Spring into action in the garden

It’s been a tough start for food plants, so here are some tips from the experts on how to improve seedlings’ chances of survival

 A homemade mini-hoophouse. Photograph: Richard Johnston

A homemade mini-hoophouse. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Sat, May 4, 2013, 05:00

W

hat a tough few months it’s been for the country’s kitchen gardeners. March’s icy winds and wintry showers sent soil temperatures plunging, while April wasn’t a whole lot better. The result – frustrating after last year’s disappointing summer – is that weeks of valuable growing time have been lost.

Well-chitted seed potatoes I planted back in early March, for example, have yet to appear above ground. Scarlet-flowered broad beans only pushed their way through the soil last week, each sturdy green seedling an impatiently awaited sign that the garden had finally cast off winter’s chilly grip.

Even the tomato plants on a heated bench in the polytunnel under the protection of a mini-hoophouse have struggled, only rallying in late April. So how to catch up? I recently asked three of Ireland’s most respected growers how they have coped with the increasing vagaries of the Irish weather.

Gardening by the seat of your pants
For north Dublin-based Nicky Kyle, it’s been a case of abandoning the traditional growing calendar in favour of what she describes as ‘gardening by the seat of your pants’, with one ear always tuned to the latest weather forecast.

Kyle now grows many food crops in polytunnels, using cloches or layers of fleece (as many as three) suspended on wire hoops to cocoon vulnerable young plants from cold. Even old laundry baskets, upside-down, are used when needed. Temperatures in her polytunnels went as low as minus 6 this spring but the plants survived unscathed.

Most of Kyle’s crops – even potatoes – are raised in modules, liners or pots under cover and only transplanted into their final position once a vigorous root system has been established. Outdoors, she weighs sheets of clear polythene down over vegetable beds from early spring/once empty, to raise soil temperatures and help the heavy clay dry out. “That way, once temperatures rise, they’re ready for planting. It’s rather like an instant garden.”

Getting fleeced
Dermot Carey, the professional horticulturist who tends many different kitchen plots including that of Harry’s Bar in Co Donegal, agrees it’s been a very slow start to the growing year.

He started direct-sowing crops outdoors in late April (a fortnight later than usual), many of which he’s covered with a layer of horticultural fleece to create a protected micro-climate.

“I’m using fleece on almost all my outdoor crops (apart from onions and leeks). I leave it slack enough for the plants to push up and weigh the sides down with a continuous narrow band of soil, rather than pegs or pins, which are inclined to rip it. It can make a difference of 5 degrees, and also offers protection against many pests.”

Micro-climate
For Tanguy de Toulgoet of Dunmore Country School – whose organically managed potager in Co Laois also serves as a model garden from which he gives food-growing and cookery courses – it’s a case of being in tune with the rhythms of his garden’s micro-climate (a frosty one) while using an armoury of clever techniques to outwit the unpredictable Irish weather.

Shallow, open-sided raised beds help soil dry out and warm up, while fruit and vegetable varieties are chosen for their hardiness and disease resistance. Timing is crucial, particularly with tender crops sown under cover for later transplanting outdoors.

“With courgettes or squash, I never sow before mid-May, with a second sowing in the first week in June. Otherwise the plants quickly become pot-bound and growth is checked.” De Toulgoet plants these into shallowly excavated hollows to offer protection, with the excavated soil ridged to the north of the hole to act as a miniature shelterbelt.

Another of his methods is sowing the green manure Phacelia tanacetifolia over seed potatoes. As it grows, it protects the emerging foliage of the potato crop from late frosts, while its vigorous root system also helps dry out cold, wet soils. When it begins to compete with the potato plants, de Toulgoet cuts it down, leaving the finely chopped foliage to act as a soil-enriching mulch.

All of this is what I call clever gardening. And if the last few years’ erratic weather patterns are anything to go by, we’re going to have to get good at it.


TOP TIPS

Various crop protection systems are available, including miniature polytunnels, fleece tunnels, cloches, cold frames and miniature greenhouses.

Wind netting, bionet and horticultural fleece are also sold in good garden centres or in bulk from Fruithill Farm (fruithillfarm.com).

Make sure crop covers are securely fastened – there’s nothing more frustrating than losing months of hard work as the result of a gale force wind. With plastic, good ventilation is vital – otherwise plants can quickly “cook” on warm sunny days.