you know it, I’ll be writing a “Top 13 spring beds to spring up in spring” or something equally ridiculous.

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I dig therefore I am

There’s a fresher air in Dublin this week as late summer breezes by and autumn blows in. My summer of discontent has been and gone and much like the changing of the seasons, my life has shifted in to a brand new phase.

It’s been an arduous summer here at Fiona Grows Food, plagued with health issues and some upheavals in my personal life, my garden has taken a back seat to the pursuit of health and happiness.

At times, the garden hasn’t been quite as productive as I’d have liked and I’ve spent a significant amount of time lately attempting to juggle the real world with my dream world. The dream world in this case being the ability to garden and write for a living.

Dream office alert!

Now that autumn is upon us, I am in the heart of harvest season and I’m left to take stock of the summer that has passed and think about what has and hasn’t worked for me in the garden.

The past few days I’ve been thinking about the nature of the changing seasons and the cycles of our lives. Thinking of how our gardens can reflect everything else in our world and how that reflection can guide us to where we are meant to be.

Now, before you wonder what the hell has happened to mad, hilarious Fiona and begin to panic at the thought that I might have become a bit of a poetic, philosophical bore, bare with me. This is an absolute cracker of a realisation I have to share with you! Then I promise I’ll get back to my usual slapstick gardening humour.

I do still have my funny moments to be fair…caught someone in a quite compromising parsnip position the other day…

Over the past few years, I’ve been juggling some hefty commitments, including a 50 hour a week thankless job, a blog, freelance writing commitments, food growing workshops and of course, a pretty large veggie garden.

Of all these things, the one that has taken up the majority of my time has been my job. Not that I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth, I have enjoyed my work the past few years and am grateful for the amazing opportunities that it has afforded me. However, it just wasn’t right for me anymore.

I no longer had time to write or to dig, I had no space to blossom.

Plants and people are not so different really and this is the overarching point of my preposterous poetic preamble; if we treat ourselves and our lives the way we treat our plants, we’ll be all the better for it.

Think about it.

If you are a gardener yourself, you’ll know that when a plant is wilting, diseased or dying, it’s not the plant that is at fault, the problem is the environment.

This is why we grow some plants in polytunnels instead of outside

If a plant is parched, we water it, if it’s starved, we give it light, if it’s struggling we support it.

Put simply: if your plants are not thriving, you change their environment.

When a plant doesn’t perform well, we don’t scream at it, admonish it or bully it into submission (except for weeds, I’ve been know to scream at weeds on occasion). We take note of what has caused the problem and take steps to avoid the issue in future.

We repot it. Change the way we water it. Bring it in indoors. Give it less sun or more. We plant it in a different environment, we adjust our care in line with its needs, we try something new in the (sometimes vain) hope that next time, the plant will thrive.

If all that fails, we simply try again.

As gardeners, we are care givers, we are bound to the many lives we have become responsible for. We are held to account by our plants, and rewarded by our dedication and diligence.

We measure our successes in harvests and seeds, the more we put in, the more we are rewarded and we are guided by a tangible desire to do what is best, not only for our plants but for ourselves too.

In fact, based on these findings, I think it’s time for another one of my Fiona Grows Food Mathematical Discoveries of the Century.

Where:

A=hard work

B=desire for success

C=time spent in the garden

D=plant knowledge

Y=Tomatoes

Then:

I haven’t used any square roots here as the roots I work with are far too organic in structure for me to quantify in a single equation.

Mind Blown.

*patiently awaits phone call from Nobel prize committee* (there’s a Nobel prize for best off the cuff blog thesis right? Right?)

Now that we’ve had a small scientific segue, back to my original point.

In essence, plants that are stressed need a change of environment and in that regard, the same can be said for people.

If a person is wilting, hungry for more, struggling to grow or needs more space for their roots to spread, the fault is not with that person, but with their environment.

That is exactly what has happened to me this year. The garden has suffered and the blog has suffered. My days were spent in a toxic environment and no matter what I did, I was wilting.

So I’ve taken a leaf (trolololol) out of my book of gardening experience and I’ve decided to change my environment. In a decision that took forever to make and yet only took seconds to finally come to, I’ve left behind my old job and found something far more suited to me.

There’s a very well known saying about money and I’m sure you know exactly which one I mean. The only thing is, most of us get it horribly wrong.

The old adage doesn’t go “money is the root of all evil”. Well it does, but everyone leaves out the most important part, the beginning.

It’s from the bible. The correct quote is in fact “The love of money is the root of all evil”. 1 Timothy 6:10

It’s getting biblical up in here lads (and yes I have in fact read the bible but that’s a topic for another day).

If we break this quote down in its purest grammatical terms (nerd alert) it’s not the noun that is creating the negative outcome, but the verb. It’s the doing. Actions are always undertaken with some level of intent (and yes I believe that love is an action and not just a feeling), and to all intents and purposes, having money doesn’t cause evil, the relentless pursuit of having nothing but money does.

Officially changing my name to Fiona Descartes Kelly. Has a nice ring to it.

Money definitely cant buy happiness, but in a garden you can grow it.

As such, I’ve decided my health and the pursuit of my own happiness and well being is far more important than the pursuit of money, so I’ve struck out and decided to try something new in the hopes that I will have more time to write, more time to garden and to tend to my needs and the needs of my plants.

I have landed myself an amazing freelance content writing role with the super sound team at buzz.ie and I have some very exciting plans for Fiona Grows Food and of course for my garden.

I am in a far healthier environment for my needs now.

All that being said, my allotment has been thriving this year despite the diminished time I’ve spent there the past few weeks.

It helps that the plot is well established now and no matter what, I always have my perennials to enjoy. I did put a lot of work in earlier in the year and it really shows when late summer and early autumn arrive.

I’ve been harvesting mountains of tomatoes, courgettes, raspberries, beetroot and cucumbers and I’m just about to head around to the garden to finally pick some sweetcorn.

I’m excited about the future, I’m excited to grow and I’m excited to spend more time getting down and dirty in my favourite place in the world.

I am warning you though, you’ll be subjected to a lot more of my insane takes on gardening now that I have more time to write about it.

You think you’ve seen it all….bikinis in the polytunnel, bare arsed gardening, falling into ponds…but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I’m only getting started.

Plants Bants, Valentine’s Day Edition: Borage

Valentine’s day is unavoidable. It really is. It’s everywhere. Cards. Chocolates. Cuddly Toys. Sexy undies. Sexy undies everywhere. Flowers. So many bunches of flowers. So many roses. So many sad, supermarket carnations.

I have a bit of a pathetic secret, I’ve never been bought flowers by a man. Never. Not once. Which is a hell of an achievement really given the fact that I’m not only a gardener but I’m also absolutely gorgeous. Modest too. The mind boggles. Now, before you think I’m looking for sympathy (or flowers), stop everything! I am not. In fact, I quite enjoy lamenting about it at length to my friends, while on the inside I’m happy about the fact that somebody hasn’t hacked a poor plant to bits in order to get the ride; because let’s be honest, that’s the whole bloomin’ idea behind it and anyone who says otherwise is just plain lying.

So, in an effort to encourage you all to stop spending outrageous amounts of money on flowers that will be wilted within a day, I propose this (nice bit of matrimony humour there); for Valentine’s day this year, why don’t you get yourself or your other half some seeds and plant some edible flowers in your garden.

One of my favourite things about my allotment is the flowers I have growing. I don’t just grow fruit and veggies but also grow a wide array of flowers, the majority of which I grow because they are edible, good for pollinators or both.

I have a deep seeded love affair with blue flowers. There is something wildly romantic about them, I can’t quite place it but blue flowers stir something in my soul. You’ll definitely think I’m insane if you’re not one of my fellow flower-fanatic friends, but there’s just something intrinsically… sensual about blue flowers. Forget drowning in the pools of someone’s blue eyes (except mine of course, worthy applicants can apply via twitter), and instead do some gazing in to some blue blooms and grow yourself some borage. Borage (Borago officinalis) is my absolute favourite flower, so for the romantic day that’s in it, I’d like to write a little ode to this great love of my life.

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Borage is my bae

Borage, with its intensely blue, star shaped flowers is one of the best plants you can grow in your veggie patch. Not only do bees love it, but borage is edible and has beneficial medicinal properties. Borage is essentially a miracle plant and absolutely gorgeous too.

Borage is a nectar rich flower which will self seed all over your garden. In fact, I planted borage once four years ago and now it pops up all over my garden every year, it is the Valentine’s gift that’ll keep on giving.  Borage is one of the most bee friendly plants you can have in your garden. Bees adore borage, particularly honey bees – which as we all know need all the the help they can get – and honey made from borage flowers is known to be sweeter and more flavoursome than other honeys. My borage plants are laden with bees right throughout the growing season, which can stretch from March right up until October if the weather is good.

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Planting Borage

Borage is very easy to grow, simply sow in a well drained bed after the last frost has passed and the ground has heated up. Borage has a taproot so it prefers to be direct sown where it is to grow as opposed to being transplanted as this causes root disturbance. Water your borage well until it has established. Borage needs very little in the way of care throughout the season and it can grow quite tall in sunny positions.

You can collect the seeds and replant the following year or you can simply wait for it to self seed, because trust me, it will. In fact, you will probably never get rid of it unless you either bomb your garden or simply move. Very far away. We’re talking miles.

The Science Bit

Borage is one of those lovely “companion” plants in the vegetable garden. In essence, it is a very good friend to many of the plants you grow in your veggie patch like tomatoes, strawberries, cabbages and squashes. Because borage attracts bees and wasps, it therefore repels other pests that bother tomatoes and cabbages which wasps are known to prey on.

Borage is also known to actively improve the flavour of strawberries, possibly due to the effects it has on the soil. Borage leaves contain vitamin C, potassium and calcium so it adds trace minerals to your soil and it is also a brilliant plant to add to your compost heap.

Borage is the highest known plant source of an Omega 6 fatty acid called GLA (gamma linolenic acid) which is good for excema, arthritis and diabetes and is also a source of fibre and B vitamins.

Beginning to understand why borage is my ideal boyfriend now?

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Swoon!

Using Borage as an Edible Flower

Now for the fun part! Borage is of course, an edible flower. It has long been used in salads and drinks as a garnish.

Borage has a mild cucumber flavour. For my gin loving friends, I urge you to try it with some Hendricks, though I do not like to encourage gin drinking because gin is the devil and that’s all I have to say about that.

Freeze borage flowers in an ice cube to add to drinks to really impress your guests.Unless you’re like me and you never actually ever have any guests. Forever alone. Sob.

I’ll just sit here for Valentine’s Day and munch on whole borage flowers while watching soppy romantic comedies, don’t mind me.

Borage for Courage

Borage is literally good for the heart, which makes it the ultimate Valentine’s Day flower. It stimulates your adrenal gland, encouraging the production of adrenaline, raising your mood and is beneficial for your kidneys and digestive system too. Borage has been used to treat depression and states of melancholy and has long been thought to bring comfort and to give you courage. Historically, borage flowers were often embroidered onto knight’s battle garments and was said to be eaten by roman soldiers before going to war. Badass borage! In fact, there is even an old wive’s tale that states if you slip some borage into your lover’s drink it would give them the courage to propose. Not creepy or desperate in the slightest.

Sure, why do you think I have so much of it in my garden? If you see me today, slipping some blue flowers into some poor, unsuspecting sods drink, save him before he shackles himself to me in holy matrimony and has to spend eternity competing for my affections with a flower.

The flower will win every time.

Fiona luvs Borage 4EVA.

Mrs. Fiona Borage.


 

Plants Bants: How to Grow Parsnips

Parsnips are a great divider of opinion, you either love them or you hate them, there is no in between. I happen to adore parsnips, they’re one of my favourite vegetables, especially when roasted with honey and fresh sage.

Parsnips are the vegetable that converted me from a vegetable hater to a vegetable grower so they’ll always have a special place in my heart. I know, that’s a pretty sweeping statement but it’s true. Home grown parsnips are the reason I decided to grow my own food. A number of years ago, my Dad brought home some parsnips from his allotment and I was hooked. They smell and taste nothing like the parsnips from a supermarket and they are my favourite thing to eat in winter, particularly on Christmas day.

I’ve only grown parsnips twice at the plot, mostly because there is a master parsnip grower in my family and I can’t even begin to compete with him and also as there are only so many parsnips that two people can eat (my mother falls firmly into the anti-parsnip brigade).

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Daddy Grows Food’s amazing parsnips in autumn.

Parsnips are the diva of the vegetable garden in that they are stubborn but sweet and absolutely gorgeous. They take about as long to germinate as a good idea for your first novel. Parsnips also require a very long growing season and will take up space in your garden for the guts of a year.

However, parsnips are the crowning glory of the root vegetable family, rich in flavour and a lovely crop to harvest when there is little else growing in winter.

Sowing Parsnips

Seeds

The first hurdle to get over when planting parsnips is to make sure you have good, fresh seeds. Parsnips are notoriously fussy and do not store well, you need to buy new seeds each year. If you try to use seeds that are two years old, you’ve already given yourself an impossible mountain to climb. Don’t set yourself up for failure.

When to plant

As I mentioned before, parsnips need a long growing season but this does not mean planting as early in the year as you like. I’ve seen people sow their parsnips in January and then wonder why they don’t do well. Parsnip seedlings really don’t like cold, wet soil. In fact, they need to be planted in soil that is about 10 degrees so hold off on sowing your seeds until your soil temperatures have risen in Spring.

The ARSE-nip test

There is a great way to test this if you don’t have a thermometer; I call it Fiona’s ARSE-nip test. Basically it is as follows: if your soil is warm enough for you to sit on in your bare arse then it’s warm enough for your parsnips. If you can indeed sit on your soil bare arsed without screaming bloody murder, it’s probably February/March and a good time to sow your seeds.

Gas crack craic altogether.

Soil

Parsnips grow pretty deep so you’ll need well worked, fertile soil with good drainage, avoid using manure as this can cause your parsnips to fork. You’ll need to spend quite a bit of time working your soil to a fine tilth before sowing parsnip seeds.

Plant your parsnips on a day with little wind as parsnip seeds are minuscule and likely to blow away if a strong breeze hits. I once lost an entire packet of seeds in this manner and in the process, created some very interesting new swear word combinations.

Direct sow your seeds in rows about 30cm apart and thin them out once the seedlings have established. The more space you give each plant, the larger it will grown. Bear in mind that they can take up to three weeks to germinate so don’t panic if there’s no activity for a while.

Caring for Parsnips

As I said earlier, parsnips are divas to get started but once you do, they are pretty hardy plants. They require little care, except for some gentle hand weeding and perhaps some serenading. Take care not to damage the roots while weeding. Once parsnips have established, they have quite full, leafy foliage which is very similar to the foliage of celery. This creates a lot of ground cover so they need less weeding once they get larger.

Parsnips do need quite a bit of water and the soil they are in should not be permitted to get too dry. Water parsnips regularly and make sure there is plenty of organic matter in the soil to retain moisture.

Pests and diseases 

Parsnips can be susceptible to a form of rot known as parsnip canker which appears as a rust coloured rot at the top of the plant and causes severe damage to the root of the plant, it’s mostly caused by drought and poor soil conditions.

Harvesting

Parsnips are ready for harvesting when the foliage begins to die back in autumn. However, they taste far better after they’ve been hit with the first frost of winter as the cold turns the starch in parsnip into sugars, giving them their distinctive sweet flavour. For this reason, it’s is ideal to actually store your parsnips in the ground until you are going to use them.

Recommended Varieties: GladiatorJavelin, White Gem

Pro tip: if you are intending to perform the ARSE-nip test, you could use it as part of your New Year’s exercise regime. Remove underpants, (wellies optional), stand beside your intended planting site and perform twenty squats, touching your bum on the soil with each squat. For an added work out, hold a pot of compost in each hand. You might get some strange looks but you’ll have perfect parsnips and a gloriously toned bottom.

Peachy.

 

A Super Natural Halloween

Halloween is a scary time of year. Everywhere you look there are horror movies, monsters, ghosts, vampires and zombies. But perhaps the scariest thing about Halloween is that nobody really seems to know what it’s about anymore.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore Halloween, it’s one of my favourite times of the year. The golds and reds, the snap of bonfires and fizzle of fireworks, the smell of winter in the air that carries tremendous nostalgia and happy childhood memories. As I’ve gotten older, though it has lost it’s charm.  Grown adults dressed like slutty bathtubs. Kids wearing costumes that cost a weeks wages and complaining when you give them an apple with their sweets. Gone are the days of wearing a black bag or a sheet with holes poked in them and standing by the bonfire eating monkey nuts and toffee apples. Now, it’s a greedy, vainglorious free-for-all that is a stark reminder of just how far we have come from our cultural connections to our food. So, what I’ve decided to do this year, is to have a more traditional Halloween, to bake and cook lots of Halloween food and to harvest all my crops that need to be stored. You can keep your ghouls and give me gourds, for the best thing about this time of year is undoubtedly the food.

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OH MY GOURD!

Halloween is a Celtic pagan festival, celebrating fire and food and the end of the growing year. All Hallows Eve itself was also believed to be the night when the spirits of the dead return home, and I like to think this is actually less spooky and more of a chance to remember the souls of loved ones lost and move into a new year with our demons laid to rest.

In Ireland, Samhain (which means summers end), was the time of year when crops were harvested and gathered for storage through winter, as such, Halloween is essentially, the most widespread harvest festival in the world.

The best food from the garden is in season at this time of year, kale, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, celery, swedes, pumpkins, squashes. This is all the hearty food, the larder food that will keep you warm in the lean winter months, no wonder our ancestors made such a big deal of it!

Apples are my favourite thing about Halloween. Because they are in season, it’s easier to source locally grown, Irish varieties of apples. They don’t have waxy skin, they’re not too hard, bitter or bland. They haven’t been flown thousands of miles wrapped in plastic and covered in preservatives. Irish apples in October are sweet but tart, a little soft and a little crunchy, with the most beautiful flavour that to me is the epitome of halloween. I always loved finding apples in my swag bag on Halloween, they were nicer then the sweets, the crisps or monkey nuts, apples were my favourite halloween treat and still are.

I happen to be lucky enough to have parents who grow apples. They have two apple trees in their back garden. One grows in an area they’ve dubbed the “Apple Yard”, a square yard bed with a heritage Irish apple tree and loads of lovely herbs growing around it’s base.

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The Apples from the Apple Yard in all their Autumn glory

They also established the Apple Bay in the walled garden where they have their allotment. A beautiful orchard where they have a wide variety of different heritage Irish apple trees growing.

I have a bit of a halloween ghost story for you. The Apple Bay has a poltergeist. Seriously. In recent months, my folks have visited on many occasions, only to find disturbances in the orchard. Four trees have been recklessly cut down. A rose bush has been damaged beyond repair. Spring bulbs have been uprooted. The pathways have been blocked by mountains of muck. I’ve decided that since no real gardener would engage in behaviour that damages a lovely little orchard; I’ve come to the conclusion that while the Apple Bay is most certainly beautiful, it is also most definitely haunted. Spooky. However, despite the ghost, the apple bay remains a beautiful addition to their walled garden and I’m very excited to taste some of the supernatural apples from it this year.

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The haunted orchard

November is the perfect time to plant apple trees and I have a new project for the plot in mind so I’ll keep you all updated on my apple planting adventures next month.

Bobbing for apples is a Halloween tradition that we always played in my house growing up.  Traditionally, the first person to succeed in bobbling for an apple would be the first to be married and if the apple was placed under your pillow, you would dream of your future lover. This is a very promising prospect for me, so this Halloween I fully intend to fill my bathtub with as many (local) apples as humanly possible in order to increase my romantic chances.

In fact, come to think of it, much of the traditional Irish Halloween fare contains elements of romance or good luck so I propose we begin to view Halloween as less scary and more lovely.

Colcannon is something I’ve mentioned on the blog before. Mashed potatoes, onions and curly kale, this dish for me is the epitome of Halloween food. My mam made it every single year on halloween and to this day, it’s one of my favourite things in the world to eat. With potatoes and kale very much in season and a kitchen full of dried onions from the garden, it’s the perfect celebratory harvest dish. Colcannon also contains a super special ingredient that makes it second to none: money. Yum. My kale season is in full swing at the moment, with three varieties and fifteen plants, I’m sure I’ll have enough kale to feed a small army this Halloween.

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A bouquet of kale. (A bou-kale)

Barmbrack also contains gold in the form of a ring. This fruit cake has a gold band baked into it and whoever gets the ring will find their true love in the upcoming year. I’m seeing a trend here lads.

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My teeny-tiny pumpkin patch

Pumpkins are of course, the ultimate Halloween food, with carved pumpkins being the  main halloween decoration in most homes. Pumpkin carving has its origins in Ireland too, except instead of carving pumpkins, our ancestors used turnips, which is truly terrifying.

 Plus, turnips don’t really make a good pie, though fresh milan purple top turnips from the garden are absolutely delicious! I’m going to pop up a post tomorrow about how to grow pumpkins for next halloween so keep an eye out. Though perhaps I may not be the best person for that job. This is my first year growing pumpkins in the garden. I only grew one plant though and while it was meant to be a giant variety of pumpkin, my little pumpkins are very small. Football sized at best.

 

Halloween is the perfect time of year to begin to store your veggies through the winter season. I recently wrote an article in the autumn edition of GIY’s Grow magazine on how to store your veggies for winter so get your hands on a copy if you want some tips on different ways to manage your harvests.

In an effort to really celebrate Halloween food this this year, I propose this: take a step back from the commercial side of the holiday, eat really good food, celebrate your harvest. Take a moment to remember that growing food and harvesting it is a huge part of our cultural heritage and we should celebrate in style. Forget the sweets, crisps, jellies and candy. Eat apples. Eat Kale. Eat pumpkins. Have yourself a super natural Halloween.

I for one, am going to eat lots of barmbrack, colcannon and bob for apples in an effort to increase my chances of marriage and if I still haven’t met my filthy partner in crime by next year, that’ll be the true horror story.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Why Food Mattered with GIY at Bloom

There’s something strange afoot in Ireland the past week. The temperature’s soarin’, the sun’s a blarin’, the skin’s a burnin’, the shorts are shortenin’, the freckles are spreadin’, the barbecues burnin’, the beer gardens hoppin’ and the thunder’s a clappin’; somewhere there’s probably maids a milkin’, pipers pipin’ and lords a leapin’ and there were definitely plenty of bloomers a Bloomin’ in the Phoenix Park.

(Not even mildly apologetic for a nod to Christmas in June)

The June bank holiday weekend is one of the highlights of my year as Bloom In The Park takes place in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Bloom is a festival run by Bord Bia, celebrating horticulture, gardening and food, and is in my humble opinion, the best festival this island has to offer. Celebrating it’s tenth birthday, this year saw the highest amount of visitors to Bloom to date with 115,000 people enjoying the festival over the five days. The past few years, Bloom visitors have been gifted with weather of cold, wet nonsense and brrrrrrrr, but this year mother nature decided to bestow this years festival goers with the gift of golden sunshine. I’m not quite sure just how many not-so-wise-men I witnessed with sunburned necks over the weekend but I’m going to hazard a guess at about two hundred.

The biggest draw at Bloom every year is usually the show gardens, which once again, rendered me into a state of awe and wonder. The craft village made my attempts at knitting, drawing and sewing look like that of a club fisted buffoon and the food was so good I’m terrified to wear my skinny jeans for at least a month. There’s so much I could write about here and I do intend to do a post about my favourite show gardens, but for now I’d like to take the opportunity to share my best thing about Bloom 2016.

 

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This year, I was invited by the lovely people of GIY to speak at their cool as a cucumber Food Matters tent about seasonal container growing (whoever thought to offer me a microphone and free reign to talk about growing food was a very brave individual). GIY are a non-profit social enterprise based in Waterford that educate and support people to grow healthy, organic food.  I’ve long been a huge fan of GIY and I very recently became a contributor to their fab quarterly GROW magazine.

GIY have some brilliant campaigns aimed at encouraging and educating people to grow in schools and workplaces. The awesome Cully & Sully’s Give Peas a Chance stand was the epitome of my dream office space and it was really heartening to see so many young growers over at the Sow & Grow  area.

This year at their new Food Matters tent, there were some amazing talks and discussions about food and growing; there were discussions on everything from the effects of hospital food on patients to advice on setting up a school garden. I was a particular fan of a brilliant talk on growing communities through food, which I found to be really inspiring.

My own little Food Matters workshops were very much focused on growing food in small spaces as limited space is one of the main factors holding people back from trying their hands at growing. I’ve long been one of those annoying people who tries to get everybody to follow suit and take up the same hobby as myself, I’m pretty sure my friends are sick of hearing about all my babies (plants) at home (the allotment); but I genuinely believe that gardening is a universally enjoyable and rewarding thing to do. You don’t need a huge garden or allotment to do this, you’d be amazed what food you can grow in containers.

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You really don’t need a huge amount of space to grow a herb garden

 

What amazed me when speaking to people over the weekend was their sheer willingness to learn. It seems that everyone wants to grow food but not everybody knows how to start. Whether they lack time, space or resources, the desire is there to grow. I personally believe that this is built into us as natural foragers and hunter gatherers, it is in our nature to want to provide ourselves with sustenance.What struck me most, however, was the amount of people who said they lacked the confidence to grow their own food. Here’s a little secret: growing food doesn’t have to be difficult, you don’t need to be an expert, and it requires very little scientific knowledge. All it requires is a small amount of enthusiasm, some soil, seeds and water. Don’t worry about pests until you have to, don’t worry about diseases until you have to, don’t worry about spacing and weeding and thinning out until you have to, because I guarantee you, when your first crop begins to grow, these tasks won’t seem like a chore. You’ll be so chuffed with yourself at growing something that you’ll enjoy tending to it.

To everyone who lacks the confidence to grow your own food, this is my message to you: a few years ago, I barely even ate vegetables, never mind knew how to grow them, and if I can go from turning my nose up at asparagus to growing a hugely successful crop of same, then you can too.  In fact, my own gardening and food growing experiences have given me more confidence and have opened up whole new paths to me that I never knew I wanted to walk down in the first place. I have found it the single most empowering thing I have done and tell people time and time again, that the first packet of seeds I ever bought is the most important thing I ever bought.

That is why I jumped at the chance to be involved with GIY at Bloom. They are really giving people the skills, education and confidence to grow food themselves. If I can pass on the small bit of knowledge I have gained over the past few years to others who wish to get growing, I feel that I am giving someone the best gift, one that they will keep on enjoying for years.

I am going to be writing over the coming days about some of the things myself and the lovely  Karen from GIY spoke about, mostly how to grow food in tins, buckets and wooden boxes, drilling holes in stuff (because who doesn’t love drilling holes in stuff?), why strawberries are like something straight out of a sic-fi movie, a super tongue twister that’ll have you growing lettuce like a pro and the absolute goldmine of organic fertiliser that sits in your bin.

 

To everyone who came along, thank you so much and for putting me on the spot with some brilliant questions, now stop reading this and go out and plant some seeds.

Sincere thanks to the amazing people of GIY for all their kind hospitality, support and belly-laughs throughout the weekend, I had a ball. In particular to Michael, Karen, Shona, Lucy, Claire, Eimear & Jim and a special shout out to chief volunteer Amanda who blew me away with her positive attitude!

And serious thanks to Bord Bia for the tickets so I could finally visit Bloom as a spectator and spend a whole day simply enjoying the festival with a crépe in one hand and a beer in the other. 

The Payoff

Here’s how it is. You get up early when all your mates are in bed. You can’t go to the pub because you need to prune your hedges. You spend your winters out in the cold and your rainy days out in the rain. You dig and you plant and you weed and you water. You rake and you hoe and you deadhead and harvest. You battle with slugs and aphids and birds. You haul on your wellies and gillets and gloves. You spend the day in the rain again. You work and you toil and you baby your soil. You bruise and you bleed and you sting and you ache.

You leave work early to tend to the plot. You haven’t had clean fingernails in a month. You’ve ruined all your clothes and your shoes and your hair. You sweat and you freeze and you itch and you sneeze. You sow and you pick and you weed and you sow and you pick and you weed and you sow. You water, you water, you water again.

You can’t sit at home without feeling guilty, you can’t buy fruit in a shop anymore. You can’t  go away for more than a week. You can’t have a hangover because there’s work to be done. You can’t plan a picnic if the weather is good. You can’t wear skirts because your legs are all bruised. You paint your nails and they’re ruined in an hour. You’ll never have an even tan.

You annoy all your mates with talk about plants. You can’t go anywhere without buying seeds. You notice flowers in everyone’s gardens. You take photos of spiders and worms. You learn basic latin against your own will.

You panic when it’s windy in case the plants suffer. You panic when it’s sunny in case there’s a drought. You panic at the sight of frost. You panic when it rains too hard. You meltdown when there’s snow in March, you rain-dance when there’s drizzle in May.

You become “that girl who grows her own food, let’s ask her lots of questions about pruning roses”. You have to pretend you know what you’re doing. You spend more time with plants than with people.

You dig and you weed and you thin out and you sow and you water and you rake and you prune and you grow……..and you’re exhausted all the time.

Then something happens in the midst of it all.

You bring home a batch of fresh food from the garden, you cook some stewed rhubarb with fresh chocolate mint. You have a cup of lemon balm tea. You know you’re the luckiest woman in the world!

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Gettin’ Diggy With It

On your mark ready set let’s go,
Garden pro, I know you know
I go psycho when the spring time hit,
Just can’t sit,
Got to get diggy with it, thats it.

It’s finally spring time, the temperature is rising, the mornings are brighter, there’s a grand old stretch of an evening, the winter coats are stored away, the first potatoes are in the ground and I’ve spent days upon days digging my soil. The plot, which is usually a disaster in March, looks weed free and ready for another rich gardening season.

Spring is the season of hope. The daffodils and crocuses announce the end of a very long and bleak winter which seemed to stretch on for longer than usual. The storms have eased, the frost is thawing and the garden gives birth to colour anew.

Most importantly maybe, Spring is the season of the shovel. Gardeners everywhere are spending hours, days, weeks, turning over their soil, raking it to a fine tilth, preparing it for the life it will soon sustain.

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Feast your eyes on my glorious Rhubarb!

This March marks the beginning of year four on my allotment and I have spent a huge amount of time getting diggy with it in the past week. I whack on my earphones, get a cup of tea and dig and rake in time to the beat – apologies to anyone who may have seen me using my rake as a microphone, I can often be found dancing around the plot like a woman possessed. My arms and back ache, my ribs are tender, my legs feel like they’ve run 20 miles, my hands are bruised, splintered and ragged. I’m developing my annual gardening guns, hours of raking have toned up my biceps and my shoulders; sure who needs a gym when you have an allotment. Raking six large raised beds to a fine tilth is more resistance training than any gym could provide. I’m feeling healthy and happy again after a laborious winter of discontent.

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The soil in my beds took two full days to dig and rake but boy does it look and feel good now.

On St. Patrick’s Day, I did what any proper Irish food gardener should do and planted up my early potatoes. This year, I’m growing a blight resistant variety named “Orla”, of which, I have heard nothing but high praise. As such, the new season has begun, I am buying seeds, mocking up planting arrangements and spending outrageous amounts of time in local gardening centres and hardware stores. The ground is still a little cold for this time of year so I am waiting an extra week or two to plant my onions and carrots so in the mean time I am sprucing up my plot and sprucing up this site. I thought it was fitting to redesign my blog, a new look for a new season, like the fresh lick of paint I am giving my  shed (I began painting it yesterday and it looks a bit like a wendy house so I’m reconsidering my options before I finish painting it and become the rock chick gardener girl with the fairy tale princess shed and destroy my street cred I’ve been working so hard to maintain).

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I’m not quite sure about the candy pink shed….

Two 0f the six beds are freshly painted bright blue and the rest will be done next week. Then, it will be time to sow, sow, sow and before I know it, the plot will be lush and green and productive once more.

I’ve begun posting a lot of photos on my Instagram account so give it an old follow if you fancy seeing more regular posts about my daily progress on the plot. It’s great to be back, it’s great to be gardening, it’s great to feel like I have a purpose, and it’s great to once again, be gettin’ diggy with it.

Na na na na na na na nana
Na na na na nana…….

 

Turn, Turn, Turn

Hello, and Happy New Year from Fiona Grows Food.

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

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

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

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

The bloody state of the place!!

The bloody state of the place!!

The terrifying fennel, this thing was bigger than my head

The terrifying fennel, this thing was bigger than my head

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

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

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

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

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

The canvas awaits

The canvas awaits

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

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

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