Friday, 31 January 2014

Building a pick your own Orchard

Sue Measuring out the beds for the Apple trees
This teaching year may be hectic but is is extremely interesting. Eileen is setting up a Pick your own fruit Orchard in Blackhill Farm with the help of the FETAC 4 students who are studying fruit as their anchor module this year (this means that a lot of the key skills we do in other modules like plant propagation and plant identification are also bound up with the work we do for the fruit module). We have had a great time going on visits to Irish Seed Savers in Clare and The Apple Farm in Tipperary gathering information and learning as much as we can from experts in (no pun intended) the field of fruit. Apart from the fun of going on field trips we actually found out a huge amount about growing Apple trees in particular and we owe a big thank you to Pat at Irish Seed Savers and Con at The Apple Farm for all their advise and help.By the way ye members of the public do all ye can to support Irish Seed Savers in their time of need.

On the estuary near Glin
This Tuesday we went on to the Shannon Estuary near the pretty village of Glin to collect seaweed for the new apple tree beds. The lads have already built some of these beds using the spacings recommended for commercial planting my I.S.S.A. and Con Traas. Eileen had opened some well matured compost heaps to add nutrients and the final job before planting is to put on the seaweed mulch to add lots of trace elements to the soil for the new trees.We were spectacularly lucky with the weather. Up to the night before it was blowing a gale and pouring rain. But the day dawned clear and calm and it was the first true taste of spring watching the sun fall on the fields as we drove through Carrigkerry cross country to the beach near Glin.

The beds ready for mulching the yellow area is weeds dying off under black plastic
It is good fun picking seaweed but the estuary is completely different from the beach. Its full of mud flats which are dangerous in themselves. Walk across the wrong stretch of "beach" and you get swallowed up never to return. Drift seaweed (freely floating not attached to roots or rocks) was few and far between although when we did find it it was exceptionally fine and soft. Most of the seaweed visible at low tide was firmly attached to the rocks or the pebbly upper shoreline.Although initially it looked like just one type of seaweed it turned out we collected at least 10 different varieties. There was slim to no kelp, which is one of the most important seaweeds of all for plant and human nutrition. In all just three pieces were found on the whole inlet beach! A far cry from Seafield which is fairly awash with the stuff.
sea lettuce was in abundance

Still we managed to be a distraction for the locals who periodically drove down to see what we were up to.  No one came over and asked us any questions they just drove down to the pier, parked, watched us for a bit and drove back very slowly watching us all the time. We made a good effort to wave wildly at everyone who ventured down (at least 5 cars I think!), what they made of us up to our eyeballs in mud wrestling with seaweed in January God only knows! Two of the girls speculated on all the affairs, sneaky local goings on and drug smuggling we had interrupted with our mornings work. A few of us wondered what wild stories the locals had come up with about us in the privacy of their cars. How disappointing for us and the locals that life is rarely as exciting as we might like it to be!

The beds covered in their seaweed mulch

We got back to Eileen's farm in time for a hearty lunch followed by the most delicious apple crumble and custard that poor Eileen had made for us the day before. Despite there being less students and more crumble than anticipated somehow they put a good dent in the supplies, proof if any were needed, that sea air (even diluted by the freshwater and air of the estuary) really gives you a great appetite. After marinating for a bit in front of a hot stove we managed to eventually venture back outside into glorious January sunshine. In the Orchard we pulled back our black plastic mulch and were pleased to see the weeds between the rows had started to yellow and die over the last few weeks.We picked up where we had left off on the making of a third apple bed, carefully pulling out weeds (a job made much easier by the use of the mulch) loosening the earth and removing large stones. Eileen opened more compost heaps for us to barrow well matured compost onto the surface of the new bed. Once done it was simply a case of emptying bags of seaweed onto the beds. In all we used about 12 bags for each bed (36 bags in all) with plenty in reserve for the beds yet to be made. We re-covered the entire area with the black plastic and weighted it down once more.The last thing we did was a bit of seaweed identification before hitting for home after a very satisfying day.

If you want to find out which seaweeds are which here are two good sites for Ireland and the UK;
Seaweeds in Ireland
Seaweeds in the UK

State of the Union

Last Black Futsu Pumpkin from stores
Today may be fairly rubbish weather wise but its exactly the type of day to stay in, do big piles of boring paperwork and enjoy a pot of good soup. Unfortunately my pumpkins in stores are down to just a few, and today the last black futsu was sacrificed at the altar of pumpkin, veg and ginger soup. 

No I haven't put in the wrong photo. The futsu started off completely dark green-black at harvest time but has turned this lovely mottled orange colour in storage as it ripened and
Black futsu original colour
matured. It's amazing what a few months indoors can do. This very often throws off new growers of pumpkins who fear something has gone drastically wrong when they see colours changing. Trust me when I say that in my humble opinion its when they start to go soft, smell bad and cry all over the floor that you are in serious trouble. At that stage heed the warning the pumpkin is giving you and Do not eat!

I won't be sowing pumpkin and squash seeds until April but I am getting started on other crops like spuds which are chitting on my new dresser. My sister in law gave it to me when she did a huge remodeling job on her kitchen and afterwards discovered it would no longer fit. It's a beautiful piece of handmade furniture but even better than that it has a long obliging shelf the perfect width for rows of egg boxes with sprouting spuds. To be honest I liked my humble little dresser I bought at auction better with its open shelves and cream colour my mother and I painted it. And I feel bad that its losing its prime spot in my kitchen with no immediate hope of a new home. It suited me if you know what I mean, it wasn't pretentious or brassy just cheerful, simple and homely. This thing is a bit too posh for me, thank God my sister in laws kids scribbled in crayon and slightly thrashed it, I feel I have permission to paint it and soften the look of it! Plus its twice the size of my humble charlie. I'm ungrateful, I know!! I just like furniture you can live with, not have to mind. Already it's hard work keeping the new cats from jumping up on it to steal chillies!

Chitting first earlies

This year Garden World on Ellen street in Limerick city are doing 70+ varieties of potato! I seriously do not have the room for that amount in my garden but Chris one of my former students is set to grow about 74 varieties and is planning on another spud tasting open day at his farm. Last year he had people tasting spuds from early morning to 1am at night! It's a fantastic idea and I will be sure to mention it when he sets a date for this year. Hopefully it won't go all Copper faced Jacks on him on the day.

What I am going to try this year is growing spuds in potato grow bags and in large containers. Although I have always been very dubious about it- it is one way of maximising the types you can try in one growing season.A few of the new super fast spuds like "swift" and "rocket"are the ones I am most curious about. The have shorter foliage, tighter plant spacings and promise an even earlier crop. Definitely worth a try.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Obey the moon-sow leafy crops today

today's seeds for sowing
Hi lads! into battle we go. Today is my first sowing day of 2014. According to my bio-dynamic calendar it's leaf crops; spinach, early hardy cut and come salad crops, rocket, texel greens, and micro greens; dark opal basil, green sprouting broccoli and rocket victoria. I'm using root grow mycorrhizal fungi in each seed tray to help them get going. It's a bit early in the year so I think they will take all the help they can get! That said everything in the cold frame and the broad beans in the glasshouse have started to grow again, under glass today its a nice 10c so I hope the temperatures will continue like this for these salad crops once they are transplanted out. I'm putting all of them under cover to crop. It's still too cold to plant them outside, though I will have to harden off the broad beans soon, they are pushing roots out through the very large pots I gave them!

If you are making plans for sowing this month using the moon my plan is;

Fruiting crops like early peas and beans, chillies and tomatoes on Monday the 20th January
Root crops like onions  on Wednesday the 22nd January
Flower crops like broccoli,  sweet peas, verbascum, and foxgloves on Friday 24th of January

Happy sowing!
Please order your seeds from The Irish Seeds Savers Association who need all the help they can get this year. Or better yet become a supporter. It's unthinkable that they should fail so please do all you can to help, even small orders can count.

If you have old packets of seeds and you want to ckeck their viability you can do this simple test that my FETAC 5 group carried out yesterday;

  1. Lightly moisten a paper towel. Then, fold it in half.
  2. Place 10 seeds on the paper towel. Then, fold the towel in half again to cover up the seeds.
  3. Stick the paper towel in a plastic sandwich bag and seal.
  4. Write the seed name and date on the bag. Then, store the bag in a warm spot (on top of the refrigerator works well).
  5. Check the bag each day to see if any seeds have germinated and to re-moisten the paper towel, as needed.
  6. Continue checking the bag until you reach the germination time listed (e.g. 7 days) on your seed packet.If its not listed on your seed packet check it online from seed companies, it varies dramatically from each seed to the next so don't guess! check it out.
  7. Count how many seeds germinated. Use this to determine your percentage of viability. If, for example, 8 of your 10 seeds germinated, that would be an  80% viability.
  8. If you decide to use your seeds, plant extra to make up for the seeds that aren't likely to germinate.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Coming around again

The sun; so near and yet so far away
Did you ever get the feeling that no matter how well intentioned you are there is always something getting in the way of the things you want to do? January should be renamed "the road to hell" littered with the good intentions, drunken new years resolutions and half arsed ideas of what you will do with the clean sheet of the new year. One of my many good intentions is to be a better correspondent, a regular bi or tri-weekly blogger as I used to be. Push work firmly to one side, get on with the business of blogging, forget about teaching! making money! feeding cats! blog at all costs. Hold me to it, and we will see how long the resolution lasts....

At this time of year I miss the light of home. One decided advantage to having no impediment for miles around is the pure spectacular light levels in the house and in the garden even on the shortest days of the year. On this slope the sun begins to disappear gradually through October shortening its stay each day until one frosty day in November (when the skies are blue and the sun busy dissolving ice crystals in the valley below) you wake up to a quiet gloom, the fields a stiff grey white, ice in puddles refusing to melt and time suddenly seems to stand still.Does anyone remember the Greek legend of Persephone? Condemned to spend months underground and only allowed back overground to bring the flowers of spring? That's what it feels like here. Going underground for November, December and January.

So January becomes the month of watching. Watching for the sun to begin its reappearance in the southern sky. Because of the extinct volcano between me and the sun, monitoring the light; what times it "breaks the hill" each day, where the light falls and how long its rays last becomes supremely important each year and for some strange reason no less compelling at the years go on. Just today at lunch time I noticed the sun finally break the top of the hill at 1.06pm hitting light squarely into the back of the kitchen wall, onto the last bed in the vegetable garden (bed no 5) and in jagged stripes across the apple orchard on the front lawn. What always amazes me is how this light stretches out, at first only lasting for 20 minutes until by degrees it begins earlier and earlier each afternoon and lasts later and later each evening.Never mind your hippies banging drums at Newgrange on December 21st, this is my gardens winter solstice, and the sun is finally coming round again.Somehow it spurs you on and gives you the enthusiasm you need for the busy time that lies ahead.If you pay attention too you will know which parts of the garden warm up earliest. Important stuff when it comes to sowing the first veg crops in February and March.

ready to go....
 So what does lie ahead ? The seed stock-take has been done, with seeds graded into each calendar month for sowing and the box for January filled with early hardy varieties of sweet peas, lettuces, salad crops, tomatoes,broccoli, micro greens, flowers, broad beans, onions and chillies. The moon calendar has been consulted and each date marked on the kitchen calendar for the different crops to sow that day. The seed labels used in the garden last year have been brought indoors, washed, pencil markings erased, and  put into bundles ready for sowing over the next three weeks. The plan for the garden rotations has been drawn up although the debate rages on about how many beds potatoes should get and in an effort to solve the problem it looks like I will trial potato grow-bags and tubs this year for first earlies anyway. Since students squeezed for space often ask me about it I'm definitely in need of trying it out. In about two weeks the shop on Ellen street will have over 70 varieties of seed potatoes so its important to have a plan (so I don't go crazy when I get inside the door!!). If you were so inclined you could work out exactly how many seeds to sow for absolutely everything you were going to grow and lay out every piece of ground for them well in advance. Can you imagine being that organised? me neither! But it dosen't stop me trying to get there every new year.