Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rum, Botany and the Lash..

Quiz time. Which of the following are true berries in the botanical sense?

(a) raspberry (b) potato (c) strawberry (d) Chilli (e) blackberry (f) banana or (g) pumpkin?

The correct answer is: potatoes, chillies, bananas and pumpkins - all of which are "true" berries in the botanical sense. Meantime raspberries, strawberries and blackberries are not. It’s all something to do seeds and pulp coming from a single ovary you see - that and smug botanists. 

The sort of stubborn, contrarian, pointy headed, sciency insistence that says potatoes are berries and berries are not, is just one reason why I happen to believe botany is among the barmiest sciences. History’s big bots deployed more money than sense - cruising the planet’s nether regions in hideously expensive expeditions to "discover" plants in their naturally occuring habitat, uproot them, rename them a “tippitiwitchet” or whatever, and then transplant them elsewhere on the planet where they’ve no business being.

Mad botanists...putting plants where they've no business being.
This was generally accompanied, like releasing rabbits in Australia or mink in Ireland, without a fiddlers for the environmental consequences.Here in Ireland mad bots brought us the parasitic mistletoe to suck life from our oak trees (James MacKay of Trinity College) and bad bots at the Botanic gardens in Kew and Edinburgh happily distributed Japanese knotweed to the masses throughout these islands setting it off to become our most destructive invasive species.

T’was the most renowned bot of all time, Sir Joseph Banks (founder of the Royal Society) who lobbied to have HR genius William Bligh appointed to captain the Bounty - the ship Banks designed to run a thousand breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indes. Banks wanted the breadfruit (not native to the Indes) to feed slaves who were chopping sugar cane (also not native to the Indes).
Captain William Bligh...mutiny consultant.
Despite Banks being cast adrift for months with Bligh after the resulting mutiny, Banks subsequently fixed it for Bligh to be appointed Governor of New South Wales. There the harbour was so overrun with busy bots that they named it “Botany Bay.” The result of Bligh landing was the Rum Rebellion in which he caused a whole province to mutiny. The ironic ending to this sorry tale of rum, botany and the lash came with the point flat refusal of the sugar slaves of to chow down on Banksy’s bread fruit.

But back to berries and false-berries.

July being peak berry time in Ireland, Plot 34 and my back garden are yielding strawberries, raspberries, red currants and gooseberries. I’ve had a less impressive crop of blackcurrants this year due to drainage issues (the allotment holder next door dug a trench behind them) but otherwise things are berry good indeed.

Look at the goji's on that!!
These days mad amateur botanists like my Dad (who’s been inviting all and sundry out back to have as look at his gojis) don’t need vast inheritances to take them sailing around the world in search of exotic plants -  they can simply pop down to Lidl, Aldi or their garage forecourt - the latest venue to flog foreign fruit bushes.Given their growing superfood status, this year Gojis are red hot around the world. From the Himilayas, the berries are extremely high in antioxidants indeed but have also been attributed with all sorts of quack claims including that they cure cancer and impotence.

The Chinese claim that Gojis were an vital part of the miracle diet that helped local herbalist, Li Quing Yuen to live to be 256. Research backs up the claims that the goji guzzler who died in 1933, was actually born in 1677 along with unearthing Imperial documents which detail official congratulations bestowed on Yuen for his 150th birthday in 1827 and his 200th in 1877.So it’s no wonder the world is going mad for the hugely expensive Gojis. But plant importation has not been without issue. In the UK there have been claims that plants imported from China via Holland (for a eurozone passport) carry diseases which threaten domestic tomato and potato crops.
Quing Yuen at 255 and not looking a day under 156
Experts there have urged buyers to take on locally developed plants.Alternatively here in Ireland you can just go out and dig one up. Thanks to mad bots, gojis have already been growing wild here for centuries. They’re mostly located in coastal areas with the biggest population existing the Wexford and Waterford shores where they’re better known as the Duke of Argll’s Tea Plant. Just make sure you get the right berry bush.What these naturalised pioneers prove is that gojis have no problem at all with Irish conditions and soils. They’ll also grow well in the shade and in containers and offer the change to bound your garden with a superfood producing hedge.

Bulletin boards online show that an untoward number of buyers end up with massive plants but no berries. The secret is pruning and feeding. Gojis are extremely heavy feeders and quickly clear the soil of nutrients. To keep cropping heavily they need manure or organic feed but not commercial chemical based fertilisers which produce leaf growth but no berries. Meantime there’s almost no information out there about proper pruning. If someone knows the proper procedure, tell me and I’ll pass it on.

Personally, I have less problems questioning the introduction of north american blueberries to Ireland because they’re so similar to the native fraughan as not to  make a difference. Also, like the bog bound fraughan they can’t self seed in average standard Irish soils because of their acid preference.  Blueberries are another superfood with high antioxidant qualities.

Cranberry plants complete the list of johnny foreigner come-latelys. The sprawling ground crawler takes a lot of space and like the blueberry, it requires a damp acid soil. If you must persist, try growing them on the top part of a two tier raised bed system so the limbs can hang downwards.

Some recently deceased cranberries yesterday

Plant them with upwards growing blueberries to maximise the space and this arrangement also allows better control of the soil conditions. Feed them with Rhododendron/azalea fertiliser.As for advice on your bananas and pumpkins, ask a dotty bot.

Grand For Growth in Monsoon June

The people of Egypt don’t wake in the morning, throw open their curtains and exclaim: “Hey Fatima, you’ll never guess what? - it’s blazing sunshine.... again!”

Nor do they spend their days continuously discussing the heat with everyone they encounter.

 - “I’m taking next week off so I’m hoping it will cool down a bit by then.” or
- “I left the washing out in the garden again yesterday and it got all bleached,” or
- “Yeah, it got so hot that the camel fell over.” 

Fatima! It's hot sun....again!!!
The Egyptians don’t talk non-stop weather all day because  they've had the same conditions for thousands of years. So they're quite used to it. What then is our issue here in Ireland - waking every day to expect something other than rain? Like Egypt we've also had the same weather for thousands of years but here it continues to surprise us - to the degree that it’s usually the number one conversation topic of the day.

 - “Can you believe it? Raining again!”

Why? It’s Ireland! It’s rained since recorded history began!  It's a marine temperate climate  with a two word forecast:  “scattered” and “showers.”

We’ve already had the June summer “monsoon." Most of my six years running an allotment have seen a washout June and for most of July. And apart from a few years somewhere back in the 1970’s, almost all the Irish Junes and Julys I recall have been characterised -  as the forecast says -  by “scattered showers.” My last June visit was typical - full rain gear, trousers and jacket, rainproof hat, wellies and twenty minutes to wash the mud off my tools and my rainproofs before stocking up the car to head home.

The “European Monsoon” is more commonly called “The Return of the Westerlies” and the result of increasing westerly winds from the Atlantic, where they become loaded with wind and rain. The rain tends to come in two waves, in early June and again in mid to late June just as Ireland Inc is wearing light summer attire and sunglasses as if sheer will and sheer attire alone can scatter the showers.

Mary!! It's raining again!!!
The upside of our temperate climate is what makes us the Emerald Isle and has growers in other countries green with envy: steadily mild temperatures, a northerly global aspect that provides daylight from five am to eleven at night in Summer and of course, plenty of rain. Together it's a decent brew for plant growth.So much so, that if you missed out on planting your crops, most varieties will allow you to have a second go - even now.

My cauliflower plants, sprouted in the green house and planted at the allotment in May were stripped by the slugs and snails to leave bare stems. This week I’ll be planting another batch to reinforce their ranks. Cauliflowers are supposed to be sown by the end of May, so it might be a tall order. But the sort of weather we’ve been having, and always have, accelerates growth to the point that they might just catch up. In any case it’s always worth a try.

Other crop types that don’t have a May cut off for planting here can be sown fresh right through to the middle of July. Peas for example - mine will also require a second planting. Large blank gaps probably mean the birds have been picking them out as they sprout. One last planting should see pods ready in September. Again our temperate weather and long evenings help - a growing season like ours with frost unlikely until October makes successful late crops far more likely.

Naked broccoli

It also makes staggered planting a more viable option. This is the process of sowing seeds at intervals in order to enable different batches of the same crop to mature over a long period.Broccoli is one crop which tends to mature all at once and unless you’ve got plenty of freezing space, you’re looking at a massive storage issue. However by planting some in March, some in April and so on, it matures in waves and your harvesting season in lengthened for that particular crop.

Primo cabbage, a nice tight cabbage designed for smaller gardens can be sown from March to July enabling harvesting from June to October. Kale can be sown from March until June and Nantes Autumn King carrots can be planted as early as April or as late as June. You could probably plant them in July as well with the caveata that they’ll be a little smaller when you do eventually harvest them.July is a also a good time to plant the last of your lettuce and salads.
The Christmas tomato                           

In other countries, lettuce is planted in the shade as summer heat causes it to bolt. In Ireland’s temperate climate there’s far less to worry about in this department and it will usually do well in the open. I’ve picked lettuce in the garden well into October.And this week I’m handing out six inch high tomato seedlings in our office. But give them a good sunny spot and plenty of feed and in the absence of a hard frost, you’ll be pickinig fresh tomatoes from them right into December.

Christmas Day is my own personal record for the toms. The exception was the Christmas just gone which was uncharacteristically white. Normally though, it’s just scattered showers.