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.

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.

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.

img_3310

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?

img_3910

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 believed 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.

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.

The Sudden Season

There is one week every year, when the summer swiftly shifts gear into autumn. Sunshine takes a backseat to rain, elongated nights overtake the days and while the indicators have been signalling the end of summer for weeks, the seasons change lane in a matter of days. This is no three-point manouvre, no gentle tapping of the brakes, here in Ireland the summer comes screeching to a halt. Here, autumn is the sudden season.

The last yields of summer begin to wither away and as autumn wraps itself around the garden, the industrious gardener goes into overdrive preparing the plot for winter.

The past week has been that week in my garden. The sudden week. The mornings are cold, the evenings are dark and the garden is looking a little worse for wear. I’m clinging to the clutches of summer where I can, but it is decidedly autumnal on the plot. My once glorious rhubarb foliage is turning to brown sludge, the potato bed lies empty and it seems that every single one of my lettuces bolted at once, perhaps very apt considering the athletic year that’s in it. Ladies and Gentlemen, the gold medal in the 100m lettuce race goes to…………Insane Bolts

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Insane Bolts takes to the podium to collect his medal

My summer crops are completely written off; gone are the days of french beans, spring onions, radishes and rocket. R.I.Peas.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the sudden season has arrived on the eve of the equinox – and no matter how many polls my lovely pals over at GIY hold on their twitter about when autumn truly begins – as of tomorrow, there can be no denying that summer has driven off into the September sunsets and we are now facing into the long road to spring 2017.

img_3657Not all is lost however, harvest season is still in full throttle. I’m still picking a stupid amount of tomatoes, I have three large beds still packed full of veggies for autumn and I’ve begun my winter planting in earnest.

 

September is the time of year that separates the fair weather gardeners from the dedicated, year-round gardeners. During the summer, it is easy to spend time on the plot. There’s little rain or wind to contend with and everything looks green, lush and buzzing with life. It’s easy to put on shorts and t-shirts, a trust pair of old runners, crack open a beer, light the bbq and float around the garden at an easy going pace. In autumn and winter though, visiting the plot becomes more of a chore. It requires weather forecast checks, wellies, rain coats, thermal vests, fingerless gloves, fluffy socks and hats. Never scarves though, scarves are a hazard in the garden, all those trailing edges getting caught in gates/doors, I have learned the hard way more than once, not to wear a scarf in the garden.

Gardening in Autumn requires more effort, but the rewards are far more sweet. I adore the dull, quiet, rainy days on the plot, when there’s not a soul around and the plants are laden with rain. I love the smell of the rain, I love how malleable the soil is, I enjoy the sodden solitude of a day on the plot in September. It is eerie, empty, ethereal.

While autumn has parked itself in Dublin for a while, and I begin I root out my trusty fleeces and boots and the holy grail that is thick, black tights, I am busier than ever. The garden needs a serious tidy, there is digging and weeding and raking and composting. There is seed collecting, harvesting, pot cleaning and seed sorting. There is planting, planting and more planting. Despite the fact that summer is over, there are still a lot of crops to grow overwinter and while in previous years, I have often taken a break from the allotment for a month or two, this year I am growing plenty of over wintering vegetables in my garden. I have been planting potatoes for Christmas, spring cabbages, purple sprouting broccoli, mustard and oriental salads and have onions, garlic and broad beans all lined up to plant in the coming weeks. The onset of winter doesn’t mean a barren plot, it means a busier plot, that needs a hard working and dedicated gardener, and those why shy away from the vegetable garden now, suffer the consequences the following spring.

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My Christmas spuds growing strong in September

With the sudden arrival of autumn in the garden, I too am shifting gear, I’ll be spending less time on the plot in the evenings as it will be too dark to visit by the time I finish work. My gardening exploits will be confined to the weekends and I’ll be spending more quality time with cups of tea, duvets and my laptop.

I’m under a promise to the droves of people who voted on my winter-veggie twitter poll (by droves I mean four people, whoever you may be, you four voters mean more to me than ten thousand) to write about how to grow spring cabbages, so that’ll be hitting your screens sometime tomorrow.

September also brings with it some exciting prospects for me. I won a silver award for my blog at the Irish Blog Awards for most innovative blog which is a shock, an honour and privilege and I continue to be amazed that my little gardening blog has had a big impact this year. I know a lot of my readers voted so I’d like to thank you for your support, not just with the votes, but for continuing to read, comment, share and support my silly little gardening adventures. As much as the garden has grounded me in recent years, nothing humbles me more than the kindness of my gardening community, both at the allotments and online. I fully intend to display just how humble I am by introducing myself from here on in as “Fiona Kelly, award winning blogger”.

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I also wrote another article for GIY’s GROW magazine on managing your autumn harvests, making jam and my forthcoming number one Christmas Album. I feel privileged to be asked again to contribute to such a wonderful publication. There’s also a pretty awesome masterclass in there on brewing your own cider and wine, which, let’s face it, is something we can all dig. If you’d like to get a copy of GROW, you can visit www.giyinternational.org

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I also have some other major gardening news coming soon. Life continues to reward me, but the greatest reward still, is the garden itself and as for the garden, it may be autumn but I love her more than ever. I think it’s getting serious now.

You can get me on twitter for more polls, veggie puns and musings about why in god’s name the garlic sauce you get with pizza is better than any other garlic sauce known to man. I’m also on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat as fionagrowsfood if you haven’t had your fill here. FionaGrowsWorldwideEmpire.

Thanks again for all the good vibes. I love you all as much as I love kicking wildly through piles of autumn leaves. 

 

 

Garden Time

May hovers over the city on wings of promise; that the summer sun will awaken the garden and warm rain showers will wash away the long cold drought of the past month. It seems that in a matter of days, Dublin has been painted with the colours of late spring. While last week, I was braced against driving sleet and howling winds and lamenting the loss of everything I’d planted; the past few days, the temperature is steadily rising and looks set to reach the high teens this weekend. My plot is swiftly coming to life. In every bed and every empty space, young plants push themselves above the surface of the soil and everywhere I look is littered with new life.

French Beans “Purple Tepee”

The natural world around me is teaching me a valuable lesson in patience. I’ve spent the past month eager to sow seeds that would never have germinated and the act of planting outdoors would have been a wasted effort; ergo, I have simply waited.

I am a person who finds it hard to wait for anything. I am impatient by nature and never fully content with my current progress, be it in the garden or in life. My mind is always ten steps ahead of my body, I am forever looking to the future, to the next hour, the next day, the next week, eager and anxious to know what lies ahead. I spend most nights playing out the possibilities of the future in my mind: Will I succeed? Will I be happy? Will I live a good enough life? Forever hungry for achievement, I am not content until I feel I have succeeded, until I have progressed. It’s a stressful and exhausting way to live and I find myself in an almost infinite state of mental fatigue.

The pursuit of gardening has become the antithesis to my overactive mind. Nature is teaching me to slow down, to live in the moment, to ground myself. This wonderful planet we live on moves ever forward through time in cycles outside of our control and I am learning to move with it instead of racing against it. Learning to wait is one of the greater lessons that gardening has taught me. Yearning to succeed in the garden every year, I’ve had a tendency to rush in too early in the season and find myself frustrated in June and July when nothing has grown as expected. Each harvest season, I stand on the plot and wonder why all the labour I’ve put in during the early Spring has failed to come to fruition, why after a year of steady gardening, I have very small yields of crops. I’ve come to realise that while my eagerness to have a productive plot is a positive pursuit, I need to spend more time waiting. I’m learning that waiting for the right time isn’t a waste of time.

It is now May and I have waited. The world spins on and is the greatest clock at my disposal. The temperatures have risen, the sun is shining and the earth is telling me it’s time to grow.

Tomato “Moneymaker”

I’ve been visiting the plot each evening this week to plant some crops and water the garden. When just last week, my raised beds were all but empty, I now have beetroot, peas, french beans, mangetout beans, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, basil, khol rabi, aubergines and strawberries bursting to life. My tulips are growing, my gladioli are spiking into the air, my artichokes and asparagus are returning and the whole plot is waking up from its annual slumber.

The cycle of the seasons moves ever forward and I’m learning to trust the movement of time, I’m learning how to navigate this life with patience. I am growing in tandem with my garden.

Strawberries

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! 

Decked Out

Hello all. I know it has been quite a while since I updated the blog, apologies, it’s been a very busy couple of months in the garden. Mostly, I’ve been growing food instead of writing about growing food. I spend a lot of time writing here about my plot but nowhere near as much time as I should on the actual plot, so I put aside the blog for a spell and concentrated on getting the allotment to where I wanted it to be, and oh boy, it was worth it. Rest assured, I am back in full swing now so expect a return to normal blogging services.

It can be difficult to juggle a full time job and a full time allotment and I often get tired/lazy/disillusioned with the garden. It had often become a chore, a task, something I had to make an pained effort to do. In the past few months, my attitude has shifted. I now crave the garden, I feel the draw to it every day (though sadly I can not be there every day). I think I’ve done more on the plot in the past ten weeks than I did in the entirety of last year and it’s really beginning to show.

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The plot has seen some pretty big changes lately, I’ve been doing a lot of the work I’d been putting off for the past 2 years. I’ve filled all my raised beds to the brim with healthy compost, the soil had been in very bad condition and it was a job that was essential this year if I wanted healthy crops, I also finally filled the last of the six large beds which had lain unused for over 18 months. I’ve filled all my pathways with bark mulch and repainted the beds. I’ve planted my onions, shallots, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, kale, broccoli, sorrel, rocket, peas, scallions, radishes, lettuces, cabbages, cauliflowers and more.  I have a polytunnel full of plants including tomatoes, chills, peppers, courgettes, herbs, loads of summer flowers and this years biggest challenge…..watermelons (more on these later in the week). I have new flower beds, new borders, new fruit bushes, new everything really. There is now very little wasted space on the plot.

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I even built myself a small decking area. I have very heavy clay soil and it tends to flood, particularly in the area outside my polytunnel which has always been wasted space and I’ve been itching to do something with it. After a heavy rain, getting into my polytunnel was akin to wading through a swamp, something had to be done. So, feeling productive, I got my thinking cap on. Not to mention my sexy work gear: ripped shorts, raggy t-shirt, gardening gloves, knee high socks, polka dot wellies, you know, standard construction worker ensemble. I also had a scaldy brew on the go, a breakfast roll and a pack of Tayto; perfected my wolf whistle and made sure my crack was on display when I bent over, for the sake of continuity.

I needed to create something simple, affordable and rustic looking but that would provide good drainage too. I dug over the area, but leaving a small ridge on either side, creating a dip in the ground. I placed some scaffolding planks across this dip, held up at either end by the ridge and then slid a few planks lengthways underneath to brace it. This way, the decking is straight but has a bit of give in it when walked on and has a space for water to drain into underneath. Now, either I am an engineering mastermind or it’ll all fall apart but only time will tell. I make it all sound very easy and a well executed undertaking but believe me, it was not. Scaffolding planks are heavy, and awkward, and likely to cause injury. I got one splinter so large in the palm of my hand it could have been mistaken for stigmata.

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The deck looks pretty snazzy though I do want to add a seating area next. I’ve been spending many an evening, sitting on the plot with my tea and some music on, just enjoying the peace of the garden.

I would venture so far as to say that to date, this is my most successful year on the plot. It seems that I have finally found my rhythm and I now love the garden more than ever. The only real issue this year has been the weather. It’s mid-May and today it is cold, raining and windy. Everything is a bit slower to get started this year (except for my spuds, I’m convinced they’d grow in cement) even my peas are struggling, which is a first. The garden isn’t as green as it usually would be in May so here’s hoping we get a few weeks of summer heat to give everything a boost.

I have absolutely loads to share over the coming weeks so keep your eyes peeled. Until then, get outside and plant something. Give life to something, take care of it, watch it grow, there is nothing more rewarding in the world.

Birthdays

This week was a big week for me, not only was it my birthday (I’m crazy old now guys), it was also the birthday of my allotment on the same day. I’ve come a long way in three years, I’ve had some highs, many lows, blight, mildew, bumblebees and butterflies. I’ve had successful crops, disastrous crops, snails, more snails, compost, slugs, even more snails and a lot of muck under my nails. It has been a huge learning curve and I’m still learning something new every day but this year, is the first year that I feel like I’m not as much of a novice anymore, although I am still a complete amateur. I’ve put a lot of work into the plot over the past month and it’s beginning to show already. I have three of my large raised beds fully planted up, everything had been pruned, I’ve finally begun to deal with the disastrous corner and I’m finding myself spending more time on the plot this year than in previous years.

Three years ago, when I first began my little gardening project, I never expected it to turn out the way it has. I thought I would have a perfect garden in no time, with bounteous harvests all summer long and nothing but long days to spend in the garden in the sunshine. How wrong I was. Life you see, has this funny way of throwing spanners in the works and every now and then, something comes along that takes me away from the garden. Such is the nature of things. As such, I have not been as dedicated, as hard working as I would have always liked to be, and my garden is far from perfect, and that is just fine by me. A garden shouldn’t be perfect, just as life isn’t perfect. (I am of course, perfect. Modest too).

Malahide Allotments, year 3

Malahide Allotments, year 3

Three years since I first stepped on to the plot and it’s still a mess, there are still empty spaces, messy spaces, wasted spaces and poorly planned spaces. On Tuesday, I woke up feeling a lot older but no wiser. I made my way out to the garden, to celebrate our joint birthday and I realised that despite the fact that the garden isn’t always the way I want it to be, it is intrinsically perfect because it makes me happy all the time, and what else could I ask for really.

Planting my spuds

Planting my spuds

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Ready for planting

March is a time of new beginnings in the garden, it’s getting into planting season and everything is coming back to life. My perennials are beginning to throw up new growth and I’m beginning to get some planting established. On Tuesday week I planted a bed of first early potatoes, some shallots and about 60 red onions. I dug, dug and dug some more and finally got rid of the four foot tall mound of muck in the corner of the plot. I figured it would be nice in a few months time to harvest my onions and potatoes and be able to say “I planted these on my 30th birthday”. Yes, I’m thirty *insert over the hill joke here*.

I also planted 18 strawberry plants, which is probably a stupid amount to plant but I haven’t grown them successfully before and I’m hedging my bets. Get it? Hedging? Because it’s  a garden? Yeah, I’m a comedian.

My new strawberry beds, complete with spring crocuses

My new strawberry beds, complete with spring crocuses

I’m really happy with the plot so far this year, It’s gotten off to a great start. Here’s hoping that I’ll be able to visit it next March, and every March afterward and celebrate my birthday in style. Here’s to another year!