Posts Tagged ‘December’


Mark Keenan is the man who writes The Sunday Times column about his experience producing food from an allotment in Bohernabreena in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. The column, for reasons you can guess, is called ‘Plot 34’. Small wonder then that he went on to write a book about the whole experience called ‘Plot 34, blood, sweat and allotmenteers’.

Mark did me the honour of calling to ask if I would launch the new book published by Brandon Press, which was founded and run by the legendary publisher Steve Mc Donagh, Dia lena anam dílis. This is my kind of gig so we arranged the time last Tuesday for 7.30pm when the Dáil was not due to vote until 8.30pm. The Village Venue on Wexford Street, Dublin, hosted the friendly, earthy, event.

After a very kind introduction, Mark asked me to say a few words. Tongue in cheek, Mark refers to his plot as ‘Gulag 34’, which gives some idea of the commitment needed to get a serious output from a new plot. The book contains much humour, anecdotes about rearing horticulltural children as well as some 55 varieties of fruit and vegetables.

In my ‘few words’, I referred to the support now available from farmers who offer plots to rent and from local authorities which increasingly want to meet allotment associations half way and facilitate the desire among people to grow food near where they live. I also suggested that where farmers’ markets have a Bord Bia standard, there is scope to sell surplus produce from a garden or allotment.

Globally the financial crisis has shown how fast change can take place. Growing more food locally is a good way to cushion the blow should the food we currently import be more difficult or too expensive to purchase. Right now global food demand is outstripping production. 85 million humans are added to the world population each year requiring an extra 5 million hectares of farm land. However, due to soil erosion, about 10 million hectares are being lost. Hence the shocking levels of deforestation which are a big cause of climate change. We need more, not less, trees to lock up that excessive C02.

So in digging up part of his lawn at home and then expanding his quest for Growing It Yourself to a scenic plot overlooking Dublin city, Mark Keenan, became the change all of us need to see happen more and more.
It is shocking to think we import so many onions, potatoes, cabbage, beetroot, herbs, garlic etc when all of these can be grown with the help of this book. The resulting food will keep you healthy and the humourous turn of phrase in this book will keep you happy.



I see that the National Parks and Wildlife service this week has brought in a temporary ban on the hunting of wild birds due to the recent and continuing freezing weather conditions across the island of Ireland. This measure is supported by hunting organisations also, for good reasons. Wild ducks, geese, waders and other game birds need time to conserve energy and recover hopefully when the milder weather returns.

Animals and birds with even smaller bodies are more at risk from a cold spell. The populations of Aegithalos Caudatus, otherwise known as Long-Tailed Tits (pictured -right- feeding in my garden this week) can fall 80% in very cold weather. This is why they produce so many young and if the young survive, the population should recover to some extent.

Blue Tit The more common Cyanistes Caerulus or Meantán Gorm or Blue Tit (also pictured -left- recently in the James Grieve apple tree) is a real ally to any gardener. No other species destroys more aphids. So a healthy diverse wildlife population helps maintain a healthy vibrant garden.

Birdwatch Ireland warns against giving birds the wrong food like dry bread, uncooked rice and dried cocunut. A bit of common sense and bird food and kitchen scraps will keep vulnerable birds alive. The scraps can include bacon rinds, cheese, suet, raisins, moistened bread, melon seeds, fruit, stale cake, cooked potato, oatmeal, fresh cocunut and uncooked pastry etc.

As less common siskins, redpolls and species from more northerly habitats are driven south to Ireland from even harsher climes, the competition for food among native birds becomes more intense. Just like humans, birds need water to drink and bathe so if you have a pond check it is not frozen over. A shallow dish of water would also suffice.

As Jesus Christ says in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verse 26, ‘Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them’. Unfortunately, Jack Frost displays little Christian consideration for our feathered friends.


With guests invited for Christmas, the prospect of depending on the few leeks, carrots, onions and herbs from the garden, to create the meals I had in mind would have meant very small helpings. So thankfully the Balbriggan Fish and Farmers’ Market was open late before Christmas to allow me augment my larder with fresh local produce. As a result nobody went hungry or cold for that matter.

My wood store (Photo by C.Finn)

Staying warm during the coldest Christmas in fifty years was hard for many people. The time and effort spent building a lean-to wood store in 2008 really paid off during this cold spell. The small Pioneer wood-stove was kept piping hot with well dried and seasoned logs.

As the stove opening is ten inches wide, I had to split some of the logs. Having a small garden does curtail the manly swinging of an axe mind you. This is not the Rockies or even the Bog of Allen after all. However a combined effort with axe and lump hammer did the job just as well.

The collection of prunings from winter 2008 served very well as the ‘cipíní’ to get the stove fired up. Indeed these ‘cipíní’ need to be used up otherwise I will be short of space to store the prunings which I will shortly be gathering from the apple, blackcurrants, raspberry canes and even the rowan trees in the front garden.

Meanwhile no shortage of wood ash but that has its uses too.


Not much time for gardening with late Dáil sittings. I just about manage a few minutes in the garden to bring vegetable, fruit and kitchen paper waste out to the compost tumbler every couple of days.

I notice the garlic cloves sown a couple of weeks ago are sprouting and the green shoots of new growth are evident. (A good omen for the ‘green shoots of economic recovery’, let us hope!). This is the last Thursday of Dail sittings for 2009 and the Party Leaders and An Ceann Comhairle have exchanged Christmas Greetings. It is time to turn attention to the Christmas Tree at home.

For eleven months of the year a miniature fir tree grows away slowly beside the raspberry canes under the apple tree in the back garden. Now is the time to take a spade, dig around the tree  doing as little damage as possible to the roots, and transplant the whole tree (rootball and all) into a clean black bucket.

The tree is now ready for a sojourn in the sitting room window, suitably decorated and lit up for the Christmas season. After Nollaig na mBan on January 6th it will be replanted in the garden. While most of us head home for Christmas, this fir tree heads indoors for a holiday. Each to their own.

Meanwhile, time to put on the kettle, stick a log on the fire and have a good look at a couple of seed catalogues. Nollaig shona duit.


There is certainly a shortage of money in the country but there is no shortage of leaves, in my garden atleast. And as the Mamas and the Papas would say ‘all the leaves are brown’. Time then to make leafmould.

Leafmould is similar to composting. However on a forest floor it is fungi more than microbes and other ‘compost friendly’ bugs which break down  layers of leaves. Leaves are more fibrous than the soft vegetable matter in a compost heap. Therefore making leafmould can take about three years whereas reasonably good compost can be made in about one year.

This is why leaves are collected and stored separate to a compost mix. The result of waiting for leaves to break down is worth it however. The end result is a crumbly, clean and earthy ingredient for seed compost minus the egg shells and twigs that often appear in rotted down compost.

I had a mind to just let the leaves rot down in the garden naturally. However when a friend almost slipped on the leafy driveway surface, I resolved to bag the offending leaf fall.

I also resolved to do the bagging quickly as spare time is in short supply these days. First I took as large and heavy duty a plastic bag as I could find. Using rake and gloved hands, I stuffed the bag with any leaves covering the paths and driveway. I tied the top of the bag with an old shoe lace to close it. Leaves need air to attract the fungi required to make the leafmould. Final job therefore is to jab the bag a few times with a garden fork so the air can circulate inside it. Then I tidied away the 2009 collection of leaves. This collection will be joined by a 2010 bag of leaves next winter and so on. In 2012 I look forward to opening the 2009 bag and using the leafmould which I hope to find mature and ready be an ingredient in my home-made seed compost.


Before I began kitchen gardening, I was very clear that seeds were sown in Spring, grew in Summer, were harvested in Autumn and during Winter was the time to oogle seed catalogues and plan for the next round of seasons. This week I’ve been forced to realise life is not that straightforward.

Out I went at first light to put the kitchen waste in the compost tumbler. What did I spot but broad bean plants popping their heads into the damp wintry air. The seeds I planted under the support  string ‘wig-wam’  have sprouted and are hardy enough to grow even in December. In my new brassica patch a few weeks ago I planted cuttings taken from the main everlasting cabbage crop in the old brassica patch. In recent weeks they have been limp and forlorn looking in the cold and wet weather. This week, however, I notice they have perked up and look like plants in their own right. I’m now confident I will have a crop of new cabbage leaves in the spring from the new brassica patch.

The old brassica patch will be cleared in Spring to make way for the spinach and beetroot seedlings. Meanwhile, next week, I’ve a plan to remove five jaded rose bushes which served me well over the last ten years. However, I’m advised that five new rose plants are now required as long as they are not planted in the same soil as their predecessors.