This is a spring like no other but still the gentle rhythms of the Irish gardening year continue, with seeds to be sown, plants to be tended and crops to be harvested. With the current restrictions in mind, here’s a useful list of ways to stay gardening in the weeks ahead.
We need flowers in our lives more than ever and one solution is to grow your own from seed. Late April/early May is a great time to sow quick-growing, floriferous, long-flowering half-hardy annuals such as cosmos, tagetes, Callistephus chinensis and amaranthus under cover and with gentle heat (a bright windowsill is perfect) for transplanting out into the garden from late May. All of these can be grown on in large pots, will bloom throughout the summer and also make excellent cut-flowers. So do dahlias, which can be grown from tubers planted into pots under cover for transplanting outdoors once all risk of frost has passed. Online seed and tuber suppliers include mrmiddleton.com.
Alternatively, reach out (metaphorically) to gardening friends and swap seeds and tubers.
Along with garden centres, many of the very best specialist nurseries have online or mail order shops and are offering countrywide delivery of their plants. Examples include Wexford-based Camolin Potting Shed (camolinpottingshed.com) and Kilmurry Nursery (kilmurrynursery.com), both of which specialise in a wide range of herbaceous perennials as well as ferns and grasses; Cork-based Future Forests which carries a very wide range of trees, shrubs, fruiting plants, hedging, roses and perennials (futureforests.ie); and Kildare-based Herbs on Thyme which specialises in culinary and ornamental herbs (herbsonthyme.com).
Carlow-based Altamont Plants (call owner Robert Miller on 087 9823135) and Dublin-based Mount Venus Nursery both stock excellent, garden-worthy plants (mountvenusnursery.com). See irishspecialistnurseriesassociation.com for further details.
Minimise trips to the supermarket and plan ahead for possible future interruptions to the food supply-chain by direct-sowing seed outdoors of long-lasting vegetables suitable for storing or overwintering such as parsnips, beetroot, turnips, swedes, carrots, onions and potatoes. This is also a good time to sow seed of heat-loving crops such as courgettes, cucumbers, French beans, pumpkins, squash and sweetcorn (sow undercover and in gentle heat for transplanting outdoors next month).
At the time of writing, seed is intermittently available to order online from most good Irish garden centres as well as specialist suppliers such as Cork-based Fruithill Farm (fruithillfarm.com); Sligo-based Quickcrop (quickcrop.ie), Dublin-based Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com) and some large British seed suppliers such as Kings Seeds (kingsseeds.com).
In partnership with ChangeX and Web Summit, GIY is offering a seed bundle of popular, easy-to-grow vegetables on a first-come-first-served basis that can be ordered from its website with the aim of the resulting seedlings/baby plants/ produce being shared out among small networks of people, yet another useful way to help cultivate resilience during these challenging times. Its online shop also offers a selection of vegetable and herbs seeds for kitchen gardeners. See giy.ie for details.
Get those compost heaps going so that you have a ready supply of homemade, crumbly “gardener’s gold” and compost “tea” at hand to help boost plant growth and nurture soil health. A healthy, fast-rotting heap needs sufficient fresh air (so turn it regularly), moisture and the right ratio of carbon-rich material or “browns” (examples include shredded cardboard, shredded newspaper, paper towels, straw, fallen/brown leaves) to nitrogen-rich material or “greens” (examples include fruit and vegetable peelings, grass cuttings, weeds and soft green prunings). Too much of the first and you’ll end up with a heap that’s very slow to rot down; too much of the latter and you’ll get one that’s soggy and smelly.
Opinions differ as to the ideal carbon/nitrogen ratio, but somewhere between 1:2 and 1:3 is considered best. Where space is very tight, excellent alternatives include wormeries and Bokashi bins. Stockists include originalorganics.ie, quickcrop.ie and fruithillfarm.com. For further advice on composting and how to prevent food waste, see stopfoodwaste.ie
The prolonged dry weather of recent weeks is a timely reminder of why it's such a good idea to install water-butts to harvest rainwater from house gutters. Recommended suppliers include all good Irish garden centres and local authorities as well as online suppliers such as originalorganics.ie
Up your guard
Don’t forget to protect food crops against hungry birds, which will happily nibble on the tender flower buds of fruiting plants (no flowers means no fruit) and pull up recently-sown onion and shallot setts as well as seedlings. Use netting on fruit bushes and fruit trees so that pollinating insects can continue to access the flowers while garden fleece is a great way to protect young vegetable seedlings and transplants while simultaneously boosting growth levels (just make sure to secure it against wind).
Likewise, take careful precautions against slugs, which can quickly cause huge damage to seedlings and the soft, young growth of emerging plants. Practise good garden hygiene – check plants regularly for early signs of damage, use beer traps, organically acceptable types of slug pellets (very sparingly) and/or hand-collect and kill slugs in the evening when they emerge to feed.
At this time of year the soft young foliage of nettles can be used to make a fantastic, nutrient-rich, natural liquid foliar feed for plants, boosting their ability to fight off pests and diseases and encouraging healthy, productive growth. Harvest the tender young green shoots wearing gloves and then place them into a large container, chop them up and then cover with a generous amount of clean water, topped with a lid. Leave them to stew for several weeks with just the occasional vigorous stir, by which point this soupy mix will have transformed itself into an oh-so-stinky but impressively effective, nutrient-rich, liquid plant feed that should be used diluted at a ratio of roughly one part feed to 10 parts water.