Last week Friends of the Earth (UK) launched a campaign “Bee Cause”, calling on the British government to commit to a “bee action plan to save bees and save the country billions of pounds in the future.”
If you’ve been listening to the news over the past couple of years you’ll have no doubt heard that the decline in bee populations isn’t just a UK problem, it’s worldwide. A combination of issues from colony collapse disorder, parasites and shortages in habitats are being blamed but whatever the cause, it’s serious.
Bees aren’t just about honey – they help to pollinate strawberries, nuts, herbs, coffee and cotton to name just a fraction of items we use daily.
According to research released this *week it would cost the UK £1.8 billion every year to hand-pollinate crops without bees – 20% more than previously thought. That’s just one country, imagine that on a global basis. Finances apart, can you image a world without bees? I don’t even want to…
In recent years Britain has lost over half the honey bees kept in managed hives and wild honey bees are nearly extinct. Solitary bees are declining in more than half the areas they’ve been studied and some species of bumblebee have been lost altogether. These figures are replicated around the world.
One reason for the bee decline is a shortage of natural habitats, so Friends of the Earth have outlined simple steps people can take in their gardens to help provide it:
Sow bee-friendly seeds and plant bee-friendly flowers in your garden such as mixed wildflowers packets, single-flowering roses, open and flat-headed flowers like verbena and yarrow and tubular-shaped flowers such as foxgloves.
Image courtesy of Gardeners World
Create a place to nest for solitary bees by piling together hollow stems and creating a ‘bee hotel’.
Try to provide a small amount of rainwater in a shallow bird bath or tray which honeybees need to keep their hive at the right temperature.
So please “bee aware” and encourage these very special insects into your gardens – they really do need all the help we can give them.
Have you come across bees in trouble? Last year we spotted a large bumblebee covered in parasites and clearly in trouble. It was distressing to observe but by providing flowers with pollen that haven’t been sprayed with chemicals, perhaps it will help to keep the bees strong and more able for pests and diseases. It might be a small step, but it’s something.
* conducted by The University of Reading on behalf of Friends of the Earth (Reference: Breeze et al, 2012 – Chapter 4.)
Vegetables crops are grouped into families. Crop rotation simply means that related annual vegetables are grown together in their families and their positions moved around the plot once a year (or more).
Why use Crop Rotation?
There are a number of reasons for rotating crops:
It helps to prevent pests and diseases that live in the soil. For example, two major worries in vegetable growing are clubroot disease in Brassica crops (cabbage type plants) and the nematode known as eelworm in potatoes. If the crops are grown in the same place each year, the chances of these problems occurring are much greater. By moving them around annually and only growing them in the same ground every four years of so, the pest and disease life cycles should be broken.
It stops the soil becoming drained of nutrients that the same plants would use every year.
Crops can follow each other that will benefit each other. E.g., bean and pea roots hold lots of nitrogen. If their disease free roots are left in the ground once the crops have been harvested, the Brassica that will follow in the next rotation will reap the rewards by producing lots of leafy greens. Also Brassica like soil that’s consolidated so by leaving the legume roots behind and thus causing little disturbance to the soil, the Brassica that follow will root better.
If vegetable families are grown together, it’s likely that the soil for each will need to be treated in the same way and that they will be prone to the same pests and diseases so can be treated together easily.
Important Families: (That are likely to be grown outdoors in a cooler climate)
Anything else can be fitted in such as sweetcorn, squashes, salads etc.
Basic Guidelines for Crop Rotation
The main guideline is to keep families together; if a section is to hold more than one family, try to keep those with similar growing requirements together e.g., potatoes and pumpkins like lots of organic matter.
Using a bed system can make planning a rotation easier.
Take lots of photos and make notes as it’s easy to forget where you grew something a year or to ago.
How to Plan A Four-Year Crop Rotation
The following is a guideline. You may not want (or need) to follow this rotation at first. However, after a couple of seasons you may start to wonder what can be planted in the gaps. This should help with your planning. It’s a popular plan that many people use and has worked well for us.
People Like Bunches of Roses is an acronym I heard recently that may help you to remember the rotation.
Year 1: Potato crops
Year 2: Legumes (peas, beans)
Year 3: Brassicas (cabbage type crops)
Year 4: Root crops/others.
In this four-year rotation the potatoes and squashes are planted first (Bed 1) as the potatoes break up the soil nicely.
In year 2 the legumes (peas & beans) will be planted in Bed 1 as they will fix nitrogen into the soil for the Brassica (cabbages) that will follow. Therefore in year 3 the leafy crops (Brassica) will be planted in bed 1 and lastly in year 4 the roots and others can be planted in bed 1 as they are the least demanding of the crops.
You may also find it useful to use a five-year rotation, rotating the Allium (onion) family separately. Whichever you decide, avoid leaving the soil empty. Either cover it when not in use with carpet or similar or plant a green manure or a crop into it.
Bed 1: (Early, main crop potatoes, pumpkins, courgettes, and tomatoes)
These are the biggest feeders. In the autumn months (once the root crops have been cleared), apply well-rotted manure or compost or grow a green manure such as grazing rye. In spring, dig in the green manure (grazing rye) and if you didn’t have the opportunity to manure, or have sandy soil, apply manure or compost now, leaving a few weeks between manuring and sowing if you can. After harvesting the potatoes, plant anything from the legume family.
Bed 2: Legume Family (beans, peas, french beans and runner beans)
The Legumes. These fix nitrogen themselves so do not require extra manure. They will benefit from leaf mould mulch once they’ve been planted out however (to improve soil structure). Once harvested, sow a nitrogen-fixing green manure such as winter tares, check the soil pH and add lime in the autumn if necessary.
Bed 3: Brassica (cabbage, swede, turnips, broccoli, and radish)
Leafy veg (Brassica & salads) like to follow peas & beans. Dig in the green manures (winter tares) or add compost (or well-rotted manure) in the spring prior to planting. Mulch with leaf mould in the autumn
Bed 4: Others (carrots, beetroot, parsnips, celery and sweetcorn
Mostly comprises of root crops but miscellaneous crops fit in well here too. They don’t need much feeding, as they’ll use up everything that’s leftover from previous crops. Apply compost in the spring where Allium, celery, leafbeet and sweetcorn will grow.
Sow a green manure (such as grazing rye) over winter, ready for the potatoes in the spring.
Only One Vegetable Bed?
If you only have one or two small beds, don’t worry. Just divide them into four with bamboo or hazel sticks and plant your vegetable families in the different squares or rectangles. You may also find that you plant more Allium (onions) than Brassica. It doesn’t matter. As long as you aim to keep the vegetable families apart for as long as possible, you’ll have done your best.
Something to remember if you’re aiming for a year round supply of Alliums:
Overwintering onions will not be ready to harvest until early to mid-summer and don’t tend to store as well as onions that are sown in the spring (although they can be diced and frozen).
They do fill the gap (spring planted sets are usually ready late summer to autumn and will store until mid-spring the following year if stored well). Some people grow shallots to fill any gaps as they store particularly well.
1. Find a supply
Luckily with the trend in grow your own building, finding a supplier is getting easier. I bought two varieties, Radar and Senshyu Yellow in a local garden centre who were selling several varieties. Priced at just €1.75 for 50, sets are generally considered easier to grow and less prone to disease (although they often bolt or run to seed). Sets are also available on-line.
2. Prepare the ground
Avoid planting onions in soil that’s been freshly manured or they will be too lush. I’ve planted mine in the patch that I’d manured for potatoes at the beginning of the year. Onions also prefer soil that has a fairly neutral pH of 6 to 7 so test it with a pH kit (easy to do, just follow instructions on the packet) and add lime as per instructions on the box if it’s very acidic. Avoid planting them where onions have grown in the last three to four years to prevent pests and diseases.
Use a marker to measure distance.
3. Position the Onions
I find it easier to place all the onions in position and then plant them. I usually follow the recommended planting depths and distances on the packet but if I don’t have a packet usually plant them about 7-8 in apart each way. The two packs I planted today recommended 5 in apart.
I then use a marker snapped to the correct length and a rake handle (or bamboo cane) laid across the bed as a marker.
(spot the health & safety hazard!)
From experience I’ve found it easier to place all the bulbs before planting so that I can see where they all are! It also gives me a second chance at checking that they’re the right way up. The bottom of the bulb is usually flatter and the tip pointed.
4. Plant the onion sets.
Onions are sown quite high in the soil, about an inch deep, as opposed to garlic which is planted deeper.
If your soil is quite firm avoid pushing the bulb into it as you may damage it. Use a dibber or a stick to loosen the soil first.
Once you’ve planted all your sets, label them with the variety and date and watch them grow.
Keep an eye on the sets and re-plant them if birds dislodge them.
Ensure the soil is kept watered if there’s a dry spell.
Keep the soil weeded (which is much easier at this time of year as they’re not growing as quickly, if at all).<
In the spring you can add a seaweed-based feed which is full of nutrients and minerals to give your plants a boost.
7. Pests and Diseases
If you’re prone to onion fly (where small maggots attack the seedlings), you can grow them under fine netting. Unfortunately you wont know you’re prone until you’ve experienced them!
There are no organic remedies for mildews and rots of onions (which will be worse in damp weather) that I’m aware of.
All that’s left of our summer crop, oh no!
You can lift and use the onions as you need them once they’re a reasonable size. If you’re hoping to store them, wait until the foliage dies down and the tops bend naturally (see blog in September).
For more information about growing onions from seed, see the YouTube clip below:
If you spend a small amount of time learning about a crop – the growing conditions it favours, how to look after it once you’ve harvested, as well as the pests and diseases to look out for, you will (hopefully!) be rewarded with a bumper crop.
Strawberries are an amazingly hardy crop. All the plants in both our beds survived the coldest winter we’ve had in years and we’ve had our best harvest from them yet.
This week alone from our Cambridge variety we’ve frozen about 30lbs, made 12 jars of jam, frozen a strawberry and rhubarb crumble and made two cheesecakes, as well as eaten them when we’ve fancied.
So what would it help to know…….
Preparation and Care of your Strawberry Bed
Strawberries are a woodland plant, which means that they tolerate shade, although they fruit better in sun. They like plenty of humus (in the wild they grow in pure leaf mould) and they don’t object to fairly acid conditions.
They prefer a light soil to clay, but will thrive in any well-drained ground provided they have plenty of humus. They develop a much better flavour in a cold climate, and new plants should be moved to totally fresh ground every three years as they are a hungry plant that tends to exhaust the soil.
When the soil is being prepared, it should be dug one spade deep and plenty of compost or well-rotted organic manure incorporated. Strawberries like lots of potash too.
Weeds should be removed regularly using a hoe or by hand. Once the crop starts to spread, straw can be placed under the straggling stems to keep them clean.
Virus-free strawberry plants can be purchased from reputable suppliers. Once planted most varieties make runners that will root themselves, which can be encouraged by removing the blossom from a few plants. Small pots can be buried in the soil in the ground near the parent plants and the ends of the runners pegged on to the pots. When they have rooted properly, they can be severed from their parent plant, the pots dug up and the new plants transplanted. Parent plants can put out several runners, so choose two or three of the strongest and remove the weaker ones.
In this way a new strawberry bed could be established every autumn giving a freshly planted bed, a year old bed, a two-year old bed and a three-year old bed – the last of which will be ready for digging up. The new beds should be dug as far as possible from the old ones to hinder disease.
The bed shown on the left was made up entirely of runners from another bed.
Strawberries can be planted at any time of the year but it’s traditional to plant them late in the summer so they can be harvested the following year. They should be planted so that the crown is at ground level but the roots are spread out widely and downwards and watered well. They can be placed 38cm (15in) apart with 75cm (30in) between rows.
To help warm up the soil and to prevent weeds from taking hold, plastic or weed control membrane can be placed over the soil prepared for the strawberry beds, holes made in it at the recommended distances (see above) and the strawberries planted in them. Untreated straw can then be placed on top of that to keep the fruit dry.
Strawberry Pests and Diseases
Birds love to eat the ripe berries but the plants can be protected be covering with a net.
Powdery Mildew will make them a dull brown colour.
Aphids are a menace because they spread virus diseases.
Strawberry Beetle can be discouraged by keeping the beds weeded.
Rot can be a problem after rain. All ripe berries should be picked immediately after rain and rotten ones composted.
Strawberry Harvesting and Storage
The fruit should be pulled off the plant with their stems intact, and the stems left on right up until eating otherwise vitamins and other nutrients are lost. They can be stored in the shade for a few hours, in the fridge for a day or two. The can be frozen but tend to go soft when thawed.
Strawberry Bed After Care
The straw should be removed once the crop has been harvested and the bed cleared of dead leaves, surplus runners and weeds.
(This photo shows the variety Sarpo Mira, a blight resistant late maincrop, interplanted with the companion plant Borage.)
I love growing potatoes as each time I harvest them I feel like I’m unearthing buried treasure (making it a real joy when our children help)! Carefully loosening the earth from around the plants and seeing how many tubers have grown from one little seed potato carefully planted weeks before is a real delight. However, the range and variety of potatoes available, as well as all the gardening terms used when talking about them, can seem quite bewildering to someone new to growing veg.
As a result of all the questions I’ve been asked recently about this magical crop, including “what are earlies”, “how should I plant them?” “What’s blight” “what are floury/waxy potatoes” “what do you recommend”, the following is a guide to choosing and growing your own spuds.
Potatoes are put into groups that describe how long it takes for them to reach maturity. Usually this is about:
Very early earlies – 75 days (harvest around June)
Earlies (or 1st earlies) – 90 days (harvest around July)
Second Earlies – 110 days (harvest around August)
Early Maincrop – 135 days (harvest around September)
Late Maincrop – 160 days (harvest around October)
Earlies are often described as ‘new’ potatoes as they’re used when fresh rather than stored. They’re also planted closer together so are smaller and take up less space. They’re a great crop to grow if you’re nervous about growing spuds for the first time. Apart from harvesting them at a time when new potatoes are expensive in the shops, because they’re ready early to mid summer they usually avoid pests and diseases such as blight and potato cyst eelworm.
Maincrops are great for storage but can be used straight from the ground too. Every year more varieties of blight resistant varieties are introduced in an effort to combat this destructive fungus.
Potatoes are grown from what’s known as ‘seed potatoes’ readily available from garden centres, DIY stores and mail order catalogues from mid winter onwards. It’s not advised to save your own (or use supermarket potatoes usually destined for the table) as they may become diseased. If you have a choice when choosing potatoes, try and pick larger tubers for early crops and small/medium sized for maincrops.
There’s a lot of debate about lately on whether we should ‘chit’ potatoes prior to planting. Chitting means that you’re encouraging the potato to sprout before placing it in the ground in the hope of an earlier harvest. Potato tubers will eventually form on these sprouts.
Often gardeners will chit earlies but plant maincrops as they are. Chitting involves placing the seed potato (known as a tuber) in a container (like an egg box) and placing it in a dry, frost free room out of direct light so that it grows little shoots out of it’s ‘eyes’.
When the shoots are approximately 2.5cm long the potatoes can be sown outside. Don’t worry if they’re longer – just be careful not to snap the shoots off.
When can you plant them out? The soil where the tuber will rest should have reached a temperature of about 6oC for three consecutive days (usually March to April). Don’t attempt to plant them if the soil is too wet, sticky, dry or frozen. If you’re worried that the conditions don’t seem ideal and time is passing, try pegging down some clear plastic over your soil to help warm it up. The yields will be much higher in a long growing season.
In general, the closer you plant the seed potatoes together, the smaller the harvested crop. As a general guide when sowing in rows, place
Earlies – 30cm apart, with 60cm between rows and 5cm deep
Maincrops – 37cm apart, with 75cm between rows and 10cm deep
They will grow in most soil types but prefer a sunny, frost-free area with a pH of 4.5 to 6. Potatoes can be a useful crop for breaking up soil as their roots are so deep. If you can, manure the soil the previous autumn as this crop is a greedy one. Once the plants are growing they will need watering – heavily and every week on dry soils.
Potato crops are not fully hardy. This means a heavy frost could kill them (as farmers have found to their cost this year in Ireland) and we have been known to have snow as late as May. If you can, cover the growing crops with horticultural fleece, newspaper or cloches to protect them if frost threatens.
Container planting choose a compact variety – early and second earlies are ideal. Plant 3 – 4 seed potatoes in compost in a large container (such as a dustbin or a heavy-duty plastic sack with drainage holes punched in the base) at a depth of about 15cm. When the foliage starts to grow (known as the haulm) add more compost to “earth up”. This encourages more side shoots to develop. Keep adding compost until it reaches the top of the container.
Planting in the soil there are a couple of popular methods used for planting outside. The first involves making V shaped ridges in the soil and planting the tubers in the bottom, using the soil on the ridge to ‘earth up’ the foliage (haulm) as it grows. The second method involves covering the soil with black plastic or weed membrane, making little X shaped cuts and planting the potatoes directly into the soil, making the slit larger as the plant grows.
The reason for earthing up or covering the soil with plastic is twofold. Firstly it prevents ‘greening’. As the plant grows the newly developing tubers get pushed upwards. If they’re exposed to sunlight they become green and produce a poisonous toxin called solanine. Secondly earthing up will give the tubers some protection against blight. If you choose to earth them up, do so in the morning – potatoes tend to droop as the day progresses making the job harder.
There are over 100 potato diseases, which is enough to put anybody off growing them! In my experience the main ones to worry about are Blight and Eelworm – not to dismiss all the others but these are the nasties. Slugs also love potato plants so a daily patrol at dusk armed with a torch and an empty milk container half filled with salty hot water will keep them at bay.
Blight is at its worst in warm, humid conditions usually from July onwards. It’s a parasitic fungus that’s carried along in the wind currents. Beginners often find it a difficult disease to diagnose until it’s too late. Look out for brownish-black spots that appear on the leaves and stems. The undersides of leaves often have a white mould fringe around the spots. Tubers will have black marks on them.
Once it’s taken hold there’s nothing you can do other than remove the haulms (do not compost them) to about 5cm off the soil level and hope that the spores did not infect the tubers in the soil. Affected tubers cannot be stored. If they are infected the black marks can be cut out and the rest of the potato eaten but avoid giving them to pregnant women, the elderly or sick.
Avoid blight by buying resistant varieties, planting earlies and earthing up. Also dig up all tubers when harvesting and remove any infected plants from your site.
Potato Cyst Eelworm This pest is very common in soil that has had potatoes grown on it previously. The plants are often stunted, with leaves that turn yellow and die. If you suspect eelworm Joy Larkcom in her great book Grow Your Own Vegetables suggests lifting the roots and plunging them in a bucket of water – the cysts will float on the surface. You may have to give up growing potatoes in that area for 10 years if infected!
To prevent Eelworm infestation follow a long crop rotation, grow resistant varieties, and only grow earlies (they mature before a major infection occurs) and only use certified seed.
Incidentally, Scab is caused by growing potatoes in soil that is too alkaline (high pH of 7 or more (they’re still safe to eat though).
You can start harvesting most varieties once they start to flower. With earlies just dig them up when you want them – preferably just before dinner! Maincrops too can be dug up as required but if you want to store them, and they’re healthy, they can be left in the ground until early autumn.
If you notice that your plants are starting to look diseased, don’t delay – cut back the haulms to ground level and leave the tubers in the ground for about two weeks before lifting which will help their skins to harden.
Varieties and Quantities
How do you decide what seed potatoes to buy and how many? There are over 500 varieties on offer all with different traits. Whether you grow waxy or floury potatoes is personal preference – what do you like to eat and cook?
Waxy potatoes are translucent and feel moist. They’re firmer and keep their shape, making them ideal for salads, chipping and boiling. Varieties include Coleen, Charlotte, Marie Peer, Aaron and Remarka.
Floury potatoes are drier and granular and are best where you want fluffy potatoes for roasting or mashing. Varieties include Estima, Records, Setanta, Maris Piper, Desiree, Golden Wonder and British Queens.
Other points to bear in mind include what variety best suits your area/location? For instance Epicure are a floury potato with more frost resistance than other varieties, making them an ideal choice for colder areas. The Sarpo range has been bred for their blight tolerance. Charlottes are a classic salad potato with good blight and scab resistance and Maris Piper have a good resistance to eelworm.
If you prefer to purchase your potatoes from the local garden centre, take a look through your gardening books or seed catalogues and jot down a few choices before you leave home. If your main consideration is culinary, check out www.lovepotatoes.co.uk/potato-varieties which has a comprehensive list of varieties and their best uses.
As a general guide to how many to buy and plant, potatoes are usually sold by weight. 1.5kg gives an average of 14 seed potatoes and requires and area of roughly 2.5sq metres to grow. The total yield will be an average of 10.5kg (depending upon variety and growing conditions).
If your crop is healthy it’s much more likely to withstand attacks from disease and bad weather. A seaweed based foliar spray can be applied at least three times during your plant’s lifetime (including while they’re chitting) to give them a boost.
Copper sprays can be used against blight (the Irish organic standards for using copper based sprays are 8kg copper per hectare per season). Contact organic suppliers for more information.
If you can contain horseradish by planting it in a bucket at the end of the row (it can get invasive), it’s said to provide general protection to potato crops. Evidence is also showing that substances from the roots of Tagete patula (marigolds) can help to prevent microscopic eelworms and Borage is said to repel them.
In my quest to keep learning as much as possible about growing fruit and veg I’m always on the look out for good gardening books. There are so many out there it can be difficult to choose which ones to spend our hard-earned cash on. I’d planned to make this a blog of my top five but found some of them really hard to weed out (couldn’t resist). The following are therefore my current favourites. If anybody has any comments, recommendations or further suggestions I’d love to hear them.
This week I’m raving about my latest buy:
“How Does Your Garden Grow” by Chris Beardshaw (published 2007 Dorling Kindersley).
This is a fantastic book for anybody who wants to learn a bit more about the science of plants and soil, written and laid out in an easy to read fashion with sketches, photos and anecdotes from Chris’ own experiences. Covering topics ranging from plant cells, light and shade through to seasons and ageing, the book covers all the basics of horticulture. I can’t recommend this enough for anybody who wants to learn more about the gardening world, subsequently helping them to improve their skills.
Grow Your Own Vegetables by Joy Larkcom (paperback published 2002 Frances Lincoln Ltd).
A guru of fruit and veg, Joy shares her knowledge in this handy sized book packed full of practical information on everything you need to know about growing vegetables. A no-nonsense book (there are no glossy photos to be found here) Joy covers all aspects of growing from site, sowing, planning as well as a comprehensive vegetable directory. I wish I’d known about this book when I started out.
The New Self-Sufficient Gardener by John Seymour (published 2008 by Dorling Kindersley).
We were bought the original Complete book of Self-Sufficiency as a wedding gift and have often referred to it over the years (although sadly not living by it yet!). The new Self-Sufficient Gardener is a beautifully illustrated guide to producing your own food. More general and basic than Chris Beardshaw’s book in terms of science, John covers the important topics such as the ecology of soil, the edible parts of plants as well as gardening through the year and planning a food-producing garden organically.
The Plant Propagator’s Bible by Miranda Smith (published 2009 by The Reader’s Digest Association).
If you’d love to grow your own plants from seeds, cuttings or division but aren’t sure how, this book has it all. Taking you step by step with illustrations and photo’s on many propagating techniques, including grafting, budding and layering, this book will save you heaps of cash as you start rearing your own young plants.
The RHS Pests & Diseases – The Definitive Guide to Prevention and Treatment by Pippa Greenwood & Andrew Halstead (published 2009 by Dorling Kindersley).
A long title but the best book I’ve found to date on pests and diseases. This book has a gallery of colour photos that help to identify problems, as well as a comprehensive A – Z of pests, diseases and disorders, including the symptoms, cause and control of each problem. Although we garden organically, the section on chemicals made interesting reading and the chemical-free and biological control chapters covered many of the methods used by organic gardeners.
The Vegetable & Herb Expert by Dr D G Hessayon (published 2002, Transworld Publishers).
This was my first gardening bible and one that was carried to my plot every time I ventured out. I was also given a diary version of this by a close friend but for some reason keep losing it! Although the pages are now falling out I think it’s a must have for beginners, containing illustrations of recommended seed sowing distances, expected yields and soil preparation for each crop. The only downside I’ve found with it is that some of the varieties recommended haven’t always been available in the garden centres (so if you do use it to help you choose a variety suitable for your garden, make sure you write down a second and third choice too!)
The Garden Expert by Dr D G Hessayon (published 2005, Transworld Publishers). A
nother handy Hessayon book, this introduction to gardening covers many aspects including putting a name to your soil, improving drainage, digging, fertilising and liming amongst many things. A useful reference book, particularly when starting out.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has been many things to many people bringing trauma, pain and heartbreak but also space and time for reflection as the world slows down. There’s not a day gone by during the past three months when we haven’t felt blessed to be living in the countryside, forgetful of the many inconveniences that can dwell alongside it. Living miles from anywhere yet with a garden, albeit one that had become overgrown and unkempt from almost three years of neglect, has helped our mental health considerably during these difficult times.
On the 11th March 2020, as for many of us living in Ireland around that time, our world changed. All of my work stopped for the foreseeable future in what was to be my busiest year to date. Five of us were living under the same roof again and as parents, not only did we have our own worries and concerns to deal with, but had to consider how a lock-in might affect our three offspring as all their physical social contacts were cut.
Luckily we had saved for and planned to make changes to our garden this year which included an entertainment area. As soon as it became apparent that garden centres and hardware stores were about to close and that fresh food shortages might develop, we threw ourselves into the work. I was able to use the new garden design skills I’d learnt in the part-time Advanced Landscaping course that I finished remotely in April. I also drew upon the personal experience gained of needing a low maintenance vegetable garden, and ensured we planned our space more efficiently whilst allowing habitats for biodiversity. Unexpectedly the kids got involved and helped to create new areas that far exceeded our own visions for relaxation.
It seems ironic that my hobby of growing vegetables at home, which turned into a working passion where I could help others start their own vegetable garden, became a monster that took me away from our own haven, where not a single seed was sown.
On the one hand I’d be talking to groups about the importance of not loosing life skills, of growing and buying local food and of food security, and on the other, was lucky to spend an hour or two outside a week at home cutting the grass. COVID-19 has changed that. It has given us time to reconnect, rethink and refresh.
I am thankful every day, not only that my friends and family have managed to keep their health, but to have had the time to spend in our garden and make the changes that were necessary. I hope that you have found the rewards that gardening and nature can bring too.
I began with a practical session on How to Design a Vegetable Garden where I shared tips about how we planned to turn our lawn into a raised vegetable bed garden. There are more videos in the series that share how we did that, including the costings, soil and wood used.
This was followed by a mixture of short films that covered the almost overwhelming job of reclaiming the soil in our freshly covered polytunnel. Thank goodness I’d bought the new polythene back in the autumn from Highbank, even though I was cursing that we didn’t have time then to put it on the hoops back then.
The film clips moved onto the front lawn where we installed the raised beds, planned for in the design video above. Although most vegetables are now planted and sown into the beds, we’re not finished yet as we still plan to cover the surrounding lawn with stones when funds allow, completely ridding ourselves of the patchy grass and its continual mowing regime.
As the garden comes to life and seeds are being sown, I’ve started to include timely ‘How to’ guides for growing vegetables using techniques that have worked for me. For instance I recently planted courgettes in the polytunnel, saving some for outdoors.
I’ve added some garden tours that follow the progress across all the areas. The most recent is a new Forest Bathing area in the little woodland on the property (or a potential Rave in the Woods once restrictions ease!)
During the past three months we’ve built raised beds, covered and filled the polytunnel, started to make a duck pond, cleared derelict buildings and made a garden bar. We’ve created a tranquil space in the woodland and made lazy beds for the potatoes in our one acre plot, we’ve sown seeds, transplanted plants, hardened them off, planted and pruned. The work is ongoing and I plan to continue with the videos over the coming months.
If you have an opportunity to watch all or any of the clips or have any questions or concerns in relation to creating a new vegetable garden please leave a comment. If you’d like to share how you’ve managed to get by during and if the garden or nature has helped, we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime #staysafe
Over the last week or so my family have asked what I’d like for Christmas and I don’t know about you, but I’m really stuck. Bar a new pair of cozy pyjamas or a delicious smelling soap, I can’t think of anything. As our children grow into their teenage years and along with them all the fears that challenge us, the health and happiness of everyone close really is uppermost.
Our timelines and news sources are full of tales of uncertainty so rather than material goods, perhaps offering a gift of a skill is the way to go. Getting back to basics was one of the reasons I began tutoring vegetable growing. If all of a sudden the shops ran out of food, or perhaps more likely, we run out of money, how would we eat? A bit dramatic I know, but I’m not comfortable leaving my entire food supply to others, are you?
Workshops in Ireland
There have been a few workshop ideas floating around that have caught my attention; they eventually prompted me to come up with some of my own workshops here at Greenside Up (see number 15); but I was particularly drawn to Riot Rye’s natural bread making course that I spotted after my recent soda bread efforts (number 5), and I can personally vouch for the South Kildare Beekeepers workshops (number 1).
If you’re looking for a meaningful gift for a friend, loved one or even yourself, perhaps some of the following might appeal. Not only is learning a new skill a present that will keep on giving, you might even make it extra special by combining it with a weekend away in one of Ireland’s beautiful counties.
Talking of making clothes, this is another skill I’m now very rusty with. Miriam Lloyd of Sewing Concepts runs beginners dressmaking classes from her studios in Ballon, County Carlow. I was tempted to ask for a sewing machine for Christmas as mine hasn’t worked for years and Miriam came up with a great recommendation; could 2016 be the year to brush up on those long forgotten skills?
Want to learn how to sew? Need a sewing machine? I am asked regularly what do I recommend. The Janome 2060 is perfect…
The School of Food in Kilkenny opened its doors in 2015 and they offer a multitude of cookery classes, from the basic skills right through to chef training.
We’re also blessed to have Anne Neary’s Ryeland House cookery school nearby. There are cookery schools dotted all around Ireland that offer classes on everything from jam making and vegetarian dinners to preserving and butchery, though I’d suggest you’re careful about how you present this voucher if you don’t wish to offend your friend or partner!
5. Bread making
It was Joe Fitzmaurice’s tweet about his sourdough bread making classes that prompted this blog post. We’ve been trying to cut processed foods right out of our diets here in Greenside Up but fail when it comes to bread. However, this recommended bread making course from Joe might just swing it.
Knockdrinna Cheese are based in the tiny village of Stoneyford, Co Kilkenny and are makers of a range of goats, sheep and cows cheep. They have won over 40 International and Irish awards, including a Gold award for their semi-hard goats cheese at the 2013 British Cheese Awards where it was named ‘Best Modern British’. They now offer cheesemaking courses so if cheesemaking is on your ‘to do’ list, you’ll find no better teacher than Helen Finnegan.
7. Pig rearing
We swore after we began keeping hens that we’d never have another animal here unless we learnt about it first so we booked ourselves on an Old farm Pig Rearing course and subsequently reared our own for the following three years.
Alfie and Margaret’s courses sell out fast so if you’re considering taking the more humane option for meat eating and getting a pig or two, I can personally recommend this course.
8. Soap making workshops
Have you ever wanted to learn the art of soap making? Tanya from Lovely Greens in the Isle of Man has enticed me with her beautiful blog post tutorials, and as a result, I’d now like to try something more hands on.
Well not exactly but Steven Lamb and Gill Meller, two members of the River Cottage team will be sharing their skills at Croan Cottages at Dunnamaggin in Co Kilkenny. During the three day residential workshops, they’ll be teaching participants all manner of cooking techniques from fish to pizzas, breadmaking and curing, making for a very special culinary experience.
10. Basket weaving
Heike Kahle Hartmann is a gifted basket weaver living a couple of miles from us in County Kilkenny and if you’d like to buy a finished product, her workshops are often open where you can pick up a gift for a friend or relative.
Heike also offers basket weaving classes and after a quick Google, I came across this one in Tinahealy in County Wicklow taking place in February.
As COP21 closes I’d love to be able to share news of LOTS of courses or workshops about creating energy more sustainably but I’m sad to say I couldn’t find any.
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland offer lots of links on sustainable energy and advice for primary schools, but try as I might I couldn’t find any workshops for adults – there’s a gap in the market if ever one sprang out.
CELT are a registered charity that offer sustainable living workshops and in 2016 they have another two-day traditional skills workshops planned, where you can learn to make your own jewelery, furniture, cloth, knives, leather, or even build your own home. For more information on this real back to basics weekend, take a look here.
Finally, last but certainly not least, how about learning more about growing your own fruit and vegetables. It’s good to see workshops being advertised all over the country but if you fancy a trip to the Carlow /Kilkenny border, for the first time since I began Greenside Up 6 years ago, I’ll be hosting a series of gardening workshops aimed at beginners.
The workshops will be restricted to just eight people, offering a much more personal learning experience with a light lunch and refreshments provided.
We’ll be starting on Sunday, 13th March with seed sowing and propagating, followed by an introduction to organic gardening on 10th April, growing your own herbs on 22nd May and finally tackling pests, diseases and weeds without chemicals. If popular, I’ll be adding more workshops to the list. For more information, prices and booking details, take a look here.
But back to basics and things that matter, many of the animal charities are looking for sponsorship such as Animal Magic Wildlife Rescue, a gift that animal lovers might appreciate. You can contact Animal Magic here.
If you have any more ideas for back-to-basic workshops, please leave them in the comments, we’d love to hear them.
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