This time last year we were having a mini heat wave and drought followed by weeks of rain, yet here we are approaching the end of March and we still have snow forecasts! It makes you wonder what weather is in store for us for the rest of the year and how climate change will affect us all.
One thing for sure is that food prices will increase as the unpredictability of the seasons makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to grow food crops or animal grain. As a result we’ll definitely be aiming to grow as much as we can here on the Greenside Up patch and I’ll be helping as many community gardeners to grow as I can too,.
With soil temperatures so low we’ve been very limited with what we can sow outside but that worked to our advantage this week in the community garden as it meant we could prune the fruit bushes and trees. I’ve included links to the RHS guidelines on pruning and care as they’re excellent for reference.
Then we moved over to the blueberries. Two have been planted in a large container full of erricasious (doesn,t contain lime) compost.
Blueberries in Goresbridge Community Garden
We finished by tidying up the strawberries which had temporarily been planted in the herb wheel. We plan to move them again into guttering that was donated by Anne (and carried to the garden!) which will be hung up in the polytunnel once we have the plastic cut to size. (There’s a blog post here on how to look after strawberry beds.)
Lots of strong roots on the strawberry plants
Hopefully next week we’ll be sowing the onions, garlic and potatoes if we get a few dry days in between!
Bridget learnt that every tiny seed will grow into a whole head of lettuce. She sowed ten seeds today & not the packet.
We’ve been busy in Goresbridge Community Garden over the past few weeks getting ready for the growing season ahead. Fortunately we met up before Christmas and prepared the beds by clearing them of old produce, weeding then adding manure to all but the roots bed.
Cleaning the polytunnel in Goresbridge Community Garden
Last week we cleaned the polytunnel. I haven’t laughed so much in ages watching Liam get cheeky with the hose and not being able to resist the odd splash here and there! (If your greenhouse of polytunnel is in need of a wash just use phosphate free washing up liquid in warm water and a soft brush.)
Hot Peppers (after 2 weeks, heat on the left, no heat on the right)
Two weeks ago we sowed some chilli seeds from the Greenside Up Feeling Hot range. One batch were sown on a heated propagator, the second batch just left on a windowsill that doesn’t attract much sunlight. Look at the difference! Not a sign of them in two weeks on the windowsill but the ones with heated bottoms have their first true leaves now. Once the have their second set of leaves and a healthier root system, we’ll be pricking them out and placing them in pots on their own.
Liam gets the specs out for some tiny lettered seed packets!
Today we sowed lots more… Gardens Delight tomatoes, California Wonder peppers and All Green Bush Courgettes in the heated trays, then sage, rocket, sweet pea, beetroot, lettuce and spinach into modules.
Colette’s entertaining us all
We’re planning some pallet wall containers for this garden and will be filling it with all sorts of plants, as well as filling containers that you might not be expecting… watch this space to see how an old upcycled deep fat fryer fares!
If 2020 taught us anything, it was that getting outside into gardens or walking in parks and spending time immersed in nature was good for us. Seeds became almost impossible to buy as online suppliers of fruit, herbs and vegetables opened and shut their websites to cater for demand. Garden centres were busy providing online and postal services, cars gathered outside garden and forestry walks as their owners took the time to get some exercise. Gardening photos were shared across all social media channels beguiling us with their vibrancy and enthusiasts prowess.
That was all well and good for those of us who’ve been trying to encourage everyone to grow their own food or get outside for years, or who have some space to potter around. What about the folk who were stuck in apartments with tiny balconies, unable to get out and share in all the fun? It must have been very difficult to sit back and watch our enthusiasm as spring turned into summer, watching our gardens blossom from bare soil to an oasis of colour and calm.
The good news is that a balcony does not have to limit your growing experiences. With food supply chains expected to falter due to new import regulations this year might be the one to have a go at growing food, even if it’s just a few tubs of salad leaves.
In no particular order, for the next few minutes I’ll be sharing some considerations you might like to take into account if you’re wondering how to grow your own food on a balcony garden this year.
Photo Credit: Samantha Murray
Wind direction is a factor in any garden, but especially important on balconies. The wind can damage, break or blow over plants and planters and provide a ‘wind chill’ element that can freeze them half to death. Moisture can be whipped from plants leaves and compost may dry out quicker than you can sneeze.
If you have glass surrounding your balcony, it will benefit by stopping the wind in its tracks, while providing some additional warmth, acting like the side of a greenhouse. If not, you might like to consider adding a clear screen, securing your planters, choosing plants wisely, and adding a mulch on top of the compost to prevent drying.
Safety is always a priority in the garden and balconies are no exception. Ensure your balcony is capable of taking the weight of plants and planters. Think how heavy a bag of compost is then multiply it by the amount of containers you’re planning for your balcony. The weight of water will add even more of a load, especially if the containers become waterlogged.
Mix potting compost with perlite as per the instructions on the bag. Perlite is a type of volcanic rock that should be available in all garden centres.
If using large containers, don’t fill them up completely with soil. Crush some aluminium cans or food grade plastic and place in the bottom third of the container, before covering with a piece of weed proof membrane and topping up with compost. The fabric will allow water to filter through, while protecting the growing medium from the recycled materials.
Some multi purpose composts, which are ideal for for container growing, weigh more than others. Shop around and look for peat free or sustainably sourced peat where possible. Enrich Soil Solutions have a great range of products if you’re struggling to find something suitable.
Use the walls. Put up some vertical planters to take some weight off the balcony floor.
Shade & Sun
Choosing the sunniest spot to grow your fruit and vegetables is a mantra you’ll often hear but if you’re in a flat or apartment, you might not have a choice. If you are north facing with limited sunlight, there are still some vegetables you can grow. A more detailed article can be found here. South facing and you’ll have to consider shading to protect plants from being over exposed.
Balconies provide an opportunity to have a bit of fun with containers, either using upcycled household items or colourful pots from garden centres. You can find a more detailed post about container gardening here. A few tips worth considering include:
Use the largest container possible or you will have to water more often.
Unglazed Terracotta can get frost damaged.
Plastic pots can dry out as they heat up so consider irrigation.
If using upcycled materials, consider the following:
“Plastic that is safe to grow food in/with should have recycling numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 on the bottom. Plastic with a 3 has PVC in it. In time chemicals leach out contaminating soil, which in turn contaminates the food. Styrofoam is made of plastic number 6 and has cancerous effects, Number 7 contains bisphenol A which is harmful to the behavioral growth of children.”
You can grow pretty much any plant in a container if the container is large enough and you have ensured there is suitable drainage. As mentioned, the main considerations are the direction your balcony faces and how exposed it is. Tender plants such as basil may not survive windy conditions and thyme really dislikes it too.
Variegated herbs can be slower growing, so good for containers.
Perennials should ideally be replanted in fresh compost each year which is a good time to check the roots for pests
If buying plants, choose dwarf varieties, varieties that are expensive or unusual to buy, herbs, or fruit that can be trained vertically to save space.
By its very nature, container gardening requires more watering than planting into soil or raised beds and windy conditions can add to the drying effects.
To save you popping out there twice a day with a watering can during the growing season, consider investing in a drip feed irrigation system, or stand plants on capillary matting. Look out for containers that have built in water reservoirs or stand pots in trays to catch excess water.
During the first COVID lockdown in 2020, Samantha Murray shared some videos and photo updates onto the Community Gardens Ireland Facebook Page from her Dublin balcony and has kindly given me permission to use them here. She was an inspiration to many. Take a look at one of Sam’s videos below that she published in April. You can find more on the Facebook page, including tips on some of the more unusual containers she used to start off seeds such as avocado shells.
For more garden hacks on using recycled kitchen waste to save you some money and the recycling centres from the additional waste, take a look at the Greenside Up YouTube channel here.
If you’ve figured out the best or unusual ways to grow your own food on a balcony garden and have any further tips or observations, please leave them in the comments. With more people growing their own food than ever, we’d love to hear your tips and help the communities of people growing food everywhere, no matter what their size or experience.
“I did an entry level gardening course with Dee a couple of years ago and couldn’t recommend her course enough. She knows anything there is to know about vegetable growing, is very free with her knowledge. Dee genuinely loves what she does and her enthusiasm is infectious. Her class was fabulous, engaging, fun and brimming with useful tips and hints. It truly takes the mystery out of growing your own” Siobhan Jordan, Artist and Illustrator
Gleann na Bearú Community Garden
Gleann na Bearú Community Garden began in the spring of 2015 when Dee Sewell was invited to run six weekly sessions of informal intergenerational workshops via Kilkenny Carlow Education Training Board by the Respond Housing community building manager.
The garden is located within the enclosed walls of their community centre in the heart of a Bagenalstown housing estate and for the most part, the building sits empty. However, in the evenings Carlow Regional Youth Service (CRYS) Bagenalstown Youth Project (BTP) operate a youth club for young people and it was planned that the leaders would attend the garden course and pass on any information learned to the young people.
Gleann na Bearú, February 2015
Until the garden began to be established, the young people were the only ones who had access to the 180m2 space. It was made up of an overgrown lawn, a few tables and chairs, wall art and a pile of painted tyres in the corner that youth members had planted a few bedding plants in.
During the spring of 2015, adults were invited to attend a basic gardening course for six weeks. Dee educated the group about the basics needed for a successful organic garden – crop rotation and vegetable families, weeding and pest control without chemicals as well as garden design, potting, planting and transplanting.
Respond funded four small raised beds and were so pleased with the results and feedback, they applied for another six weeks garden tuition. The informal courses attracted approximately 14 adults who met every week and from then on, further funding was provided by Kilkenny Carlow ETB and Respond housing, which continued in six-week blocks, on and off, throughout 2015.
2016 – Introducing New Stakeholders
During 2016 Respond increased their funding to provide more raised beds and in the Autumn of 2016, Carlow County Development Partnership began to support the project. During this time, Dee was invited to deliver a 30-hour horticulture programme aimed at helping adults get back to work, using the garden as their learning space but offering practical experience to help them gain confidence. The horticulture element was part of a package that included manual handling, first aid responder and a safe pass.
Since the initial ETB funding, Dee has worked and liaised with several stakeholders and material providers in this garden, including local industry (Goresbridge Woodchip, Griffith Timber, Walshes Hardware and Connolly’s hardware), to secure discounts and funding to design, build, develop, educate, tutor and encourage new people into the garden. Stakeholders and funders have included Carlow County Development Partnership, Carlow County Council Local Agenda 21, Respond Housing Association, Kilkenny Carlow ETB, Crown Paints and Carlow Youth Services.
The garden is an important part of people’s lives; apart from learning about flowers and vegetables it’s a place of laughter and friendship and of course a sense of community as its name suggests.
2017 Environmental & Community Awareness
Dee doesn’t simply cover horticultural projects in this garden. She has developed environmental and community awareness too by holding other workshops such as building green roof structures and biodiversity awareness that have attracted up to 20 people thanks to Carlow Council Local Agenda 21 funding.
In 2017, due to a fantastic team effort between all the gardeners and youth members, the garden won the first Carlow Pride of Place Upcycle Challenge for its plastic bottle greenhouse and recycled elements, and is now a showplace for environmental projects that can be considered in other gardens.
In 2017 the community garden was chosen by the Nationalist Newspaper to represent Carlow in the National Get Involved Campaign and featured in an Irish Garden edition about community gardens during 2018.
Community is About the People
However, it’s the stories of personal achievement and development that mark this garden and provide an insight into the positive effects of being in a social community garden with others. One of the reasons the garden works so well is because of the diverse nature of people in it.
One lady mentioned how the garden was helping to take her mind off her redundancy from a long-term job. Until she joined the garden she hadn’t ventured anywhere since the shock of her job loss.
Several adults attend the garden from BEAM services who support adults with additional needs. One of those participants developed the confidence to take on a woodworking course and further his education. Another long-term unemployed lady gained the confidence to begin talking and sharing her knowledge about gardening and landscaping. Her growing personal skills working alongside the BEAM members have been notable.
Finally, another young grandmother who’s been attending the garden since the beginning, who lives in the middle of the rural town and is now officially the garden’s best soup maker, summed up what being a member of the garden meant for her:
“I didn’t know how to garden until I came here, I’d never seen vegetables growing, or knew what most of them were. I didn’t really know how to cook other than the basic ham, veg and potato dinners but now I’m cooking all sorts.”
She also mentioned that the garden was the only place she meets people other than online or in her immediate family circle. Since those comments she has returned to formal education and is studying QQI level 5 horticulture, completed social enterprise training with County Carlow Development Partnership and has launched a small family business selling plants at markets.
Dee believes this garden has thrived due to the ongoing presence of one of the Carlow Youth CE support workers who has acted as a ‘gardeniser’ throughout, ensuring the gates are open every week, organising the tea and biscuits, as well as seeds, plants and compost when needed. Garden regulars know it’s open every Wednesday morning and drop throughout the year, regardless of the weather or if community education courses are running.
The multi-agency support has been tremendous given that it can take time for the benefits from projects such as this to be realised. However, the strong integration philosophy has ensured a cheerful and caring environment for the people and the plants within the garden walls, which make it a joy for those who attend.
“Innovative, creative and has a natural flair for business development” Ann-Marie Lehart, Kilkenny Leader Partnership
Gardening for Food, Health or Pollination?
Are you working in a community or organisation that is looking for some garden design pointers? Dee Sewell, qualified Landscape Designer, has worked with several clients providing ethical garden design for communities of people and pollinators, or providing herb garden planting designs for health and wellbeing.
This is what happens when you take a couple of weeks off in the summer
We spent a quiet couple of months in the Callan and Freshford community gardens during the summer months with the long, lazy days ensuring we all managed to spend some down time. Now the children are back in school we’re firmly back in action in the gardens and have some exciting plans ahead. Having announced at the end of the 2013 Savour Kilkenny Food Festival that they never wanted to make, preserve and sell home-grown produce ever again, like the memories of childbirth, Callan gardeners seem to have forgotten all the painful bits and have not only announced they want to give Savour another go, they’ve invited the new Freshford gardeners over to the kitchen to help them make this year’s batch of preserves and get involved with the selling of them.
I’ve mentioned before how unique community gardens are with no two alike and the gardens in these two rural Kilkenny villages are no exception. Continue Reading…
Sometime’s it seems there are more bad guys in the garden than good. When we emptied a large strawberry container this week in a HSE garden that caters for adults with intellectual disabilities, we found four of the ten pests listed below in one container alone! When we’re gardening without chemicals it can be a challenge but not impossible to either get rid of, or contain the pests and the first step is identifying the good guys from the bad, something covered a couple of weeks ago with the 12 Friends We Want to See in Our Gardens blog post.
Companion Planting Nasturtiums
To identify the pests we need to see them first so the first rule of thumb when dealing with pests organically is vigilance. Check your vegetables regularly, daily if possible and if you spot anything unusual, try to find out what it is and deal with it immediately – it’s very unlikely it will go away on its own.
One of my favourite books to help identify pests and diseases is the RHS Pest & Disease book and I’d recommend it for all gardeners shelves. After vigilance there are several things we can do to prevent a build up of pests, from good soil management, hygiene, crop rotation, companion planting as well as learning pest life-cycles (the weevil below is a case in point), using fresh compost and encouraging beneficial wildlife – all topics covered in my workshops. To help you begin the pest ID, here are a dozen I’ve come across, though there are many more.
Cabbage white butterflies and moths start appearing around May and lay their eggs on the undersides of Brassica leaves (kale, cabbage, broccoli). The eggs hatch and the caterpillars feast on the leaves of seedlings you may have lovingly grown, leaving gaping holes and if left unchecked, no leaves whatsoever.
There are a few ways of dealing with caterpillars organically. First of all cover the bed your Brassica are growing in with netting made with holes small enough the butterfly can’t squeeze through to lay her eggs. Make sure the net is fixed to a frame and not sitting directly on top of the plants or the butterfly will lay her eggs through it. If you do spot signs of caterpillars, pick them off the plants and destroy them or move them to a sacrificial plant such as nasturtiums where they can chomp away without damaging your precious leaves.
4. Slugs & Snails
I could spend every lesson in every workshop discussing slugs and snails as they’re the bane of gardeners lives! Instead I wrote a blog post that has 15 ways of dealing with them organically and a few more comments have been added to the list. Take a look if slugs & snails are your nemesis.
Beet miner’s are maggots that have hatched from fly eggs laid between the layers of leaves. There’s no cure, organic or otherwise, other than vigilance. Once you spot them, remove the infected leaves and the plants will recover. This post explains them in more detail.
Lots of people were tweeting about gooseberry sawfly larvae damage last year – a caterpillar than can literary strip bushes bare in just a couple of days. They’re also partial to currant bushes which I learnt when they took a liking to our red currant bush. Here’s a post on how to deal with them. I heard a tip recently suggesting laying rhubarb leaves at the base of bushes to deter this fly – something I’ll be trying soon.
There are many more pests and just when we think we’ve seen them all, along comes a new one. Lots of people have mentioned the weevils this year and ants seem to be causing a problem too. Ants won’t damage your garden but they do harvest aphids, a sprinkling of cinnamon or semolina powder seems to sort them out however. I have a general rule of thumb in our garden – as long as the bugs aren’t trying to eat our vegetables, they can stay.
Have you come across any pests that have had you hopping mad at the destruction they’ve caused?
One of the benefits of working in a group environment such as a community garden is the amount of experience and knowledge we gain working alongside one other, as well as learning how to get the most from each other’s strengths by working in a team. This is relevant to both community and work place gardens.
I’ve written some guidelines that you can refer to if you’re wondering what a community garden is or how to set one up, but if you’re already involved with a community garden and wondering how to get the best from it, Callan’s story might be of help to you.
For the past 18 months I’ve been funded by Kilkenny Leader Partnership to work with the group of gardeners, helping them to grow their own fruit and vegetables as well as create an awareness of local food produce and it’s importance in the local economy. This project has also enabled us to create an opportunity for progressive development and sustainability by creating a mini enterprise.
Meeting for a couple of hours each week, we began in the autumn of 2012 with a short, basic theory led course where gardeners were introduced to vegetable families, crop rotation, soil requirements, the myriad of seed choices as well as the importance of incorporating wildlife into our gardens.
This gave the group a taster of the practical work that would follow in the more garden friendly months and in the spring of 2013, we started work outside on the very small space allocated to us.
A new gardener with the group learns about seed sowing as the more experienced members encouragingly watch on
In the autumn we spent less time weeding and sowing and more time cooking and preserving, as well as learning about selling and marketing an artisan food product. During that time I was able to work alongside the group, preparing pickles and chutneys from produce we’d grown from seed. Once labelled, over a 100 jars were taken to the three-day Savour Kilkenny Food Festival where they were proudly showcased and sold by the Callan and Goresbridge gardeners who’d helped to create them..
Kilkenny Community Garden Network Pickles & Preserves
The mini enterprise was a success in many ways as the gardeners were able to take part and see, first hand, everything involved in setting up and operating a small, local business. The money raised will help to fund further development projects planned for the garden..
The activity also allowed the gardeners to come to the decision that they much preferred to grow the vegetables and give them to friends and not to sell them! It wasn’t a process they all enjoyed and the group have a new respect for those that do it to make a full-time living. They also have an understanding why small business’ have to charge realistic prices based on time and quality of ingredients. As a result and following discussions with Olive Maher, the forward thinking manager of the resource centre, over the coming months we’ll be trying a different approach with the garden.
Gardeners learn about recycling & gardening
Plans have been made to build more high raised beds that can accommodate people with movement difficulties and due to the extra growing space, will enable the centre to run very relevant and beneficial workshops for the community, using the garden as the hub.
Dee : Photo Credit Catherine Drea
A basic budget cookery course is being planned that will use seasonal produce grown and harvested from the garden, as the core ingredients.
The feasibility of running a basic landscaping course, perhaps with some stonework, where participants will learn to make a seating area and outside barbecue/cooking area is also being considered.
The Family Resource Centre also plan to run a separate mini enterprise course for local people, again using produce grown in the garden.
These courses will be available to everyone in the local community at very reduced rates and the gardeners will have a choice on whether they wish to attend them or just continue working together in the garden and providing fresh produce for them. Lastly and perhaps most importantly in a community, the centre are planning a summer party for everyone who visits, volunteers or learns there and I will be working with the community gardeners to provide as much food as we can for that.
There are no hard and fast rules about community gardens – each one is unique. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to get the most from your garden and sometimes you have to adapt and change original plans, as in the case above.
Community gardens are however, excellent social levellers, creating excellent opportunities for people to integrate, interact, learn, work alongside one another and share; skills that are sometimes overlooked but are so necessary in functioning communities, workplaces, home and society in general.
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