Toiling in the Irish soil

 

GARDENSA new book by German-born gardener Klaus Laitenberger is tailored to the Irish vegetable grower

GARDENING BOOKS ARE like the proverbial buses. You’re waiting ages for the right one, and then, just like that, two of them come around the corner. For years we’ve been craving a book on growing vegetables in Ireland. Our conditions are not the same as those in the UK, from where most kitchen garden books emanate: our climate is wetter and milder, both in winter and in summer. So, advice tailored for gardeners across the water may not fit us properly.

I mentioned the first of these homegrown books, The Irish Gardener’s Handbook, by Michael Brenock (O’Brien, €9.99) when it appeared earlier this year. And the second, Vegetables for the Irish Gardenby Klaus Laitenberger (Milkwood Farm Publishing, €14.95), has just been launched. Keen vegetable growers will already know the author – who has served as head gardener at both the Organic Centre in Leitrim and Lissadell in Sligo – through his lectures and classes in organic gardening.

Since the German-born Laitenberger came to Ireland in 1999, he has been adapting his methods of gardening to our more soggy and clement climate. His book is particularly relevant to gardeners in the northwest, as he is intimately acquainted with the soil in Sligo and Leitrim. He now lives on an 11-acre holding at the foot of Benwiskin in north Leitrim.

I visited some years ago, and was impressed at how he managed to coax exquisite vegetables out of the waterlogged and infertile peaty soil. His methods for gardening in a damp climate with saturated soil are several. Drainage, of course, is paramount, and it can be created by digging channels to carry excess water away from the vegetable-growing area. Raised beds are another solution. Adding properly decomposed compost and loosening the subsoil also help. Winter digging – which allows the cycles of freezing and thawing to break up the soil – is not something that he recommends, despite its popularity with many traditional gardeners.

As he points out in the book, we get more rain than frost in most parts of Ireland (although last winter was an exception), and the rain washes out the nutrients and turns the soil into “mash”. In such conditions, the soil pores become filled with water, and valuable underground dwellers such as earthworms are driven out or drowned.

Laitenberger has plenty of advice for new gardeners. I like that he suggests starting on a smallish scale, so that the garden doesn’t get out of hand and become a thing to daunt rather than delight. He also cautions against sowing seed too early – a mistake we’ve all made, in the rush to end winter’s doldrums. In most parts of Ireland vegetables should not be sown outdoors before May; broad beans, garlic, onions, peas, potatoes and shallots are the exceptions. Planting too closely, and choosing the wrong variety are also common errors.

The book, however, is more about getting it right than avoiding the wrong. The first half includes comprehensive instructions on raising more than vegetables, from artichokes to turnips. Besides all the expected advice on cultivation, and – importantly – varieties that he knows work well in Irish conditions, the author offers snippets of history and the odd pithy quote, such as the inimitable Charles Dudley Warner’s “Lettuce is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitterness in it.”

The second half considers practical matters such as planning, soil, ground preparation, composting, rotation, pests and so on. A month-by-month guide will keep new gardeners on track from one end of the year to the other. Laitenberger has chosen not to include tomatoes, peppers, aubergines or cucumbers (tender crops that do best in greenhouses or tunnels), which may disappoint some readers, especially those who have warm corners in their gardens. Notwithstanding this omission, it’s a book that Irish vegetable growers (myself included) will be very happy to dig into.

Vegetables for the Irish Gardenis available from selected shops, and by mail order, €14.95. See milkwoodfarm.com