potato blight

A potato blight warning is in effect so here’s what to do

Met Eireann has issued a potato blight warning for the entire country this week and I’m currently freaking the hell out about what’s going to happen to my poor spuds.

A few people have asked me today what to do to protect their spuds when there a blight warning in effect so here’s my esteemed advice: fucking set everything on fire and run away screaming.

Seriously. We’re all screwed.

However, if you are one of the weirdos who has decided not to completely overreact (ie, me) and just hope for the best, I figured I’d tell you a little bit about blight and how to deal with it if your spuds get the potato plant equivalent of the ebola virus.

First things first, what the hell is blight? 

Have you only ever heard of potato blight in school when learning about the famine? Well, we all know that blight caused the worst famine in Europe when it destroyed all of our potato crops here in Ireland between 1845-1852. Which was not helped at all by the bastard Brits who stole all our other crops and hoofed all the Irish out of their gaffs and into workhouses and coffin ships, and caused the deaths of over a million people. Not that I’m bitter about the genocide of my people or anything.

Anyway look, I’ve written at length about the famine on the blog before so I won’t go into it here. Even though I’d love nothing more than a nice old bitch about the English (sorry if you’re English, I know it’s not your fault….kind of)

But blight is a problem that still plagues us here in Ireland, mostly because of our weather. Potato blight is caused by an airborne fungus called Phytophthora Infestans. Catchy name right? It spreads rapidly through the air during periods of warm, humid weather. Wind carries the fungal spores from plant to plant and rain can soak the spores into your soil and cause them to spread.So, while the rest of Ireland is currently basking in the glorious 25 degree heat we’ve been having the past week, food growers all over the country are having bleedin’ panic attacks because heat, rain and sunshine is pretty much peak blight weather.

SAKE.

potato blight

The hot weather can eff right off now thanks

Does it just affect potatoes?

Nope. Yay. Phytophthora infestans can infect any plants from the solanaceae family (which is also known as the nightshade family). So blight can also infect tomatoes, aubergines and peppers too.

Fanfuckingtastic.

And if you’re for some mad reason growing tobacco, it’ll affect that too.

Also, call me.

What are the symptoms?

Right, here’s how to tell if your spuds have blight. It’s really important to keep a close eye on them over the next week for these tell tale signs.

Leaves: The leaves on your plants will begin to develop brown patches. Kind of like freckles, which may be only gorgeous on people like myself, but spell disaster for your spuds. The brown patches will also get yellow patches spreading from them.

Tubers: The potato tubers will develop really dark patches within a few days and the inside of your potato will turn into a (no better way to say this) fucking disgusting slimy blob of rotting flesh. Gorgeous. They will be the most disgusting thing you have ever smelled in your life. Yes, even worse than that one dude you know who never showers. My advice: wear a gas mask.

Can you prevent it?

In a nutshell, no. Sorry.

Well ok, there are some things you can do to lessen your chances of getting blight. You can of course, spray your crops with a blight preventative treatment but you all know how I feel about using chemicals in the garden.

So no, I do not spray my spuds. Which is probably why I always bloody get blight. Always. I’m cursed. It’s probably an Irish thing.

Otherwise, and I’d recommend this, you can plant a variety of potato that has a high blight resistance. There are loads of varieties of spud that have blight resistance and while it will not prevent blight, planting one of the blight resistant varieties will at least stave off the blight for longer (is the word blight beginning to lose all meaning for you yet?). Sarpo Mira and Coleen are both really tasty spuds with high blight resistance so they’re worth trying.

But what if it’s too late for all that? What do I do if my spuds do get blight?

As I said, just bleedin’ set them alight and run.

Or, if you’re a more balanced human being than myself and see signs of blight on your leaves, you can cut down the foliage of your spuds to the ground. This will prevent the blight from travelling to the tubers. Just make sure to get rid of the leaves and whatever you do, don’t put them in your compost because then you’ll just have compost that is full of blight and you’ll get it again next year.

Leave the tubers in the ground for about two or three weeks, then you can lift them. They’ll be tiny spuds but at least they’ll be spuds and not just mushy piles of rank slime.

I took a break from growing potatoes last year because I’d been plagued with blight for two years running and my heart was broke with it. I thought I’d grow them again this year because I just missed them so damn much. But now I’m in a state of panic. Not that I’m melodramatic or anything…potato blight

If you do keep getting blight, it helps to take a break from growing potatoes. The recommended gap is three years but, well, fuck that noise. Growing potatoes is just too much fun to take that long of a break from. I really missed them last year.

You could try growing them in grow bags at home or something instead if you don’t want to take a break, sometimes simply moving the problem can help.

Sadly, this summer, it seems like we’re all in trouble either way though. potato blight

So, just keep an eye on your children potatoes and hope for the best.

And there’s always the burn it all to the ground option if everything else fails. Sorted.

That don’t impress me mulch: Fiona goes barking mad

I’d like to begin this post with two apologies to my readers. The first apology is to the thousands (perhaps millions) of readers who have tried to access my website over the past couple of weeks and were greeted with a blank page. I know it must have been truly shocking to find my website had disappeared. I did hear rumours of widespread panic and reactionary riots and looting but at the time of writing, those reports have been unsubstantiated. In truth, I simply had some server issues that took some time to resolve. So you can all calm the tits guys, Fiona Grows Food is going nowhere. Crisis averted.

The second apology is far more pressing. I would like to issue a heartfelt apology to you all for using such a horrendously bad pun in the title of this post, that will most likely result in you singing Shania Twain to yourself for the rest of the day. But you see, it had to be done. I had a list of other options for a blog post about mulch but none of the others seemed to do the job.

Other options included (but were not limited to): Mulch ado about nothing (it’s been done before sadly), Too mulch, too soon (the second highest contender), I hate you so mulch right now, and Too mulch to handle. 

However, none had quite the same sassy pizazz or gravitas as Shania, because lets face it, not mulch much does.

Actual footage of me stroking the fence posts on my plot.

Anyway. I have been incredibly busy on the plot in recent weeks. The last time I shared a blog post, it was a pretty emotional one about using gardening as a tool to help you get through the tough patches in life, and I felt it would be hypocritical not to put my own words into action. So, because I was having a bit of a tough patch myself, I decided to take a break from pretty much everything so I could focus on my garden. I mean, what use would I be as a garden blogger if I had no gardening to blog about?

So, I took a step back from everything else in my life, apart from work obviously, and you know, washing myself and stuff. I took a step back from social media because it was having a shite effect on me and I eased off on my mad party lifestyle (who even am I?) because I realised I kind of hated people and needed to not be around them for a while. So, I took some time to simply be on my own and dig. And plant. And weed. And water. And sit in the garden. And dig again. 

I tore the whole damn plot apart. Because if I didn’t do it now, I’d simply never do it, and I was tired of feeling like my garden was a mess. And I only had myself to blame for the mess and only I could fix it.

But despite ripping up the raised beds, the decking outside my polytunnel and establishing a whole new-look allotment, there was one thing that was really pissing me off and it had been for a long time. My paths.

Decent pathways are vital on an allotment, not only do you need to have proper paths to let you access every vegetable bed, but they need to be the right width for you to be able to fit a wheelbarrow and  – obviously – yourself. Now, you’d imagine that there would be little to no upkeep on a garden path but you’d be wrong. Very fucking wrong. You have a few options, you can pave them (which to me has always seemed too permanent and I have mild to crippling commitment issues), you can leave them as they are and they’ll be full of weeds and grass (nope), you can put down gravel (too, eh, crunchy) or you can put down some bark mulch.

When I first began tending my allotment, I never fully considered just how much work the paths would be. Because, well, I was more concerned thinking about things like: “how the fuck do I grow potatoes?”, “what the fuck is soil pH?” and “I wonder if anywhere sells stiletto heeled wellies?”.

But over the years, my paths have turned out to be just as much work, if not more, than my actual vegetable beds. Many, many moons ago, I decided to use bark mulch on my allotment pathways.

A) because it smells absolutely amazing B) because I liked the idea of a natural mulch over gravel or paving and C) Because the word ‘mulch’ is only gas.

The only problem is, bark mulch, much like most organic substances, rots down over time and needs to be replaced.

The plot when I began ripping it apart. Hack of the place.

Added to that, there’s also the little issue of mypex (weed suppressing fabric for all my non-gardening connoisseur pals), which generally needs to be put down on the paths before the mulch so weeds don’t take over and grow through your mulch.

So, what’s the problem then?

Well, pull up a stool there, pour yourself a drink and let me fucking tell you what the problem is. After years of the poxy Irish weather, the constant rain, the snow storms and well, more poxy rain; this winter, my paths had all turned into weed-riddled, mushy, waterlogged disasters. Every time I walked onto my plot, I was pretty much going flying on my snot on my paths and no matter how much work I did on the new beds etc, the place just looked like a warzone.

And that don’t impress me mulch.

Fucking yesssss, that punchline took a while didn’t it?

Seriously. The state of it.

And so, I realised that the job I’d been putting off for about a year finally had to be tackled. I had to completely redo my pathways. In my naive brain, I thought it might take a couple of days. How wrong I was. I quickly realised that in order to re-do all my paths, I first had to undo what was already there. So, I had to take up all the old bark, which at this stage, was just compacted mud. On top of that, there were mountains of weeds growing through the weed suppressant (because life is a cruel joke). So that all had to go too.

Imagine this, you decide to re-carpet your house and in order to do it, you have to pull up your carpet. Pretty straightforward right? Well, imagine that carpet was absolutely soaking wet and had the roots of a thousand dandelions embedded in it. Then to top it off, it was also covered in a thick layer of compacted mud which was teeming with insects and worms.

Well, first of all, you would probably move house or set it on fire for insurance purposes because it would be easier than dealing with the nightmare ahead of you, and secondly, you would have to seriously call into question how the hell you’ve been putting up with it for so long. Also, you would probably consider giving it an auld go-over with the hoover or something.

Sadly, none of these were options available to me in the garden so I had to just bloody do it all by hand. Cue Fiona spending days attempting to pull up huge swathes of heavy, wet, fabric covered in mud and worms and slug goo. I’m not going to lie, there were quite a few instances of Fiona falling on her arse, mud all over her face and arse, dignity long gone. And not only did I have to rip it all up, but then all the crap had to go somewhere, so I spent a whole day just carrying piles of literal mud around the allotments like a crazed lunatic trying to find a bin or skip for it. All I was short of doing was walking up to people and fucking flinging it at them in desperation and legging it in the other direction.

But I eventually got rid of every last bit of old bark and mypex. And just when I thought the hard work was behind me and all the crap was gone, the realisation hit me that I now faced the joyous prospect of somehow getting tonnes of fresh bark mulch back onto my plot.

And that was the moment I decided to give up gardening and go take up a nice, relaxing hobby like air traffic controlling or something.

Goodbye old decking, hello hard work

Nah, not really, but you have no idea how tempted I was to throw my hat at it, because the hard work was just beginning. What I was left with after the great mypex disaster of 2018, was a garden that had horrible muddy paths that within two days were already beginning to sprout weeds (how? why?).

So, I had to begin getting some bark mulch for my paths and was beginning to worry, because the stuff costs more than a fucking car to buy. But, that’s when something magic happened Truly magic. Like, I don’t believe in angels or karma or anything of the sort, but I went to the plot last week to discover that the lads who run the allotments had ordered in absolutely LOADS of bark mulch and that it was…wait for it…free. Piles and piles of the stuff.

Hallelujah.

Only problem was, it wasn’t exactly near my own plot, and so began the great wheelbarrow relay of the year (beginning to understand just how much hard work an allotment is?). So, I spent hours yesterday, wheeling a wheelbarrow approximately 9,000 miles to the pile of bark, filling it and wheeling it back 14,000 miles. The extra five thousand miles were created by the sheer bloody weight of the thing combined with my dwindling will to live. I bashed my legs to pieces with the barrow and had a very close call with a pothole, but me tell you guys, it was the best work out I’ve ever had. My arms are killing me, my back is killing me, my legs are killing me and my arse feels like I’ve done about 200 squats.

I think. I’ve never actually done a squat in my life because I’m allergic to the gym.

But the result is that I now have the majority of the allotment redesigned, re-dug and have gorgeous new paths full of delicious bark mulch. No more slip sliding my way around the garden.

Plus I now have a tan that rivals the entire cast of Made in Chelsea and am probably more toned than all the cross-fit obsessed lads on Tinder combined.

Of course, I’ll have to redo all of this again in about two years but hopefully by then I’ll have won the lotto and can pay some handsome, topless lads to do it for me while their equally handsome mates hand-feed me grapes and fan me with palm leaves while I whip the workers with bamboo canes, laughing maniacally.

If not, I’ll just set the place on fire.

Oh and if you think that was all enough work for one week, I haven’t even bloody started on what I planted, but I’ll keep that one for another day because I have to go lather some lotion on my thighs.

Because they are bruised. From the wheelbarrow. Get your mind out of the gutter lads.

gardening

The important lessons that gardening has taught me about getting through life

Sometimes, life is just shit. There is no other way to say it. It’s just shit. And let’s face it, a lot of the time, life is shit because people are shit. We are. We are all at times, just shit. Shit to ourselves, shit to others, shit to the world around us. Shit.

*Warning,  in case you haven’t noticed already, this post contains swearing, vague philosophical ramblings, some pessimism and some questionable theories on the nature of humanity. Don’t worry though, I never do these things without good reason. Read on*

Something incredible happened to me today. Something that taught me about the nature of the world around me, the nature of plants and wildlife and the environment I live in. Something small, something huge, something that shifted my whole perspective on a difficult situation. A lesson in getting through the tough times.

Let me set the scene. Many of you know I had a bad year last year in many ways. Well, I say bad, it was in fact, a year littered with the most wonderful things that have ever happened to me. But in terms of my health, my garden and my heart for the garden, I had a very tough year. My plot bore the brunt of everything that happened in the rest of my life. I didn’t really bother much with it, not as much as I should have. I let it go to ruin.

gardening

It’s in an absolute heap

I made bad choices. I invested my energy in to the wrong things when I should have reserved it for my garden. It only served to hurt my garden and myself in the long run.

I’ve written at length about not knowing how to begin again. How to start over and why the hell I should bother. I’ve been looking around my plot with despair, and sadness and with a sort of veiled apathy. Why the fuck should I care about it anymore? Why don’t I just forget about it and move on?

But of course, because it is the blood in my veins, the air in my lungs and an intrinsic part of the very nature of who I am; I can not just give this up. It is part of my identity. It is the love of my life.

So, today I decided to give it another shot. To maybe just try one more time to get it back to its former glory. Or better still, to take all the lessons it had taught me, and use them to tear it all the fuck down and begin all over again.

So, I have begun again. I spent two hours just beginning to pick up the pieces. I’ve begun to throw away the dead plants, the old plants, the old bits of wood, the twigs, the crap. I’ve begun to clean up my act.

gardening

You’ve got to be willing to get seriously dirty if you want to clean up your act though

And when I stood in my garden today and looked around, among all the litter and chaos and destruction, I found something that made my heart skip a beat. I found a patch of crocuses that I planted three years ago that never grew before, and they were in full, glorious, delicate bloom.

Despite the snow storm, despite the neglect, despite the fact that I had never tended to them. Despite everything and against all the odds, there they were.  And I nearly fucking wept. Not just because I’m a sap with too many feelings, but because I realised once again, that the greatest lessons we can learn about ourselves, we learn from nature. That we too can weather the storms. Plants and wildlife and the natural world has more to teach us about ourselves than we will ever know.gardening

So, in an effort to quantify this somehow in a blog post –  I’m attempting to marry the huge wonders of nature with some small words on a screen – I’m going to try to explain a few life lessons that my garden has taught me. Maybe it will help you if you are, like me, going through a rough patch. I’ve been thinking about all the amazing things that plants can teach us about ourselves and how to take those lessons and turn them to gold. How to fucking bloom.

Nature simply doesn’t give a shit about you

Sounds pessimistic right? It’s not. This is one I’ve written about before and it never fails to cheer me up. Seriously, just think about it. Plants and wildlife are incredibly apathetic to anything else around them except their own survival. They don’t care about you, they don’t care if you’re fat, thin, an asshole, a saint, gorgeous, ugly, a fuck up, a success, they don’t care if you’re a shit person or a good one.

And this realisation can turn your understanding of yourself and your place in the world on its head entirely.

Think about it this way, you can literally be anything, or anybody or act any way, and you will still exist. When you are a gardener, or simply out there in nature, your personality, your mistakes, the things that you don’t like about yourself, the things you love about yourself, there is no place for them. None. You are simply part of something bigger than yourself. You can just be an organism, of little or no consequence. In a garden you are absolved of all your shit and (perhaps even better) everyone else’s too.

Enjoy!

You have a responsibility to the world around you and the world you build

All that being said, every thing you do impacts the world around you. Everything.

If you don’t look after your garden, it will not thrive. You can’t expect to put nothing in to something and then expect to get anything worthwhile out of it. Plants and nature will always be there, but if you are the one who planted the seed, you are the one who should tend to its needs.gardening

I’m sure you’ve planted something before and kind of forgotten to take care of it properly. You thought to yourself “ah sure look, it’ll be fine, it won’t be the end of the world if it dies”.

No, it won’t, but you kind of made its existence pointless now didn’t you?

Gardens are amazing spaces and we are their curators. We have a responsibility to the plants and the wildlife in them. We have a responsibility to how we treat everything and everyone in our lives too.

In essence,  don’t be a dick.

Only plant what you want to grow

Right, this is a pretty basic one. But, why bother planting peas if you don’t want peas? Why the hell would you put all that time and effort and love into something you have zero intention to actually use?

Think about that. Same goes for jobs, friendships, relationships, hobbies, your fucking dinner, the clothes you buy. Stop chasing things you don’t actually want.

Mistakes are just mistakes

How many times have I written that I do not believe that there are mistakes in a garden? Well, I lied. Of course there are. You will spend your life in a garden making mistakes. But here is the difference between how you may feel about those mistakes and how those mistakes actually impact or hurt your garden.

Much like in the rest of your life, you will beat yourself up for your mistakes in your garden, you will. You will beat yourself up for your mistakes in life. You’ll ruminate on them, be sad about them, blame yourself. But here is the wonderful thing gardens teach us about mistakes: they can’t be undone so make your peace with them and move the fuck on.  Self blame in a garden is pointless. You know why? Because it doesn’t change or fix anything. Accidentally kill a plant by not watering it? Well just learn from it and water the next one. Did your tomatoes die because you had them in the wrong environment? Well, they’re dead. End of. You won’t bring them back to life.

Yes, you fucked up. Yes, it sucked. But yes, you have a chance to make it better.

Don’t equate mistakes to failure. If you do that, you will lose hope and simply stop trying. In a garden and in life.

Plants don’t waste their time on shit that doesn’t make them better

Plants and wildlife spend their lifetimes searching for things that make them a success. Things that make them thrive. Plants don’t waste time on things that they don’t need. Plants only have use for things that sustain them. Water, and nutrients and light and pollinators. Things that make them live and grow.

gardening

You don’t see these guys sitting around feeling sorry for themselves

People tend to do the opposite. We stew in guilt and resentment and sorrow. We let shame and regret eat us alive. We waste our time on things that don’t sustain us. We hurt ourselves in the long run. If you spend your life on things that do not sustain you, you will literally die.

Bleak? Nope, that right there is the opposite of bleak folks that right there opens up space for hope.

Which brings me nicely to..

Gardening teaches you to hope

Have you ever sown a seed and not wanted it to grow?

Enough said.

Gardening teaches you to be patient

Gardening teaches you to breathe. To take a step back. Because no matter how much work you do, everything takes time to come to fruition. You’re not just going to plant a seed and poof, two seconds later have an apple.

Sometimes, you just have to wait and trust that the world has you right where you need to be.

Being buried doesn’t mean you’re dead

And maybe the most important lesson of all, gardening has taught me that you can quite literally be up to your neck in dirt and turn it all around. You can be so deep under all the crap and mud that life slings at you that it seems like there’s no fucking way out.

But what happens when you let in the things that will help you grow out of it? What happens when you just let in water? Or warmth? Or hope, or love, or forgiveness or trust or patience or self belief?

Your life can be a grave or a garden.

It can bury you. Or it can plant you.

It’s up to you to decide.

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: Gladiator, Javelin, 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.

 

Planuary

Happy New Year fellow growers!

I’ve been slightly off the blogging radar for the past few weeks, mostly due the a little event that takes place around the end of December every year. I have a busy retail management job so Christmas is pretty much a black hole for me in terms of social life, gardening, writing or any other extra curricular activities, but here I am (not so refreshed) and ready to face another gardening year head on.

January can often be a bleak month in the garden. There’s very little to harvest, nothing really to do in the way of planting and the ravages of winter really begin to show on the plot. Everything is dark, muddy, dirty, tainted and dying and a visit to the plot is like a visit to a little veggie graveyard, each empty bed, a seasonal sarcophagus.

January, however, is also a time for new beginnings, for plans. January is a blank canvas, ready to be painted with the colours of spring. January is list making, seed buying, journaling, vision boarding. January is acres of ideas. January is all my good intentions wrapped up in dull, dark days. With this in mind, I am now petitioning to have January renamed as “Planuary” – by “petitioning” I mean, mentioning it once on my blog so I can use it as a snappy blog post title and then possibly forget about it until next planuary rolls around and I can use it again.

I’ve begun 2017 in slight crisis mode, I woke up on New Year’s Day with another bad flu and this weekend, just as the sniffles dried up and the cough abated, I broke one of my teeth (cue much wailing, panicking, picturing myself as a gummy old lady and shaking my fist at the sky like a curmudgeon). Needless to say, I’m a little bit cranky. However, the garden has kept me from going insane these past few days.

You see, I happen to adore the garden in January. The garden in January is like an homage to the previous seasons hard work, there are remnants of my success littered everywhere. I don’t look upon the mess with despair, the mess is a testament to just how much happiness has gone before. The dying plants, the messy beds, the leftover weeds, the dirty shed, none of these would exist in January if not for the success of the previous year. And so, I look upon the spoil of winter with pride and with renewed hope for the year to come.

My plot on New Year’s Day. Full of hope.

It does help somewhat, that I’ve still been harvesting some of my winter crops. My brussel sprouts and kale have been a joy to pick and eat during these lean weeks and my herb garden continues to thrive, even in the cold, wet weather.

Winter Harvest

 

Despite the dark days and the inhospitable weather, I’ve been busy on the plot in the first days of 2017. In a job that I’ve been dreading since early November, my rhubarb was in dire need of splitting. Rhubarb is one of my most successful crops, with my stalks reaching chest height in summer. My rhubarb is a lovely variety called “Timperly Early” and begins to show new growth very early in the season, just as its name would suggest. Already, there is new growth unfurling from the soil like a promise.

Rhubarb is an excellent and reliable cropper but after a few years (three to five years on average), rhubarb crowns begin to grow far too large and the plant loses its vigour and doesn’t taste as nice. As such, every few years, it is vital to to split your rhubarb crowns.

Now, I’ve been having nightmares about this job, not because I’m afraid of a bit of hard work, but because splitting rhubarb is just as violent as it sounds. Essentially, you need to take a spade and drive it through the rhubarb crowns, dividing them into new plants. With my rhubarb being the pride and joy of my garden, I was filled with dread at the idea of chopping it in half! Thankfully, I managed to enlist some help and my Dad did the dirty deed for me, splitting my three unruly rhubarb crowns to half their size. In payment for his hard work, I gifted him with the divided crowns for his own allotment! This now means that my own rhubarb has been halved in size and there is no waste as the discarded crowns now have a lovely new home on my parents allotment! Nifty.

The aftermath: this is one of the split rhubarb crowns

Another one of the (seven million) jobs I have listed for January is to clean my polytunnel. Over time, polytunnel plastic gets very dirty from being exposed to temperature extremes and weather conditions. I hadn’t realised just how grubby my polytunnel had become over the past year until I cleared out all the plants and noticed a layer of green slime all down one side of the plastic. Delicious!

So, yesterday afternoon, I pulled everything out of the polytunnel, grabbed myself a bucket of soapy water, stuck on some music and spent an hour or two scrubbing all the grime from the plastic. This job was made infinitely more fun by imagining myself as one of those sexy bikini clad car-wash girls who deliberately rubs her soapy boobs all over the windshield (polytunnel) much to the entertainment of nearby onlookers. However, given that it was only 7 degrees outside and I’m currently carrying a significant amount of Christmas related chocolate weight around my middle section, I felt that this bikini situation was better left firmly in the depths of my imagination.

The reality was actually in stark contrast: myself and my mother in our wellies and muddy jeans, dancing around the polytunnel to Wham! while scrubbing green gunk from the plastic singing “Soap me up, before you grow, grow…..”

It’s amazing the difference it makes to the polytunnel! I didn’t realise it was a such a grubby mess before, and now I have the cleanest polytunnel in Malahide. A fact of which I am very proud considering the absolute state the rest of my plot is in!

I can see clearly now, the sludge has gone

 

While I was at it, I also decided to scrub all the pots and seed trays that had been lying in the polytunnel and shed gathering dust. This is actually an essential job early in the year as it’s a bad idea to grow seeds in dirty pots as there could be any amount of old pests or diseases lying idle in the old soil. I intend to start sowing some seeds next weekend so having the polytunnel and my pots clean will pay off when I begin to plant this early in the season.

January is also the perfect month to get your proverbial sh*t together for the year ahead. Order your seeds, draw up your plans, buy your propogators and new tools, clean up your beds and sheds, throw out the old crap you don’t need anymore, fix whatever needs to be fixed before you begin your planting.

I have some plans for new structural elements in the garden and I’ve been making list upon list of crops I intend to grow. This year, I’ve decided to shuck off  the normal crops like onions and potatoes and grow more adventurous and ornamental veggies like sweetcorn and borlotti beans (apologies for the corny joke). I’ve also bought some heirloom tomato seeds and some very exciting varieties of salads and brassicas so I’m hoping to have a bit of fun with my plants this year.

Went a little overboard when ordering some seeds…

The next big job this weekend however, will not be fun. It will not be fun at all. I need to dig up my unruly raspberries as they are fast becoming the bane of my life.

Send help.

And hugs.

And maybe some beer.

I’m under a promise to share some tips on growing parsnips for next years Christmas dinner so watch out for that in the coming days and until then, keep the chin up. January may be cold and bleak, it may be difficult to get up off the couch and garden but remember this: in January, the whole year stretches ahead of you like an unrealised dream and that – so far – 2017 is empty of failure and full of potential.

Plants Bants: How To Grow Overwintering Garlic

Hello lovely people. It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote anything on here, you might remember I wrote a little post about garden remedies for colds and flu? Well, rather ironically, I ended up with such a bad flu that – depsite all my lovely herbal remedies – morphed into a rather horrible chest infection that had me rather unwell for the past month. I’m happy to say that I’m now on the mend so, I’d like to jump straight back in to this as winter is just about upon us and I’ve had a few requests and enquiries about what plants are good to grow overwinter (quite a few, it turns out). Since I mentioned garlic quite a lot in the post about my plague,  I figured it would be a good place to start.

Garlic is a great all-rounder plant, it’s very easy to grow, packed full of flavour, deters pests in your garden and has antibacterial properties. Most importantly though, and arguably the best reason to grow it, garlic has been proven to ward off vampires and evil spirits, which is pretty nifty at this time of year. There’s nothing worse than spending a day harvesting pumpkins in the garden, only to have it ruined by some pale, moody fella showing up to suck your blood. Gawwwwd.

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Garlic is a hardy plant that can be planted in February or October, depending on the variety. I like to plant mine in October as it’s always nice to have overwintering crops in the vegetable garden rather than empty space.

Garlic Necks

Much like a vampire, it’s good to know what kind of neck you’re dealing with before you take the plunge. The type of neck really determines the manner in which you will treat your victim crop.

Soft Neck Garlic: Soft neck garlic is the type of garlic you find in most shops. It stores very well and is usually strong in flavour. Soft neck is the more commonly grown type of garlic here in Europe. This may be because soft neck garlic is easier to plait and hang over doors or wear around the neck; and given that we are statistically more prone to vampires than other parts of the world, growing soft neck garlic just makes sense. You know, in a vampire slayer kind of way. On that note actually, I wonder if Buffy considered going into gardening after the hell mouth collapsed? It’s very therapeutic.

Hard Neck Garlic: Hard neck garlic is more similar to wild garlic, it has a richer taste but it doesn’t store as well as the soft neck varieties. Hard neck garlic is more prone to bolting.

Elephant Garlic: Elephant garlic is a bit of a shapeshifter. It looks like garlic, and tastes like garlic but it is actually more closely related to leeks. Wizardry. Elephant garlic has a milder flavour than other garlic varieties.

Where to buy Garlic

Please, please, please do not just buy garlic from your local supermarket to grow in your garden. This garlic is not suited to growing as it’s most likely mass produced and shipped from the other side of the world. If you’re in Ireland, you get lovely garlic bulbs at the moment from Quickcrop or Mr Middleton.

Recommended Garlic Varieties

Marco, Solent Wight, Elephant, Germidour

Planting Garlic

Garlic is a hardy plant that needs a cold snap in order for the bulb to split into cloves, this is why October is a good month to plant it. If garlic plants don’t get a cold snap, they will bulk up but they won’t split properly. When planted this time of year, your plants will have established before the first hard frosts hit in mid to late November.

Garlic is planted by splitting a bulb into cloves. Each planted clove of garlic will produce a full bulb. Space your garlic rows about 30cm apart and space each clove at 20cm. When you plant your cloves, leave the tips just showing above the soil.

I usually place netting over my garlic for the first few weeks until they establish, just incase some pesky birds peck them out of the soil. Watch out for crows, they are known associates of vampires and will endeavour to uproot your garlic when they can.

Garlic doesn’t really like fresh manure or over-fertilisation, so it’s a great crop to grow where you’ve had a hungry crop growing before. Plant garlic where you’ve had your beans or cabbages. Make sure you plant garlic in soil with good drainage to prevent rot. Water your garlic gently after planting.

Caring for Garlic

Like onions, garlic doesn’t like weed competition and mother nature decided to play a hilarious joke on us gardeners by giving garlic little or no ground cover from its foliage, providing the weeds beneath with lots of light to grow. Keep your garlic well weeded in the first few weeks but be careful not to uproot your cloves. Hulk hands are not advised at this juncture.

Garlic only really bolts in hot, dry weather, which is quite likely to happen in winter. Garlic doesn’t require too much water, but make sure the soil doesn’t get too dry.

Harvesting Garlic

Garlic planted in October will be ready to harvest the following June. Garlic behaves just like onions so it will tell you when it’s ready to be harvested, the leaves will turn yellow and flop over. I usually fold over the leaves when they begin to dry. To harvest your garlic, just loosen the soil around the bulb and gently pull the bulbs out of the ground. Let your garlic dry out before storing and don’t forget to hang a bulb over your door to keep the vampires at bay.

Should you encounter a vampire in your home or garden, garlic is one of the best deterrents around, however, I would suggest you also have some holy water and a few wooden stakes to hand. should the need arise. 

El Crapo!

The arrival of April is an exciting prospect for the vegetable gardener. The clock has moved one hour forward, the seemingly endless winter nights are truncated and the daylight hours stretch out their arms into a summer embrace. We uproot ourselves from the Netflix binges and shed our winter coats, we plant our feet firmly in our wellies and plunge our hands into the soil, for April heralds the hope of heavy Autumn harvests.

There’s an old proverb “Sweet April showers, do spring May flowers” and if that is truly the case, then I fully expect my plot to be glorious with colour in May. Here in Ireland, the position of the jet stream often causes heavy downpours during the month of April and the rain here in Dublin has been fierce, driving and relentless since the first day of the month. While I often welcome the April rains, I sincerely wish the sky would choose days when I’m stuck in work to open up instead of choosing to do so when I am free to garden all day. It seems that every day I plan to visit the allotment, it doesn’t just rain but it absolutely pours. Now, I’m no fair-weather gardener and have often been the only person on site in my wellies and rain gear, working on the plot, but it is simply impossible to plant anything outdoors when the weather is working against you.

Usually by now, I have a lot more planted on the plot, however, I am not one to panic. It is often the case that everything I plant in March dies anyway and I have to start all over again. Gardening is all about patience, about letting the climate make your decisions, about becoming dependant on the natural world so, while I am on the back foot, hedging my bets and biding my time, I have learned over the past few years that nature will invariably show me when it is time to plant.

Most years, I plant my onion sets in mid-March but this year I waited until the 10th of April, which happened to be a dry, if not windy day. I planted a full raised bed with Sturon onion sets, this variety thrived for me two years ago so I decided to give them another shot. There’s something very special for me about planting onion sets. Onions were my first truly successful crop on my plot in the first year and it always feels that garden season has truly begun when they go in. The torrential rain the following day may be problematic however and I’m sitting here, worried that my baby onions are now floating around in a muddy puddle.

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Spot the rows of onion sets

 

This is when having a polytunnel becomes very beneficial. Despite the slow start to the season, I am able to sow seeds under cover. I love standing in my polytunnel while the rain drums on the plastic overhead, sowing seeds, drinking tea, blaring music and singing at the top of my lungs. This week, I’ve planted Aubergines, Courgettes, Chillies, Dwarf French Beans and Basil in the warmth and safety of the polytunnel. I’ve also sown some flowers including Nasturtium (no allotment is complete without these beautiful and edible flowers), Sweet Peas and Marigolds.

IMG_1526Last week, my folks returned from a trip to Amsterdam and brought me back something I’ve always wanted to grow (no, not that, I don’t particularly fancy being arrested*), they brought me home some black tulips. These have been kept in cold storage over winter and are a late blooming variety so I’m hoping they bloom in a matter of weeks. Black tulips aren’t truly black, but a very deep shade of purple and I have a bit of a thing for blue and purple flowers so I am very excited to see if they bloom for me. Watch this space.

* I am wildly disapointed that I can not realise my childhood dream of becoming a powerful criminal mastermind and organic-hippie-drug-cartel. Dublin’s very own El Chapo: El Crapo! 

How To Grow Beetroot

 

Beetroot is, without a doubt, my favourite crop to grow in the garden.  have more success with beetroot than any other crop in my garden to date. It’s easy to grow, looks pretty and it is extremely tasty and beneficial. As a food source, beetroot is extremely versatile, with many ways to enjoy this lovely earthy vegetable.

 

As the name would suggest, beetroot is a member of the root family of vegetables and is grown for the tasty root of the plant as opposed to the foliage or fruit, however, the leaves of young beetroot plants are delicious, they belong to the same family of veggies as chard and make a lovely addition to any salad.

 

Sowing: Beetroot is best planted in well drained soil between late March and early June. You can grow it in module trays or plant direct. I prefer to plant beetroot directly where it is to grow as this means I can eat the young plants when thinning out my crop. Germination usually takes about 10-14 days. You can succession sow beetroot every two to three weeks for a continued supply of baby beets during the summer.

Spacing: Plant rows of beetroot about 30 cm apart and each plant 10cm apart.

Growing: I find beetroot needs very little tending while growing. It is a hardy enough plant and will do well once the weeds are kept in check. Thin young plants as they grow so your beets have space to expand. Water your beetroot well but don’t drown it, this can cause the plant to put all the energy into the leaves instead of the root.

Harvesting: I’d recommend harvesting your beetroot as baby beets, pulling every second plant so the ones left behind have space to grow even larger. These larger beets are the ones I usually pickle for storage. Simply lift the plant our the soil. Try not to damage the root as you do this or you’ll be washing purple stains off your hands for days.

Storage: Beetroot is a great vegetable for storing. Most like to pickle it in vinegar. You can experiment with different vinegars to get different flavours. You can also store beetroot in sand or peat, in a cool dry place, it should last this way for about 12 weeks.

Pests: Beetroot is generally a trouble free plant and so a perfect addition to the busy garden.