Race against time to get young plants into the ground
To profit later, grow-your-own enthusiasts need to get busy outside now, writes FIONNUALA FALLON.
Dig! Rake! Hoe! Sow! Plant! Water! Weed! Like all gardeners at this busy time of year, OPW gardeners Meeda Downey, Brian Quinn and Declan Donohoe’s ever-increasing efforts to get their young plants into the ground at Ashtown’s walled fruit and vegetable garden have become a furious race against time.
In their case, they’ve been hampered by heavy rain, cold winds, legume-loving rodents and gluttonous pigeons.
Freshly-planted runner beans were shredded by a gale, mice got into the glasshouses and eat the newly-sown broad bean seeds while pigeons did their very best to make a dinner of the young cabbage plants before being thwarted with some hastily-erected garden netting. But such are the up-and-downs for urban farmers everywhere.
“You’re never really on top of things when it comes to gardening,” smiles Meeda. “You just learn to accept that in any garden there’s always something else waiting to be done, or even re-done.” And so the OPW gardeners will replace the runner beans, re-sow and protect the broad bean seeds, and keep young cabbage plants netted until the pigeons go elsewhere.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other gardening jobs to do, like building more pea-supports and sowing seed for Brian’s pumpkins.
Depending on the variety, climbing vegetable plants such as runner beans and peas can reach heights of 2 metres to 3.8 metres and produce really heavy crops (an average of 30lbs for a 1.8-metre long, double row of runner beans) so they do need some form of very sturdy support.
You can do this in a variety of ways and using a range of materials – wigwams, teepees and arches can be made out of bamboos, willow or hazel branches, while plants can also be grown against lengths of garden netting/chicken-wire suspended against walls or between evenly spaced timber posts.
At Ashtown, the gardeners have got their hands on some freshly coppiced hazel rods, about 3m to 3.5m long and 2.5cms thick, which are ideal for constructing handsome, A-shaped supports.
If you plan to make something similar, you’ll need about 13 poles/rods of equivalent length to make a support around 1.65m tall and 3.5m long. Hazel rods look particularly lovely but can be hard to get your hands on, although a sympathetic landowner/farmer might be able to help out.
Meeda and Brian constructed theirs in-situ (before planting), driving pairs of hazel rods deeply into the prepared bed in three A-shapes, 75cms wide at ground level and criss-crossing at the top at a height of 1.65m. Horizontal hazel rods were then wedged along the top of the pairs of intersecting vertical poles and fixed in position. You could use garden string or wire to do this, but Brian and Meeda say brass screws are easier and last longer. “Just be careful that the screws you’re using aren’t too thick,” warns Brian, “otherwise they could accidentally split the hazel rods. And use a good cordless drill – it makes the whole process an awful lot faster and easier.”
Once the top horizontals are in place, further horizontals are screwed into position on each outer side of the pairs of verticals, running along the length of the support and joining the three A-shapes together at mid-height.
Finally, short lengths of hazel are fixed on top of these at right angles (exactly like the horizontal in a capital letter A), bracing the structure further. Meeda then clipped off the excess height with a loppers, before using a staple gun to fix garden netting snugly over it. To make sure the support is absolutely secure, even in strong winds, Brian recommends driving 30cms lengths of timber (about 5cms wide and 2.5cms thick)) deep into the ground (right beside the verticals) and then screwing them onto each buried “leg” of the structure.
It may sound a bit complicated but the whole process took no more than 20 minutes, and the result is something any gardener would be proud of. If space or DIY skills are a definite issue, however, consider dwarf varieties such as Pickwick (runner bean) or Kelvedon Stringless, Meteor and Half Pint (peas), all of which can be grown in a container.
Runner beans (and French beans) loathe being sown into a cold wet soil, so if this is a problem in your garden at the moment, then sow seeds into small pots and transplant later.
If you’ve only recently been bitten by the grow-your-own (GYO) bug, it’s probably just dawning on you how competitive you’re becoming. This is just the beginning. You’ll soon find yourself emailing photos of your perfectly prepared veg plot to friends and relatives. Constant comparisons with fellow gardeners as to how their lettuce/tomatoes/carrot seedlings are doing will be accompanied by the urge to whip out a tape-measure or make a hopeful, close-up examination for telltale signs of disease/slug damage or greenfly infestation. Follow any diagnosis with a few sympathetic sighs, as more experienced gardeners have learnt to do.
But, if there’s one vegetable which brings every gardener’s competitive instinct into the open, it’s the pumpkin. This rotund, orange-skinned, member of the cucumber family has achieved pin-up status in the world of giant vegetables, as growers outdo each other to set new records. The record stands at 766kgs (1,689lbs) and was established by Joe Jutras of Rhode Island in the US in 2007.
Brian’s efforts at Ashtown last year were more modest by comparison (about 35kgs/77lbs). In his defence, Ireland’s cool maritime climate coupled with last year’s cold, sodden summer wouldn’t have helped his chances of breaking any world records, so he did well by domestic standards.
This year, Brian and Meeda have just started sowing pumpkin seeds of several varieties, including Gold Fever, the petite Hobbit and the daddy of them all, Atlantic Giant. The seeds will be sown with heat, but the young plants won’t be going into the walled garden until they’ve been hardened off and long after any risk of frost has passed (early June). We’ll be following the Ashtown pumpkins’ progress over the course of this column, and passing on Brian’s tips for a giant harvest. Tip number one: sow Atlantic Giant seeds individually in 2.5-litre pots as they resent root disturbance when potted on.
If you quite like the idea of some openly competitive gardening (or secretly fancy your chances of beating Brian’s best efforts this year), then now is the time to get sowing. If you need any further inspiration, then check out www.oddee.com, which gives a list of the world’s 10 largest vegetables and fruits, from the longest cucumber to the heaviest carrot – strange but fascinating.
Some early-sown seeds, such as lettuce and radishes, will need to be thinned now if you want the plants to develop properly. Try to be strict with yourself (a merciful approach won’t give you a good crop) and follow individual guidelines as given on the packet.
Radishes should be ruthlessly thinned to about 2.5cm apart while young lettuce plants should be thinned when they’re about 5cms high. Spacing depends on individual varieties. Collect all thinnings and don’t discard them on the veg beds, otherwise as they rot they’ll attract slugs and encourage disease.
- There are many good Irish websites/blogs on GYO, particularly for would-be allotmenteers. While Urban Farmer has written on some of these, it would be impossible to cover them all. However, the Green Party recently launched its “Get Ireland Growing” campaign and website (www.getgrowing.ie) which has a list of useful, home- grown websites and publications. Click on the “resources” link at the top of the page.
- Next week Urban Farmerin Propertywill cover preparing and planting a herb bed.
Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer