The growing season is moving up a gear, temperatures are rising, daylight hours are stretching and growing rates are accelerating. The seedtrays have done their job. Now is the time to plant out those seedlings in their potting compost modules. This means the least possible disturbance of the young root balls.
The seedlings have been hardened off. Pots and windowbox are lined up filled with good soil. Watering can, trowel and small fork are at hand. I am planting the salad rocket plants side by side with the not so edible flowering plants. The likes of Nicotiana (Affinis), Night-Scented Stock, Calendula, Nasturtium and Gypsophilia will add pleasant aromas, a splash of colour and welcome food for the pollinating insects, including the honey bees I have been minding up the road in a friend’s orchard.
Some of these plants also have interesting backgrounds. Nicotiana, for example, was named after Jean Nicot, a French consul in Portugal, who introduced the tobacco plant to Portugal and France in the 16th century. Although related to the big tobacco leaf plant, the variety ‘Affinis’ looks more like a rockery plant but I’ll see how it grows in the weeks ahead.
Arthur the cat keeping an eye on the seedlings
With more legumes and brassicas planted and the alliums looking a bit dry, there is a need for a watering schedule. With below normal rainfall, I’m watering before breakfast each morning this week. I find a ‘scuaine’ of six watering cans lined up under a garden bench works in my 20′ by 40′ garden. No hose pipe means I waste less water hopefully. I fill the water cans before going to bed. This allows the chlorine to evaporate overnight. Before watering at dawn, I add comfrey tea as a liquid feed to each container. Just a dollop makes for a very diluted solution. Two litres between six watering cans is the rate which works for me.
In the morning I also take out the 12 seedtrays from greenhouse and lay outdoors on path to harden off ready for planting out as each plant is big enough to withstand slug attacks hopefully. When the more seasonally warm temperatures return, I’ll leave hardy seedling in trays outside apart from the more cold sensitive plants like basil, coriander and tomatoes which will fill out in the greenhouse over the summer.
I hear people say from time to time that once seed packets are opened and some seeds sown, they put the re-sealed packet away in a kitchen drawer. I used to do this until I discovered the seeds got forgotten about and did not keep well. So I resolved to get myself a better organised storage system.
While Minister for Food and Horticulture, I got to see how seed and fresh produce was stored. The conditions were generally a chilled environment and produce was well labelled for traceability reasons. The principle for the kitchen gardener is no different.
Organised seed storage
Last year, I kept seed packets in clean dry sealed jam jars in the fridge. However the accumulation of ‘seed jars’ was getting ridiculous. My seed storage was getting in the way of food storage. So this year after last week’s BIG SOW, the system changed and now takes up less space and seed packets are easier to find.
Instead of a jar per seed packet or two, I now group the seed packets in vegetable families. Using ‘fast food’ plastic trays with sealable lids, I put all the brassica seeds (kale, broccolli, Brussel sprout packets etc) in one sealed container and in another I have chard, beetroot and leaf beet, while another has the flower seeds such as sunflower, marigolds and nasturtiums.
The top shelf of the fridge now has the seed containers each labelled with post-its all standing on their sides like a shelf of books. To sow another batch of any seed is now hassle free. I just sowed more beetroot this week for example. Seed packets are now easy to find and easy to put back. Being sealed and in the fridge I hope will prolong their vitality as seeds.
I have kept the radish and cress seeds in separate jars also in the fridge for easy access. These are seeds I sow in succession atleast once a week for a continuous crop up to the end of October. Meanwhile good luck with your own seed storage as well as your seed sowing.
A few seeds every week get sown, mainly radish outdoors each Sunday in a window box to ensure a few are available for harvest each week from April to November. Every couple of days, I would lay a few mung bean seeds in a ‘sprouter’ on the kitchen windowsill so I always have some fresh bean sprouts at the ready for the sandwiches and salad. Some lettuce seeds went in in February and other sowings will be made from time to time up to September, again to extend availability and avoid gluts.
However each spring the kitchen garden requires what could be called the ‘BIG SOW’. This is when the bulk of annual flowers, veg and herb seeds are sown under glass and as they fill out in the seedtrays, out they go to grow on outdoors. Last year, the ‘BIG SOW’ was done on the 21st March, but with the shocking cold winter and late spring (not to mention other distractions in my life!), the ‘BIG SOW’ this year took place last Sunday evening 18th April. However Mother Nature can be kind hearted (volcanoes aside!) and seedlings have a way of putting on a spurt of growth as temperatures rise so all in all no need to panic if you still have to sow seeds this spring. Just read the instructions on the seed packets and get sowing.
Every gardener develops a system which suits the local situation. For what it is worth this is my system. My lean-to greenhouse (the one which looks like a phone box!) has five removeable shelves. Each shelf fits two seedtrays. Each seedtray fits 24 cubes of organic potting compost. Each cube is a growing module for a seedling to develop. I hope to grow 2 types of seed variety in each seedtray – so 12 seedlings of each variety is my optimum yield. Therefore, with 10 seedtrays on 5 shelves, I have just enough space to sow 20 different varieties of flowers, veg and herbs. So here goes……
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The satisfaction and taste of freshly harvested new potatoes is exceptionally good. So good that this year I have bought another four potato growing bags from the garden centre. This means a little less space on the sunny patio. I think I can live without the space but not without the experience of unearthing home grown potatoes. This is to me the ultimate in ‘convenience food’. As each potato bag is ready it can be tipped over and the crop harvested just before cooking, meanwhile leaving the other grow bags in situ.
I am hoping the reputation seed potatoes have for dealing with strong compost mixes is deserved, as I have half-filled each grow bag with well matured home made compost and some soil. Three seed potatoes are placed in each bag with growing buds pointing up. They are buried but only just. As they grow I will fill the bag with soil and compost , bit by bit until the bags are full. This is called ‘earthing up’. I trick the plant into creating more tubers as the soil level ALMOST buries the plant stems each time soil is added.
The lesson I learned from last year is to water each grow bag whether it rains or not. Potatoes need to be kept moist to swell the tubers. In spite of last year’s wet summer, the soil in the bags at harvest time was very dry and almost powdery. Is leor nod don eolach, mar a deirtear!
Only a garden with a greenhouse or at least south facing windows can make any decent headway in seed propogation right now. With strong daytime sunshine, the growing spaces under glass (or plastic) dry out surprisingly quickly. It seems strange to be out watering when the weather is so cold. My ‘telephone box’ sized greenhouse is doing a good job of producing cut and come again lettuce, while seedlings of spinach, lettuce and sweet pea are about 2cm high. The tomato seeds which were sown at the same time have failed to germinate. Tomatoes need Mediterranean spring temperatures of 12 – 16 degrees centigrade to get going. In Ireland this mean either (1) waiting until later in spring or (2) heating your seedtray or greenhouse or (3) a very quick blast of heat on the tomato seeds. This last option was explained by a professional grower to me. There was a practise of putting tomato seeds on a metal tray. The grill in the kitchen was turned on. The tray was quickly ‘shown’ the grill and withdrawn before any seeds were burned and thereby killed. The blast of heat however worked by cracking the seed husk and aiding germination. I take my hat off to professional growers and the ingenuity they bring to their craft. Meanwhile as a kitchen gardener, I will start my tomato seeds again now that daytime temperatures are barely on double figures. Second time lucky I hope.
No doubt I’ll be told that early February is too early for sowing seed with temperatures still low and flurries of snow here and there. I realise I’m taking a calculated risk but the seed packets in question do say to sow from February onwards. However, February 2009 was a little warmer than February 2010 so far.
Nevertheless, if my impatience is punished I can make further sowings in March. So I have nothing to lose and maybe a slightly earlier harvest to gain. Rather than repeating myself, I hope the video clip below says it all. Lettuce, tomato, sweetpea and lobelia seeds are now sown and sitting on my windowsill in their 3 inch pots. Their very presence seems to herald in milder and brighter days.
The world of domesticated potato growing is a venerable one, going back some 9000 years to the shores of Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. This ‘super food’ (it has pretty much got every nutrient you need keep healthy) has since become the fourth most important food crop in the world. The biggest cultivator of potato is China.
However with over 5000 varieties of potato worldwide, the potatoes grown in China or Africa or in South America are probably different from those we favour in Ireland. Our favourite spud bought by almost half of Irish consumers is the Rooster, which was bred here expressly to suit the Irish palate.
Early varieties (such as Colleen or Orla) get sown first, followed by ‘second earlies (such as Carlingford) a few weeks later. The main crop (such as Rooster) is planted later in Spring to mature later giving a bigger yield and some is stored until the ‘earlies’ are harvested the next year.
Before planting my few Orla seed potatoes in grow bags at the end of February, I first show them light in a frost free environment for a couple of week so that they sprout. This can speed them on their way once they are planted in a soil and compost mixture.
Chitting is the word used to sprout seed potatoes before planting. It is a simple procedure as the following video shows. The only precaution worth noting is be sure your seed potatoes are disease free. I make sure I buy mine as ‘certified seed potato’, for peace of mind.
This mild and still weather after the ‘shock and awe’ of the BIG FREEZE really makes me appreciate the occasional foray into the garden. I was recently at an organic gardening talk by local experienced grower Nicky Kyle who asked me to pull a few raffle tickets as part of a fundraiser for disaster relief in Haiti.
I asked Nicky for advice on pruning blackcurrants. I was delighted when Nicky offered to visit my kitchen garden and show me how to wield a secateurs herself. I hope you can see the results of the visit on this video clip to follow for yourself.
After the joy of winning a first prize in the Naul Horticultural Show for parsley which grows well under the apple tree, I was then brought back down to earth to discover a white fungus on a branch of the apple tree above. I read up on the symptoms in ‘Natural Pest and Disease Control’ by Jim Hay, a Century Paperback from 1987.
The symptoms match apple powdery mildew, a fungus disease which overwinters on the tree in the dormant buds. I cut away the infested branch area using a saw. I took the infected wood indoors to further cut it up for the fire in winter. Some organic growers put bee’s wax on the wound left by the cut, others say leave it to heal on its own. Jim Hay says if the disease persists, spray with a lime sulphur solution immediately after the blossom has fallen in the Spring and again four weeks later.
Meanwhile, I will clear some of the vegetation under the apple tree as lack of air circulating could be a contributory factor in creating conditions for apple powdery mildew which is also quite sticky, a bit like candy floss.