Thursday, December 30, 2010

From Snow to Mush

For me the green shoots had already started  - in the garden at least. That’s where the garlic had already sprouted four inches through November and where the winter Roscoff cauliflower plants had stretched to four feet. And then along came worst snow since the 1980’s and covered the lot for the two weeks. Then after a break of a few weeks it started all over again, just as bad as before. We were snowed in for Christmas day and couldn't go out for dinner at her parents as planned. Luckily I'd picked up a turkey and ham on Christmas Eve just as the butcher was closing.

Plot 34, the allotment, up high on the Dublin Hills at Bohernabreena hasn’t been seen by me since late October. There are potatoes, cabbages, celeriacs, more winter cauliflowers and other bits and bobs still in the ground. How would the worst snow since the 1980’s have affected them? For overseas readers, consider that (a) In Ireland, snow which stays longer than a night is an event that happens every five to ten years and (b) because of this, a lot of the crops we grow here are not used to it.

The White stuff - we're not used to it..
So I called Stephen Alexander, a vegetable advisor with Teagasc, the Irish state education and advisory board for the agri food sector. “Interestingly a covering of snow, and the larger that is, can actually protect some crops from the colder temperatures and lend them a barrier against ground frost." he says.

“I think the last time we’ve had ground temperatures so low was in 1970 when they reached minus eighteen degrees. Remember that the air temperature is always three or four higher than the ground.”

Alexander indicates a few other interesting points which food gardeners might not have been aware of.
“Those crops located in colder areas where the thaw happens more slowly are actually likely to experience the least damage whatever way ice crystals work with plants. The crops on southern facing areas which thaw quicker are far more likely to be damaged.”

Stephen Alexander from Teagasc
Unfortunately those crops which initially appear to have weathered the worst of the weather, may actually be damaged inside. “Sometimes the outer leaves of the plant, say with cabbages, can seem ok, but the damage has been done deep inside. Rot starts there and begins working its way out.”

“While most overwintering crops are hardy to frosts, many are not equipped for the extremes we’ve experienced lately when ground temperatures have fallen to minus twelve and remained below zero for sustained periods.”
So the following are Alexander’s views on the damage caused to other crops likely to be in the ground in gardens and allotments at the moment.
Thinking I was clever and eschewing the need to find storage at home for my King Edwards and Kerr Pinks, I simply left them in the ground which, given the weather, has turned out to be a bad idea. Alexander says: “Potatoes should not be in the ground at the moment. What you’re likely to find is that those nearest the surface have been damaged while those deeper may actually be alright. The problem is that potatoes can actually look on the outside when the damage is already done internally. Cut one open and take a look. If the flesh has a more watery consistency in some areas, they may be done for.”
Winter Cabbage
“Cabbage will fare differently depending on where it’s located and whether it got a protective covering of snow or not. Cabbage can be susceptible to the sorts of extreme temperatures we’ve been having. Sometimes, like potatoes, the rot can have occurred deep inside. Luckily for gardeners, unlike commericial growers you can just cut off the bad bits and use it anyway.”
“Like cabbage, it really depends on their local conditions even to the point of where they are located on your plot. Being a winter veg they’re normally fairly resilient. The same rules as cabbage apply.

The Roscoffs survived ok

“Essentially if your cauliflowers have been producing heads then you’re done for. The recent conditions will have turned them all to mush. However if they’re an overwintering variety that has yet to produce, and the plants are still in good condition, then you should be ok.” In my case, most of the Roscoffs I had in the back garden, and presumably therefore, those above in the allotment, seem to have emerged unscathed. Still not a white head in sight though.
“Absolutely bullet proof. I remember talking to a man who had gone through the notorious winter of 1947 and he told me that the parsnips were perfect afterwards.” Note: parsnips are one of those crops said to taste far better (nuttier apparently) after a dose of frost.
“I’m surprised to learn that your (Plot 34’s) garlic sprouts have fallen down. Usually they’re pretty resilient and normally they’d be ok.” And true enough, once the snow melted, the tops of the garlic had wilted but within days new shoots were growing again.
“Generally swedes should have weathered pretty well. Once you see them and they look ok then generally they are ok.” And again, our swedes have held up although some have a few rather large holes in them that I hadn't noticed before. So perhaps the odd one became a snow cabin for a pesky varmint or three.
“I’m not sure about celeriac because I’ve no experience of them in that type of weather. If they’re still growing and the roots are expanding then I guess they’re fine.” I'll have to wait to travel to the allotment to see how these guys are.
“I’m sorry but if you had carrots in the ground then you’re completely bunched.” Many growers will have carrots in the ground as a means of storing them overwinter. In my case however, they never fired in the first place in one of the worst years ever for carrots on our allotment complex.

Apparently there's more snow forecast for February. Dang!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sprouts For Christmas

It's called the "Balbriggan Brussels Sprout" and according to some people, it's in need of preservation. But if you asked the people who know most about them - those farmers who have grown the BBS all their lives, they would tell you: "It's just a Brussels Sprout."

Balbriggan is a part of north Dublin where market gardening farmers have grown sprouts for generations, farms passed on from father to son. Lately, thanks to the squeezing supermarket buyer, that's being dying out. It's no longer profitable to grow sprouts. But even though the farmers have retired and their sons have decided, via college, to become something else,;there still is something in their aftermath called the "Balbriggan Brussels Sprout."

It's a plant, which over many generations, has adapted to the climate and conditions of Dublin. Over its generations, those plants which have become best used to the soil in the area and the weather in their particular area and have become stronger. Those plants which couldn't get used to the conditions have died, those which survived became a strain. In the university, it's now a strain of sprouts called "Balbriggan Brussels Sprouts" different enough from every other type of brussels sprouts to become a category.

There are no pictures of Balbriggan Brussels Sprouts, so here is  a couple who grow their own, looking proud
The point to this entry is to ask anyone who has a relative who likes growing stuff, to enlist them in a heritage seed club. I'll tell you why in a minute.

It's coming up to Christmas and people will be asking you what you'd fancy for a present. If your loved one grows food, then please consider buying them into a heritage seed club. As a present. First off they'll get seeds for plants they're never heard of. They'll love it. They'll love you for it.

Most of the fresh food produce we consume today stems from seeds produced by about six world corporations you've never heard of. They sell the seeds that make the bulk of what we eat.

The EU made rules twenty years ago which made it necessary to spend large amounts of money "registering" seeds. If you were a business that wanted to sell seeds, you had to get that seed type registered. And it cost you thousands to do so.

What that meant is that the old farmer who just harvested his seeds off his plants and regrew them the next year, never got his seeds "registered" because to him they were just the same seeds he got off his plants every year, that he grew and his father grew. He didn't sell his seeds.  He grew them. They were never registered. Today they are "illegal" to buy.

So today we arrive in a situation in the western world where farmers like him have died out. There's only the corporations to bring on seed and to sell them on, with their licences. So they only grow those strains which last longer in transport, last longer on the shelves and look good. Now it's actually illegal to sell the Balbriggan Brussels Sprout seed. Look around your way, ask an old farmer, I bet it's also illegal to sell what crops were local to you.

A lot of what the seed corporations like to sell is the F1 hybrid. That's a clone plant and its seeds cannot produce plants which can produce viable plants.  It grows bigger fruit/veg and more attractive looking foods. Conveniently it also means the growers have to buy from the corporation again and again each year, instead of just harvesting their own seeds and growing them on the next year.

The "illegal" seeds are the now ones which can reproduce by themselves. If you buy heritage seeds, not only will your efforts help protect the world from grabbing bastard corporations, but the seeds will also thank you with the most beautiful tasting and highly nutritional fruit and vegetables.

The world is awash with the food plant's equivalent of bulldogs and daschunds and chihuahuas when the mongrel is the most survivable. That's how mother nature works. She makes mongrels not pugs.

All of what I've said is there on the internet to see. If you don't believe me, look it up. Find out for yourself. But if you do know a grower, or if you are one yourself, join a heritage seed club. Grow proper plants.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

From Russia With Love

From Russia with complications came the first tomato to reach ripeness during the year just past in Plot 34a (my back garden and greenhouse) – an heirloom by the name of Silver Tree Fern.
Tomatoes may seem odd coming from Russia given our natural tomato association with the sunny Med rather then the land of borscht, ushanka fur hats and permafrosted wooly mammoths.  In fact tomatoes originate in Peru and only reached Europe in the 16th century. The English got them just fifty years after the Italians. I don’t know when the Russians started but they’ve since produced hundreds of the most interesting and unusual varieties. (squashed writing because microsoft fights with google - i trust you'll persist reading despite their silliness?)
Silver Tree Fern Russian tomatoes
The Silver Tree fern was one of a number of endangered heirlooms which, like my Lumper potatoes, I acquired from Irish Seedsavers.  As a bush variety it’s low slung (about two foot high)  and the odd fernlike leaves and are supposed to go silver grey, although thus far on the steppes of Kimmage they remain verdant green.
I divided them between patio containers outside and the greenhouse. The latter bunch went mental altogether, sprouting and bushing in all directions before collapsing under their own weight.  Given the sheer amount of foliage, I left the secateurs inside and the mad Russians to sort it out by themselves. Most caught a mould and died but the remainders, appeared to revamp and thrived along the ground without support. Back on the patio in the open air, the foliage was less pronounced but they also collapsed again and again. But once again, just when they seemed set for the compost mausoleum, they miraculously resurrected.
With snow in March and then again in October, the Russian growing season is short, so they were the first of my six varieties this year to ripen. The fruits look like little pumpkins: flat squat, orangey and very big (about four inches across). They’re heavily ridged and feature some sort of bizarre naturally occurring holes in the bottom amidst a brown callused under carriage . When the first one ripened about four weeks ago I cut it up, detached the gnarly bottom and ate the rest.
Allotment in Russia
This tomato divides growers because it’s tart and acid for a beefy and despite the many moans from chatty bloggers and posters about it being too bitter, I love it to bits, far preferring its lively zap to the blander soap of most other big tomatoes. Reading up the little material I could find, I discovered the hot periods we’d been having may have meddled with its cooler early cycle preferences. A tomato which needs protection from the heat? Stranger again.
What makes the entire duma of Russian heritage tomatoes useful in Ireland is exactly this preference. They like containers, and thus apartment balconies and will tolerate coastal locations. And saved heritage/heirloom seeds certainly make growing far more interesting.
Today Russia leads the world in seed saving for now– boasting the world’s largest seedbank at the Vavilov Centre in St Petersburg.
Nikolai Vavilov who is perhaps the first eco martyr,  was born in 1887 in Moscow and studied botany before travelling Europe in the early 20th century collecting plants with William Bateson, founder of the science of genetics. Later he would scour the entire planet in search of rarities to bring home and develop in a bank deemed so valuable that Hitler’s SS was instructed to steal it.
Vavilov discovered that almost all the food plants we feed ourselves with today originate in those small pockets of the world where their wild relatives still grow today. He determined that most food crop varieties, having had their genes narrowed by hundreds or thousands of years of use outside these pockets, could be revitalised by being crossed with wild relatives from their centres of origin to strengthen them against pests and disease.
There are eight Vavilov Centres and it’s the one in Central America where tomatoes and potatoes still grow wild. Today’s work to develop potato strains capable of dealing with new strains of blight, would not be possible without spuds from a single valley in Peru at the heart of the spud’s Vavilov centre. While these centres require protection for obvious reasons, unfortunately many wild gene pools today risk contamination by GM foods grown in them or in proximity to the Vavilov centres.
When the War broke out, Vavilov’s Leningrad Botany institute (in St Petersburg today) had more than 200,000 varieties of threatened strains housed there, many of them available nowhere else. When the city was besieged by the Nazis and food shortages set in, Vavilov and his scientists vowed not to eat the grain and seed potatoes they had worked so hard to save from extinction.
Nazi gardening?
In the months that followed twelve starved to death alongside sacks of food, rather than eat what they were guarding for the rest of the world.
But Stalin had been listening to some politically expedient flat earth scientists, notably a rival of Vavilov’s named Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko’s dislike of Vavilov lead to Stalin imprisoning Vavilov - seventy years ago this month.  After two years he was starved to death – a cynical end no doubt choreographed by his former master.  You might have read the fictionalised account of his life contained in Elise Blackwell’s acclaimed 2003 novel, “Hunger.”
Stalin's Vavilov
Earlier this month, a new extinction was hailed – a court case ruling which spelled the end of the Vavilov Centre and the thousands of varieties that only exist there. Having survived Hitler, Stalin and starvation and maintained its operations since before this state was born, the world’s largest seed bank is about to be destroyed by the equivalent of the local council with a compulsory purchase order.  The centre has just lost its case against the old house, its seed bank and the surrounding crop fields from being razed for apartment development by the Federal Government whose bulldozers will cause the single biggest mass food plant extinction of our lifetimes.
Vladamir Putin, who has power of repeal over the Federal Government has not replied to any letters sent to him by the Vavilov Centre. It was reported some time ago that he wanted to convert the big old house into his new summer residence.
As I write, scientists from all over the world are desperately trying to bring out those varieties which can be saved. “There’s no backup for this collection, and that’s the real tragedy of it all,” said Rome based Cary Fowler,  the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.”This is extinction on a scale that I’ve not seen in my professional lifetime, and it can’t be replaced.”
(thanks to the Guardian) seed samples
And it might have been Nikolai Vavilov himself who originally saved the little Silver Tree Ferns that I’m now growing. But unlike my red Rasputins which keep reviving to produce more and more strange and glorious fruit, the Vavilov Centre and the crops a dozen scientists starved for may not outlast them. The Vavilov Centre and the tens of thousands of unique crop varieties kept alive there 1921 – 2010. Write to our environment minister and ask him to make Ireland’s view known. If you're from elsewhere, find out the Russian ambassador's email address and send a personal message.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Plot 34's Eight Year Old Head of Secret Tunnels (HST) Says...

Some thoughts from Plot 34's eight year old Head of Secret Tunnels (he wants his job back)...

"I think the allotment is pretty good because it's very big and it has some space to grow some stuff. What I like most about it is that it's pretty fun to dig. I don't like the allotment sometimes because the weather is sometimes bad and that there's rats everywhere. The bad thing about having rats everywhere is that you can't grow that many stuff because they'd eat it."

"I eat the potatoes, I eat the carrots sometimes oh yeah, I eat the berries - the black berries and the red berries. If you're up at the allotment you always see other people trying to plant something or take covers off plants. You can see the city from up there. You can see some big buildings and a Vodaphone shop. There's this big building with a Vodaphone sign on it."

HST: "Cool!"
"The other good thing about the allotment is that at the back you can dig secret tunnels and I'm thinking you can dig a tunnel to the North Pole this time. So that Santa could just get all of his elves and carry all the presents and then pop up in the allotment and then magic up a car and drive down and give all the presents to the children."

"Last year in school we grew some flowers but not food. I want to grow maybe some onions. I kind of like them now. I'd say to any other children whose dads are getting an allotment that they should save up for a portaloo."

Chard Times

Swiss chard was a real discovery for us, particularly given its year round yields, good looks and its sheer versatility as a food. Because of this, we've grown it at on and off in the back garden for the last three years.

Each year we sow the seeds and then we tend to forget about the chard through spring and the during the summer months because the salads are vibrant and all the other crops are firing on all cylinders.

But it's at this time - in darkest winter, that chard comes into its own. If you can prevent it bolting, chard will go right on cropping all the way through until spring and the fresh green leaves and rigid juicy stalks can be picked from the garden on the gloomiest of evenings.

Chard looks not unlike a dock plant crossed with a rhubarb. It’s dead easy to grow and its only problems seem to be caused by the slugs and snails who love the stuff. You sow it outside after the last frost and then pretty much leave to its own devices.

Not rhubarb, but chard
You can eat the leaves fresh as a salad or you can boil them like spinach for use as a veg with your dinner. The stalks are edible and stir fry as well as they stew.

The Bright Lights variety, sometimes known as "Rainbow" gives stalks in yellow, pink green and red and I'm convinced would sell well in the floral section of the garden centre given the display they're capable of.

Chard showing off its brightly coloured stems
They actually look great in a flower bed and if you left a tray of them unlabelled in the floral section of a garden centre, you can bet people would buy them purely for display value. One variety Bright Lights, also known in some quarters as Rainbow, includes yellow, pink green and red in it visual spectrum.

The other advantage of chard is that is grows continuously all year around so if you stagger sowing, you should be able to enjoy this crop all the way through the winter. With nothing but swedes, salsify and celeriac out there for us at the moment, the chard makes great spinach substitute at this time of year. As well as being high in iron like spinach, it's high in vitamins C, E, K and includes carotenes and folic acid. And for those multicoloured stalks in a stir fry in darkest December, there's nothing like some Bright Lights as we come up to Christmas.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sile Seoige, Billy Joel Bus Drivers and the Big Snow

Apart from a load of complete bankers, nothing stops Ireland Inc in its tracks quite like snow. And I had a forced march through five miles of it yesterday in order to get to Newstalk106's city centre radio studios.

Snow yesterday
I was scheduled to be interviewed live about my book - "Plot 34 - Blood Sweat and Allotmenteers" - and by none other than the lovely Sile Seoige. The famous Sile, who presented the "Seoige" afternoon tv programme with her sister Grainne, now hosts her own radio show on a Saturday and is this week doing a cracking job standing in for a currently vacationing Sean Moncrieff. I was particularly pleased because "Moncrieff" is by far and away my favourite Irish radio programme. Much as I'd have loved to meet the man himself, I couldn't complain when I'd heard it was Sile instead!!

Despite my tendency to suffer occasionally from stage fright, Sile put me at my ease and once I got going, I couldn't shut up. In the end we had a great chat. You can find the interview on section 4 of the podcast of the December 1 Moncrieff show on the newstalk106 website.

I described Plot 34's early mission statement  - how I set out four years ago with an allotment to see how much food I could grow using only a single free day a week. I told them how I aimed to assess how much money I'd save, whether we'd eat more healthily as a family and whether or not it would make an impression on that spare tyre that had been building up around my waist before I took on the plot.

The answers are (a) Four months of complete self sufficiency, four with partial self sufficiency with 55 fresh produce types (b) two grand a year (b) yes and (c) I'm thinner now and far fitter. At the end of the interview as I was leaving, Sile gave me a big kiss (!!!) and couldn't resist pinching my

Sile - the wrong gear for The Big Snow 2010....
copy of the book for her boyfriend, who apparently likes his gardening (yes she does have a boyfriend -  sorry guys!!)

Before I'd going on, I'd overheard some chat among station staff. "First the IMF, then snow, what next?" said one. "The four horsemen of the apocalypse?" suggested another. National bankruptcy equated with snow? Y'see we're just not used to either one in Ireland.

Being off work for two weeks on account of baby Sean's recent arrival, it did mean that I had to walk five miles in the snow to get to the city studio. Initially I took the bus, which passed just four stops before coming to a complete halt in a traffic jam behind a stuck truck.

Fifteen minutes on and we haven't moved anywhere. Then about twenty of us decided we'd be quicker walking and we all lined up to get off. The driver flat refused to let us disembark until we reached the next bus stop - which as it happened, was about ten feet away.

"Regulations. Sorry folks, I don't make the rules and I'm not allowed let yiz out unless we're at a bus stop. I could lose my job ye know - if yiz all fell and hort yourselves getting off." There then ensued a bizarre 35 minutes as the twenty of us all stood in a liine waiting to get off, looked at the twenty waiting to get on; and they're looking back at us for a half hour - all waiting for the bus to "arrive" at the stop.

More than me job's worth bud.
 Being near the front, I pointed out to the driver that his playing Billy Joel's greatest hits at full belt from the cab was not "regulation" either - so if he could be lax about one rule, then surely he can turn a blind eye to another and let us off the bus?

"Listen here bud, I won't have that sort of abuse on my bus." And without thinking he actually added: "I'll have you put off the bus!"  Everyone laughed,  but not for long. We still had to wait another fifteen minutes suffering Billy Joel and grumpy ass before the truck was moved and he finally rolled his regulation bus all ten feet to the bus stop.  That's a speed of foot every five minutes, or 0.008 miles an hour I reckon.

Like I said, Ireland isn't used to snow. So when we get a sprinkle, lots of things seize up - particularly teachers. Somehow teachers can never make it to school when everyone else can. We've had a week of it, and there's eight inches of it with no end in sight and today's Evening Herald headline shouts "Minus 17!"

When in Warsaw a couple of years ago in wintertime I experienced the real deal and mild frost bite when I became separated from the Irish ex pat I had been visiting. During a night on the town I lost him and his friends. A taxi man drove me out to his house in the middle of nowhere in a blizzard on a night that eventually saw temperatures falling to minus 20 degrees.I'd no option but to march up and down outside his gates for seven hours like some private sentry, until the guys finally rolled home at 8am. By then I'd lost the sensation in my fingertips, toe tips and in the end of my nose.

But everywhere in Warsaw, as in any other country that gets snow regularly, they drive, they go to work, the buses and trains run, they get on with their business. We need those Polish guys to show us what to do.

Unbelievably, the chillies in the garden are still hanging in there through the blizzard although some of the foliage died and the rest is looking soggier than ever. My only gardening task this week is the regular trips outside to scrape all the snow off the greenhouse roof. This is made of tubular see through plastic sheets and could cave in due to the weight. Lifting the ventilation window, I could feel that weight which was quite considerable. It's already been blown off by the high winds of a few weeks ago. An angular dust pan on a long handle proved ideal for the job.

Chillies - droopier than last week but still hanging on
I'm told that people with glass greenhouses will also have this problem if there's enough snow -  I measured ten inches of snow on the "flat" ground earlier and its still chucking down. But observing the boiler outlet on the side of my house pumping all those hot air fumes into the air, I had an idea. Instead of going out to scrape the snow off the roof every couple of hours, what if I could get a length of tubing, attach it to the outlet with some masking tape and then feed it into the greenhouse? The hot emissions would warm up the greenhouse interior and thus keep the snow off it? After giving it a few minutes thought, I decided "Naw!" These are the sort of bright ideas that win people Darwin Awards. This year's winner: "Dublin gobshite gasses himself in his own greenhouse!"

The recently roofswept greenhouse - great gas in the snow
And for those wondering how best to get about in the Big Snow 2010 - the answer (if you live within seven miles from town) is walking...well more like trudging. Otherwise, helicopter.  As an allotment holder and keen fisherman, I can also lend some helpful advice on attire as I happen to be better kitted out than most for bad weather. So for snow and your outdoor allotment work, I'd recommend some good waterproof hiking boots or else wellies and underpinned with two pairs of regular socks or one pair of extra thick thermal shooting socks (bring your good shoes in a rucksack). Layers are best for keeping you warm, so two light tee shirts under your shirt.

Hikers and wellies have serrated rubber soles and therefore great for grip on ice. They're also useful for unexpected snow covered slush puddles. If you're going to invest in outdoor gear, buy it in a fishing/shooting shop - you'll get much better quality outer clothes for your money than you would in a fashionable outdoors outlet. Just so long as you don't mind wearing camuouflage colours and olive green. In the picture below,  you see me earlier today ready to do some digging (clearing the driveway) with the right clothes, but the wrong implement (No I don't own a car door on a handle type snow shovel).

Note the multi pocketed thick set, heavy duty three quarters length fishing jacket and waterproof fishing trousers (model's own), bought for E150 three years ago in Dave's Southside Angling at Clanbrassil Street. I have worn this stuff while sat in a boat for eight hours in pelting rain and nothing gets through. It's like wearing a tent. It's also great for allotment work in bad weather because when it gets covered in mud, you just wait until the next rain shower to wash it spanking clean again.

Ready to dig the car out yesterday (I'm standing on it)
It's not in this picture but I'd also recommend a wide brimmed hat for bad weather allotment work. It's the one I'm wearing in the main picture at the start of the blog. Again from a fishing/shooting shop this is a "beater's" hat and costs about E30. It's light, very warm and has a little secret - special hidden pull-down felt flaps for your ears which will also keep it firmly attached to your head in a squall. Mine is lined on the outside with Seetex, a high tech material which deflects rain without ever soaking it up.

In snow and on the allotment, a hat is preferable to a hood for safety purposes. Think Kenny from South Park - if you're wearing a hood and you look right or left, you're staring straight into the lining. Not good in the snow if you're crossing the road and there's a bus coming. Because the driver would only have fifty minutes to slam on the brakes!!