Monday, June 6, 2011

Strawberry Fields In A Jam

All through the sixties and seventies, and for some unfortunates, the eighties too -  a summer holiday for the average juvenile Dub (person from Dublin, Ireland to you non Irish out there) meant two weeks of enclosed confinement in a Wexford caravan with rain scudding off the outsides and squabbling siblings and Scrabble tiles bouncing off the insides. When the weather permitted there were occasional forays to a beach to digest warm red lemonade and “hang sangwiches” containing fake ham (haslett anyone?) and real sand.

Irish Holidays 1400AD - 1982AD
But one of the real treats of going on holiday came on the way home -  from the strawberry tables laid out on the road sides by growers in the sunny south east. In the age before nintendo other things were sacred. Pester you parents, make them pull in and buy and then stuff yourselves with the world’s most delicious fruit. Then spend the rest of the trip home scratching hive eruptions and asking "are we there yet?."

The fire engine red hue of a ripe strawberry is nature’s road sign to come and tuck in. And, as any grower of strawberries knows only too well, nature’s lunch invitation runs far and wide –  to grow them successfully you’ll need to fend off over 200 different types of strawberry loving beings including rodents, birds, thrips, mites, weevils, aphids, wasps, slugs, snails, caterpillars and other people’s kids (except for the one that's violently allergic).

Cultivated strawberries are a relative newcomer to our gardens - in centuries past througout most of Ireland you could simply wander out into the woods and pick all you wanted. Then along came the Brits in the 18th Century to take our forests home to make battleships for world domination. And so woodland strawberries along with woodlands, became rare. This meant we brought them home when we found them, planted them in the garden and mulched and marked the berries with straw – thus giving them their name. Hayberries (only joking)
This year my strawberry plants are in a raised bed and as the fruit comes on I’ll be framing some netting over them to stop the birds. I’ve already covered the surface with coffee grounds to help keep the slugs and snails off them. The rough timber surface also helps to deter them. There’s plenty of manure around them because when they’re fruiting they do feed as well as drink heavily. As a woodland plant, they prefer slightly acidic ground.
Wexberries...the very bext

Later that same century, the much larger garden strawberry we are familiar with today was created by crossing two imported varieties from the north and south Americas. Unfortunately few foods have been as denigrated by the mainstream supermarket chain through the past three decades as the beloved strawberry. The store bought berry has been designed for longevity, durability in transport and to be produced at bargain bucket prices rather than taste, nutrition and texture. The muscular fragaria you find down at your local supermarket is an irradiated water pustule which will last forever in your fridge. Put one in and keeping looking over the months.

Which is why there’s a world of difference today between the taste of a modern supermarket grown strawberry and a homegrown one. Especially a heritage one. So if you haven’t already got your strawberries in – mine are already starting to flower – then there’s still time to grab a few trayloads from the garden centre.

A hive outbreak yesterday
Different varieties fruit at different times running from June (Emily, Honeoye and Elsanta) through July (Elsanta, Pegasus, Symphony and Florence) to early August (Sophie). The ideal is to get an early and a late version on the go at once to stretch out your season. If you’re tempted to try growing “wild” strawberries (the old native woodland types),  do bear in mind that while the flavour is the best you’ll taste, they’re tiny – about the size of a tall jelly tot,  often chewy and you’ll never get enough of them to fill a desert bowl.

The plants don’t produce well in year one but do best in their second and third years. So give them a chance (I did in my first year, vow in print, never to grow strawberries again) They do reproduce quickly by throwing out runners after they fruit. So ground yourself a few runners from each plant by pinning the “bend” into a pot of compost or soil and once they’ve rooted and produced three or four leaves, cut the stalk to the main plant and now you have another plant.  While fruiting however they need to be watered carefully and well fed. Otherwise plants will keep in any old conditions and are quite resistant to a bit of heavy frost and snow. Some growers even swear that they fruit better because of it.

When they’re fruiting you can save space by planting them in multi pocketed upright containers, in hanging baskets or in cut pockets in wall mounted grow bags – but you do need to ensure that they’re kept well watered once they start flowering. Water continuation is crucial. Also make sure they go in the sunniest position possible – it’s the sun that makes that flavour.

There is a multi pocketed planter in there somewhere..
 If you’ve kept them in containers through the year do go through the roots and the soil for vine weevils, fat white grubs whose parent is that familiar salt and pepper coloured beetle you often see poking around patio containers. Birds are the biggest fans of fresh strawberries and even before they’re ripened, delinquent magpies will pull off the green berries just for something to do. Plastic netting is dirt cheap and should be framed rather than just thrown on.

I hang old unwanted cd's nearby to keep the birds off. In his day grandfather used to deploy shards of old mirrors to keep the birds off his fruit. The resulting reflections unnerve them. Birds hate mirrors.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rooting Out the Ginger Ant

While most home grown foods generally taste better than shop bought, carrots - along with tomatoes and peas - are three crops that taste so outstandingly different, that a single serving will instantly break the resolve of even the most hardened of non believers.
The taste of a home grown carrot is such a revealation that it should have any organic food cynic seeing through the dark. Homegrown carrots are just so many more times... carrotier.

The trouble is that carrots also happen to be many times more fussier into the bargain. Consider too that the carrot root fly - one of the most dogged and destructive pests known to allotment mankind - will always have the carrot grower's efforts firmly in its sights.

Lovely nubile juvenile carrots - the dream we strive for
For my first five years with my allotment, fellow growers marvelled at my bumper carrot crops. Initially, as a newbie to the food growing game, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I sowed, I weeded and I harvested and that’s pretty much was all there was to it.
 Most years I’d take two sacks of near-perfect Nantes variety in September or October, bring them home, process them, freeze them and our family would enjoy them for most of the next twelve months. My fellow fly stricken growers continued to scratch their heads and attempted in vain to figure out by deduction how I managed to avoid the plague which, once it gets in on some allotment complexes, puts people off growing carrots completely.

Smug  - how I felt after three years of perfect carrots. He told us the Whitehouse veg garden has great carrots - for now..
Personally I thought my past successes were down to complementary planting - sowing lines of onions between the carrots. The onion smell is thought to confuse the carrot fly. But last year, for the first time, both my sowings of carrots were wiped out by the pesky varmint despite the usual flanks of onions. The first signs are the stunted foliage which takes on a reddish tinge.
I have no idea what changed - but if I’m going to have another go this year, I’ll have to think through a strategy of sorts. Our carrots were really missed last year but on the other hand I don’t fancy all the effort that goes into them without some guarantee of results.
I refuse to show a proper wiggling carrot fly maggot..

Here’s the fussy carrot bit: The soil has to be dug deep - at least two feet because the main tap root we eat does not account for the satelite “hair” roots which delve at least as deep again and then spread out in all directions. It can’t be too waterlogged or too dry. It needs to be dug extra fine - too many stones and you end up with many fingered and split carrots.

Right from germination they’re succeptible to being smothered by weeds, which also tend to spring up faster than usual in extra refined soil. That’s why I've learned to prepare my carrot bed and then leave it sit for two weeks to allow whatever weed seeds are still in the ground to sprout and identify themselves before removing them.

Unlike many other crops, carrots can’t be started in a tray on a windowsill or in a greenhouse where you can keep and eye on them and keep them safe. The seeds need to be sown in situ.

They’re also fussy about germinating conditions and generally won’t sprout unless there’s a few consecutive days of ten degrees plus temperatures. They don’t like too much nitrogen in the soil - that might be caused by too much fertiliser or manure (they go hairy as a result) but they do need a mineral rich or they stay small and the roots don’t swell up. When the seeds do sprout they’re also prone to drought.
Changed me mind...lots of them at once
Meantime the carrot fly - which looks like a shiny black flying ant with a reddish head is out. It's said to have the ability to smelling carrot foliage from as much as ten miles away. Thinning the carrots as they grow to allow them enough space is a process that sends up scent and brings them from all over.

Because I suffered last year, it is a certainty that there are carrot fly larvae in the ground at Plot 34, ready to hatch out this month - the first phase of a two part cycle. The flies travel between a hundred and four hundred metres to find their target crop. There is no chemical available to treat them and government advice is to grow the following year’s carrots 2km away. Very practical Mr Government. Thanks.
Mr Government...tight trousers are back in and so are lamb chops
At allotment complexes in particular, once established, the fly is incredibly difficult to shake off. The hatching flies move straight to the carrot foliage and lay their eggs in cracks in the soil at the base of the plants. It takes two more months for these eggs to hatch into flies and lay more eggs. We live in hope however that the dreadful temperatures of the immediate past winter killed off the unwelome sleepers.

So I’m looking into the cost of buying a substance called enviromesh, a type of net curtain material with which I’m planning to cover the carrots. The idea here is to build a frame around them to the height I’d expect the foliage to grow - perhaps a foot and a half and then cover it with the mesh. The local DIY barn says they’re out of it at the moment (and they’re usually are out of whatever’s in season) but they say it normally costs twenty euro for a ten metre by a half metre roll of the stuff. That’s expensive for a carrot crop - but apparently it can be resused again and again.

The sort of grief you have to go through to make sure the carrot fly doesn't get through
Some growers simply create a two foot high barrier around the crop on the grounds that carrot fly don’t fly higher than that. My own view is that the wind could easily carry them up and drop them in. Or if they’re as determined as most people say, what’s to stop them simply shinning the boundary fence.

Another tip for avoiding the grub is to grow your carrots in the most exposed and windiest patch you have (he isn’t a strong flier and can’t cope with winds apparently). Keep nettles down as the fly uses them as a resting and vantage point.

Alternatively ditch the defences and grow one of the new resistant strains of carrot. Flyaway is an F1 hybrid carrot cloned to be flyproof and Resistafly is another. Much as I hate to sow hybrids, the clones of the grow your own world, I've sown Resistafly this year with its daft name and lack of pedigree, because I do love the taste of a home grown carrot.

Carrot Fly - right to reply: "Bzzzzzzzt bzzzzz bzzzzz zzzt!"
Finally you could bring in your own crack squad of heebie jeebies to go on the attack - in the last few years nematodes have been developed to find the bug in the soil and kill it. The problem is that this is an even more expensive solution than the enviromesh with most nematode doses costing over twenty quid anyways. Or you could do what many gardeners do and just give up.

But to Plot 34 the ginger ant is simply raising my hackles and throwing down a challenge. On guard ye little get....

(UPDATE FROM TWO MONTHS LATER IN JULY - I didn't bother with the environmesh in the end. A nearby allotment holder did, with mixed results. He can't get in to take out the weeds which have smothered his crop here and there - but 60% of his plants should make it.

Instead I sowed two types of carrots, a yellow heritage variety which simply didn't sprout at all and Resistafly of which about 65% has sprouted. These have remained amazingly intact with no pest attacks at all. However as my friend with the enviromesh noted, they look a bit too good to be true. A bit too "plastic" or something. So I suspect they'll taste different in some way. Watch this spot for further carrot updates.