Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sweetcorn-pick it fresh and cook it fast!

unripe on the left, ripe on the right
Last week I had my first home grown corn-on-the-cob. I knew from talking to other growers that the most essential thing is to cook it as quickly as possible after picking as the sweetness runs to starch very quickly in corn after harvesting. Going online to American websites it became very obvious that cooking sweetcorn is something the Yanks take very seriously, and more surprisingly they cook it in plain water, no salt added, as salt just toughens the corn kernels. They also give it a very short fast cook, bringing the pan of water to the boil, dropping in the corn and whipping it out as soon as the water returns to the boil! I gave it a bit longer, timing it for 5 minutes and it was cooked to perfection. Now all I have to do is wait for another ear to ripen so I can run up the garden with it and get it into the pot in record time. Corn is something that must be picked at the moment of absolute ripeness and not left on the plant beyond that as it toughens up dramatically. How do you know if it's ready to be harvested? the "beard" at the end of the cob will be quite ragged and brown, and if you peel back the outer husk at the top of the cob and sink a finger nail into a corn kernal a creamy coloured liquid should come out, if the liquid is clear it needs more time.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Main crop Spuds stored for the winter

Digging out the Tibets
September has two strong memories for me, one is the absolute dread of going back to school to the psychotic principle, (God rest you P Burns, I will visit you shortly to check the grave and make sure you're dead), the other is of evenings after school picking spuds up the hill or in the glen meadow, depending on where the potato garden was that year. One thing about living on farms ,especially small farms is that every field has a name, often in Irish to describe exactly where it was (in the days before GPS) and often associated with it's geography or uses. So our "gleann tori" as we call it is a corruption of Gleann Toibreacha, "field of the wells", (the whole field was awash with water springs so hence the name). "Tobar" is a well in Irish as it is in Scots Gaelic too, both are originally derived from the old Irish word "topar". OK I'm finished going off piste now. I love history, especially language history, it's fascinating.

eel worms dining in a spud
 On the finer days we would come home to a warm kitchen and my mothers dinner with instructions to eat quickly and change, Dad was digging the spuds up the fields and we were needed to help. For all the giving out I do I must say my father is an extremely practical man. We had a purpose built block concrete shed, with a concrete floor and strong metal door, entirely at the disposal of the potato crop. No windows to let in light that would turn the potatoes green, no leaks in the roof that let water in, no extremes of temperature and best of all no way a rat could get in to help himself to the harvest. It was perfect.

Black Bog-like priests socks only blacker!
That was a hell of a lot more spuds than I am growing now. It was enough to see us through the winter and into early spring. I don't have a shed, well I do- but its entirely the wrong type, wooden, warm, bright, reacting to extremes of weather by being ass kicking cold in the frost and boiling hot in the sunshine. I don't have a light free place in the house, the hallway faces North but has glass around the door. Its the only place I can store pumpkins and squash for the winter (with the radiator knocked off) but will it do for spuds?

Inspired by the fine warm day last Friday I took to clearing the main crop potato beds. If nothing else I was curious about the yields from the different varieties that I had as yet untouched; Tibet, Toluca and Black Bog. One long bed had black bog, Tibet's, Maris pipers and King Edwards planted in allotments. The tolucas had their own bed. I started on the black bogs and ran into trouble straight away. They were so black I literally couldn't see them in the soil! ridiculous but true and very frustrating as well. I ended up digging the same ground several times more than necessary just to check in case I missed any. Either way I'm expecting plenty of volunteers next year-it was impossible to find them all.The spuds themselves were small and extremely squashed looking with deep eyes. The yields were small too. Once I wiped the soil off them their true delicious deep purple colour came through. After growing and loving Edzell blues last year I couldn't wait to try out these guys.

one stalk of Tibets on the left V's
FIVE of Black Bog on the right!
Next were the Tibets and it was obvious right from the off that the yields here were phenomenally better than the black bogs next to them. Even when I was cutting down the foliage in this bed the stems were a strong bright green, unyielding to the blight that peppered their leaves. Underground there was little evidence of blight, but I found later on that many of them had suffered the excess appetites of eel worms and slugs, much as the King Edwards and Maris Pipers had done next to them. It struck me that this bed in particular had suffered the worst of the snails and eel worms, but of all the spuds set here the black bogs had the least amount of damage-maybe purple spuds don't appeal as much to pests?

Down in the Toluca bed things were not good, the stench of rotting spuds hit me every where I dug, and the yields were incredibly poor. When I was finished one 8x4 bed had only yielded one third of a bucket of spuds, and despite some of the tubers being a really good size I could see plenty of blemishes, signs of blight and slugs in equal measure. Not the results I had been hoping for when I planted them months ago, but again maybe that's all you can expect in such a difficult growing season.

Spuds drying off in the afternoon sun
I laid out all the spuds I had dug on the tops of the beds and left them to dry out in the afternoon sun. A short spell of sunshine is fine for the first bit of drying but by the evenings end I gathered them all into buckets to go inside for "processing" next day.

Last year I bought some Hessian sacks and had been trying them out during the summer, storing first Earlie's for weeks at a time in the utility to see if they went green. The results were great-no green spuds! so next morning I lined up my sacks, sat at the back door in the sun and began the incredibly tedious job of cleaning(you must take all the excess soil off the skins), inspecting each spud and organising them into three categories; "for storage", "slightly damaged" and "for the compost heap". There really is no escaping this job. If I learnt one thing from my mother in law and her apple picking each autumn it's that you never store anything damaged long term, it only serves to rot the rest. So only the most perfect spuds can make the Hessian sack. All imperfect spuds go into the kitchen bucket to be used or given away in the coming weeks. While those blighted, rotting or tunnelled into oblivion must be cut up for the compost heap. Its funny I never remember doing this job at home, but in some shape or form we must have.

compost, keep and store long term-the processing plant
Isint it ironic that I worried where I would store all my main crop spuds for the winter when I was planting them and ended up using a third of one Hessian sack for long term spud storage?! As you can see from the photo most of the spuds need to be used up in the coming weeks and I feel I can't really pass them on to other people because they are so populated by eel worms and slugs that only another gardener wouldnt mind the inconvenience of digging them out before cooking! Imagine the horror of my inlaws having eel worms crawl out as they are peeling them?! It's almost worth doing-but only if I can stay around to watch.

PS; tried the black bogs, yes a fantastic purple colour with lovely markings on the inside, but sadly lacking really great flavour.

in the kitchen Black bog shows its true colour

beautiful white flesh on the inside

The Science of Spuds-Taste Testing King Edwards

Worlds smallest yield of potatoes-King Edwards
Don't you just hate experimental science? all that poking and prodding, control groups and paperwork, and for what? to tell us something that will easily be disproved next month, just so a whole bunch of people in white coats have yet more reasons to apply for more funding and squander it on more scientific research! Arrrrrraggggh!!

I'm more of a fan of the type of experiment you can conduct yourself at home, no special equipment required. So today I tested the notion(that I keep seeing and reading everywhere) that the King Edward is the worlds best baking spud.

Result; No it's not.

How easy was that?!

As a crop of potatoes to grow the King Edwards did very poorly, caught blight early and had tiny yields when dug. The spuds themselves in common with a lot of other main crops this year were beset by tunnelling slugs, eel worms and in a very few cases rot brought on by blight. It's hard to judge a whole spud variety by an exceptionally bad year but then in fairness spuds that did better must be better spuds right? otherwise the point of trying out lots of different varieties is lost. I mean how many times should you grow the same variety of spud to figure out if its worth growing again or not? Life is just too short.

Pretty when the soil came off
Once I got a few washed they looked very impressive; a lovely pink flush on creamy white skin blemished here and there by small tunnels (slugs and eel worms). I cut the bad bits out, washed and dried them, then rolled them in very good olive oil and sea salt, popping them into a very hot fan oven, 200c, for 30 minutes.

When they came out the outsides were lovely and golden, the insides soft and a little fluffy. They could be fluffier and maybe I should have left them in longer but they were actually done. I ate the lot, without anything other than some butter to compliment their skins covered in sea salt. Yes they were tasty, but worlds best baking spud?- I don't think so. If it's about their flavour-there was no amazing potato taste to report. If its about how they technically bake in their skins-yes they do look lovely but I'm not planning to look at them I want to eat them!

looking nice and golden in the plate
No doubt at least one of you completely disagrees with me on the subject of King Edwards and maybe that's the whole point too. Different people like different things, why else did so many varieties of spuds get developed in the first place? Read my scientific report with a good pinch of (sea) salt and don't let it put you off trying them out for yourself.

By the way there is a really thorough baking spuds experiment done on this blog if you have the time to read it word of mouth blog

Friday, 21 September 2012

Cold night ahead

the sun sets on climbing beans
Just in the door from covering the pumpkins with fleece after the weather forecast on rte1 promised ground frost tonight .sadly it looks like the start of frost watching season, far too early for my liking.keep an ear out if you have pumpkins or other frost tender crops still in the ground.if you don't have fleece use newspapers to cover them.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Back to work-gardening courses coming up

Get yer wellies on
I know I have been a poor correspondent for the last two weeks, I have been in the planning stages with the VEC for the next lot of courses beginning hopefully next week and the week after. Any of you who have been through a fetac 3 with me can come back for a fetac 4 horticulture course. It will run over two school years, 1 day a week, 6 hours per day, 37 weeks long each. We will cover trees, shrubs, flowers, fruit and veg with a bit of work experience and science thrown in. It will run in West Limerick and in East Limerick, in Ardagh at Eileen's Organic Blackhill farm and (fingers crossed) at Jacks Honey Farm and the Family Resource Centre in Hospital in east limerick. Give me a shout if you are interested. If you haven't done 3 but you have been growing for a while and you are past the basics then 4 might suit you too. Contact me if you want to know more.

James Wong, Suttons and some interesting seeds

Callaloo from
Yesterdays post brought me some strange seeds that I ordered from Sutton's. The beauty of growing things from seed is the possibility of trying out all sorts of strange and wonderful things that you will never in a million years find in local shops or other peoples gardens. James Wong,  the guy encouraging us to grow our own drugs(and in fairness who could say that is a bad idea?) is now, with the help of Sutton's Seed Co. encouraging everyone to grow weird and wonderful veg and fruit too. He even has a book about it. If you are looking for some inspiration have a look, I'm especially looking forward to growing Callaloo, Caribbean spinach that grows in Technicolours!

more info here

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Trouble with poisonious plants

Its looks all sweet and innocent but dont be fooled
Something in the garden is out to get me!! I arrived in after a week of wearing shorts and clearing beds to find emerging hot spots like odd shaped sunburn, first on my arms, then on my legs and now on my stomach. As the days passed they got redder, angrier and blistered up like water balloons in spectacular fashion. It felt like I had burnt the skin badly with a hot dish from the oven and the blisters were painful to the touch but other than that (and looking like I had a biblical plague) I was fine.

hot weird blisters
 I did try telling her but my poor mother in law was so concerned at the sight of me that she abandoned her pancakes at breakfast on Sunday to ring my long suffering sister in law the GP. Catherine says it might be caused by giant hog weed, an introduced plant which commonly causes nasty looking blisters like these on contact with the skin in sunshine. My husband had something similar when he strimmed the front bank months ago.I know it's across the road in the ditch but I didn't think I had any in the garden. Could it really cause this much trouble from across the road? or have some of its seeds snuck into my garden to germinate in my vegetable beds?

It's height is the main identifying factor

Nettles can cause rash, sometimes people can have an adverse reaction to the fine hairs on the comfrey leaves and stems, even rhubarb leaves can cause photo sensitivity (they are also poisonous-don't eat them!) but I have never had anything like this with any of these plants in the 6 years I have had a garden here. Mind you since I moved to this part of Limerick I have heard several horror stories of  people getting "attacked" by Giant hogweed, especially along the banks of the Mulcair river (echos of the flesh eating plant in "Little shop of horrors"). It is one of the only plants Tara pointed out to me one day walking with the dogs and told me to give a wide berth to. Another person told me it was, and I quote, "deadly" for children. I didn't believe them-until now.

not my idea! but it made me laugh!
So should any of you be in doubt here is what it looks like. It's an imported plant from the 19th century, a perennial that dies back in winter. It has huge leaves, tall stems up to 5 metres in height with big white flower heads not unlike cows parsley (but much, much bigger) in June and July.It likes damp places and you will find it near river banks, streams and the edges of drains. It's a bastard of a thing, so give it a wide berth.

more info here; Giant Hogweed

funny mock movie poster by happy russia at

PS; although it produces a dramatic skin reaction Catherine tells me it usually clears up without scarring after a week. I went to hot sweaty yoga last night and felt all my blisters react violently to the temperature and the sweating, but funnily enough they are all much calmer today, so perhaps another session of Bikram yoga might speed up the healing and return me to normality in a few more days.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Drying onions, garlic and shallots

onions drying in the sun
Lads what a cracker of a week it has turned out to be. In that remarkable way that Murphy's law has of proving every cynic right as soon as the children go back to school the sun comes out.Still I'm not complaining. My school days are over. And I'm in no rush back to the whiteboard either.....

On the plus side it's perfect weather for drying your onions, garlic and shallots just by digging them up and laying them on top of the beds in the sun.I say DIG because if you try to pull them out you will end up on your arse clasping a handful of stem while the onion/garlic/shallot remains stubbornly in the ground. If you must be lazy- be lazy with the onions,after all they are practically sitting on the top of the soil.But dig out the garlic, it has pretty tenacious roots and will not budge unless it grew on a sand dune!

garlic drying with shallots
The other reason not to go grabbing onions/garlic/shallots by the stems and yanking them is that damage to the stem can deteriorate the bulb in storage. This is particularly true of onions, the neck of the onion is it's vunerable point. You must make sure this part is fully dried out too, or rot will set in a few months into storage. I think it takes several weeks, most of it indoors because of our damp climate, to really get them dry and papery. If you have space in the tunnel or glasshouse all the better but failing that put them on a sunny path, in the lee of the house or shed to get the first few weeks of sunshine and heat. After that move them to the North side of the house, keep them dry, and let them finish drying for a few more weeks. All of them are great long term keepers in a shed or cool outhouse once they got enough time to really dry out. Give them that time!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Misty morning in the valley
There are mornings that take you beyond the present, to places in the past, to old memories, journeys and adventures.This morning was such a day, the cool feel of the air as it rushed into the room when I opened the door brought back memories of a thousand other mornings, back to school mornings, back to college days in Dromcollogher, going to work with Charles, and innumerable trips at dawn in places much farther away, across oceans of time, to temples, mountains and sacred rivers.

There is something beguiling about mornings like this not just brought on by the richness and weight of memories.In a few short weeks it will be the Autumn Equinox (September 22nd) when the days and nights will be equal in length, (in theory whatever about in practise). In the Southern hemisphere this signals the start of Spring but for us up North it's officially the start of Autumn. Maybe that's why each single day suddenly becomes so precious and a fine day doubly so. For the gardener it's the start of the long slow leisurely Autumn tidy up, lifting crops, clearing beds, sowing green manures and getting ready for winter.Once we retire indoors we must be content to dream. In the longest and darkest nights I often dream of how sunshine feels, warm on the back of my neck in summer, and I hunger for that feeling until it finally arrives in late Spring. Somewhere along the way to mid-summer we take the long days for granted, get gardening fatigue,"hit the garden wall" as a friend said this summer, and need to get progressively lazier until September arrives and our energy is restored once more.

With the cooler mornings I find my energy renewed. This week is promised gloriously fine, the perfect late summer/early autumn weather to get busy on jobs the lazier summer version of you has been putting off for weeks. Time to chop down spent peas and beans, dry onions and garlic in the sun and dig up main crop potatoes to store for the winter.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

To do this week-Pumpkin pruning

Happily situated in the top bed where it gets sun all day

If August was the month of pumpkins running all over the garden then September is the month of the chop-at least where pumpkin leaves and stems are concerned. By now the plants have set fruit, so any late fruitlets developing on the plants are not going to make a decent size for October but while they continue to grow they are actively taking food from their larger brothers and sisters on the same vine. If you want decent sized pumpkins that get to full maturity you have to chop off these extras now. Most pumpkin plants will support between 2-4 pumpkins to full size depending on the type; smaller pumpkins=more fruit, larger pumpkins=less. So if you have 2 -3 decent sized fruit on your pumpkin plant and it's got lots of tiny brothers and sisters they have to go!

before-in the shade
after- in the sun

 Before and after pruning

The other reason for chopping off growth now is light. September is our last decent month for long hours of daylight, it's the month when a lot of crops really ripen well. Once we get into October the days are much shorter, and light levels can fall dramatically under grey skies.If your ripening Pumpkin is hiding under large leaves it's time to chop those leaves off, exposing the Pumpkin to the fullest amount of light and heat from the sun. The last push if you like before harvesting next month.By the way I don't chop off the leaves until now because I really think the large pumpkin leaves protect fruitlets from excess rain until the fruit is large enough, with a hardened up skin, to get through wet days without beginning to rot.

obliterated pathway

pathway freed of pumpkins
Another good reason to cut is to get your pathways back! Late running stems with small fruit that are in your way can be chopped off to relieve the jumping over them every time you want to get something from the garden. When I saw the cat having to jump over vines yesterday I really realised it was time for the chop.

You might also be having trouble seeing exactly how many pumpkins are forming. This happens to me a lot. I go out to harvest in October and find a surprise under a leaf that I never spotted all summer! After chopping back vines and leaves yesterday I can see now exactly how many fruit I have and feed plants that might need help getting their pumpkins to the final size.
Do I still need to convince you?

A word of warning! one misplaced cut and it can all go horribly wrong! If you are following vines to cut back stems be so careful not to cut a vine with a ripening pumpkin attached. It has happened to me before and the swearing it brings on wouldn't get you forgiven without a trip to Lourdes and a donation to UNICEF.

do I see one in there? (white stuff on the leaves is mildew)


Monday, 3 September 2012

Buddleia finally feeds the butterflies

Feeding time on the buddleia in the east garden
I feel myself that it has been a pretty lean year for butterflies. Walking on the headland at the white strand in Co. Clare yesterday afternoon the cliffs were a turned a hazy shade of blue by armies of scabious flowering only feet from crashing Atlantic waves and of course flitting through the scabious happily sucking nectar on an exceptionally calm day were pretty brown speckled butterflies.

Echinacea offers up lots to bees, butterflies and other insects

This morning wiping the sleep out of my eyes it was small tortoiseshells that caught my eye flitting on the terrace from dahlia to echinacea and back to the buddleia of which they seem really besotted. I always thought it funny that the buddleia is called "the butterfly bush" because I have never seen butterflies on it either here or elsewhere but finally the butterflies have arrived and they can't leave it alone!

single flowered dahlias with open centres are best for insects

Another great plant for the small tortoiseshell is the herb oregano. Here it flowers in the border around the vegetable garden where it draws armies of butterflies in the later part of September.Butterflies are the second most important pollinators for us gardeners but this tends to be forgotten in the scramble to prevent cabbage whites from laying eggs in our cabbages. If you want to help the butterfly population here are a few pointers;

Crashing over the pathway oregano flowers late into Sept

Getting more butterflies in the garden

Put plants that they like to feed on in clumps in the garden, as it helps them to see them better than isolated individual flowers.If you are growing perennials like echinacea you will find it improves greatly in drawing butterflies after a few years when the clump is larger and more flowers are produced. In terms of colour butterflies are drawn to pinks, purples and yellows. Oregano, chives, lavender and rosemary are useful herbs and butterfly friendly plants too.

Butterflies need to sunbathe to keep their bodies between 28-38 degrees Celsius otherwise they struggle to fly. They love sunbathing on large flat stones that have spent all day absorbing the sun. In your garden, it’s really helpful if you leave a few flat stones around in sunny south facing positions sheltered from the wind to give them a nice warm resting place.

Avoid using garden chemicals- I think you all know that one already!

You can buy or build butterfly houses. The Eden project in the UK who gave these tips also make a special butterfly house for butterflies and moths to be fed and to overwinter safely in the garden check it out here Butterfly house.

Learn more about Irish butterflies here

UK Butterflies here