Thursday, September 11, 2014

Leafmould: Making Fallen Leaves Useful

The serene orange and yellow hues of leaves on lazy mild evenings is what earns Autumn its place as my most-loved season. The low sun searing through the curtain of illuminated foliage is blinding and beautiful. Too bad the wind usually picks up and strips the trees bare in a matter of days. And with the rain, soon what once crunched deliciously underfoot now sticks to your boot like sludge threatening to slip you up.

Instead of sweeping up the leaves and adding them to the compost heap, you can isolate them to make your own soil conditioner called leaf mould. By digging the finished product into your soil, you will improve it. For an acidic mix, use pine needles instead of leaves (they are shed all year around but particularly in the Spring). The leaf mould can also be used as a mulch or soil coverer.

The easiest process is pack the leaves into a black refuse bag. If the leaves are dry, add some water to accelerate the decomposition process and tie. Leave for at least one year, preferably two. Indeed it is not quick gratification but the effort required is minimal.

The photo below is of a bag I ripped open today, which had been sitting there for one year. The leaves have broken down into papery sheets. Some larger leaves could break down further but it is certainly useable. 

Leaf mould is not particularly nutritious but it's crumbly texture will help loosen your soil to move it closer to that illusive "friable" state. It also provides a perfect habitat for beneficial soil life like earthworms and fungi. It is extremely moisture retentive, making a great mulch. If added to the compost heap, it brings good levels of carbon helping achieve that perfect carbon:nitrogen ratio which can be difficult to perfect with the usual high levels of nitrogen in most plant life.

Make it. You've no excuse.

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Garden: 5th September 2014

Things have slowed down in the garden and progress is slow and steady. Things are happening quietly under the thick canopy of foliage. This cauliflower head is hidden away under the expansive leaves of the neighbouring broccoli, only revealed during a caterpillar hunt. I had forgotten it was planted there! For a vegetable that doesn't inspire a second glance from me in the supermarket, this small head is filling me with culinary ideas that can only be borne from your own garden:

In other dark and shady places, tiny brussel sprouts are forming like pimples on a teenager:

Out in the open we have the light and pretty flowers of the borlotti bean plant. I have only two plants, it being my first year growing them, and so far it is all style without substance. The beautiful large red pods were being devoured by slugs so I harvested them, only to realise that the pods were too big to be eaten and the beans were too small! Hopefully it's not too late for a second harvest.

One by one my tomatoes are ripening. I have masses of fruit on my plants and we are experiencing another flush of good weather which seems to be turning these green cuties into red beauties:

Red hues can be seen appearing on all five plants:

Some more leeks have been transplanted into the ground and as you can see, I have not covered them completely with soil but will do so gradually, letting the rain naturally wash earth around them thus helping them to blanche white. I have only five leeks in the ground and really wish I had more. The plant has such a long growing season that it took ages for them to transform from an grass like stalk to a possible plant. It doesn't really inspire you to plant many of them but this is my first year and I'll be more positive next year. I do love the sight of a big patch of leeks growing. They are hardy and can withstand frost so I hope to have twenty or thirty plants this time next year.

I have been fighting with slugs and caterpillars for so long that I am amazed to see that my cabbages have actually managed to develop good thick hearts. I am almost afraid to harvest them for fear of revealing an army of grubs hiding inside.

Finally, I am delighted to say that my outdoor grown jalapenos have flowered so I am really hopeful of a late pepper. Just one is all I ask for.

Friday, August 22, 2014

My Garden: 11th August 2014

If I ever forget the beautiful weather of 2014, this blog will be a sure reminder. And I ask myself, why haven't we installed an outdoor tap yet? The only good thing about relying on a watering can is that I make sure to empty all my waste water into it. Still though, my plants are definitely under-watered. I don't currently mulch for fear of creating a haven for slugs but talented gardeners would insist it is essential. Next year will be my year for mulching - and it'll probably be a wash out!

My tomatoes came on in leaps and bounds from the scraggly beginnings:

That first blush of red is exciting:

I am growing borlotti beans this year. It's a venture into the unknown, however timid:

It's not the best photo of the borlotti flowers. I wish I had captured them at their best because the delicate pink and white blooms are beautiful:

My remaining beets are big!

New generation of carrots and beetroot that were planted in July. I hope it's not too late in the season.

One of my carrots is sitting too high up and has gone a funny colour. Happy to say I ate it and it tasted lovely.

I was too cocky and uncovered my brassicas weeks back to make it easier to weed and because it looked better. Well I under estimated the prowess of the white butterfly because I've been inundated with caterpillars. I re-covered them and rid myself of the green pests many times a day.

Sweet peas peak out among the mangetout:

My leeks are gaining girth but they still have a long growing season ahead of them. And I need to weed that patch!

I ate the first cut of my broccoli, which was divine, but was sorely disappointed by the speed of regrowth. A closer look and I found horrible black aphids on it, plus some hungry caterpillars. I've sprayed it with a mix of water, garlic and ginger and also spotted a ladybird (predator of the aphid) on the plant so hopefully I'll see progress.

I am growing jalapeƱo peppers outdoors as an experiment. They have received plenty of warm sunshine in a south facing position so hopefully we might get a few little peppers!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Saving Seeds

Saving seeds seems to be a lost art. I have certainly only entertained the idea playfully in my mind until recently. This year I allowed an over-wintered brussels sprouts plant to go to flower in the hope of saving the seeds but on seeing that the plant had been infected by a blast of spring aphids, I pulled it up and threw it in the compost heap.

Turning my mind from vegetables, today I noticed that the wild flowers 'Honesty' I had enjoyed last season were looking prime for seed harvesting. Even though they had finished blooming their pink flowers months ago, I rather liked the appearance of the papery seed packets that remained so I left them to stand until now.

It only dawned on me today that the dried flowers were my ticket to the elusive practice of seed saving. Peeling open the seed shells was a very satisfying feeling and you could feel that the pods were ready to burst apart at the lightest touch. Inside were two layers of three seeds, six in all. 

All the sunshine we have had for the last few months proved to be the perfect natural dryer and the seeds felt ready for storage. I thought about how to package them and finally decided to pop them back into the box of mixed wildflower seeds that their parents had come from.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to Store Berries

Being healthy is so much fun in the summer months and popping sweet berries in your mouth one after the other is one of the more joyous ways of eating. This summer we have been gorging ourselves on blueberries, red currants and Wexford strawberries. Unfortunately once picked, they can deteriorate rapidly and more than once I have cursed myself as I dump a punnet of fruit that looked perfect yesterday. Next time instead of letting them sit on the kitchen counter, a few minutes simple preparation will keep your berries fresh for longer

1. Remove any mouldy fruit - it only takes one bad berry to infect the rest.

2. Chop off bruised spots. For larger berries, you can save many damaged ones by removing the softened bits

3. Place in a colander and rinse under cold water. They should not be soaked.

4. Place in a sealed lunch box in the fridge

I have been doing this with great success all summer.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Simplicity is Freedom

It's the dilemma of modern families across Ireland - how to balance work and family life in a way that you can meet your expenses and the needs of your children. Tradition suggests that a couple should marry, buy a house and have children, in that particular order. Unfortunately, for many, that now translates to being tied to a job to pay for an expensive house in a location that no longer suits your new lifestyle as parents. And if you are not committed to a mortgage, do you choose where to live because you can get a higher paid job, more amenities, shorter commute, cheaper area? How can a family thrive if both parents have to work five days or more a week? Less time means you make bad decisions - fast food, buying things you could make, looking for the quick solution, compensating for time lost with your children by lavishly spending money on them. Then there is the guilt and emotional strain.

The massive personal choice that the developed world offers to us brings freedom and potential for happiness but also so much complication and stress to our lives. We have so much available to us but is it really making our lives better? I hear so much negativity around me every day, so much illness and stress. Even though the choice I'm making is a good one, is it the best one? Have you ever spent hours online comparing products and agonising over them? Each one looks good, but which one is the best!? By the time you've finished, you've forgotten what the first one was like. It's not our fault, we are part of a bigger machine. The machine of society that we design. The chicken and the egg situation?

Rather than work a full week to have more disposable income, I would champion less work, less money and more time. I believe that no person, no matter what your situation, should work a 40+ hour week. Part time work for every one means that no person should be without a job, and all the work will still get done. It would cut down traffic, work related stress, sick days.

If only it was that simple... I realise that everything would have to change, cost of products and services, the way businesses are run....

But still, my dream is a three day week for workers everywhere!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Life Stages of the Caterpillar

A child might find joy and delight in the pretty playful ways of the white butterfly that flits around the garden this time of the year, but for the gardener the white butterfly is an ominous sign - caterpillars! Growing brassica plants among the huge slug population that thrives in our damp mild climate brings enough heartache without the added destruction of the caterpillar. They must be tracked down in the early stages and squished before you see this:


The above picture was a Brussels Sprouts plant I grew a few years ago. Although the caterpillars decimated the leaves, I still had a nice little crop but they cannot have benefited from the lack of leaf surface.

The caterpillar starts its life as a beautiful patch of tiny sunny yellow eggs on the underside of your brassica leaves:

This is the optimum time to crush them as the patches are small enough to press with one finger. You will undoubtedly miss a few, or a few eggs will fall to safety on the lower leaves when you touch them.  Soon enough you might see gatherings of tiny grubs on your leaves:

Keep checking the underside of the leaves because newly hatched, well camouflaged, threadlike caterpillars will be found there:

The larger grubs are easy to miss so be vigilant:

The smaller insects are easy to crush with your fingers but for the larger ones, I find it easier to stomach if you place them on a brick and crush with the back of a trowel. I have a concrete block that I affectionately call my "Killing Stone". All manner of pests have said their dying words upon this stone cold death bed. I still do not enjoy doing it.