Defending pumpkins from nightmare summer gales

 

Tobacco is being grown in the walled garden at the Phoenix Park – but only for its flowers, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

IT’S NOW exactly 70 years since tobacco, or Nicotiana Tabacum, was last grown on a commercial basis in Ireland, with the formal dissolution of the Co-operative Tobacco Growers Society of County Meath in 1939 finally ending that county’s (and the country’s) long-standing association with the crop.

And while Sir Nugent Everard, one-time landlord and owner of the 300-acre Randlestown Estate near Navan, is the man credited with attempting to revive the tradition of tobacco-growing in Ireland, it was another landowner in a different Irish county, several centuries earlier, who first introduced the plant to Europe.

When Sir Walter Raleigh first sowed seeds of tobacco on his estate in Youghal, Co Cork back in 1548, he could hardly have imagined the far-reaching consequences of his actions. Almost half a millennium later, the World Health Organisation estimates that there are now nearly 1.3 billion smokers worldwide, with about 15 million cigarettes sold daily, while smoking-related diseases kill one-in-10 adults globally. As someone once said, it’s now been proven beyond doubt that smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics.

In the OPW’s walled garden in the Phoenix Park, gardener Brian Quinn has decided once again to grow the tobacco plant, in an experiment that he describes as part historical, part botanical.

“Don’t worry, I won’t be smoking it,” he laughs. “I’m just interested in the history of the plant and attempts to grow it in Ireland commercially as a crop. Tobacco had other uses too – it was once popular as a natural insecticide, because the high nicotine content kills aphids and spider mites.

“It’s not recommended for use in organic gardens anymore, so I won’t be using it as a pest-control. I’m just curious to see how it grows.”

Brian sowed his tobacco seed in a heated propagator back in mid-spring, and the bushy, large-leaved young plants are now ready to go outdoors. “You treat it like any other tender annual plant (it’s closely related to the ornamental and sweetly-scented bedding plant, Nicotiana Sylvestris).

It needs a fertile, really well-manured soil in full sun, but not too dry. The plants like it dampish but well-drained.”

He’s going to grow two types of tobacco in the walled garden – Virginia Gold and Mountain Tobacco, which he sourced from US suppliers, www.seedman.com through the internet.

“Virginia Gold is a tallish, smoking variety that reaches about 5ft tall, while Mountain Tobacco is a smaller, ornamental plant, with yellow-green flowers, which was popular with the Navajo Indians.

“When I started researching the plant, I was amazed at how many varieties are still being grown and used to make cigars, cigarettes, pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco.”

As it’s a plant that he’s unfamiliar with, Brian’s been getting some tips on cultivating tobacco from a Polish friend living in Dublin, Pawel Majka, whose father grows tobacco as a commercial crop back in Poland. “Pawel told me to space the plants about 3ft apart, and to feed them really well. Along with loads of manure, I’ll spread the granular fertiliser Osmo around the roots after planting. In Poland, they ‘top’ the plant, cutting off the flower-bud as soon as it forms, to encourage the plant to produce even bigger, thicker leaves. But I’m interested in seeing the flowers, so I won’t be doing that. I’m expecting the flowering plants to look really impressive in the walled garden.”

Which, of course, they will, if they look anything like their sweetly-scented cousins, whose large green leaves and trumpet-shaped flowers are such a feature of summer bedding schemes.

And while tobacco is one crop Urban Farmerwon’t be recommending, it’s fascinating to see a piece of Ireland’s botanical history being revived, nearly five centuries after the seeds of the tobacco plant first arrived here.

Some weeks ago, Urban Farmerpromised readers an update on the progress of the OPW gardeners’ pumpkin plants, of which they sowed seed back in late April.

While planting was delayed due to preparations for Bloom 2009, the young plants finally went into the ground late last week.

“We’ve given each plant its own specially prepared soil mound, which we packed full of manure,” says gardener Meeda Downey. “The raised soil helps with drainage as well as keeping soil temperatures nice and warm around the roots.

“For the large-cropping Atlantic Giant variety, we made the mounds particularly big – roughly 60cm wide and about 15cm high.

“That particular variety also needs loads of space to spread itself around, so we gave each plant its own plot, roughly 2.5 metres square.”

Last year, the OPW gardeners learnt through bitter experience of the damage that strong winds can wreak on the young pumpkin leaves before the plant gets a chance to establish itself in the ground.

“A summer gale left all the leaves in bits, which looked awful and slowed down their growth, so this year we were racking our brains as to how to protect them until the trailing stems got a chance to root firmly into the ground,” says Brian.

“And then Meeda came up with this great idea – lengths of strong wire, bent into U-shapes, which we’ll use to gently pin the individual stems to the ground until they root down and the plants get established.”

Brian and Meeda are also spreading the organically- approved slug pellet, Ferramol, around the young plants, to protect them from damage.

“Altogether, we’re growing over 70 pumpkin plants this year, including 18 Atlantic Giant and 55 of the Gold Fever and Hobbit varieties,” says Meeda, casting an eye over the beautifully prepared pumpkin plots and the perfectly parallel lines of manured soil mounds.

“We’ll let the smaller varieties produce an average of about two to three pumpkins each before we start nipping out the flowers. But Brian’s planning on limiting the Atlantic Giant variety to just one pumpkin per plant, which will help to produce particularly large fruit.

“And we’ll be giving them a high-potash liquid feed weekly, once the plants are established and the young fruits have set. Regular watering will be important as well, until the roots have got a chance to fully develop.”

But Brian’s being a bit coy as to what size pumpkins he’s hoping to grow in the walled garden this year. “I think he said something about the size of a small car,” grins Meeda.

“No, just decent-sized, that’s all,” claims Brian. “We don’t have the time to baby them along but, with the Atlantic Giant, we’ll try and keep the developing fruit shaded from the sun so that the skin doesn’t harden up too early (you don’t need to shade smaller varieties).

“If the skin gets too tough, there’s a risk that the pumpkin might split before it’s had a chance to swell properly.

“Trimming the trailing stems after the fruits have set also helps to produce bigger pumpkins – we’ll cut the stem away a couple of leaves above the fruit, once it’s well established.

“Then, in mid to late September, about four weeks before we harvest them, we’ll cut away any shading leaves and give the pumpkins a chance to colour-up in the sunlight.”

The Phoenix Park pumpkins will be used by visiting school groups this autumn as part of the School Education Programme which is run in the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre throughout the year (see www.phoenixpark.ie).

And, while many urban farmers will also plan on growing pumpkins for Halloween, it’s worth keeping in mind the fact that the tender orange flesh can be used to make a delicious roast pumpkin soup, sweet pumpkin pie or even pumpkin chutney.

It’s also one of nature’s superfoods – the pumpkin is a rich source of many nutrients and vitamins, including particularly high levels of vitamin A, E and C, as well as potassium, manganese, iron and niacin.

But, if you’re determined to use your home-grown pumpkin to carve the best jack-o-lantern ever, then check out Extreme Pumpkin Carving: 20 Amazing Designs from Frightful to Fabulous by author Vic Hood, (see www.amazon.co.uk). Just be warned that it’s definitely not one for beginners.

  • Next week, Urban Farmerin Property will cover growing chilli peppers and keeping control of garden weeds
  • Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer