Clearing out

It’s that time of year again, many crops have yielded their bounty and are beginning to fade. Vegetable beds need to be cleared out for winter, seeds need to be gathered, annuals need to be composted and perennials need to be tidied up. It is still too early to cut back larger deciduous trees and shrubs, but there is a lot to be done to prepare the garden for the dark days and frosty nights.


This weekend I have cleared out my runner beans. They have cropped amazingly this year, we have had beans with every meal for months. Now only a few coarse pods are left and it’s time to take them out. The ‘Early Onward’ peas are also at an end. I did sow a late crop just to see how they would perform, they have blossom now but it may be too late from them to produce pods. The last of the potatoes are dug, I have left them in the ground as they hold better than if I dig them all up together, but I need to get them out now before the slugs attack them. I only sow early potatoes to avoid blight, so these potatoes will need to be eaten as they are not suitable for storage. It is wonderful to have the great taste of new potatoes up to October.


The courgettes are still producing, but fruits are smaller now. We had a night of frost during the week, I covered them with fleece and they survived, but it’s now only a matter of time until they succumb. The tomatoes are still struggling on, there has been enough sun between the showers to ripen them, but they do not have ‘sun-kissed’ taste that they achieve some summers.


I have mulched the rhubarb with home-made compost to give it protection and enrichment over the cold spell. I now grow rhubarb in two large bins as it was too vigorous in the ground and it swamped all around it. It seems happy as it has great depth of soil and it provides plenty of rhubarb for eating. Next job is to tidy up the strawberries. The older plants need to have their withered leaves removed and new runners need to be separated from parent plants. This year I have made a new strawberry bed, so I am discarding many of the older plants as they deteriorate after their third season.


Into the space left by the potatoes I have planted out chard and beetroot plants that have been grown from seed. They should survive until the new year. I have planted garlic and some red onions too. The rest of the vegetable beds will lie dormant for the winter. Instead of planting green manure I usually give the empty spaces a generous layer of home-made compost and cover them with cardboard (begged from the supermarket). A thin layer of clay over the cardboard will keep it in place and it will rot down over the winter.





An abundance of courgettes

Each growing year is different for vegetables, the combination of weather conditions affects the patterns of growth and maturity. This year has been good for courgettes (zucchini) due to the dry sunny weather at the start of their growth, and the wet conditions over the summer months, as they require a lot of water while they’re producing.  A single plant can produce tens of fruits in its lifetime and I find that three or four plants can keep us supplied for the summer.

Seeds germinate easily but the early weeks can be critical. In the Irish climate plants need to be germinated and grown under cover and cannot be put outside until the end of May or even early June, by which time they can be quite large and demanding. Any hint of frost and they melt away. Slugs love the tender baby leaves also and I have lost many plants that I planted out into the vegetable bed too soon, at which point it can be too late to grow new plants from seed. So each year it’s a delicate balance.

I like to pick courgettes when they are quite small and the flavour is best. If I am going away for a few days I pick all good sized fruits before I go as I could have large tough marrows when I return. They do not freeze well, they defrost as a flavourless soggy offering. If I have to freeze them I cook them first and have them mixed with onions and tomatoes so that they can go straight into a casserole or other dish.

The baby courgettes are lovely in salads sliced raw. They are also great baked in the oven, divide them lengthways and place them cut side down on the baking tray. Courgette fritters are nice, made in a flour, milk and egg batter. One of my best loved recipes is a courgette cake. I first sampled this in one of my favourite places in London, the Museum of Garden History in Lambeth ( ), when on a visit to their amazing museum and walled knot garden. I make it to the recipe for carrot cake and put lemon drizzle on top. I have discovered that it’s best to use a small to medium courgette as too much grated courgette gives a soggy result. The cake is fresh and light and for me encapsulates the taste of summer.

Bounty for birds

Life can be hard for our birds, but gardeners can really make a difference to their chances of survival. Even if we do not provide food specifically marketed for them our gardens can provide all they need for most of the year. Exceptions are hard frosty winters where food is scarce and water is frozen.

As well as being so attractive to watch, our birds perform a very useful service, helping us with harmful insects and slugs. It must be said that our birds are not too keen on slugs and much prefer the goodies in the hanging feeders, and I can’t say I blame them.

This late summer early autumn time provides a bounty for them. Berries are prolific on Pyracantha and Hawthorn. Roses have plentiful hips and Rosa Rogusa produces a large red berry beloved of blackbirds. Holly berries never make it as far as Christmas. Our Sambucus (Elderflower ‘Black Lace’) has handsome clusters of black berries and our Mountain Ash (Sorbus Commixta) has sprays of deep orange berries which attract thrushes and blackbirds. The early morning is the best time to see the birds in full foraging mode, the whole tree shakes as they pry loose the ripe berries. They do not seem to bother with the fallen berries which they have shaken loose, but maybe when times get hard they will take these up as well. The number of self seeded Hawthorns and Mountain Ashes suggests that at least some berries escape them and make their own way in the world.


Having feasted on raspberries, strawberries and currants in summer they now turn their attention to the ripening apples, pears and damsons. It is a bit annoying when they only take a few pecks from an apple and move on to try another. I sometimes chop up windfall apples for them, or when the winter gets severe I remove the damaged parts of stored apples and chop up the rest for them. When stored fruits are depleted and if the weather is harsh we give them chopped up grapes.


Autumn equinox

Today is the autumn equinox, the natural end to summer and the beginning of the shorter days. Traditionally an unsettled time of gales and mixed weather, it is a good time to review the gardening year.

2017 in Ireland was characterised by a dry and sunny spring in April and May after a very mild winter with hardly any frost. This resulted in an early season, and some annuals even survived the winter. The slugs and snails also survived the winter, with only too obvious results. While continental Europe baked in over 40 degrees Celsius summer temperatures we got the corresponding low pressure with rain and winds. August and September have been particularly wet.

The wonderful thing about gardening is, that no matter what the weather, some plants are going to enjoy the conditions. So, peas, beans, courgettes and lettuce were happy and abundant, while tomatoes were so-so, they got warm sunny conditions early on, but rain and low light meant that they are slow to ripen and the taste is not as sweet as it can be. First early potatoes (Sharpe’s Express and Red Duke of York) were floury and dry, and of excellent flavour, as they benefitted from the early warm conditions. Early fruits did well, strawberries, raspberries, red, white and black currants and gooseberries all gave big crops. Winds wiped out the pears as the immature fruits were knocked to the ground, but apples are good, they held on and are now ready to harvest.

Last year was great for roses, they were long lasting and trouble free, but this year the first flush of blooms was fine, but as the summer went on they got saturated and blown about. The sweet peas started out well but got destroyed in August. All tall plants have got a hammering and the Rudbeckias, usually the mainstay of autumn colour, have been shredded.

Now is the time to think of next spring and plant bulbs to bring a bit of joy in the cold early year when there is little else to gladden the heart.

Crab Apple Jelly

The ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is upon us. Autumn has come quite early this year as August and early September have been so wet. I am happy to see the crab apples in fruit again, after last year’s die back and loss of fruit I thought the tree was terminally ill. However, nature has cured the problem and this year we had great blossom and great fruit.

The winds of early September brought down many of the fruits so I decided to pick the ripest of the apples to make jelly. To my mind they were not quite ripe, but they get destroyed when they fall and land on the gravel, so I’ve taken off a first crop, leaving the more unripe ones for later.

The variety is ‘Gorgeous’ and it produces lovely red or red and yellow fruits, just like miniature eating apples. They are very prolific and even though the birds feast on them, there is plenty for everyone. As the taste is quite tart the jelly needs a good bit of sugar, but I try to keep it to a minimum, I use the proportion of three parts sugar to four parts fruit. The resulting jelly is still quite sharp, but very tasty. It has a lovely rich red colour, clear and fresh.

I hope to get a second harvest in the next two to three weeks. The pots make a nice present for friends and family later in the year.

An apple a day

The great delights of September are the fruiting trees: apples, pears, damsons and figs. In our cold midlands climate apples and damsons do best, so every year gives a good crop. Other fruits are trickier, but any crop is so welcome.

In our small garden we have managed to squeeze in three apple trees, two crab apples, and one each of pear, plum, damson and fig. From the beginning we knew that we would have to keep the trees small, we bought specimens grown on small rootstock and we prune every year, in summer for new growth and in winter for shape. One apple and one crab apple are trained as cordons to a wooden frame, and they crop better than the free-standing trees.

Our apples are Red Windsor, Gala and Cox’s, and the crab apples are Coralburst and Gorgeous. Originally the apples were planted on the other side of the garden, but the straying football from next door caused a lot of damage to branches and fruit so we decided to move them. They are much happier on the west side of the garden, they get more sun during the day and the delicate blossom in spring is spared the damaging early morning sun.

The apples store well when they are carefully picked and placed in single layers in baskets or boxes. The fallen or damaged ones are used first and we only store the perfect ones.

Last year we had a major problem with the crab apple Gorgeous, both leaves and fruits got scabby and fell off so we had no crab apple jelly. Luckily this year they have recovered and the tree is laden with fruit. The intense red berries give a beautiful deep red colour to the jelly. The blossom on Coralburst is delicate and beautiful, but the fruits are tiny and cannot be used.

The fig tree, Brown Turkey, grows quite well outdoors in our cold and wet weather but the fruits are few. It is grown against the palisade on the west side of the garden with its roots confined by concrete bricks. We get lots of immature fruits, but only a few have time to grow and ripen before the weather gets too cold. Our friend, who lives in Cork, has a mature fig taller than his two storey barn and he gets hundreds of figs each year.

Our pear tree is sensitive to the weather conditions and we can never be sure of a crop. Last year it excelled itself and we got 50 or 60 pears. This year we’ve had good blossom and good setting of fruit, but the strong winds during the summer knocked all the fruits down except for one lone pear.

The plum and damson are babies, both had blossom this year, but only the damson has fruits, which are not yet ripe. I hope we will have a long and happy future with both.


A poor year for tomatoes

Growing tomatoes outdoors in the Irish climate is always a challenge: late frosts, wet summers or autumns, winds, low light levels, or worst of all, blight. So why do we take our chances with them every year? I suppose because the flavour is so outstanding, and most years we can get some crop despite all the obstacles.

Of course growing them under cover in a greenhouse or poly tunnel is the ideal, but that is not an option for many of us. Some years I have kept a few plants indoors in our sunny kitchen, but generally the overhead light levels are too low to produce a really good crop, the plants remain soft and tender, and they take up a lot of space as they grow celingwards. I have tried bush varieties and those suitable for hanging baskets, but generally I have found the fruits are not as plentiful nor as full of flavour. One bush variety called Totem gave large red tasty fruits, but I have been unable to get seeds in the last few years.

Germination and early growth all takes place on sunny window sills, and plants have grown to a fairly large size by the time they can be put outside. They also need to be acclimatized, a pampered delicate plant can get quite a shock when introduced to the outside world. Winds in May can be treacherous, shredding leaves and blowing blossom away.

In 2017 we have had a sunny and warm April and May and tomato plants came on well, growing sturdily and setting blossom. By the time they were put out in sheltered parts of the garden many had tiny fruits. The early starters have fared best in the wind and rain of July and August. The seeds of Sungold, one of my favourite tomatoes, a rich yellow colour with great flavour, were slow to germinate this year and the blossom was late coming on. By the time the rainy days of August hit, the growth slowed down and many have not formed fruit yet.

However, if we get a good September the crop may yet be saved as the plants are still strong and healthy. The rain also affects the flavour, and the fruits lack the intensity and sweetness of those ripened in sunshine. The most disappointing year for tomatoes was 2012, when it rained for the whole summer and the fruits never ripened. Only three plants living in the kitchen got ripe fruit. I had to search for recipes of green tomato chutney, green tomato risotto etc. to make the most of the unripened harvest.