Plot to plate: Dermot Carey explains how he plants kitchen gardens for top restaurants

And it’s time to plant tulip bulbs

 

Local. Fresh. Seasonal. Organic. Sustainably grown. Field to plate. Plot to plate. Farm to fork. These are the words appearing with increasing frequency on the menus of Irish restaurants, signalling the sea-change in our attitude to the food we eat.

In an ideal world, much of that delicious produce would come directly from a restaurant’s own, organically managed, productive kitchen garden and go straight into the hands of chefs finely attuned to the ebb and flow of each passing growing season, whether that’s the autumnal pleasures of Jerusalem artichokes and home-grown apples, or the spring joys of purple sprouting broccoli and succulent asparagus.

But what of the challenges of creating and maintaining such a properly productive restaurant garden? Someone who can answer that question far better than most is the organic grower Dermot Carey, who has helped to establish kitchen gardens for restaurants and hotels all over Ireland, including the award-winning Harry’s Bar in Donegal, and Virginia Park Lodge in Cavan. Most recently, he’s taken over the management of the walled kitchen garden belonging to Burtown House in Co Kildare.

Just last month, its owners, the Fennell family, opened The Green Barn, a large, handsome, purpose-built restaurant situated within the estate’s centuries-old parkland. Their aim – an ambitious one – is that up to 90 per cent of the fruit and vegetables used in its busy kitchens will come directly from Burtown’s historic walled garden, a challenge that Carey has risen to with both ease and aplomb.

So even at this late time of the year, Burtown’s kitchen garden is cranking out daily boxes of kale, cabbage, spinach, chard, and oriental salad leaves as well as baby turnips, daikon radish, squash, parsnips, beetroot, runner beans and red onions. But one of the secrets of any successful restaurant garden is careful planning for the months ahead, so there are plenty of other winter-hardy crops also growing happily away in its vegetable beds to be harvested next spring, including onions, garlic, broad beans, spring cabbage and purple-sprouting broccoli.

Careful planning aside, Carey combines a number of clever growing techniques to maximise productivity in all of the restaurant gardens that he’s involved in. One is the use of his trusty two-wheel tractor to quickly create beds and drills as well as a friable, aerated soil where young seedlings can easily germinate. Along with regular hoeing and a small but necessary amount of precision hand-weeding, the same machine is also used to help control weed growth. Dense cultivation – where plants are grown at much tighter spacings than traditionally recommended – also helps to keep the weeds down by reducing the amount of soil and light available to any emerging weed seedlings. By following the maxim that any empty beds freed-up by harvesting should be quickly filled with a follow-on crop, he also tackles the problem of weeds. That follow-on crop isn’t necessarily one sown directly in the ground: instead, he often uses young module-raised transplants raised on-site to speed up production.

Carey also stresses the huge importance of maintaining soil fertility through crop rotation and the addition of organic fertilisers and soil enrichers. “Otherwise it will quickly become depleted of vital nutrients, with a corresponding fall-off in productivity and quality, and a rise in pests and diseases”.

Another one of his rules-of-thumb is to focus on growing only the most productive, disease-resistant varieties, which he grows from seed sourced from suppliers such as Tamar and The Organic Gardening Catalogue. “Especially those with unusual flavours, colours or shapes, that you could never buy in a supermarket,” he says.

Regular use of crop protection in the form of Bionet and heavy horticultural fleece (he spreads this loosely over young plants, then shallowly buries the edges to secure it) is yet another favourite way of maximising yields. “Used on certain early crops (brassicas, oriental greens), it speeds up growth and protects against a range of common, damaging pests.”

He’s also of the firm opinion that at least one large polytunnel (ideally 5.5m by 15m) is essential to the workings of any busy restaurant garden, allowing tender seedlings to be raised under cover in early spring, prolonging the growing season at either end, and permitting the successful cultivation of heat-loving crops, as well as a range of salad leaves and herbs throughout the year. For the same reasons, he also recommends investing in a heated propagating mat.

But perhaps Carey’s most important words of advice to anyone considering establishing a restaurant kitchen garden is to concentrate on growing what the chefs need, especially those crops that are difficult or expensive to source elsewhere and which add real value to a dish. “Too often, you see a busy restaurant confronted with an unwanted glut of courgettes, or a sudden scarcity of staple crops such as herbs or salad leaves. So one of the first things I do when I take on a restaurant garden is to sit down with its chefs in early spring to discuss the menu, and plant accordingly. It’s all about the kitchen.”

This week in the garden

Now that the weather has turned chilly (reducing the chances of fungal or viral diseases infecting the bulbs) it’s an excellent time to plant tulip bulbs. These can be planted into the ground or into pots and containers, to a depth of 15-25cm for a colourful display of flowers next spring. For flowers in April, choose some of the Darwin and Triumph types while May-flowering tulips include the lovely lily-flowered, parrot and double-late kinds. Recommended stockists include most good garden centres.

Hold off until late winter as regards any big tidy-up of borders as much dead plant material provides a valuable source of food and shelter for wildlife. Ripe seed-heads, for example, are an important source of food for wild birds while the hollow stems left behind by herbaceous plants offer shelter for overwintering insects.

November is a good time to plant raspberry canes, when they are available to buy cheaply as young, bare-root plants. Recommended varieties include the early fruiting “Glen Moy” and the later-cropping “Polka”, a primocane-type which fruits from late July until October. Raspberry plants like a fertile, well-drained soil that’s been enriched with manure, and a position in full sun.

Dates For Your Diary

Sunday, November 13th– Sunday, December 4th Visitor Centre, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, “Heritage Irish Plants – Plandaí Oidhreachta”,  an exhibition of paintings by members of the Irish Society of Botanical Artists (ISBA) celebrating Ireland’s heritage garden plants, which marks the publication of the book of the same name, a joint venture on the part of ISBA and the Irish Garden Plant Society, see irishgardenplantsociety.com.

Friday and Saturday, November 18th and 19th “A Bit of A Do”, a charity event organised by Naul Gardening & Flower Club, with exhibitions, competitions, and demonstrations by some of Ireland and the UK’s best-known floral designers including Christopher White, David Thompson and Jane Crane, followed by  music/entertainment and a celebratory dinner. Pre-booking essential, admission , €5-€35. Competitions and exhibitions open to the public on Saturday 19th November. For details, see balbrigganinfo.com or email naulgardeningandflowerclub@gmail.com.

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