Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rogue Tomato and Autumn Bulb Planting...

I had one job to do in the tunnel this year. It was simple, all I needed to do was pull up all the tomato plant seedlings and compost them - Simple. There were a lot of the self-set plants and I very nearly got them all. 

Apart from one. 

Just one solitary tomato plant has been left to run free, I took my eye off it for a few weeks and it’s taken over. I estimate the untrimmed, uncared for plant now takes up at least 10 square yards of valuable space in the tunnel. This is how tomatoes grow in their hot, natural habitats, unpinched and not a bamboo cane in sight for them to be tied and trained on. 

The crop has been fantastic though although for some reason the fruit is still foamy, just as it was a few years ago when I planted the original seeds. They are tasty enough though so I’ll wait until the frost hits it before I pull it up and compost it. Next year though there will be no tomato plants in the garden, unless I miss one.

I really need to totally clear the tunnel and start again by sterilizing everything as there is a lot of mould growing on leaves, the pots are filthy, greenfly has infested all the broccoli and kale and there are hundreds of slugs and snails feasting on everything but the tomato plant.
“What is the reason for not clearing the tunnel?”  I hear you ask. 

Well, it’s two frogs. Both of them have been with me all summer sploshing around in the sunken bucket I have in the corner. They give me such hopeful looks when I walk in so how can I destroy their environment just so that I can plant cash crops in an intensive, non-sustainable manner? I’m sure large organizations have this dilemma all of the time and think nothing of clearing rainforests and displacing the residents in the process but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’m sure I’ll find a compromise somehow, maybe just limit their space to half of the tunnel or restrict them somehow. I’m also quite sure that method won’t work either as historically nothing good ever comes from closing boundaries and free movement. So for now the frogs are free to roam to their hearts content and I’ll find a more amicable solution for both of us, after all they are working in the tunnel, there would be far more slugs and snails if they moved away.

I bought some fleece webbing to cover up some pots and protect them from the oncoming cold winter weather. I did a bit of price comparing and there’s a huge difference in the amount being charged and very little (if any) difference in quality. The prices range from €9 down to 90 cent for the same product in the shops. Online was a bit more expensive as postage is included. I got four packs of the 90c sheets of 1.5x5 metres from a shop in Derry. I have also ordered some multi cell trays online to plant up some cuttings which I will be overwintering. It’s a good time to be looking for bags of compost at reduced prices now as the season is ending and shops don’t want old stock lying around all winter.

Autumn bulb planting
I’m going to try and find the pots of spring bulbs this week. Like most years I have them in pots and when they are done flowering I can just put them to one side instead of looking at the leaves dying off for weeks (think daffodils) they also don’t hinder the enthusiastic grass mowing I tend to do after hibernating for a few months.  Spring flowering and hardy summer bulbs can be planted now.
  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, crocus and hyacinths as soon as possible to give them a good start.
  • Plant tulips in November.
  • Plant hardy summer-flowering bulbs, such as lilies, alliums and crocosmia, this month too.
I’ve found that growing them in pots speeds up the flowering and maturing time. They do need watering in dry weather and the soil might need to be changed every so often. Bulbs get a lot of their energy from photosynthesis and tend to absorb energy back into their bulbs as the leaves die down so I haven’t really have an issue with them lacking in nutrients even if I forget to repot them for a year or two.  
I do have some spring bulbs in the front garden planted into the soil. I’ll hack back the nasturtiums to see if they are still there.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What Makes a Good Lawn?

Just what is a good lawn? 

Is it all about the uniformed growth and greenest weed free swards? Is a good lawn one you can play football or golf on? Does it just need to look nice from the kitchen window when you are washing the pots? Has it got to be full of wild flowers and only need to cut it twice a year? 

There are so many different variables to lawns and the answers are as diverse as the gardeners who look after them. 

Over the past few years these green patches of ground have come under increasing criticism both for their high maintenance and need for chemical use to keep in tip top condition. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

 I for one have tried alternatives on a small scale. I set aside a small area to go wild (much to the annoyance of one of my neighbours) and turned one area into a chamomile lawn. I can tell you now both of these take up far more of my time looking after than a conventional lawn.

Over the fence
I don't think I know one person in Inishowen who is totally happy with their lawn.

 As a viewer over the fence, most gardens look lovely. I have some old images of my plot when we first moved into the house and the whole garden was overgrown and neglected, I couldn't wait to get stuck in and ‘improve’ the place.
 Looking at the pictures now seven years later, the garden actually looked far more lush and colourful than it does now after all my work. The garden in the pictures hasn't changed but the way I look at it has.
Overall the garden looks lovely in the pictures but it's only when I hone in on the details and imperfections as I did when I moved in that I started to worry and think about making changes, it's a similar principle to most issues we have in everyday life.

I think I tend to look at my own lawn and project my irritations and frustrations on the rough patches before realising the imperfections are in me and not the grass. 
Let’s  see what gardener's actually say about their lawns.

The most common observations and complaints about lawns here in Inishowen are:

  • Too wet and waterlogged.
  • Costs too much to keep as we need to get someone in to cut it twice a month.
  • Need too many chemicals to keep it looking nice.
  • Moss growing everywhere and taking over.
  • Not growing well in shaded areas.
  • Takes up too much time cutting it in summer.
  • Not hard-wearing enough to play on.
All of these issues can be overcome to some degree apart from finding someone to cut the grass for free if a family member isn’t available. The reality is that there will always be something that needs doing. I've just come back from a family wedding in Alicante and I only saw one or two patches of grass growing. There were plenty of herbs and picking the pomegranates is fun , the local council seem to favour artificial grass now as it saves on water  in the city centre. So just growing a lawn here in Ireland seems easy in comparison.

Regardless of how you look at your lawn, plants will be plants and the grass will need a bit of annual care, especially in the case of moss. The only place you'll see grass without moss is on the sandy golf links around the peninsula, you will even see moss on artificial grass eventually! So living with it seems to be the easiest option. Apart from digging up the whole garden, raising it about a metre and putting in new soil/sand and drainage it will more than likely come back every year and need to be treated with a chemical.

Drainage is the answer to lawns being too wet and compacted, but can be a costly job on large areas.
If you have bald patches the autumn is a great time to overseed the area. If you don't have the same grass mix to add and want a more uniformed colour them scatter the seeds outwards from the patch putting fewer and fewer seed on the ground as you work out. It's a bit like blending colours in paintings. Mix the seed with a bit of sharp sand so it goes on more evenly.
If an area is in shade there are certain types of seed you can get to put in these areas. They might look a bit different but at least the area will be green.

Scarifying the grass with a spring rake can get a lot of the moss out. After this you can aerate the ground with a fork and sweep sand into the holes. This will help with drainage and compaction.
If the lawn has a lot of crane fly larvae in it you could put black sheeting over the ground then check it every morning putting the leatherjackets out for the birds. These will probably only be temporary measures in the same way that chemical usage will be.

Instead of us looking for the 'perfect’ lawn for our garden and being annually disappointing, we can ask ourselves...
Does the area look generally pleasing to the eye and give us and the family pleasure?
Is the lawn suitable for purpose? Game playing, dog use, defining borders siting the barbeque, table and chairs?

After sitting four stories up in a city centre apartment block for a week at the family wedding in Alicante I'm just pleased to see any greenery and I must say from the plane up here at 20,000 feet, all of your lawns look absolutely wonderful!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Boomtree Bees

 Boomtree Bee house

I was at Boomtree Bees in Buncrana this week chatting to the inspirational Michiel Verspuij who is changing the way we look at beekeeping. 

Intensive farming of bees in traditional hives has a myriad of problems in the same way anything does when we try to control nature. Michael’s approach is more about creating a natural and welcoming habitat for the bees that is self-sustaining and virtually maintenance free. Honey can still be harvested but it isn’t the main incentive for keeping the bees, it’s more to ensure that bees thrive and carry on doing the pollinating of flowers

These bee hives are made from large fallen tree logs and hollowed out to make room for the colony of bees, some of them seven feet tall and weighing up to 200kg. Their waterproof roofs are made from thatch and inside has been hollowed out by hand. Different wood can be used, some of the hardwoods can last up to 50 years and even the softwoods can last up to twenty.  Each one is unique and handmade making them a lovely addition in the garden or public area. Michiel is currently working closely with the local Council who are donating their fallen trees to the initiative. Michiel is currently working on a large laburnum log that fell outside of the library in Buncrana. This will eventually be found a home locally and given back to the community.

The idea stems from cultivating bees over a thousand years ago. The honey was extracted from the hives by physically climbing the tree, which had its problems so the hives were then cut from the tree and placed on the ground for easy access. From here we got to the modern method of beekeeping. Michiel has gone full circle back to the beginning of beekeeping where the beekeeper makes a hive that suits the bees, or they do not come. A system where the beekeeper is required to give up control and complexity, and evolution is once again determined by the bees and nature.

The hives
In this tree hive management system, the top one third is respected and always left undisturbed for raising brood and for winter stores. If there is any spare honey it is harvested from the bottom two thirds of the hive. Typically 10 -15kg is harvested in a normal year. The hives are opened just twice a year: once in spring to check if the hive is populated, and then in the autumn for the honey harvest. This infrequent opening maintains the medicinal hive atmosphere.

Low Maintenance
The hives are not treated for mites with acid washes or pesticides and remain healthy. Interestingly, many beekeepers in the West, often referred to as ‘natural beekeepers’, are similarly discovering that bees will slowly adjust to mites and diseases. They can only do so if they are left to manage themselves, i.e. they are rarely disturbed, their winter honey stores are left intact, and they are not fed sugar, which weakens the bees’ immunity 

Michail has a mission to help with the conservation and rewilding of the honeybee. He runs workshops on site, in schools and other venues and aims to create a more sustainable way of beekeeping and conservation, he can also collect your bee swarms and re-home them.
 If you are interested in anything bee related check out Boomtree Bees on Facebook or go to the website boomtreebees.com or better still pay him a visit, it’s an enlightening experience.
If you would prefer to see what Micheil is doing you can see Boomtree Bees along with other environmental groups at the Environmental Showcase 2017 event at the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny later this month.

Environmental Showcase 2017
On October 14th at the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny , Environment groups across Donegal will come together to display their work . This event, promoted by Joanne Lindsey Butler from Ourganics will take place as part of the annual Social Inclusion Week and is being hosted by the Environmental Pillar of the Public Participation Network. 
“The overall aim of the showcase event is to highlight some of the great work being done by voluntary groups across the county” says Mary Clyde, Public Participation Network Facilitator.
“This showcase will be about promoting the positive environmental actions that are being done and will allow us to share ideas, find out what works and in some cases what doesn’t work and most importantly how we can build on the great work already being done.”
It’s not too late to participate. Mary adds, “We are keen to hear from all types of groups including schools, tidy town groups, local environmental groups, development committees, resident associations and of course special interest groups.  This is a real opportunity for the environment sector to shine and for people to get involved in positive action”. 
Guest speakers include ecologist Ralph Sheppard and environmentalist Duncan Stewart .
For more information check out the Environmental Networks Facebook page @DonegalEN or Boomtree Bees page.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Cacti Care

My cacti plants have been neglected this year. And they love it. I did repot them at the beginning of the season, then put them on a shelf in the tunnel and promptly forgot about them. Their only water source was condensation and the odd over spray from the tomatoes. A few of them are flowering as well which is always pleasing to see.

Cacti are classic examples of plants that have evolved to grow in environments where water is scarce for large parts of the year. Most of the varieties don’t have leaves but swollen stems. These stems contain water-storage tissues and a thick waterproof skin, usually covered with a waxy layer to help prevent water loss.  Cacti can have extensive root systems, spreading just below the soil surface, so that they can absorb even the relatively small amounts of water that moisten the soil surface during light showers of rain, which isn’t much help to them in my small pots. To help them store water in the occasional time I give them water, the fluted stems with ribs expand and contract without damage to the surface tissues.

Cacti also have evolved to use the stems as the main method of photosynthesis  rather than using leaves. 

In place of leaves, cacti have areas where spikes come out (areoles). These are like buds and they are arranged regularly along the ribs of the stem. They produce spines which help to protect the stems from being eaten. In some cacti that I have the spines are so dense that they almost completely obscure the underlying stems, shielding the stems from intense sunlight and preventing the plant from overheating.

Cacti as Houseplants

Cacti make great houseplants and makes a big impact to a room. 

What to look for when buying cacti
  • Assess the size where the plant will be going. Larger plants generally cost more.
  • Check that the cacti are free of mealybug on both the plant itself and the root system. With its woolly white layer of wax, it’s one of the most common pests on cacti and difficult to deal with.
  • Spider mite (eight-legged insects that cover the plant in a fine and dense web), aphids, brown scale and scale insects or thrips can also occur.
  • Check for damage, and ensure that the roots are in good condition. If the plants have been left in wet soil for an extended period, they may have rotted ‘from the pot’. This can also be caused by fungi and bacteria. The green part, the actual stem, will then feel soft and could be discoloured.
Choice of cacti
Many cacti are sold in mixed trays, particularly the smaller sizes. The plants I have now came from a job lot on e-bay of bare rooted plants and was very happy with the quality. I have tried growing the plants from seed but it takes a long time and is pretty fiddly. I had about fifteen different types in the bundle.
If you have friends with older cacti you will find they have small offsets. These can be pulled off and planted up after leaving to dry for a day or two.
Succulent Euphorbia species closely resemble cacti and are often placed in the same product group. It’s easy to spot the difference. On Euphorbia the spikes and thorns grow directly out of the green body of the plant, whilst on cacti they grow out of the areolae.

Care tips
Cacti are easy to care for. In order to get the plant to flower successfully every year, it’s best to give it more water in the summer and less in the winter. This is partly dependent on the species and the size of the plant.
  • Too much water is never good; it’s best to allow the soil to dry out before watering again.
  • A cactus appreciates a warm and sunny spot in the summer; it can even go outdoors on a patio or balcony. The position should be cooler and light in the winter. This rest period in the winter helps the cactus to flower in the spring.
  • If the plant needs to be repotted, use a fairly impoverished soil. Special cactus soil is available for this.
  • Place the plants in a safe place if there are children or pets around.

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