Digging up the past for advice on growing your own

 

ANOTHER LIFE: AMONG THE FAMILY heirlooms which helped to equip our move to the west coast three decades ago was a somewhat tattered volume of Department of Agriculture leaflets, published in a seventh edition in 1941, a crucial year of The Emergency. Their 111 topics were rich in livestock horrors (Braxy in Sheep, Blood-Murrain in Cattle), while other advice exceeded our immediate ambitions (Home-Curing of Bacon, Home Butter-making, Rabbit Culture for Food, Wool and Fur).

Leaflet No 36, on The Vegetable Garden, however, still offered sound and practical advice along with earnest encouragement: “The value of vegetables for food in the home is not sufficiently recognised. Many cottage gardens are allowed to lie uncultivated instead of being fully utilised for the production of food.” A couple of generations later, no one needs persuading that vegetables are good for you. And a different sort of emergency has produced a sudden flood of requests for help on how to grow them – this mostly from the non-farming public. Teagasc, in response, has reissued an updated A Guide to Vegetable Growing(www.teagasc.ie).

With some delight, I recognise in the new version many goodly chunks of text originally penned in blue-black ink early in the Free State for Leaflet No 36 and rendered almost verbatim among today’s colour photographs. There was, after all, little reason to change basic instruction on double-digging (though it might have caught up with the virtues of raised beds). “Summer cultivation,” unchangingly, “consists principally in the frequent use of the Dutch hoe. It is impossible to overestimate the benefits which plants derive from having the soil around them constantly stirred . . .” The rotation of crops, and what could follow what, is borrowed timelessly from the Economic War of the 1930s, and runner beans, let’s face it, still do well on a wigwam of slanted seven-foot sticks.

Even in the age of slurry pits, “the best manure for vegetables is farmyard manure”, though spent mushroom compost is now recommended as the ideal substitute. I have personally been suspicious of their varied chemical residues, and prefer the relatively cheap nitrogenous rocket-fuel of chickenshit pellets (probably full of antibiotics). The booklet’s new advice on compost is almost as primitive as that of the original leaflet, though it does now omit “road parings” as an ingredient more appropriate to the age of the horse. It takes no account of modern green compost bins or wormeries.

Detailed advice on growing brassicas (cabbages, cauliflower, brussels sprouts) for a year-round supply offers a good core timetable for the beginner, together with modern seed varieties, but the specified chemical regime is virtually unchanged since 1941, just metricated (like the 2.15 metre for the seven-foot runner-bean sticks). Greener gardeners may want to do their own thing, and if chemical fertilisers (10.10.20 or whatever) are used as supplementary dressings, they are better bought in big bags from farmers’ co-op stores than in costly little boxes at garden centres.

Teagasc rightly stresses the “deep satisfaction” of growing your own, along with the attractions of freshness. Putting lettuce at the start of “small back garden suggestions for freshness” also works for saving money, along with the peas, beans, spinach and –­a bit oddly – parsley (though herbs do indeed save money and can be harvested and frozen for winter). With a bigger lawn to dig up, the suggestions expand to a dozen or so, including cabbage and early potatoes, and urge trying something new or unfamiliar every year – kohl rabi, florence fennel, celeriac are among my own additions, but a polytunnel does make them easier.

The booklet is well abreast of plastic in the vegetable garden, even to using black bin-bags as a ground mulch around cucumbers, melons, sweet corn and so on. This saves a lot of hoeing but will also shelter masses of slugs, and warrants a scatter of non-organic metaldehyde pellets underneath.

As my own year-round growing of food developed, the new uses of plastic devised and promoted by the rising organic movement encouraged a rate of spending that made our vegetables, for a time, seem anything but cheap. Planting seedlings or potatoes through holes in a woven black plastic mulch stops the weeds but lets the rain and air through. White plastic netting with a fine mesh, pegged to cover susceptible plants, lets the rain through but creates a kindly microclimate and keeps off cabbage rootfly and caterpillars without sprays. Both came in big, costly rolls that have lasted for years: good neighbours could share.

Growing your own must reckon with the fact that selling gardening supplies to the amateur is now very big business. Teagasc’s booklet adds an excellent modern note about sowing seeds thinly and economically. I would add a need to learn which seeds will stay viable for years (notably the brassicas), and how, when tearing open the packet, not to discard the bit at the top where, with crafty calculation, the seed company prints the date.

EYE ON NATURE:

The north shore of Belfast Lough is home to countless lugworms and ragworms. However, recently I came across dozens of lugworms stranded on the dry sand above the last tide line. What could have happened? I placed many on wet sand and they seemed to revive. I placed a few in shallow pools, only to see them wriggle out within seconds.

Mike Young, Carrigfergus, Co Antrim

They could have been washed out by stormy conditions or as a result of pollution.

Our earliest sighting of swallows in the last 10 years was April 17th. This year the first swallow arrived in Ballybofey on April 2nd, followed by a second on the 3rd and number three on the 4th. We were also surprised by an even earlier summer visitor at Barnesmore Gap on March 18th where half a dozen sand martins were getting ready to set up home in a gravel pit.

Billy Patton, Ballybofey, Co Donegal

The first swallow arrived in Mallow town centre on March 22nd.

Brendan Glynn, Mallow, Co Cork

While fishing on Lough Currane at Waterville, a huge, dark brown bird – I think it was an eagle – flew over my boat towards the mountains.

Tony O’Sullivan, Cahirciveen, Co Kerry

Probably a sea eagle.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo. Email : viney@anu.ie. Include a postal address.