Posts Tagged ‘November’


Speaking at Sonairte

Last Sunday in spite of the snow, I sallied forth to take up an invitation to speak at the Christmas Fair in Sonairte, the National Ecology Centre in Laytown, Co Meath. Some wonderful food and crafts supported by the brave members of the public which included Ian Lumley of An Taisce and James Nix, writer on sustainability issues and broadcaster.

VOICE, the environmental organisation had a very good display there too, explaining the way our food supply depends on a huge use of fossil fuels. On average, for every 1 calorie of food we consume, we require 10 calories of fossil fuel energy. So unless we revolutionise the way we feed ourselves, the queues at petrol pumps will be overshadowed by food riots.

The fossil fuel energy embodied in our modern food production requires more debate if humanity is to survive. Talk of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources are a start whereas throw away remarks I hear such as ‘something will turn up’ are too flippant to be seriously considered.

The scale of the energy/food challenge is illustrated best by trying to imagine a store of solar energy in a very hot world. Between 360 and 286 million years ago, (the Carboniferous Period) the conditions existed to turn dead plants and animals on land and in the sea, into mineral oil, gas and coal. In the last couple of generations we have used most of the easily accessed fossil fuels which resulted from that 74 million years of solar energy.

Apart from not having any more cheap fossil fuel in years to come, the burning of this ‘ancient energy store’ is re-creating the hot atmosphere and extreme climate of the Carboniferous Period, a period too hot for humans or even for dinosaurs.

At a time when people feel let down and disempowered, growing food to save on money and fossil fuel use and growing trees to lock up the airborne carbon and provide fruit and timber, are practical measures to create a better world than the one into which we were born.

Right now the time is right to collect leaves for leaf-mould. Fill up a few plastic sacks, punch in some air holes, and store away for a year or two. After a year the leaves have broken down enough to be used as a weed free mulch on the permanent beds, where roses and asparagus grow etc. If the ground is not frozen, this is a good time to divide rhubarb crowns. When I get a chance, I’ll be pruning the apple tree and blackcurrants in this dormant season.



The temperature at night has begun to dip below zero but politically it could not be much hotter. This frenetic period in bringing in a vital budget and a National Recovery Plan 2011 – 2014, has meant the garden is firmly on the back burner at the moment, except as a foraging area for ingredients to make the life sustaining sandwiches needed while one is away from home.

Thoughts turned to timber during a presentation from the IFA, the Irish Timber Growers Association, nurseries, sawmills and bioenergy companies at the Joint Oireachtas Climate Change and Energy Security Committee during the week. As with the Grow It Yourself movement, growing some of our food needs is only one aspect of self-sufficiency. Growing some of our timber needs helps soak up carbon dioxide as well as warming you, at least twice! Once when the wood is cut, and again when you burn it.

There has been a steady increase in the amount of forest cover in Ireland. In the last 100 years, this cover has gone from 1% of land to 10%. However the EU average is 36% and we are still importing wood to meet our timber needs although sawmill companies like Glennon Brothers in Longford are exporting 2/3 of their timber output to the UK and France at present. Greenbelt Ltd in Virginia, Co Cavan, established in 1982, is planting 3,000 hectares of new trees on Irish farms every year. None-So-Hardy Nurseries in Co. Wicklow have just collected up 15 tonnes of acorns which when sown will hopefully grow to become 1.5 million oak trees.

Back home in Trevor’s Kitchen Garden, there is now a lean-to wood store for logs which I burn over these winter months in a small wood stove. The logs I buy are from local forest thinnings. They are ready cut to 10 inches or so to fit the small stove. Although they are not fresh when I buy a quarter or half tonne, I stack them anyway and burn those which were drying and seasoning for atleast a year.

Alongside this bought in wood, some apple tree boughs and other prunings are useful with tinder to get the stove lit before the logs go in. Apart from heating the house, the garden wood and the bought-in wood end up as useful potash in the form of wood ash. However, peat or coal ash would not be suitable for the garden.

If I had access to more land, I would indeed plant trees, principally to soak up the excess carbon dioxide which is accelorating climate chaos and to enchance wildlife habitats, as well as provide wood and timber. Even with only a small garden, the prunings from the apple tree in the back and the rowan trees out the front generate enough wood to keep the stove going for a while, long enough to boil some garden peas. Hard to credit such a small garden not only grows the food but also supplies the fuel to cook it – if the pot is placed on top of the wood stove for a few minutes.


The Beetroot patch

Last Sunday was calm, cool with a bright blue sky. After a busy spell, I at last found a couple of hours to dig up the beetroot crop, better late than never. Not a big patch (7 by 3 feet) but enough to keep me in beetroot for the year. My only worry was that it might be turning a bit woody the way radish goes if left in the ground too long but I need not have worried.

The crop when boiled for 45 minutes was then easy to top and tail and the skin was easily scraped off the warm red roots. While waiting for the roots to cook, the pickling mixture was prepared. Two pints of vinegar, black pepper, sprinkling of root ginger and allspice, two dessert spoons of brown sugar, 4 bay leaves and 4 crushed cloves of garlic and a few finely chopped shallots. Ideally, this would have been left to mature for a week but I needed to get the bottling done quickly so I boiled it up, simmering for a few minutes (an hour is recommended) and left to cool.

Now to chop up the skinned shiney beetroot and fill up the jars. I filled 15, three up on last years harvest. Kept back a couple of raw beetroot which tasted earthy and delicious grated with a salad. I bottled the bulk of the crop, however, as it is quick, nothing goes to waste and the bottled beetroot adds a great flavour to sandwiches in work during the year.

The pickling mixture was poured in to half fill each jar of beetroot. I used the reddened water from cooking the crop to top up each jar. Last year I made the mistake of filling each jar with the pickling mixture and the excessive vinegar was a bit overpowering, so more beetroot, less vinegar this year!

Garlic cloves and bulbs

Meanwhile, enough daylight left to separate the garlic cloves out from the bulbs ordered on line from based in Bantry, Co Cork. Very impressive overnight dispatch by post. The cloves were spaced 6 inches apart and sown 1 inch below the surface. Hopefully the crop from these cloves will be ready to add to next years batch of bottled beetroot.

A good book on beetroot I would recommend is ‘Beetroot, the Vitality Plant and its Medicinal Benefits’ by Margaret Briggs published in 2007 by Abbeydale Press.


Weather forecasts of tempests and floods for this first weekend in November limited work in the garden. I looked forward therefore to meeting other growers and farmers from all Ireland at the Organic Trust AGM held this year at The Grain Store at Ballymaloe House near Midleton, Co. Cork.

The focus naturally was on large-scale production, prices, routes to market, adding value and the outlook for Irish farming and in particular the benefits of farming organically. I had a particular interest in the keynote speaker who came from America. Mr Matt Dillon is the founding director of the Organic Seed Alliance. This organisation educates farmers and growers in seed production and plant breeding and develops regenerative farmer oriented seed systems.

Matt’s father farmed making full use of agrichemicals. He died from a disease which Matt believes is linked to levels of nitrates in the well which supplied their home with drinking water. This had a big bearing on Matt developing the means and research to farm organically. is a result of all this personal awareness and it has developed in to an important movement.

After a fire destroyed a large collection of Matt’s seed varieties, the OSA decided that the farmers are the best people to become the active seed savers and the breeders of new varieties. Over 400 farmers are now involved with the OSA in this important work.

Concentration in the seed industry has led to less choice and higher prices for American farmers. The trend where large companies like Monsanto buy up smaller seed companies is well outlined in a report published in December 2009 called ‘Out of Hand: Farmers face the consequences of a consolidated seed industry’.

USA law has permitted the patenting of seed variety characteristics such as heat tolerance in broccoli or a certain yellow colour in a bean variety. In my view this is bad law and goes against the more sustainable laws of nature. Patents on seed traits are no more valid than attempting to claim one owns gravity.

Saving seed is not difficult but it is harder in a small garden as plants grow quite big when they are going to seed and this takes up valuable space. However I could begin with peas and beans, and that is my plan for next year. Meanwhile I will allow the Lamb’s Lettuce,  Rocket and any other plants not in the way to self seed as before. It is very handy to notice seedlings of various salad leaves poking out from crevices in walls and footpaths as well as in the veg patches where their parents grew.


The garden is almost on automatic in November. I am still harvesting lettuce from pots in the greenhouse along with basil. This goes well in sandwiches with tomatoes grown by Matt Foley in nearby Rush. Outside, parsley, sage, rosemary, kale, leaf beet and cabbage are going strong. Brussel sprouts are coming right while the chives and mint are dying back for the winter.

However, my job as Food Minister took me away for a couple of days recently to represent Ireland at the UN Food andAgriculture Organisation ‘World Summit on Food Security 2009’ in floodless, crisp and sunny Rome. I met with farmers from Africa, South America and Asia aswell as Europe, New Zealand, Australia and the USA, not to mention representatives from 65 governments.

Minister Sargent addresses the FAO Conference in Rome

I discussed farming and food with fellowministers from Cuba, Finland, Mozambique, Syria, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, New Zealand, USA, Norway, Japan, Canada, UK, Switzerland and my EU Green Party colleague, the Deputy Agriculture Minister in the ‘Ceské Republiky’, Jirí Urban, (he says ‘just call me George’!).  Colonel Gadaffi, Robert Mugabe, Silvio Berlisconi and the Pope were about but our paths did not cross except in news reports!

There was not much to be proud of  for world leaders at this summit. In 1996 the world agreed to halve the number of hungry people to 400 million by 2015. Clearly the  strategy is not working. The number of people going to bed with hunger pains each night is now over one billion, one in every six people worldwide.

Many of the poorer farmers I spoke with are saying that their food security is getting worse because corporations and wealthier countries are buying up the land they have traditionally farmed. Essentially agricultural colonies are being acquired by the ‘Mother Country’ so the rich at home can be kept food secure at the expense of the poor abroad.  This land is often used to grow genetically modified soya or palm oil to make biofuel. Those smallholder farmers generally become wage slaves on these corporate farms paid low wages to buy whatever food is affordable and available on the open market.

What these farmers want is to have their right to food sovereignty upheld. Sovereignty is about having not just enough food, but having the means to provide for one’s food needs. For them food security is not an adequate objective. Looking for food sovereignty is too radical for most of the countries who pay for the upkeep of the United Nations. Radical or not, it is obvious that the current strategy is not radical enough. The progress to even halve the number of malnourished people is going backwards at present. Log on to the websites or for more information.

Meanwhile the dynamic approach I called for at the World Food Summit was to assist directly smallholder farmers, especially the many overlooked woman farmers,  so they can be viable food producers for their communities. Unless we can reverse the flight from the land to large urban centres and get more people growing and producing food, then all this talk will do very little other than make climate change worse!

I spoke at the workshops in Rome too. One about ‘Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation‘ heard the Indian Government spell out the effect of a 2 degree temperature rise. This would mean a loss of 12 million tonnes from the Indian wheat harvest. The polar ice-caps (what is left of them) are showing 3-5 degree rises in temperature there.

In other words we need the food, but we need to minimise our emissions of greenhouse gases to produce it. This is why helping smallholders is also important. Ecological and organic farming emits less greenhouse gases and is also more drought and flood tolerant. Local food systems which reduce food miles are badly needed too. Put simply, the world needs more people growing more food for themselves, their families and their communities.

Mikhail Gorbachev writing in The Examiner recently told us to forget the Berlin Wall. The ‘wall’ all of us must now tear down is CLIMATE CHANGE. He wrote ‘we need a circuit-breaker to escape from the busines-as-usual approach. We live in hope with the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen around the corner. Meanwhile, let us resolve to encourage EVERY  activity which brings our world closer to global food security and local food sovereignty. No farm, smallholding, window box is too small, no person is too busy, no weather is too bad to make a contribution to feeding the world – starting with yourself!


I ask much of my rhubarb growing it in the north facing front garden. In spite of this, the large leaves soak up enough sunlight to give a decent crop. Last February, I tried an experiment with the objective of bringing on one crown to give me an early bit of rhubarb. I put a forcing jar, (essentially an upside down bucket ) over the newly sprouted crown. This forces early growth as the young shoots strive to grow up through the dark ‘bucket’ in a quest for daylight.

All was going well and I checked progress every few days. Then I just forgot about the young anaemic looking rhubarb shoots for a while. By the time I looked again, the crown’s energy had been spent. No daylight having fuelled the growing rhubarb crown, the plant just gave up and died. Ever since then, a gap in the rhubarb patch has reminded  me of my oversight.

Now that the other rhubarb crowns have allowed their leaves to wither for winter and the crowns have gone dormant, it is safe to split the largest, healthiest crown, plant up each  half crown a few feet apart and watch them grow next Spring.

As rhubarb can be left year after year for many years in the same location, it is a good idea to manure or compost the soil with well rotted organic material, once the  hole  is dug for the crown. I’m advised to ensure the growing tip is just protruding above the ground when replacing soil around the newly planted crown.

In reality, I do not have a garden big enough to get value from a forcing  jar.  Ideally with 10 or 20 crowns, I could force one each year and leave it alone for a few years to allow it build up its strength again before forcing it once more. So I have a forcing  jar to give away if any other kitchen gardener out there wants to give it a good home. Rhubarb crowns and custard not included!

One thing about gardening is one never stops learning!


Early Monday 9th November, before the phones start ringing, I steel an hour in the garden to start a new generation of everlasting cabbage plants. (This is a perennial hardy kale-like heritage cabbage variety obtained from Irish Seedsavers in Scarriff, Co. Clare.)  Last spring I put up a video clip of cuttings being taken from the previous years cabbage plants. However I want to experiment and see if the cuttings will root and survive if I plant them now before winter sets in instead of waiting until next spring.

Last spring, I molly-coddled the cuttings by planting them in pots of soil and bringing them on in the glasshouse before planting out in late March. This time I’ll try putting them directly into their newly prepared growing patch. This patch provided a good crop of beans and peas in the summer just gone by. The withered legume vines have gone for composting, the soil levelled and some well broken down compost dug in. The nitrogen nodules on the remaining roots of the old legume plants will, I hope, feed the newly planted cabbage cuttings in the year ahead.

All I need to do now is to pull off the ready-to-use side shoots from the parent everlasting cabbage plant. I tidy up the base of each cutting with a sharp knife. A diagonal cut gives the cutting a sharp point. This point  is pushed gently in to the soft soil. I firm in the cuttings one by one and water – voila!