Thursday, September 13, 2012

Rumble In My Jungle - The Allelopath Wars

Chemical warfare isn't an invention of mankind. Long before mustard gas, plants were merrily dosing one another with foul concoctions designed to maim and kill. These chemicals are known in science as Allelopaths.

Allelopaths are chemicals used by plants to damage one another and are administered by different methods which include diffusion in the air from leaves, flowers or stems, soakage into the soil via root systems and distribution through fallen leaves.

It seems one of the most effective users of this chemical warfare is the black walnut tree which owners will observe, creates a protective blank space of earth around it in which few other plants can live. Other noted allelopathic killers include hackberry, garlic, eucalyptus and black cherry.

When Garlic Sprouts Attack ...."AAAAGHHH!" 
The effects of destructive allelopaths include hindering growth or preventing it altogether by issuing chemicals which prevent rival seeds from germinating.

But plants don't only seek to eliminate or limit their competitors with chemicals. Some use chemicals to encourage other mutually beneficial species which don't provide a threat - and indeed may help their cause attracting the right insects for pollination and so on.

Food gardeners have known about the effects of allelopaths for thousands of years and employ them constructively in what we commonly call "companion planting" today. For example gardeners know that garlic is destructive against peas, cabbage and beans but helpful in keeping pests away from carrots or tomatoes. Peas and beans, who both pursue the same nutrients in the soil, actively combat one another, as do lettuces and parsley.

"Three sisters" planting in my garden - squashes, beans and corn helping one another.
The central american native peoples used beneficial planting to increase the crop potential of beans, corn and squashes. The "three sisters" method they deployed also produced physical benefits for the crops in question. The beans used the stout corn stalks as beanpoles to climb on to get vital sunlight and with their flowers, helped attract pollinating insects for the corn. 

The hungry ground ranging squashes were fed by the nitrogen gathered and locked into the soil gathered by the beans and in turn would provide a natural ground cover to prevent the soil drying out under the sun while the spines on its stalks and foliage would limit pests. All three plants helped one another. It would be common sense to assume that their chemical allelopaths also aided the process.

But of course, it is the destructive aspects of allelopaths that attracted my interest...

So, in the interests of science you understand....I decided to pitch some allelopathic heavyweights against one another in my garden to see what the outcome would be..


Tomato - sweet to eat but the deadly nightshade's relative has foliage brimful of deadly solanine
In the red corner: The tomato plant - Solano lypopersicon. Often attacked by fungi in a damp climate like Ireland's but never by insects. Known natural toxin arsenal includes solanine - known to kill pet dogs. 

In the blue corner: The hardy nasty native - the Foxglove - Digitalis pupurea L. - living in Irish woodlands for tens of thousands of years, spectacular orchid like blooms and big thick heavily wrinkled foliage - almost never nibbled. Toxic. Natural toxic arsenal includes a chemical commonly used in a last ditch attempt to stimulate the human heart  - causing it to spasm - or go into shock. Interestingly however French gardeners have long let Foxglove free seed among their vegetables and salads because they believe it causes stronger growth and builds up disease resistance. This plant operates with a big allelopathic punch.

I stuck a juvenile of each of them in one planter and stood back to watch the show. Surely a bout of floratic chemical wrestling to beat all?

Foxgloves (left) meet tomatoes (right) in a fight to the finish

I had often planted tomatoes in containers already crowded with low ranging plants - and with great success, so I knew tomatoes can live in close proximity with myriad species.  Nearby I planted the same size tomato plants (about a foot high)  in other containers and on their own. There were also other foxgloves alongside in their own containers - both sets of solitary plants would provide a control by which to measure the effects on the two plants of different species which would be forced to share a container. 

The results were astounding.

Within two months the foxglove's growth was impaired by about 25pc compared to the other non container sharing foxgloves. However the one sharing with the tomato was the only foxglove of all of them all to go into bloom - perhaps feeling an urgency to do so. On the other hand, the young tomato plant sharing a root system with the foxglove, lost leaves and did not gain any growth at all. The remaining leaves turned from green to purple. In contrast, the other tomatoes in adjoining containers pursued their normal growth patterns.

Foxglove 1 Tomato 0.
In the raised beds I witnessed another non intentional allelopathic war. 


In the red corner - miner's lettuce is a voracious north american ground hugging plant with succulent like leaves. It was named for the great gold rush during which miner's caught in snow bound conditions often survived using it as a food. Over a number of years the plant had spread far and wide in the raised beds and was now out of control. So dense is its growth that it would be difficult to see how any plant could compete with it.

Miner's lettuce starting to spread - you can see the buttercup starting in the right hand middle left of the pic 
In the blue corner - buttercup. I had last year distributed new topsoil around the garden which wasn't as sterile as it could have been. There were buttercup, nettle and dock seeds in it which began to sprout throughout my garden. Next to the miner's lettuce, a ground crawling buttercup surfaced. It's a plant known to be highly toxic. This would be an interesting battle.

It would end up being a knock out. Within just weeks the buttercup was dominant and the miner's lettuce had been completely eradicated.

Buttercup 1 Miner's Lettuce 0.

Now the buttercup has moved over to impinge on the territory of a very vibrant and pungent crop of sage. I'm already selling tickets.

In the same spot weeks later... the miner is shafted and the buttercup squares up to the great sage..
Science is still in the early stages of studying allelopaths which may in the end provide us with beneficial eco weedkillers as we harvest and use some of these plant chemical weapons against weeds. 

Five to four on buttercup anyone?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Kids These Days...

The back-sliding french glass door of the house is opened to air the kitchen in the morning and my two youngest children -  my four year old daughter and her toddling brother (nearly two) are off down the garden like a shot - in search of forage. Casting wily eyes to the house to ensure they're not being watched and to confirm we don't know what they're up to, they work fast.

They know exactly where to go. They try to appear as casual as a four and two year old can on a raid.

The nearly-two-year-old keeps his eyes fixed on the kitchen window for his mother's or my attention as he rapidly plucks blueberries off the bushes and shoves them into his mouth. From the same plants he also picks half-purple half green berries and small and hard all-green berries. Into his mouth they go indiscriminately. He chews and swallows fast - he might be caught at any second.

By this time his sister is at the raised strawberry bed, eyes similarly fixed to house windows as her delicate hands frisk the strawberry foliage on autopilot and come back with handfuls of big strawberries filled with big holes harbouring tiny slugs and many different mite sized insects -  and brown furry mould fuzz.

Into her mouth they all go.

Then our internal alarm clocks go off. We suddenly wonder "Why so quiet?" and "What are they up to?" and "Are they with you? No? Are they with you?" We look out the kitchen window. "Crap!"

We run down the garden path and hook our pinky fingers into their mouths to get the green berries and slugs out. "Spit it out... into Daddy's hand." 

Come on, you know the drill.

The next morning the two are sitting at the breakfast table.

I sprinkle washed and cleaned and wholesome blueberries and handfuls of cleaned and fur free strawberries over their breakfast cereal. The bowls are placed in front of them alongside their orange juice.

Our four year old daughter wrinkles her nose and prods her spoon reluctantly into the bowl. Her nearly-two-year-old brother is already picking out the berries and flinging them randomly over his shoulder onto the tiled kitchen floor. Our daughter puts on her whingiest and whiniest voice. 

- "But I don't like berries Daddy!"

Is Nature trying to tell us something?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sharing With the Pests

When I was a kid I once threw a huge flip because the homegrown pear I was eating had a dead wasp in it. A big huge bite uncovered the expired intruder deep in his fruity tomb.

My grandad, who had grown up in the countryside, was far less squeamish about insects and bugs. He reprimanded me for being such a sissy (as gnarly grandfathers are wont to do) and took out his trusty pen knife to shuck away the damaged part of the pear - handing the rest of it back to me to finish eating it - which I did, albeit in somewhat more cautious bites.

He had a point. Over the years our attitude to pest damaged food has become quite ridiculous. In the west we simply throw anything away that has a nibble - be it holey greens or part fouled fruit. 

Inspecting the strawberries for pest damage.
However recent scientific research has shown that nibbled and holey greens contain additional chemicals which have been generated by the plant itself in order to fend off pest attacks. It turns out that these chemicals contain anti oxidants which are of particular benefit to humans when we eat these "holey" foods. So pre- nibbled food might actually far better for you.

Nibbled plants also produce chemicals to attract predatory insects - greens being mauled by caterpillars will eventually exude a substance which attracts wasps, which in turn eat the caterpillars.

This year we've had to share our strawberries with the slugs in a big way. It's been a bumper year for slugs in Ireland. I've never seen so many, in such large sizes and in so many different varieties. I think there's good evidence to suggest that this time they may have overpopulated.

"Ow, ow, owww!" Desperate slugs sliding over dry gravel yesterday.
They seem particularly desperate for food. I've watched them nibbling at greens they've never bothered with before, notably the leaves of foxgloves. I've also seen them moving in dry conditions, perhaps in an attempt to get ahead of the posse in the hunt for food. I've seen them eating one another, as I mentioned in a previous recent post. I'm seeing them travel over surfaces they normally avoid - over dry gravel and across the bristles of horse hair mats.  I've even seen them moving along the washing line suspended high in the air.

The slug plague hasn't boded well for my strawberries which have just faded out of season. This year they fruited extremely well, but the slugs have put big holes in at least half of the fruits. My one-and-a-half year old son loves his strawberries and regularly makes his way to the strawberry patch to raid it. So slug pellets are out.

Our other big strawberry pest is on the mooch...
With about half of the fruit ending up holey and a quarter of them about 50pc eaten, the temptation is to throw the damaged fruit into the compost bin. But that's just too much wastage for me to countenance.

In our household at least, they get washed and the holed parts are cut away so all surfaces have been cleared of areas which have had contact with the pests. Usually I end up with a clean half or a quarter fruit each time, which is better than nothing. It means I can save about a quarter of the crop by weight overall that would ordinarily get thrown away. 

I also leave some of the larger holed behind fruit on the plants to give the slugs an easy target and to act as a decoy from the soon-to-ripen fruits.

Last year it was vine weevils, this year it is slugs, next year it will no doubt be the birds or something else. There's always something. And while we'll always do our best to minimise the damage, we also have to accept that pest spoil is a fact of life with home grown food. So let's not defeat our own efforts by consigning every pre-nibbled example to the compost.
Nibbled and mauled but still usable

In contrast, today I picked some berries from a completely untouched strawberry plant located elsewhere in my garden. There were four or five juicy fruits, albeit small ones, which had not been molested by the slugs at all. 

So what's the difference between this plant and my other strawberries? 

The latter is in fact a "wild" strawberry variety of the sort that has been growing free in Irish and European temperate woodlands for thousands of years. The slug hammered varieties (see the picture above) - are all from the most commonly grown commercial varieties in Europe (like Elsanta) which happen to have their relatively recent origins in the USA and South America. These have only arrived here in the last few hundred years.

 What it does illustrate is that mother nature has provided the local varieties with all the necessary defenses against the slimy predators. Which of course begs the question: Why do we bother at all growing "higher yielding" imported varieties that can't defend themselves - especially if we either end up losing most them to pests or else spending huge amounts on pest control? Perhaps wild strawberries demonstrate that the answer to proper pest control might just have been on our doorstep all along.

Wild boys! Too much for gravel hardened slugs to handle..

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ireland's "Green" Growing Skinned by Teagasc

Shame on Teagasc the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority which has just announced its intention to begin trials of genetically modified potato crops shortly at it's site in Oak Park in County Carlow. 

Here the agency is expecting to commence years of trials for blight resistant GM spuds on a two hectare site and in the process, giving the GM monster it's first proper foothold in Ireland.

Despite widespread use in other countries, including the USA where corn crops are being hammered at the moment by drought, there have been no proven benefits with GM crops. They have not reduced pesticide use and they have not created loaves and fishes style feeding miracles in third world countries. 

"Down boy!" A Teagasc genius is patted on the head by Ireland's first GM spud birth."We call him Ruprecht" the official announced yesterday.

They have however been proven to crossbreed with other non-GM varieties and it's a fair assumption that the long term effects of GM foods are not yet known. 

We are told the go ahead for the experiment was only agreed after close consultancy with the Environmental Protection Agency (what do they know about GM?) and the Food Safety Authority!!! (Do you want sauce with that?!) 

What about asking consumers across Europe who are firmly against GM tainted foods? What about proven non GM blight resistant potato strains which produce plenty of good yields but are too irregular sized for the modern big corporate processing machines to handle? The truth is it's not just about blight control but also the corporate costs of making processing cheaper.

Teagasc says blight costs E15m each year and that they need to save a few bob for the poor farmers. Australia thought it would save a few bob by bringing in rabbits to keep the grass down. But what does losing Ireland's global GM free reputation cost?  Answers on a postcard to the Oak Park numpties.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Slug Explosions - Why Other Slugs Eat Them

The other day I stepped on a slug on the patio. The slimer did exactly what any one of us might do if something  638,888.889 times heavier than us had accidentally stepped on us - it exploded.
Sadly - the fact of having the great and accessible powers of Dr Interweb at your fingertips in the modern age means you can't just be curious about one of those obscure and ridiculous fleeting thoughts that comes into your head (in this case: "Oh, I wonder how many times heavier I am than a slug?") and then move on sensibly (as nature intended). 

No siree - seeing that I had the great online collective world brain right at my fingertips to go poking into -  I just had to go and find out.

I came back to this blog half an hour later feeling simultaneously proud and embarrassed that I had actually taken the trouble to work it out. But seeing I did it, you were dang well going to get the right number - six hundred and thirty eight thousand, eight hundred and eighty eight point eight eight nine times heavier. I am six hundred and thirty eight thousand, eight hundred and eighty eight point eight nine times heavier than an average garden slug.
Dr Interweb's Mighty Brain yesterday
But I took the long way around.

When I keyed in my question "How much does a slug weigh?" I soon discovered I wasn't alone. There were lots of people like me on the web asking this very question.

Unfortunately no one online ever seems to taken the trouble to coax an invertebrate up on a scales - understandable perhaps given that you don't really want them sliming about on your kitchen weighing system. You could perhaps try guessing it's weight, but guessing a beast's weight is all a bit too small town country fair for me. Oddly, plenty of people have weighed garden snails.

The question did produce an equation from Wiki answers. There's even a formula to show what one slug equals and another to show how one slug fits into 1lb f whatever that is.

1\,\text{slug} =1\,\frac{\text{lb}_F\cdot\text{s}^2}{\text{ft}}
1\,\text{lb}_F = 1\,\frac{\text{slug}\cdot\text{ft}}{\text{s}^2}

Unfortunately, as well as being a land crawling invertebrate, a quick drink from someone's hip flask, and a spent lead bullet, a slug just had to be a measurement of mass, thus making my search considerably more discerning.

Finally I uncovered a clue - that the average crawler can eat 60mg in one go - about 40pc of its equivalent body weight.

From this I worked out its actual weight, converted mine into mgs and then divided one into the other to come up with the answer (Yes I should get out more often - but I have kids - what's your excuse?).

What relevance does this have to the story?

None. But this is my blog. 

Back to where I was.

It exploded. But when I came back that way later I discovered three slugs of various sizes chowing down on the splatted carcass. Not only that, there were many more slugs from five or six feet (miles to them) away, with the foot to floor in a bid to get there before all the dead slug debris was gone.

Having lived in a wet green country all my life and gardened for most of it, I'd never seen such a phenomenon - cannibal slugs!!

A slug having a friend around for dinner
Since then I've seen the same thing happen a couple of times - perhaps because I was watching out for it.

So I looked it up again on the internet. This time the results came quicker. And yes indeed, slugs do like to tuck into one another - though in almost all cases on already dead slugs.

It's just a pity the birds don't seem to be eating them this year because the garden is overrun with them. I planted marigolds to keep pests down and the slugs ate them! There are squillions of the little gets and I've gone nuclear with the nasty blue pellets which I absolutely hate to reach for, but without them there'd be nothing standing in the garden. I've even seen the slugs chowing down on the leaves of my Foxgloves, which I don't remember them ever doing before. I planted marigolds just to help keep the pests away - but the slugs ate them too.

There were more Marigolds in this picture earlier....

Yes I know, beer traps. Great if you can afford to give yours to the gastropods and you still have to empty the beer/slug muck afterwards. No thanks. And those white pellets which are supposed to be environmentally friendly and child safe - they just dissolve at the first drop of rain.

I've a better idea again, based on what I've learned.

So now another one of those thoughts has come into my head. It's a new slug trap which I think I'll patent. Essentially it's a big hob nailed boot attached to a mechanised arm and a timer which drops the boot to the ground and raises it again every half hour.

It works like this: Stick one squashed slug under your boot, set the timer and leave. Along comes three more slugs to tuck in. On the half hour the boot falls, clobbers the three and raises again, thus attracting more slugs and so on it goes until your garden is clear.

At least that's how it works in theory......

Now see if you can work out how much I weigh. The first correct answer in comments wins the prototype - after I've made my millions.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Normal Service To Be Resumed Shortly

One aspect of running an allotment or a food garden of any sort is that now and then you're going to have to give it up for a time. Since Spring I've done nothing with my allotment and very little in the garden.

At the start of the year I left my job of twelve years - which readjusted my schedule significantly. Having set out on my own, I've been working round the clock pretty to build up work, start a new project or two and make some cash - to quote George W, so I can "put food on my family." It's going well so far, but the allotment has missed me as a result.

So no spare hours for food growing this year. The Council have even sent a threatening letter to take my allotment off me because I've done so little work up there. And that's their right if it's looking too scraggly. Also the weather has been pretty awful - enough to head me off at the pass on those days I have had free and allocated to Plot 34.

Normal Service to Be Resumed 

I've scattered a load of well matured manure around up there and have let the grass grow because the soil definitely needs a rest. I've been hammering that ground for six years now, hauling great big crops of potatoes, carrots et all from it and the ground needs to get itself back on balance. Despite manuring, the colour has been fading from the soil and it's become a little ashen.

When you're growing a lot of root crops over a number of years, no amount of rotation, manuring and so forth is going to help get that balance back.

I don't believe that fertilizers and manure alone provide true grounds for organic recovery. I've learned enough about soil these last few years to know that it needs to rebuild its stock of micro organisms. 

No ground can be exposed to the elements year in year out without becoming damaged. The natural state of soil isn't to be exposed to the elements - in fact, what we call "weed coverage" is its true natural state. Now the weeds are helping to cover it up and shelter the tiny insects and microbes who will come back into it to do their thing.

Unlike a farmer I don't have spare fields to "rest" them for a year or two. So given my recent recession era schedule, it's as good a time as any to rest that ground.

It doesn't mean I haven't been growing. In the garden the strawberries are starting to ripen up and I've a fine batch of cabbage and broccoli underway. The onions are doing well and up at Plot 34 you still can't stop the fruit bushes doing their thing. My radishes bolted - probably because I put them in the greenhouse - thinking I could "hot house" them along. Good to know I still get some things wrong and that there's still more to learn.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Why Stella The Grumpy Granny Needs You

This is Stella, Ireland's self styled "grumpy granny" from the website Here she is yesterday wheeling her young grandson off to sell him at the farmer's market because he wouldn't behave himself.

OK yes, I'm joking. 

Stella isn't that grumpy at all - except when it comes to the matter of GM foods. Right now she's in the process of making an official complaint against the Pat Kenny radio show for a recent item on plans to introduce GM foods to Ireland. Stella grumps that the programme has misinformed the public on a number of key issues relating to how it explained the GM food process -  and regarding its treatment of news of new plans for Ireland which seemed to have popped up out of the blue.
Stella Coffey is a very grumpy Irish granny
I'm no goose stepping greenshirt by any stretch but I find the recent news genuinely frightening - that Teagasc (the Irish semi state agri research body) is now planning to facilitate GM potato trials in Carlow and that the deadline for public objections to the EPA is only a couple of weeks away. 

And I'm not the first one to be taken aback at just how such a vital issue for Ireland's future has managed to lurk below the media radar until almost the very last moment.

But thanks to grannies like Stella Coffey - who miss absolutely nothing (you know the kind!)  -  the word is now being spread rapidly and the troops are being rallied to resist the GM monster's latest threats. But we have to act fast. On Stella's own website she has a petition against this new initiative which I'd urge you to sign post haste. It calls for a five year moratorium on GM plans for Ireland. Stella already has collected 1,600 signatories. You'll see my signature on there, right after that of Darina Allen.

Also make sure you check out her presentation on the current Teagasc GM issue on Youtube: 

See youtube - and join the grandmother of all GM wars...
This is what Stella has to say: 

"Last Tuesday Teagasc announced that it has an application with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for a licence to grow GM potatoes at Oakpark, one of its research stations that is located in rural Carlow. You have until March 27 before 5pm to lodge a "representative" aka an objection. Remember, if Teagasc gets its way on this, the genie will be out of the bottle because there's no way of recalling these spuds when problems become evident down the line. It took 20 years for the subtle effects of DDT to become obvious - that's just one way Natures bites back."

"My grandchildren have made me realise, all over again, that we need to be wiser about how we use and abuse our world. GM food and crops scare the grandmother in me." And grumpy Irish grans do always have a way of scaring the rest of us into action so Stella might just get somewhere with her one gran campaign.
So why is it that the older generation are the only ones that seem to give a fig about our environment these days - while that once ultra politically active segment - the young adults do nowt but wander about pressing "OMG!" repeatedly into their smartphones? 
The last time we had a proper GM ruck over here was in the 1990's when gnarly campaigners turned up in Carlow to stomp GM sugar beet - leading the charge was the great self sufficiency guru himself, the late great John Seymour (who inspired the 1970's hit series "The Good Life"). Seymour, then a Wexford based smallholder, managed to get himself lifted by the rozzers for beet stomping - at almost 90 years of age! Another multi national tried again in 2007 and ended up securing approval from the EPA for GM tests, but the conditions were so stringent that they didn't bother in the end.
The late great "grump" John Seymour - pinched thanks to his bobby on the beet
Now Ireland's "GM Virginity" is in jeopardy once again. But why the fuss? What the hi de hay does it matter if we inject hippopotamus DNA into sweetcorn - if the end result is great big giant cobs of corn that thrive in wet conditions but don't attack fishermen?
Well if we can actually genetically modify and tweak our food plants in a completely safe manner to increase food quality and quantity then GM food would indeed be a truly great thing. But the big GM question is this: Can we really trust profit-driven multinationals (they're driving GM development) to tinker around with the genetics of food plants on a huge scale - when thus far we can only be certain that: (a) we don't yet understand the ultimate consequences and (b) we know that GM plants can freely interbreed with non GM plants? 

Such is the worry about GM foods that they are banned from many parts of the world. 

Genetic modification is the introduction of alien genes not naturally found in a species (animal genes can be introduced to plants or vice versa) with the intention of producing a desirable quality in that species. And though GM foods are not with us long enough (the first tomato became available in 1994) to truly evaluate whether they are dangerous, the fact that they can and do cross freely with other non GM crops suggests that if they do turn out to be harmful, we have, as Stella suggests, already let the genie out of the bottle.

OMG!! KEWL!! The kids don't care
There have already been allegations that early problems are starting to show. It is alleged that soy allergies have soared by 50% in Britain since GM soy products entered that market. There have been reports that shepherds in India have lost a quarter of sheep that grazed on GM cotton plants when none died after eating non-GM versions.

So let's ask ourselves some other questions: What has GM achieved thus far?  Have the GM food crops - so widespread now in third world countries - ended starvation in those countries as so many GM proponents have promised? Nope. Have they greatly increased corporate profits? Certainly they have. Have they increased the risk of a world ecological disaster on an unprecedented scale? That's the $64,000 question that we still don't know the answer to. 

In Ireland's case we're being told that a GM blight resistant potato would be our reward. But they're not telling us that we already have blight resistant potatoes - grown all over the world and here in Ireland which are not GM crops. The common spud variety "Sarpo" is just one of them. What they're not telling us is that these more organic blight resistant spuds aren't uniform enough in shape and size to fit into the processing machine that big corporations prefer to use to sort, wash and pack their spuds. So it's GM for the corporations not the farmer or the consumer.
Frogrange anybody?
Finally, and still on the commercial front, one thing Ireland does have left in these dark economic times is its green agri credentials. We are still the "green isle," our food grows in the best of soils and, generally speaking, by world standards, it grows in a healthy environment. That's why foreign buyers still place a premium on our produce.

In the long run we might be risking our children's and grandchildren's futures but in the short tem we'll also be throwing away our long valued quality agri reputation away with the loosing of the GM monster. There are enough anti GM people out there throughout our trading partner nations to seriously effect that reputation and damage our food exports.

If you live in Ireland, don't just place a formal objection to the EPA, phone your local politican. Email your objections to the Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan at If you live outside of Ireland and wish to contribute to the global fight against GM food, write to your Irish embassy to voice your objections.

Finally, I was also joking about Stella's selling the young fella - though Teagasc just might be selling all Ireland's children down the swanny if we let them get away with loosing GM here. I'm with the grumpy grans on this one.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Spring Has Sprung!!

The sun bursts of early March have kick-started the new year's growth and winter's worst is behind us. In the garden the new shoots of growth are sprouting and the earth is coming alive! Everywhere you look, you can see nature waking up. Strong virgin shoots are piercing the soil and the ground is warming. Last year's survivors are still coming good - check out my shot (below) of last year's chopped and butchered broccoli producing delicate new buds - ideal for a light steaming on my dinner plate. 
Spring sprung sprouts on last year's broccoli survivors poking up after winter's worst 
The fruit trees will need some attention. I esplanaded some young shop bought and sown trees last year and their new buds are showing me that at least the shock of transplanting and then of winter, hasn't killed them. Pear, apple and damson are now wired unnaturally in straight horizontal lines along my back fence. I'm told they'll shoot upwards from those tied arms and that soon they'll fill my fridge with fruit. But at least one will have to be cut out of a web of winter web of ivy and surging clematis before it can go anywhere. Below you can see the apple tree buds from my Coronet, a miniature apple tree only four feet high which produces about forty fruit each year. This tree can also be container grown.
Apple buds appearing on the Coronet miniature
The old year's chopped down fennel is already starting to produce fresh sprouts which recently ended up sprinkled across some grilled hake. Mmmm! This container planted fennel grows to four foot each year and has probably been with me for seven or eight years. It never ceases to amaze me how I can cut it back each winter only to have it surge forth again in spring. As a fisherman who regularly comes home with fresh trout, fresh fennel is a must.

Fennel sprouting anew - this particular shoot ended up chopped fine and spread over grilled hake
The salad bed left alone over winter also has a few surprises. The roots of the long ago gone to seed lettuces appear to have sprouted some young fresh heads. There's iceberg and salad basket and lollo rosa (pictured below) which already has me breaking off limbs to feed into fresh bread for lunch time sandwiches.
Lollo Rosa waking up for Spring
Although I rarely deal with non edibles, I do have a few scattered about and one of my favourite wake up calls for the new year is the deep blue bells of the grape hyacinth - it was one of my grandfather's favourite border flowers and it fell out of favour way back in the eighties. I'm still a sucker for it.

Grape Expectations - the Border Hyacinth at its colourful best
Now that my one year old son Sean has started walking, he wants to be outside for every waking moment. Here he is pressed against the glass sliding doors. One of his first words ever was "Garden!" by which I think he means "everything outside the house!"" In a northern European country we've been cooped up inside since November. It's fantastic to watch him teetering about free range between the beds.
Garden!! Let me Out!
Some plants haven't waited for the first sunshine to get into their business, not least the garlic. I grow a type of wild garlic which produces tiny but explosive bulbs. You can see below that they've been busy these few dark months and have a head start on the rest of the garden.
What's that smell?!!
Another star player in the garden that has been keeping up appearances is the Rosemary. We have two robust plants potted in terracotta containers to keep them dry and raised - Rosemary's preferred conditions. We've been breaking bits off these plants all through the winter to throw sprigs across roast lamb and to chop them up to release those pungent oils into stews. It never ceases to amaze me how these plants from southern europe make it through the frosts of an Irish winter.
Pastel flowers on our Rosemary
There's a few more over winter-ers including the Salsify. Last year I dug up the roots and tried to shave them down and boil them without realising that they're supposed to be left alone for two years to produce the big tap roots necessary to make food. I have to say that thus far I'm unconvinced. Last year's small roots that I harvested weren't edible. After a long while boiling they ended up hard and stalky. We'll give them some space to get through to Summer, but I'm still not convinced.
Salsify shoots are on a wing and a prayer this year
Which all means that it's time to get up to my mountain side allotment and get stuck in. I'm looking forward to it and tomorrow I'm going into town to stock up on heritage varieties of seeds and tubers to get it going again. This year however I'm planning a "no dig" approach having been convinced by literature I've read about how digging destroys the minute animals in the soil which are necessary for plant health. We'll see how that one works out. In the meantime as we say in Ireland: "There'a a grand stretch to the evenings!!" About time too...

There's that lovely stretch to the evenings!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Putin, Stalin, Hitler, Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian food plant seed scientist who was starved to death by Stalin (see blog entry "From Russia With Love") and whose genius caused Hitler to send an SS squad to attempt to steal his work for Nazi Germany during World War II - may yet see his legacy destroyed by current Russian boss Vladamir Putin.

Vavilov, the world renowned bio diversity scientist, whose work will play a huge part in feeding the planet in decades ahead, invested his life into a seed bank (the world's largest) contained at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station in St Petersburg - currently the world's largest bio diversity plant depository.

Vladimir Putin however, is believed to be behind efforts to sell off the huge farm for property development wealth and thus destroy the world's largest source of biodiversity and thus most of our protection against future food crop issues. Putin has power of appeal over the closure but the land from the Vavilov centre's farm spans vast acres on the edge of St Petersburg and thus provides vast real estate wealth to whomever can cash it in.

Online information in the english language about the Vavilov Institute's future ceased around about the time Putin's efforts to close it were eminent. If you don't know what this is about, educate yourself...find out online. It is vitally important. One man saw what was coming and made plans, now another is destroying the legacy of this true world hero.

Find out about the impending destruction of the Vavilov seed bank - more than one third of the world's saved seeds - and make a proper protest to your country's Russian embassy.

Protect the work of Nikolai Vavilov - who starved to death so future humanity might eat.

Make Sure Your Basil Ain't Faulty

The second part in this series deals with herbs that like a wet soil.

Basil is dead easy to sprout from seeds and it likes plenty of water but it also likes plenty of sunshine. Temperate conditions outdoors in an Irish or British climate swarm the slugs and promote disease - fungus and mould - so keep the plants on indoor window sills in full sun or in greenhouses and give them plenty of water. When you're starting off your seeds on windowsills or under glass, make sure they're sown widely apart or they'll cluster tight together and come down with a fungal disease. it can do well outdoors in a temperate climate in well watered and fed containers and beds from May onwards. You will need to take account of the pests who will wipe it out this tender juicy verdant without adequate protection.

Basil will eventually stretch skyward and flower. Prolong its useful life by pinching off those rangy long stalks and flowers as they appear. Once they get too stretchy and stick like, it's time to chuck them. Sow a load of basil every three weeks or so to keep tender plants coming on. Resist the urge to eat them fresh. The smell is fantastic! When in containers they're prone to mites (a whitish web) or aphids. Kill this problem by spraying with lightly soapy water - leaving the plant sit for half an hour and then rinsing it's foliage. Pick the leaves, tear them up fresh and throw them on pasta. Mmm!

Watch out for some of those runner herbs going native...

Fennell and Dill
A doddle to grow anywhere. Great for fish and these look really good in summer, attracting plenty of bees with their flowers. Be warned though, they grow high - in the case of fennell up to four or five feet. They need a good sunny spot. The seeds, which taste of aniseed, can also be harvested, dried and stored. We use it for fish. Cut back hard at the end of every year. And try and keep it controlled or corral it in or else you’ll find yourself picking bits of fennel out of everywhere for years to come. It produces thousands of seeds and spreads them well.

Mint/Lemon Balm
We’ve grown both regular mint and lemon balm. We’ve made our own mint sauce and icecream. Our own mint laiden Mohitos. Crush a handful and bring it to your nostrills…mmmm!  It likes rich damp soils and should be cut back hard to keep the fresh green leaves coming. Be warned though - and do take this very seriously - this plant is a thug which will take over your whole garden without adequate control. Never, but never plant it freely in the ground. Put it, not only in a planter on a patio, but also if you can, in a planter with no drainage holes. This plant has to be seen to be believed. It sends out runners through the bottom of pots and over dry pavement to reach soil. Once it gets "free range" in open soil, Frgeddaboudit!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Herbal Remedies - Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

Food gardening has lost thousands of enthusiastic newbies to the pungent temptation and false promise of a "herb garden." 

For some reason, many of those who decide to try the hobby will consider herbs to be an easier option to carrots or beans. To the newbie, herbs are a toe dipped in the water of grow-your-own without properly being immersed. A herb garden is something they've seen in glossy magazines and on lifestyle television and to the amateur, it's a patch where their wishlist of useful culinary ingredients will live harmoniously together and thrive - thus providing myriad fragrances and flavours within a handy grab of the kitchen stove.

What a load of Horseradish!

Years ago and in this very frame of mind, my first herb garden went something like this: The rosemary and sage died because the ground was too wet. The spearmint, which loves wet soil, took over, shooting up everywhere with its underground runners and became almost impossible to control. The parsley and thyme got crowded out by the mint and the coriander bolted. The fennel shot up and free seeded all over the place causing me to end up pulling unwanted fennel twiglets out of every corner of the garden for the next five years. The basil didn't ever have a chance to get faulty - it was massacred on day one by the slugs.

A load of horseradish yesterday.

Contrary to popular belief, a successful herb garden - that is, with all the herbs sharing one bed - is an almost impossible feat to manage. The plants we commonly lump together as “herbs” are in fact a thoroughly diverse bunch of characters who hail from many different parts of the globe. As a result, they require a thoroughly diverse set of growing conditions.

Forcing these alien bedfellows together in the same garden bed, sets you on a hiding to nowhere. Setting the newbie on this particular road to nowhere are those plants from hot housed supermarket stock which are pre-programmed to die of shock a few seconds after you bring them home.

And so, weeks later, finding themselves dazed and in possession of a thick rampant rug of spearmint digesting the remains of a half a dozen former herb bedfellows, the newbie says: "Sod this grow-your-own thing, I’ll stick with watching Strictly Come Dancing.” 

And gardening loses them forever.

Some disillusioned newbies walking away from gardening forever yesteday

Herbs are actually not so difficult to grow once you get them from the right source, treat them as individuals and provide each one for their different whims and needs. They may be lumped together in the "herb" family by the cookbook, but out in the garden the're a mixed bunch - some are tough evergreen shrubs, some are tender annuals. Some will die without copious amounts of water while others will die because of it.

So to help readers understand what’s what, today I’m kicking off a three part series which should enable you to get the very best from herbs. I'm starting with what I call the "dry" herbs - Rosemary, thyme and sage.

Roasting Rosemary

Rosemary is perfect for roasting with vegetables and meats, in particular for lamb and chicken. It originates in the Mediterranean where it is often used as boundary hedging. Its pungent oil has antiseptic qualities and can be used for many purposes other than cooking. Boiling it in water, straining the mix and allowing it to cool for example, makes an antiseptic mouth wash while and boiling it in water with the addition of some soybean oil makes a perfect hot oil treatment for dry hair.

Med born rosemary hates Irish weather and soils. So it often languishes and dies because its sparse needs are not understood. Rosemary likes a fine dry soil with a preference for lime - a higher ph which can be achieved by lacing the soil with lime granules. Wet soil rots it to death from the roots up. I find that it does best in well drained situations like raised beds or better still, in containers where its conditions can be more easily regulated.

Usually I don't use terracotta planters because in the summer months they act like ovens - warming up the soil inside and causing it to dry out super fast. But for this very reason, I keep my two rosemary plants in big terracotta planters where they stay dry and raised. They like to be sheltered from winds and they also require the sunniest position you can get in the garden otherwise they get spindly and weak. Full sun is an ingredient necessary for them to produce that essential oil that we want for our cooking. For the same reason, don't let your rosemary get crowded by other plants.

Rosemary baby!

Cut it back hard in mid summer to keep the tender shoots coming and to prevent it becoming leggy and woody - a state in which it produces less shoots. You can dry out sprigs of it by hanging them upside down in the kitchen for two weeks. Pull off the dried leaves and grind them to powder with a pestle and mortar and you have a powder to flavour up any roast.

You can grow rosemary from seeds but it's probably easier to buy a plant at a garden centre. Buy a bushy example with lots of shoots. You can propagate them through cuttings by trimming off a tender sprig about half way down. Remove the leaves leaving only a "tuft" on the very top of the cutting plant it into damp soil to help it root. 

I dug up a mature rosemary still clinging to its root ball and then sliced it in two right down the middle with a sharp spade. The two parts separated and transplanted perfectly. Once damp and frost is avoided, rosemary is a tough customer.  One of the more versatile aspects of rosemary is its ability to be uprooted and transplanted at any time of year.Though do move it to a greenhouse to protect it through the winter months in a temperate climate.

Stuffed With Sage
There's no stuffing without sage, another sunshine and lime loving perennial which gets by Irish conditions. Used for seasoning fatty meats for the most part, it's also long known for its healing qualities and has anti fungal qualities. Sage comes in broad and narrow leaf varieties, the former for drying and the latter for cooking with fresh. It grows around two foot in height and needs full sun. Crowd it out and it fades fast. But when it does catch on it will need regularly cutting back. You can pull out clumps of it and move them elsewhere. When my sage (located in a raised bed which I use for salads) spreads too far I pull out the excess and try to plant it on in protected public places.
Get wise to sage
Sage is easily grown from seed in a greenhouse or sunny windowsill where it requires humid conditions (cover it in clingfilm) to germinate. Second year plants are the highest in oil and generally produce a better harvest of foliage.
It can be propagated using cuttings and should be cut back hard in mid summer and again a month later to prevent it from becoming woody. It will require a spread of about two feet. Frost will scorch the leaves black but usually the plant will come back again. Constantly soggy soil however will kill the plant so it's best kept in a raised bed or in a container.

Bunch of Thyme

Also a lover of dryer soils is the spriggy sweet smelling herb thyme which can be quite tricky to establish but does well once it does. Great with pork and in stews, thyme is also a great flavour to combine with eggs, pasta, tomatoes, olives and garlic. Thyme can survive happily through droughts and freezing conditions but like the above herbs, hates boggy or wet conditions.

Thyme should be planted in containers or raised beds and because of its low slung gait (about six inches high) you need to watch out for it being crowded and overshadowed by other plants and weeds. It’s perfect place is at the very front of a rockery or raised bed.

Thyme you got growin...

Trim it back hard in early spring and again after it flowers to prevent it becoming woody. Now and again it will establish itself in cracks in paving or in stray containers. Thyme is best left alone so apart from its above needs, don’t fuss over it.  Cut your sprigs for the table halfway down, leaving three inches or so remaining on the plant. It will become more productive this way.