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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! 

My new workstation

Planting and Dancing

Early on Saturday morning, I stood in my polytunnel in a t shirt, it was 30 degrees celsius and it felt like gardening in the height of summer. Outside it was pouring rain, there were strong winds and it was a chilly 3 degrees.

I have spent just under two years gardening outdoors, victim to the elements. I always swore I wasn’t going to get a polytunnel, partly because of the price and partly because of the work involved. It means that during the summer months, I’ll have to get out to the plot at least 3-4 times a week to water my crops which is a task when you’re working full time, live miles away from your plot and don’t drive. However, on a whim a few weeks ago, I decided to get myself a polytunnel, I’m a terrible woman for expensive, impulse purchases. This one is paying off already though. Not only was I able to stand in there on a freezing Saturday in March, planting and dancing (yes, I dance in my polytunnel, I need to do it somewhere you know), I can now attempt to grow crops that I couldn’t even consider trying in the past.

The polytunnel will likely be my biggest project this year, I need to figure out the layout and install some raised beds. To start, I got myself a staging table for planting and for my seedlings etc. As such, I now have a proper potting bench, it was something I sorely needed on the plot. It’s my equivalent of a desk.

My new workstation

My new workstation

On Saturday, I got some serious planting started. I peeled off my hoodie, stuck on my iPod (for the dancing), poured myself a coffee from my flask and got my hands dirty. I planted celery, celeriac, cucumbers, basil (sweet and red basil), corriander and some sunflowers. These, along with my already planted tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and chillies means I have a good start on my polytunnel crops now.

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Planting season 2014 commences

I also got my red and white onions planted outside. The cold windy weather was a bit of a shock to my system after the balmy confines of the polytunnel. I love planting onions, for me, it’s the herald of a new gardening season. Within about two weeks, I’ll hopefully have lots of crops planted in my raised beds, I hate when they’re all bare.

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Onions planted and protected

My rhubarb is once again looking to be the king of my plot, there’s loads of it already and I reckon I’ll be picking some next weekend. In fact, I’m a little scared, last year it was monstrous, I had so much rhubarb that I thought I’d crumble (see what I did there?) under the pressure to use it all. Which is a good complaint to have I suppose.

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Omnomnomnom

 

The plot is in pretty good shape at the moment. She needs a bit of TLC though. I need to fix my fencing, build a gate, put up my birdhouse, plant lots of flowers, touch up the paint work and build myself a patio/seating area in addition to sorting out the polytunnel. My work here is never done.

Next weekend, I have aspirations to spend the whole weekend on the plot, it’s amazing how much you can get done in an eight hour gardening frenzy, so hopefully over three days I can get loads done. I even have an adorable portable gas stove now, to cook myself some lunch, courtesy of my parents. Best birthday present ever!

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I’m a proper allotmenteer now, little stove for my shed and everything

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How To Harden Off Seedlings

This is the time of year to be sowing seeds and if you’re anything like me, your house will soon be overrun with seedlings, no windowsill will be left empty. But what happens when these young plants are ready to go outside? You can’t just fling them out unceremoniously like misbehaving teenagers after a night out on the tiles. These seedlings have been wrapped up nice and warm in the comfort of your home, putting them straight outside would be like tearing the duvet off them as they slept in a warm bed on a winters morning. You need to slowly acclimatise them to the great outdoors before sneakily changing the locks some night when they’re out at a club.

You need to toughen them up, train them, inspire them. You need to start a baby-plant-boot-camp. You can do it seedlings, work it, sweat it, PUSH IT!

Optional, play this to them for some inspiration:

(Also recommended are some leg warmers, one of those jazzy sweatbands for your forehead and spandex everything.)

Most people harden their plants off by placing the young seedlings outdoors in a sheltered spot for about 3 or four hours a day, gradually increasing this time over the course of a week. Make sure to bring the plants back indoors each night for the first few nights. After about 7 to 10 days, you can leave them out all day and night until they are ready to be transplanted.

Another way to harden off your seedlings is by using a cold frame. A cold frame is essentially a small glasshouse used to acclimatise young seedlings before transplanting. They typically have a glass lid that can be opened and closed. To harden off your seedlings, place them in your cold frame and leave the lid open for a few hours a day, gradually increasing the amount of time over the course of a week. Close the lid at night time, particularly if temperatures drop. After about 7 days, the plants are ready to be transplanted outdoors.

A couple of tips:

As with all plants, keep an eye out for slugs and snails, they absolutely love young plants and if you’re not careful, will horse into them like a young wan into a Supermac’s on a Friday night after a few scoops.

Keep an eye out for dropping temperatures, it may be heating up but in Ireland, we can still get ground frosts at night up until May. Invest in some garden fleece, you can use this to cover your seedlings from frost damage.

Oh, and just for a bit of fun, what movie had this little gem of a quote in it? (hint: see above video)

“You know what you are?”

“No, what?”

“A tomato.”

“A tomato?”

“Yeah, and I’m running a business here, not a goddamn soup kitchen.”

 

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Irish Seed Savers Need Your Help!

Over the past two years, I have been discovering the joys of gardening, the importance of growing my own food and adjusting to the significant changes this has had on my life. Not only that though, gardening has broadened my horizons, opened my eyes to a whole world of environmental interests that I’d never gave a second thought to in the past.

It’s no longer just about having a bit of fun going out in my wellies, weeding and watering (though that does continue to be the my favourite thing to do in the world). I have become hugely interested in our environment, in climate change, our agricultural heritage, our wildlife and countryside and in particular, our future. Our very precarious future. I’m a firm believer that this planet of ours is headed for an absolutely huge food crisis if we don’t soon get our act together. I’ve come to realise the absolute necessity for me to do my bit, however small that may be, in order to make a modicum of a difference, and perhaps help alleviate my guilt at the complete disregard for this planet we live on up until this point in my life.

With this in mind, I have become keenly aware of the danger our very delicate ecosystems are in. Rapid environmental changes and diminishing biodiversity are leading to mass extinctions species the world over.  Biodiversity, as it is defined, is the degree of variety of life. This usually refers to the diversity of species, ecosystems and genetics in any given region. In terms of growing food, genetic diversity is vital. A lack of diversity in crop varieties causes serious problems. The perfect example of this is the Famine in Ireland in the 19th century, this famine was a direct result of only planting two varieties of potato, both of which were highly suupespitible to the blight which essentially destroyed the whole island’s potato crop.

I’ve begun to do some reading and research on environmental and conservational organisations in Ireland in order to develop a further understanding of the challenges facing us, and perhaps get myself involved in order to contribute in some way towards a sustainable future. About six months ago, I discovered The Irish Seed Savers Association, based in Scariff, Co. Clare.
Their main goals, as stated on their website are

“……the conservation of Ireland’s very special and threatened plant genetic resources. Our work focuses on the preservation of heritage varieties form all over the world that are suitable for Ireland’s  unique growing conditions.”

The Irish Seed Savers Association was set up in 1991 by Anita Hayes, initially based in co Carlow, they moved to Scariff, Co. Clare in 1996. In this time, their work in the conservation of seeds and heritage varieties of vegetables and fruit had been significant. They have established a seed bank of over 600 vegetable varieties (which is of course, of serious interest to me). They have a special interest in apple trees, and have an orchard on site where they have established the Native Irish Apple Collection, with 140 unique varieties of apple tree. They’ve also established the Native Irish Grains collection which contains 48 different varieties of grain. The importance of their work in the conservation of our botanical heritage is undeniable. Once a species is extinct, it is gone forever. The more people making an effort to prevent or delay this possibility, the better.
I have recently discovered that the Irish Seed Savers Association is under threat of closure due to a lack of funding. They have put out an appeal to the public to help raise much needed money to keep their work going. The have set up an Indiegogo campaign in the hopes of raising €100,000, but unfortunately to this date they have only been able to raise €10,000.
You can help by becoming a supporter, when you sign up, you will receive five packs of organic vegetable seed, three varieties of organic seed potatoes, twice yearly magazines, a 10% discount on workshshops and free admission to their 8 hectare site in Scariff, complete with orchard, gardens, a café and a shop.
The charity also provide many workshops and classes on site which look super. It looks like a beautiful place to visit, I think I’ll have to take a week off and go visit Co. Clare this year.
If you can support in any way, I’d urge you to do so, even if it’s only to spread the news, read about their work, tell others about it, share this article, share links to their website, they need all the help they can get to continue on with their very worthy cause.
 For more information on the appeal and the association itself, visit www.irishseedsavers.ie
For more information on biodiversity in Ireland, visit www.biodiversityireland.com 

 

A March Miracle

Yesterday, something miraculous happened. I woke up early (yes, on a Saturday, I was as surprised as you are) and the sun was pouring through the window. For a moment I thought I was dreaming, until I looked out the window and there it was, high in the sky, yellow as the daffodils outside my door and I realised, spring is finally here.

I’ve been stuck in a winter rut. I haven’t been able to find the motivation to get up and go out to the plot in the cold and dig and weed and freeze my bottom off. The sunshine was like the flick of a switch, my mood instantly changed. I was all of a sudden itching to go to the plot, plant some seeds, do some digging and get some much needed fresh air.

So, off I went, to put on my wellies and get to work. Unfortunately however, my wellies had been left out on my last visit, they had been caked in mud and I left them to “dry out”. 

My "Dried out" wellies

My “Dried out” wellies

First port of call, was to move the raised bed that I grew my carrots in last year. When we first built the six raised beds, I had already planted my onions in the spot where I wanted to put DSC_0473one, so instead of disturbing my onions, we put the bed elsewhere for the year. It looked out of place where it was however, so we decided to move it so it was in line with the other beds. I dug the muck out from the edges and lifted the bed to it’s new location. I did have a little “incident” however, and the bed is now in two pieces. With the bed moved, we had a grave-like pile of muck left behind. I’m sure the neighbours thought that somebody had met an untimely end after said “incident” with the raised bed.

I made short work of the pile of muck, I transferred some of it back into the raised bed and used the rest to fill two brand new one metre square beds which went in it’s place. These little beds might only last me a year but they’re very handy and just what I needed to fill up the now empty space. I planted my garlic in one. I know it’s about two months late but we’re still getting enough frosts for it to get the cold snap it needs to start off and maybe I’ll get some small bulbs. It was the first thing I planted on the plot this year and it gave me a thrill. Next week I’m hoping to plant my onions and shallots too.

The new beds

The new beds

I also took the opportunity to use up some of the billion pine needles I have in the shed, left over from great Christmas tree Massacre of 2013.

Dave the monster

Dave the monster

I decided to recycle my tree myself instead of dumping it, or doing as most people do and letting rot away in the back garden until mid-summer; I bagged up all the branches and I now have six black sacks full of pine needles and braches in the allotment shed (which I still havent gotten around to tidying). Yesterday, I used one of the bags of pine needles to create a nice mulch for my blueberry bushes, which I noticed yesterday have lovely green buds on them. Blueberries love acidic soil, and while my soild is slightly acidic already, it does no harm to help them along. Pine needles are very acidic, and are excellent for using as a mulch for blueberry plants.

Before going home for a much needed cup of tea and a pat on the back, I had a little drool over my rhubarb, it’s looking very healthy. It’s hard to resist pulling off a stalk and munching away, but in just another few short weeks, I’ll be making rhubarb crumble. Yum.

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Snails Pace

Having an allotment is not just about growing vegetables and fruit. It is a place to go when you need a break, It is a haven from city life. It is a hobby like no other. It is a garden for those without.  It is a place to bring the kids at the weekend, or to sit down with a flask of tea and simply enjoy the view. Some people have them simply for one crop, some people only grow fruit, some people don’t grow food at all and just use their plots for growing flowers.

Myself, I’m growing whatever it is that takes my fancy, whether it be pumpkins, strawberries or some flowers for the bees. I’ve been reading about companion planting lately, a method of gardening where you plant different plants in close proximity which benefit each other, wether it be by pollination, pest control or nutrient uptake. I have planned out a four year crop rotation for my plot, and strict companion planting methods do not necessarily fit into my plan, however, I have planted a few things with other crops in mind. I am growing chives, which I will plant near my carrots as they help deter carrot root fly. I planted borage, beside my strawberries to help encourage pollination and repel pests. I have been growing some marigolds to attract the pesky slugs away from my brassicas, and attract the slugs they do! I started my marigolds about six weeks ago, in pots at home. They germinated well and I moved them out to the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago.

Nibbled Basil

Yesterday, I went to water my plants in the greenhouse, but when I opened it up, my marigolds had all but disappeared! Gone. Eaten. Savaged overnight. There was telltale signs of slugs trails on the soil. Exasperated, I took everything out of the greenhouse, but could not find the culprit. As I was disposing of my destroyed marigolds (sniff), I found a small snail on the side of one of the pots, little bugger. One tiny snail had destroyed all twelve of my marigold plants overnight, so much for moving at a snails pace! I suppose the marigolds did do their job of attracting him away from my other plants, my tiny lettuces were left alone, he did have a nibble of one of my basil plants though. I now have zero marigolds for my allotment. One can only laugh. I got rid of said snail, and made a few beer traps in the greenhouse for future slugs and snails to hopefully fall into.

Snails dinner! This was the only one left standing!

Sunflower

The windowsills at home are becoming more and more green. The chilli and pepper plants are thriving and I will move them out to the greenhouse in a few weeks. My tomato plants succumbed to whatever illness it was that was killing them, I declared failure, swallowed my pride and bought myself some tomato plants in a garden centre. they’re a far cry form my measly efforts. A few weeks ago, I gave my dad some of my tomato seedlings and his are thriving! I obviously gave him the best ones (that’s my excuse anyway and I’m sticking to it). My courgettes germinated in a few days and are thriving so far, I was surprised to see how strong they are. Only half of my sunflowers took, but at least thats better than none and I also spotted a green shoot about to pop up in one of my pumpkin pots. No sign yet of my celery or borlotti beans but patience is the most important tool at my disposal and I need to learn to use it more!

Courgette

All in all, it’s been a quiet week, we’ve only been up to the plot once, for an hour the other day, we dug out another potato bed and we’ll plant our maincrop spuds this week. They’ve been chitting away since February and have lovely strong green shoots on them.

I took the time to go for a little walk around the site and it’s great to see some of the wonderful plots, It’s amazing just how much the place has changed since early March. Every plot has it’s own personality and you’d be amazed at how many ideas you’ll get and how many people you’ll get chatting to if you walk around. Gardeners seem to be the friendliest bunch, always happy to share some advice, or ask for some when it’s needed. It really is a great community. There was a gazebo on site the other day where they were selling  plug plants, they had a great selection, including some unusual varieties. There’s such a great set up on site, the allotment shop has a great selection of all things garden related and the best thing is, all the proceeds go to the Epilepsy Care Foundation so it’s worth buying on site, when possible. You can even buy your shed and they will install it for you. I’m a particular fan of the tea/coffee van that visits every weekend, and last weekend, I spotted an ice cream van on site with a queue of allotmenteers lining up like kids to get their 99’s. I think I’ll stick to my cups of tea for now though, there’s still quite a chill in the air.

My pitiful tomato plant compared to the garden centre plant

Pumpkin pushing its way above soil

Okie Dokie Artichokie

Easter has been and gone, I’ve eaten far too much chocolate and I need to get out in the garden to burn off those easter egg calories. The weather however had other plans for me. Easter Monday was miserable, grey and wet, I was grateful for the rain though, it’s the first real rain we’ve had in weeks. We’ve been experiencing some stereotypical April weather this week, lots of rain showers, very windy, some hail, warm when sunny, bitterly cold when it’s cloudy, the weather doesn’t know what to do with itself really. At least now that all the raised beds are finally built and the plot is taking shape, I’ve been able to focus on planting.

Globe Artichokes

You may remember, I planted some Jerusalem Artichokes a few weeks ago, there’s still no sign of these but they do have a very long germination period. Jerusalem Artichokes are not actually from Jerusalem and they aren’t really artichokes. They’re a cousin of the sunflower and are a root crop. The reason I mention them is, on Tuesday, I planted two Globe Artichoke plants. These are worlds apart from the Jerusalem artichoke. These are actually a perennial thistle which grow large edible buds which are delicious to cook with and are often found in Mediterranean cuisine. I love artichoke hearts so I can’t wait to harvest my own. Each plant has a yield of about 12 hearts per season so I planted two, this should be enough for me. There has been some frost of late so I fashioned two cloches out of plastic bottles for my artichokes should they need the extra protection.

It may only be April but I’ve already been planting some winter crops so my plot doesn’t look totally bare in the leaner months. I planted some Salsify this week. Salsify is a root crop that has a long cropping season and will provide a nice winter crop when other crops are scarce. The long roots taste like oysters and are often named “oyster plants” for this reason. It needs the same soil treatment as carrots and parsnips, fine, well drained soil, I planted it in the same bed my carrots will be planted in. I bought some purple sprouting broccoli today, this is another long cropping vegetable and will not be ready for harvest until early next spring, but this will give me something to pick when nothing else is ready in the garden.

Planting Pumpkins

Today I planted Pumpkin seeds and Borlotti Beans, I’m growing a miniature variety of pumpkin called Baby Bear, they are quite a lot smaller than average pumpkins but each plant should give me 5 pumpkins, I plan on making lots of pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup and the seeds are delicious when toasted, pumpkin seed bread is particularly yummy. Borlotti Beans are a variety of french bean, great for drying for use over winter. I got a dwarf variety which don’t have quite as high a yield as the climbing varieties but I planted twenty plants which should be enough for a good crop. The beans are very pretty (I may have bought them purely for their aesthetic quality) and apparently make the best beans on toast, Dave’s favourite!

Borlotti Beans

Borage

It’s not just winter planting I’ve been focusing on. I’ve also been getting ready for summer. I planted some Borage this week. I’ve been looking for borage seeds everywhere the past few weeks and couldn’t find any. I have a thing about growing plants from seeds, nothing beats seeing your little seedlings poke their heads above soil, but I’ve had to buy my artichokes and borage in plug plant form as I can’t seem to find the seeds for either anywhere. Borage is a herb, it has beautiful blue star-shaped flowers that are wonderful for attracting bees. The leaves have a cucumber flavour and the flowers have a sweet honey like taste and are one of the few naturally blue-coloured foods. I planted one of my borage plants near my strawberries as it is said to protect them from a lot of pests. I planted some lavender, cornflower and sweet peas too, I’m hoping these will not only attract some pollinating insects into my plot but also provide a splash of colour in the summer months.

Hopefully this will all be beautiful and colourful in a few months

I planted some lettuce to be transplanted to the plot in a few weeks, I planted two varieties, Little Gem and Lollo Rossa, both easy to grow and delicious in salads. This week I also planted courgettes, celery and beetroot so all in all it’s been a very busy planting week. The plot is still looking very brown but there is some colour starting to creep in, the onions are starting to throw out green shoots and the potato shoots have a lovely, velvety purple/green hue. There’s some flowers on my strawberry plants too. My little greenhouse is really filling up and the windowsills are full of chili and tomato plants. All in all, I’m starting to feel like the hard work is paying off, before I know it, it will be summer and my plot will hopefully be green and full of life.

Onion shoot (and weeds of course)