Friday, 15 March 2013

Digging in green manures

The lads make short work of the field beans!
In Blackhill this Autumn we did several trials on sowing green manures (including sowing summer varieties under cloches for winter). In all we did four beds, one with cloched mustard and phacelia, one with field beans, one with grazing rye and the final bed was split between lupins and a green manure mixed packet that included vetch and rye. We came back to the beds recently to record the results before digging in the whole lot.Eileen plans to use these beds for first early potatoes so we dug them in early to get them to break down and release their food in time for the spuds.

digging in the mixed green manure Annmarie, Sylvia, Sharon & Sue

Under the cloche the Phacelia and mustard did surprisingly well despite some of the freezing overnight temperatures we had in January and February. The growth was abundant and strong with the mustard in particular being very prolific and healthy. In the same bed unprotected phacelia had germinated erratically and was much poorer so the usefulness of the cloche is not to be sneezed at-particularly in winter.

By complete contrast the grazing rye was a complete no show-nothing at all to suggest we had even sown it in the first place! This happens to me all the time, personally I think my slugs eat it, so I have long given up any hope of using it in the garden. It's a pity really as grazing rye is supposed to be the very best soil improver for heavy clay-except it won't grow on my heavy clay! (there is a truckload of irony in there somewhere).

Greg, Kay and Kathleen digging in the phacelia and mustard

The lupins didn't germinate at all, they just rotted away on the surface of the soil. The green manure mix was a bit hit and miss, vetch and some type of other legume that looked like a pea were doing well, the rye in the mix was sporadic at best, complicated by annual grasses growing through it at the same time and it was hard to tell what else might be a green manure. But the coverage was pretty decent, so no complaints there.

The best by far were the field beans, they almost all germinated well, grew a little and were short fat plants when we dug them in. I don't know about the rest of you but these are my favourite winter green manures, you can bet the farm on them they are so reliable. If you never try any other winter green manure give these seeds a go.
field beans under cover being tended to by Pat at Cappamore

So what next? now we wait, depending on the weather it should take a few weeks for the stems, roots and leaves of the green manures to break down in the soil. If you are digging in your own green manure be sure to flip the root upwards and chop it up really well. Actually chop up everything as well as you can to help it all to break down quickly. Lobbing up the root is essential particularly with field beans as the plant will start to regrow if you just chop off the leaves and leave the root intact.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

In search of some good shit-spuds not drugs before you ask

some of Mikes cows having a snack in the yard
Mike has been promising me for ages to drop a great big load of his finest cow shit up to the house. And while I have been thrilled and delighted at the prospect my other half is less than impressed wondering out loud what the hell we will do with a large trailer load of the stuff and put off by the very idea of a pile of shit sitting on the driveway for any length of time. It's at moments like these that you can tell the farming kids from the townies. Guess which one of us is which?

Anyway the pressure was on on Saturday as I had my first Earlie's chitted, it was a root day, and to top it all off the day dawned gloriously bright and sunny.After a trip to the Market (where we met a very hung over Martin setting up his stall), and a trip to the recycling centre for polystyrene for Seamuses giant propagator project we arrived in Mikes yard eager to start filling bags. The stuff near the gate was new, very strawed looking but after valuting over the gate in true farming style we walked around the pile and found the motherload next to the end wall. This was what I was after- dark black stuff with tufts of grass growing on it in places.

bedding waste from the winter calf sheds
Of course as soon as we got out of the van the sky opened. I think its some type of Murphy's law that the day can be spectacular until you go OUTSIDE to do a bit of work, then a cloud (or several) appear overhead and drowned you! We sat it out for ten minutes, realised it wasn't going to improve, if anything the day was disintegrating before our eyes (the start of what was a truly brutal three days of blizzards and biting cold) so we suited up and headed back out.

Mike appeared and tried to talk us out of filling bags, he plans to clear this whole yard in the next few weeks. We eventually managed to persuade him that we were just taking a few bags to keep us going for now and he can turn up with the trailer load whenever he gets a chance. I know he is always working flat out so I feel bad to even drag him 7-8 miles out of his way on a tractor to drop off shit of all things, but he was really insistent.I negotiated for the 2 year old stuff nearest the wall. Once we started to dig into it we found we had struck gold; black, rich, well rotted and crawling with fat tiger worms-perfect stuff!

A bag full of the finest shit in Limerick!
This vintage stuff doesn't smell, its quite dense and very rich in nitrogen-perfect for the first Earlie's.As an added bonus all those wonderful worms are a great addition to the soil. If you go to a yard to pick out manure its amazing how often the farmer offers you the fresh stuff! but never bring the fresh stuff, unless you can afford to cover and leave it for another 6 months to 1 year, (and you can bear the aroma!). I quite like the smel of cow shit I must say, in the words of my fellow country woman Annmarie Moore from Durrow Co. Laois " Ah the smell of shit, you know youre home!".

Off we went several bags later to plant spuds in what was becoming a cold and bitter afternoon. The usual row began about staggered rows or drills, this time we went for rows and it left me feeling completely dissatisfied! I much prefer staggered rows. Anyway we will see if it affects the yields in any way. My first earlies are Aaran Pilot, Duke of York, Sharpes Express and Maris Bard. I usually only sow a few of each, harbouring a morbid fear of growing rows and rows of spuds that I cant stand the taste of. I get my students to do the same thing, so later in June we can try out as many varieties as possible.

Spud in the ground
The good news is that this Paddys Day March 17th is not only a traditional day for planting your spuds but the signs are especially good this year, something about the earth sign Taurus and the Moon sharing the day? Anyway what ever you are in to spud sowing season has offically begun, next week its on to second earlies and maincrops. Happy St Patricks to you all!

Monday, 4 March 2013

Sow your onions, garlic and shallots

the lads hard at work sowing onions garlic and shallots in the teaching garden in Hospital
It's been a busy few weeks since classes started back in February. At first you are fooled into thinking you have loads of time until suddenly, without warning its March and you have to sow everything, now! before you run out of time! It's exhausting...yawn Zzz. Its enough to make you want to lie back down and rewind the clock to February.

One job you can do in late February or early March is the sowing of onion sets, garlic cloves and shallots. And its a super satisfying job because you get the whole lot done and dusted in a few hours after a vigorous dig. The last fortnight of dry weather has been perfect for digging over these beds, especially if you plan to partner the onions with parsnips or carrots later on in April. Digging beds in four separate gardens over the last two weeks it was amazing how different each type of soil was, but at least the common theme was dryness, and that's all you could wish for this time of the year. Having a whole class to dig beds is even better. If you are digging solo the bad news is that the soil literally needs to be a fine powder before a carrot will even consider growing in it. You can certainly add coarse sand and dig it in lightly to the top few inches but it will be better if you had manure or compost added in last year too. So get stuck in but mind your backs!

Things to remember about sowing onions/garlic/shallots

Pointy end up, fat end down, amazing how often people think its the other way around!
Allow 6 inches between each one to allow them to get to a good size
(In an 8x4 bed you should fit 15 down and 7 across =105 per bed)
If you are going to share the bed later with carrots or parsnips I reckon three rows of alliums to allow for two of carrots/parsnips. Any more is too packed for my liking.
Don't push down the onions/garlic/shallots until you have finished the whole bed and are happy with your rows being straight etc. You will forget where you have sowed otherwise!
Net the bed when you are done sowing to prevent the birds pulling them up or a cat thinking its a hip new bathroom for cats

Reward for a hard days work everyone goes home with leeks

Hedge cutting hernia

If only cats had thumbs
Last chance to cut your hedges! Seamus was at it over the weekend(well I would do it but I was demoted to raking and cutting up the branches as I lack the upper body strength to handle the machine) with a rented piece of equipment that kept jamming on the blackthorn. Finally in sheer frustration (having opened and taken apart the blades several times only for it to jam up again almost immediately when he started to use it) he reverted back to hand tools making it more sensible to use a chainsaw than a hedge cutters next time we have to prune. These hedge cutters may be good for soft evergreen shrubs but they are a disaster with the woody stuff. Ginger stood around amused by the idiot humans making a mess all over the lawn. Whiskers came over on a visit(Gingers friend from next door is a beautiful white cat whose nose is solidly out of joint since his family got a fantastically over excitable puppy-the fools!) and was equally amused by our ridiculous antics. In the end gathering up the branches became a type of game with Ginger pouncing as I tried to take them up and Whiskers like Emperor Nero watching it all from the relative comfort of the dusty dry ground under the hedge.What absolute morons we must appear to other animals. Even the birds seemed to stop and have a good laugh at our expense!Do you know of any other animal that makes such unnecessary work for themselves? No, me neither!Next year Whiskers and Ginger can cut the hedge while Seamus and I will sit out watching them having a good laugh at their expense.

I might get finished raking in early May

Spring cleaning

working in the back garden
Did you ever get a song stuck in your head? Since last Wednesday all I can hear is trad(traditional Irish music ye non-Irish people), playing away all day and night inside some room in my head and refusing to be switched off. It's like a broken i pod with a repeat loop that never ends (or Fr Ted's infamous disco with the one record).It reminds me of studying for the Leaving cert in the sitting room when Dad would barge in and demand we turn off the radio " you can't study listening to that NOISE" only to immediately start playing the fiddle next door(the irony of the situation was unfortunately lost on him). Years later I realise it was his way of getting a bit of peace and quiet so he could practise.

He made it up to us all last Wednesday night when he got his lifetime achievement award and we shared in the best music session I have been at in an age.It was a funny night, meeting lots of my musical cousins and many of Dads pals who are a real international bunch. For years none of them knew he was married, let alone that he had 6 children! Dad had his own private music life and that's his true passion, he is what we have always called "the accidental farmer".

Hellebore marks the start of flowers in the garden
Unfortunately it was the ghost of teachers and employers past too. Some I was delighted to see, others just reminded me of detention, the principles office and other disturbing stuff best left in the 1980s and 90s. I managed to be polite and reasonable with them all and resist the urge to run screaming out of the building!

It took a few days to recover from the long and wild night in Corofin, but over the weekend it was back to the peace of the garden for a badly needed spring tidy up. Unlike other more organised gardeners I choose to leave the late summer wilderness intact over the winter. My theory is that dried stems and fallen leaves give ideal hibernation homes to lots of useful insects (as well as unpopular insects too no doubt) and its only safe to begin clearing away when Spring is finally here. So spring has arrived and the clean up begins!

Now that I have an ornamental garden it feels completely different to the vegetable plot which was the focus of almost all of my time since I moved here.In the vegetable garden the beds sit quietly, minding their own business, patiently waiting for their first crops to arrive, meanwhile out the back in the raised garden bulbs and plants are sprouting to life without any say so from me! Roses are crying out to be pruned, primroses have resurrected themselves and are tossing their pretty heads at me and even summer lilies are starting to bud up. It's all noisy busy action and it calls for attention, I can almost hear the chorus of plants roaring at me across the yard to "hurry up and get this stuff off my head!"Very high maintenance this ornamental bunch! So on Sunday morning, i took out my wheelbarrow into the lovely sunshine and spent a solid few hours cutting down and clearing away all the bleached and battered debris of last Summers growth. Now all I have to do is move some plants like buddleias that are in the wrong place, does it ever bloody end? Let me back to my vegetable garden for a bit of rest!

Almost restored to good order