Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Their Gojis Are Bigger Than Yours

 “Mine’s bigger than yours” - You get it in all hobbies, pastimes, pursuits and in war mainly.You don’t mind competition, you just don’t like the mouthies who insist on telling you that they’re better at food growing - that their gojis are bigger than yours.

Their gojis are the size of your marrow fat peas, their peas are the size of your cherries, their cherries the size of your sprouts, their sprouts the size of your onions and their onions the size of your head (which by now has a pain in it).

Thankfully, unlike say, World Federation Wresting and rap, you don’t get too much of the old bragging in the gentle world of food growing.  There’s green eyed jealousy among the green fingered in droves, but rarely do people openly boast about the size of their nuts.
Except within family.

It was THIS big!!!
But family doesn’t have those normal feelings-sensitive receptors which we normally deploy when we dealing with the rest of society at large. At the same time, we tend not to mind an assault of horticultural superlatives as much if they happen to come from a family member. Like a turnip, your skin is thick skin to familial cuts.

As it happens my extended family has the most gardeners ever (boasting here) - and everyone is an expert. We also like to tell each other as much. 

My brother is a graduate of the country’s leading Botanical College and now head of the biggest division within the country’s biggest landscaping outfit – so he at least has a fair claim to superior green fingers. I'm the one with the column, the book and blog (boasting again).

Two of my uncles and my dad get their gardening cojones from the university of gardening life and it is from this quarter that I get the majority of the “size” based vegetable spoutings.  My dad, known as  EOE (expert on everything) likes to dig up anything that isn't performing in his garden and make a present of it to me (the daft thing is he tells me this as he’s handing them over) and then he brings me in to his garden to show off the food producing that are excelling: "Loganberries, the size of your THUMB - have you ever seen the like of them?!"

One uncle we meet for a beer every week has been known to slap a big (not huge) onion on the counter in the bar at 10.30pm and chirrup “Well what do you think of THAT then?! Now THAT’S an onion. THAT’S what I call an onion.”

My uncle taking one of his onions to the bar yesterday
With my youngest uncle recently joining my Dad in retirement, the competition heated up at his end. And he’s got himself a greenhouse. “You’d want to see the SIZE of the cucumbers …and the tomatoes MASSIVE tomatoes” – his hands spread out, his eyes bulging for effect as he tell it.

When the previous uncle couldn’t make it to our weekly drinks session, he couldn't resist giving my Dad an outsized lettuce head he’d grown to take to the bar - just  to show me how big they were growing them up at his place. Except Dad didn’t bring it  – he chopped it up instead and ate it. “Mmm yea it was biggish alright,” he conceded slightly when accosted over it a week later. ..........“Not as big as mine tho.”

Supergrass, the Couch Potato and the Roundup Gang

Having failed to work on my allotment in a year, I arrived there recently to start again but found it covered in what we (in our extended gardening family) have always called "scutch" - although it's also known variously as couch grass, witch grass, quack grass, dog grass or quitch.

Online there are as many suggested solutions to eradicating the creeping pest as it has nicknames. However all posters are agreed that the weed is hugely difficult to get rid of.
Couch grass, the rampant underground crawler

It gets its most common name - couch grass - from ye olde days when it was commonly used as a stuffing material for couches and easy chairs - presumably because the abjectly indestructible stuff is almost impossible to break down and appears to last forever. Furniture restorers are seldom surprised to find 300 year old furniture pieces still containing visibly rigid straws of couch grass.

You'd understand how this works if you saw the state of my allotment - covered with what can only be described as a thick matting of four to five foot long strands of rhizones. The plant spreads by sending out these underground runners - although these are generally to be found just 10cm below the surface.

Couch Grass - Traditionally used for cushioning the seats of couches
It's extraordinary how much ground it can cover over a few months. Pulling on a handful is like bringing up a spaghetti of electrical cables trained along a wall. Pop, pop, pop, and before you know it, the clump you've grasped has become a long rug of the stuff.

The cream coloured rhizones of scutch/couch grass were also used to make incense in medieval times when other more resinous materials were in short supply. That's another suggested way of getting rid of the stuff - burning it at every opportunity.

The problem with the couch grass plantation is that any process which chops it up will simply cause it to repopulate in greater numbers with every little shred and smidgen capable of regenerating to make another virulent new plant  - just like Mickey Mouse's mop in the iconic "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence from Disney's "Fantasia."

More like this actually....A couch oozing antique couch grass yesterday
A good many allotment holders and food growers to have tried to strim the stuff off, or have rotovated couch covered ground only to find themselves mired a few months later in a gardener's nightmare.

The most supported solution is to spray it off with weedkiller - not really an option if you have other food plants intact as a normal allotment would do. But in my case there's little being cultivated at the moment but the fruit trees and the rhubarb. 

My brother - who runs the maintenance division of a leading national landscaping firm is a veritable "doctor death" when it comes to expertise in weed killing poisons and chemicals. He says the only solution is to "go chemical" - something I've never done before on my allotment (apart from early experiments with bluestone and blue slug pellets). But it might be justified this time.

He says the use of a glyphosate based spray like Roundup would not be detrimental to the soil - that the weed killing chemicals won't linger and will dissipate as soon as I hit the ground. This I find hard to believe. However it may be the only answer to the scutch plague.

Roundup -  the extreme option
It certainly beats the option put forward by another allotment holder who suggests digging half a grave sized hole (three foot deep) in the ground, weeding out all your couch grass and burying it alive. Apparently the grass is unable to regenerate at this depth. But this seems like overkill to me (have you ever tried to dig a grave?!!).

So Roundup it is -  at least so I can have some more time on the couch .

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Spud Scheme For An Unsprung Spring

A recent life change has seen me building a new business as a media consultant. It's meant a lot of ten and twelve hour days over the last twelve months - mostly for very little return. But the business is moving out of its establishment phase and into growth mode.

Unlike my allotment.

The career change has meant that, for the first time in a decade, I haven't been gardening for almost a year - at least not on my allotment. This is just as well, as I've mentioned in recent posts, the soil was getting a bit tired.

And my old muckers up at the allotment complex -  my "comrades in farms" - tell me I happened to pick the very best year in living memory to stay away. The yields last year were abysmal thanks to unpredictable weather patterns, which have continued right into this year.

Here in Ireland we haven't had a proper spring so far this year. The first properly warm sunny days have only arrived in late April. Through all of my years with an allotment, it's been common to have a warm sunny period of four weeks or so around Easter which follows some weeks of growth before that - usually from around St Patrick's Day - March 17. It means the plants are usually well underway by now. But even the strawberries in my back garden are only just showing new leaves at the moment.

Alaskan March in Ireland this year ....whose is the fat and pale kid with the dodgy teeth?
Having visited my allotment yesterday (April 21) for the first time in a year, it was quite a surprise. The place looked and felt more like late February or early March. The ground was wet, cold and mucky and apart from a lush cluster of rhubarb, there was very little growth in evidence. To add to the problem, it's on high ground and therefore is normally a few weeks behind anyhow.

We've just had the coldest March on record. Weather experts say that the melting arctic ice caps are changing the behavior of the Jet Stream which separates cold arctic weather streams from warmer westerly weather for Ireland. This year the line did not shift until much later, leaving us with the colder conditions for longer. We're told this will be more frequent going forward.

There was an item on the news last night about Irish farmers importing hay from the UK because they didn't have enough silage left to feed their cattle. I don't remember this happening before in a country where we have to get up once a year to clear grass out of our gutters. If it weren't for a few clusters of grape hyacinths in the garden and the longer days, we wouldn't think winter had finished at all.
Cold, mucky and damp, no growth....spring is unsprung
And of course, it's at times like these that the council creates bother with its "special rules" for their leased allotments. Since the beginning we haven't been permitted to have sheds of any sort for tool storage and shelter in the rain. So I got soaked yesterday. One guy tried to get around this by installing a children's plastic "wendy" house, but they made him take it away. The trouble is that they keep adding to their list of "special rules." Their latest one is  - no more ground sheets permitted. This strikes me as being pretty ridiculous given that the use of sheeting or cardboard is an environmentally friendly way of keeping the weeds down and also for keeping the soil a little bit warmer to give us that little head start.

Many years over I've returned to my allotment in March and simply rolled back the ground sheets to find friable and ready to use soil which didn't require any digging. Now I'll have to dig the whole lot over every year.

Another council rule is that every allotment must be more than two thirds dug over by the end of April. Yesterday my soil was mucky and sticking to the fork in big clodden, tacky lumps. It's in no way friable and digging it in its current condition will probably damage it. But if I want to avoid a clatter of a clipboard, I'd better get underway at pace.

The other problem I have is that the whole place is covered in a thick carpet of scutch grass - great big six-foot long fronds of the stuff. This is known elsewhere as Couch Grass or Bermuda Grass and expands by throwing out long runners across the ground. On the good news front, the fruit bushes are looking to be in good shape, there was a big pile of rhubarb to harvest and a lone surviving cauliflower that was absolutely delicious for dinner that night.

Grape Hyacinths provide the only signals that winter is gone
So I have a plan. 

I'm going to cover most of the allotment ground with potatoes this year. First off, this amounts to some good old fashioned financial sense. Last year was so bad for potato farmers that the price of spuds has more than doubled here in twelve months. Potatoes produce more food per square metre (even in a bad year) than any other crop I can think of. So planting up with spuds will save me a decent chunk of change as well as providing plenty of food for the table.

The second reason for planting potatoes is that my ground has settled and become compacted after more than a year without digging. Potatoes have an effect of breaking up the ground and making it friable again. This is one of the reasons seasoned allotmenteers will often plant virgin ground up entirely with potatoes. It breaks the soil up for easier use the following year.

Then there's practicality. With less time on my hands I won't be able to afford constant weeding attention for peas and brassicas and onions. Once spuds get established, they pretty much smother out most other weeds. With the soil still cold and mucky, spuds offer a reasonably hardy solution to the makings of another bad year for growers.

Sprouty spuds to cover lost ground
Finally, when the potato plants wither back, the spuds stay cosily in the ground waiting for you to come along and harvest them when it's convenient.

Stupidly I paid E5 each for three bags of seed potatoes. I should have remembered my previous success with bags of plain old supermarket potatoes which went sprouty. I'd have gotten four or five times more seed spuds for my money. The pink red supermarket Roosters did especially well for us in 2011

Leaving spuds in a bright spot in your kitchen gets the shoots growing - what's called "chitting." I tend to cut them up into chunks with an "eye" root sprouting from each one. This means that each sprouty potato gives you four or five new potato plants. I plant them about a foot apart and then leave them alone to do their thing.

So that's what's what for the price of potatoes.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Those Early Spring Murders

THROUGH our still dark spring evenings, murders have become more prominent in our city. Suburbanites on their way home from work in the sunset evenings can hear those unnerving cries from the remoter wooded areas of the city's public parks.

On these dark evenings you can hear the cries of  murders....
Early sunset is the signal for huge collective swirls of crows (known as murders) to circle noisily before roosting for the night.

Back in the early winter months they would fill up at farmer’s grain fields and at allotment complexes like ours. Back home in the garden where I had a score of cabbages under bird netting and within reach of our cat, the tell tale signs are still there that crows have still managed to have a go at them and strip hefty lumps from the close guarded heads.

Now that spring has sprung they'll soon be driving allotment owners crazy by picking out pea sprouts to feast on them. I recall the year before last when one grower on our allotment complex lost a huge pea bed and showed me a single lone pea shoot remaining. He swore that the crows had left it there “just to torment me.” Science is showing that crows do indeed play jokes – on each other at least.

Corvids have been a long time pet subject for the US  technologist and author Joshua Klein who has devoted more than ten years studying the behaviour of crows and has also presented a much lauded TED talk entitled "The Amazing Intelligence of Crows."
Josh the crow man - see his thought provoking TED presentation  at http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_klein_on_the_intelligence_of_crows.html
Science has only recently realised that corvids, the bird family which includes crows, ravens, jackdaws, magpies and jays, are at least of equal intelligence to apes and dolphins. In experiments crows in particular have been observed bending lengths of wire into hooked tools. They have also been observed using three different tools in sequence to solve a problem, the only animals on earth to do this without training - apart from humans. This means using a short tool to hook a medium length tool that is out of reach, using this in turn to hook a longer tool similarly out of reach and finally, using this to hook food which can only be reached by the longest tool.

In Japan they have been observed dropping nuts among traffic at pedestrian crossings. The cars crack the nuts and the crows wait until the lights have stopped the traffic before strutting out to eat them safely, returning to the curb when the sequence starts to change again. More recently I was told by a fisherman friend how he and his fellow anglers were forced one day to row their boats in double quick time when crows started picking out fresh water oysters exposed by a drought and dropping them on the roofs of the fisherman’s cars from a height to crack them open.
Crows - swotting up on the habits of humans.
Crows have long had a reputation that causes food growers to persecute them as vermin. Gun clubs up and down the country reward their members with bounties payable on the heads of grey crows and magpies. Points are awarded which are later redeemable against cartridges.  And despite experts claiming that crows rarely attack lambs but rather prey on the corpses of those who die young, it is still accepted that they are killers. Hanging crow carcasses upside down is common practice on farms holding sheep as well as food crops.

For his part though Klein decided it’s time to stop persecuting such intelligent animals and to think of ways for your local murder to do something constructive. So he hired them.

Klein invented a crow “vending” machine which dispensed one peanut every time a coin was dropped into it. He conditioned his local crows by covering the machine in coins and when a crow inadvertently knocked a coin down the chute,  a peanut was dispensed. Soon the crows were busy shoving coins down the chute to get peanuts. Before long the coins on the machine had been used up, but Klein had placed more coins around it. While the placed coins around the machine were soon used up,  the crows realised that once they had found a coin, they could take it back to the vending machine, insert it in the slot and earn a peanut.
Josh Klein's Crow vending machine - earning him cash in the recession .
Klein has yet to tell us how much he has earned by hiring crows rather than persecute them but he stresses that his crow vending machine was designed to prove his point that it was indeed possible to train a wild an intelligent species like crows to do constructive things in exchange for reward.  He has proposed ideas to thus condition crows to pick up rubbish after stadium events or to pick out expensive components from discarded electronics. He’s even suggested search and rescue functions.

While crows have long been considered the food grower’s nemesis and a general pest, we food growers sometimes lose sight of the fact that they also serve vital functions in the environment and help us in many ways.

First they are garbage removers by eating carcasses of deceased animals, second they are ceaseless predators of other pests that eat our crops notably  mice, slugs, snails, caterpillars, grubs and moths. Maybe we should give them a break. 

At least some leniency might finally stop them wrecking our cars and otherwise playing tricks on idiot humans!