Posts Tagged ‘March’


Another week or two and leaf buds will be opening and the growing season will pick up momentum. Time to get out  in spite of the icy showers to prune the trusty ‘James Grieve’ apple tree before it is too late when leaves appear and sap is in full flow once more. In January or February normally I prune this tree to keep it quite compact. This means pruning back new branches which are growing over the path. This also means taking off any skyward growing new branches. This stops the tree overly shading my herb patch. Apples on a low branch are less damaged if they do fall from the tree in the autumn. I also remove the less developed branches which are either rubbing off another branch or may end up rubbing  if left undisturbed. Rubbing of bark on bark creates tree wounds and risks the tree becoming infested.

The pruning tools are a secateurs for twigs, loppers for branches a centimetre or two thick and a saw for the thicker boughs. I must get myself a pruning saw to make life a little easier. The cleaner the cut the better. A half cut branch which then splits is likely to be a home for infestion whereas a clean cut will form a scab quickly and seal the wound aswell as look neater.

The prunings are useful in themselves for pea and bean supporting sticks. Any leftover twigs are stored with the other firewood and will be handy for starting the wood stove next winter. The resulting wood ash will go into the compost and may well feed the tree with potash and other minerals in years to come.

Meanwhile the pond nearby has seen the weed and reed growth expand over the years to the point where in the summer, hardly any water surface is visible. Now is the time before the rampant growth takes hold, to remove a good amount of roots along with pond weed. I’m astonished at how massive and thick the roots of these pond plants have become. Plenty of brute force is required with arms up to my armpits in fresh but murky water. In the end a fairly large heap of roots and pond weed lies on the edge of a much clearer and seemingly larger pond. I’m told that pond plants take much longer to compost as they are tough and resist the advances of composting microbes. I’ll see if experience bears this out in due course when I have had a go at composting this heap of greenery. I’ll leave the heap beside the pond for a few days in the hope that any pond life, water beetles, pond skaters etc. migrates back into the water.

Enough reeds and pondweed remain to grow up and create a diverse pond habitat. No shortage of rainwater meanwhile. The overflow pipe from the garden water butt ends up in the pond so the water levels are kept high. No luck so far attracting frog spawn. However birds, bees, wasps, beetles and many other species essential  to a healthy kitchen garden, all need water. Even Arthur the cat will hunker down to drink from the pond but turns his nose up at tap water.



Got a thoughtful Christmas present (thank you, Paula!) of a book called ‘WASTE NOT, WANT NOT – BEATING THE RECESSION IN THE HOME‘  by Rosemary Ryan, printed in Ireland by Gemini International. Great value at €7.99. It is full of useful cost-saving advice and wholesome straightforward recipes.

One suited me very well to use up the remainder of the stored onions in the shed which are beginning to grow as air temperatures rise. Unlike the few professional farmers in Ireland still growing onions, I do not have access to the refrigerated storehouses which stored onions need to check their inclination to grow when spring arrives. Likewise I had some of last years potatoes left in store too and they had gone too soft to be used for mash but as an ingredient in soup, they were grand.

So nothing for it but to turn the lot into a big pot of ‘Potato and Onion Soup’. I adapted this recipe to use larger quantities.

Ingredients: 8oz or 220g potatoes (diced). 4 onions (finely chopped). 1 litre stock (I used water saved from steaming veg plus a stock cube). Handful of chopped parsley (I have plenty still growing outside). 2oz or 60g of butter. Salt and pepper to taste.

Method: Put the butter nin a saucepan on a low heat. Add the onions and sweat until clear. Add the potatoes and season to taste. Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley and ‘voila’.

Very tasty, even if I do say so myself! Most of this batch is now conveniently stored away labelled and dated in the freezer. No need to waste those old onions and potatoes when Rosemary Ryan’s book shows how they can become useful and flavoursome. This is one way of filling the proverbial ‘hungry gap’ in the kichen garden.


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!


The infectious enthusiasm of beekeepers for their craft has rubbed off on me. One of my jobs in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (and Forestry indeed) was to be ‘Minister for Beekeeping’. Reading around the subject, I was amazed to learn that a third of the human diet depends on bee pollination and honeybees are the best adapted to this vital task. However in the USA alone in 2007, about 800,000 bee colonies died out and in the 2008 another 1,000,000 colonies died. That means one in three American hives were lifeless at the start of 2008. In France the deathrate is more than 60%. In Britain, a Government Minister warned that honeybees could be extinct within a decade.  At their rate of decline the USA will have no honeybees by 2035. For more information, you can read ‘A World Without Bees’ by Benjamin and Mc Callum which I bought in Hodges and Figgis, Dame St, Dublin 2, or check out

The cause of this decline varies depending on the research. It blames disease, poor standards among rogue beekeepers, certain agrichemicals, lack of biodiversity, chaotic weather patterns or a combination of these and other factors. We know already that in the Chinese province of Sichuan, widespread use of pesticides in the 1980’s is believed to have killed off all the bees there. As a result, human workers have to patiently attempt to pollinate the crops when in flower and the results are a poor second rate service compared  to what the bees used to do for free. If the USA was to lose its bee population, the cost of providing any reasonable level of human labour to pollinate crops would cost in the region of $90 billion per annum. Watch the cost of food rocket worldwide if that scenario was to unfold as the USA is huge food and animal feed exporter to Ireland and many other countries including China.

It is not surprising therfore that I jumped at any requests for help or invitations to attend events organized by the Federation of Irish Beekeepers or F.I.B.K.A.. For more information see One such invitation came from Mr. Jim Donohue, Secretary of the Midland Beekeepers Association to become a beekeeper myself. This all came about when I was opening a Self-Sufficiency Fair at Belvedere House near Mullingar. I ended up donning the white bee proof overalls and helping Jim to capture a swarm of several thousand bees, I kid you not!

Recognising I was in the company of an expert and a great teacher, I enrolled to attend the next beekeeping course he was organizing. The sessions are monthly on a Sunday on Norman Kenny’s organic farm near Broadford. In one way it is a great way to relax on the odd Sunday. In another way it is a very practical way to learn how to help boost the yield of farmers and gardeners in Fingal, once I get my own couple of hives. When large numbers of hives were introduced to the almond groves in California, the yield jumped sixfold since the 1980’s. Now 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in California.

In case you are a neighbour of mine reading this,  fear not. The hives will not be in my own small kitchen garden. Instead I am fortunate enough to know a friendly orchard owner who is delighted to host the two hives I will look after. However, bees are not keen to sting anyone as once they sting they die. So the motto is respect the bees and they will respect you. In return a hive will enthusiastically pollinate any flower the bees encounter within a 5 km radius – and produce a few pounds of honey into the bargain.

The last beekeeper to make a name for himself  in the north Fingal area was St Mologa after whom the Lambeecher estate in Balbriggan was named. Lambeecher comes from (Welsh) ‘church’ and (Irish) ‘beekeeper’. It is about time we had our own honey once more.

Seed Sowing Techniques

30 March 2009



18 March 2009