Even Evelyn's Blueberries get the Blues!
As an avid gardener and Irish girl, the weather is all important! As a nation, we are addicted to talking about it, so you can only imagine my excitement when I heard Evelyn Cusack was on her way down to FOTA. Of course, I was primed with predictable questions, all based on long range weather forecasts, only to be told by Evelyn, that none such exists and if any forecaster claims they can predict a whole season of weather or worse again tries to sell you a long range forecast, close your ears and put your credit card back in your purse, as these forecasts have no scientific backing. We are just going to have to make do with the 5 - 10 day forecasts and a few prayers to the weather gods!
Apart from the weather, Evelyn and myself had lots to talk about. Being a fellow Laois woman, she is well acclimatised to the bogs and hills of the midlands and the wild berries they have to offer. It was a relation of the wild bilberry or fraoghan that brought her into my plot this week as Evelyn has been trying to grow blueberries in her garden, but to no avail! I understand why everyone would want to grow blueberries as they are the fruit on all the health lists at the moment, being deemed a vitamin bursting super food. But if you buy blueberries, you will know how expensive they are and how far they may have travelled to get here. In fact, for the cost of two or three small trays of blueberries, you can buy an entire plant, which if given the right conditions should continue to fruit year after year. The fruits of the cultivated blueberry are similar in appearance and taste to the wild fruit but much bigger and usually sweeter.
The most important thing to know about blueberry plants is that like their wild cousins they like peaty soil, about pH5, which in other words is acid soil or to use the fancy horticultural term, ericaceous soil. Thanks to Evelyn's soil sample and Peters pH test, we soon deemed that Evelyn's soil was far too alkaline for blueberries. Most fruit and vegetables grow best in neutral to alkaline soil, but blueberries are one of the few that favour acid conditions, which we usually assoicate with ornamentals such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camelia’s. So if you want to grow blueberries, do so in a large container or create a special bed in your garden to fill with ericaceous compost which can be got in any garden centre. I've seen clever idea’s of raised beds built with turf, which of course is pure peat straight from the bog. Creating an acid bed in your garden gives the advantage that plants can be grown in the open ground and this is the best way to grow them because they can root out properly and take up the nutrients and water they need.
Blueberries are available in pots and can be planted all year round, but the traditional, and best planting time is the autumn when the leaves have fallen. Space your plants about one metre or more apart. Although the crop likes moist soil and must have moisture through the summer months, choose a spot that is not prone to waterlogging in the winter. Heavy mulches of acidic material, such as pine or spruce needles can help to acidify the soil and will help suppress weeds and retain moisture also.
Frank's Seed Saving Tips
When you start growing your own produce and find that you even have a surplus, it makes sense to save some seeds to grow on, rather than buying new seeds each year. Hard to envision, but there once was a time when packaged commercial seeds were scarce, and next year's garden depended solely on successfully harvesting seeds from this year's crops. Even though today's seed racks and catalogues are ubiquitous, there are still plenty of compelling reasons for seed saving: it allows you to preserve scarce heirloom varieties that are being dropped by seed merchants due to their irregular appearance and unprofitable nature; it increases your self-sufficiency; it can save you money and it allows plants to adapt to the local climate and soil conditions in Ireland and particularly in your garden.
Thankfully, there's a few committed organisations and people in Ireland who realise the importance of maintaining our Irish seed heritage and keeping alive and sharing the forgotten skill of seedsaving. One such person is Frank Bouchier, former head gardener with ISSA (Irish Seedsavers Association), www.irishseedsavers.ie ,and he dropped by FOTA to give me a few tips on the do's and don'ts of saving my own seed.
Frank is such a fountain of fascinating knowledge that I would need a week to absorb it all. His first words of wisdom were to only gather seeds from open-pollinated plants, not hybrids. Open-pollinated varieties are not the product of forced breeding and their seeds will carry on the qualities of the parents, or "breed true" as the jargon goes. Don't try and save seeds from F1 or hybrid varieties.
As a beginner to the whole seed saving business, Frank advised me to start simple and flowers such as calendula and nasturtiums are really good plants to begin with. Both are great companion plants, edible and famous self-seeders but by collecting their seed you can prevent them from being invasive and instead, spread these beautiful beneficial flowers around your own and your friends gardens. For both flowers, when you see flower heads that have turned brown and dried, you have now found the seed. Remove these when the plant is ready to release them (before wind, rain or garden critters do it for you), which is usually the Autumn. Once you collect seeds, ensure they are completely dry by spreading them out on a paper plate or a tray lined with newspaper. When completely dry, put them in a paper envelope. Label the envelope with pertinent information, including seed type and harvest date. Store the envelope in a cool, dark and dry closet or cupboard. Never store seeds in plastic, as the seeds can't breathe and may develop mould. Other flowers worth saving seeds from are sunflowers, lupins, poppies and sweet pea's.
Vegetables tend to be slightly trickier, but it's just a matter of getting to know the individual seed bearing routine of each family of plants. I asked Frank to show me the simple ones. Potatoes are pretty basic as they are grown on from this years tubers. So too is garlic, as you simply need to replant cloves. One clove will become a head of garlic with 8-12 cloves next year. Peas and beans are also good starters and you just need to leave a few ripen on the plant and turn brown. Remove from the plant and leave somewhere dry and then put in an airtight container until next spring. Onions, leeks and roots need a tad more attention as they are biennials, thus meaing they produce seed in the second year but with Frank’s tips, I feel that I've plenty to start with for this season.
From all of Frank’s tips, a few points rang clear, namely regarding ‘SELECTION’, i.e, only save seed from healthy, happy, vigourous plants and the most important thing is to dry out the seeds thoroughly before storing to prevent them becoming damp and spoiling.
I’m looking forward to the new challenge of seed saving and I suppose like anything, there will be faliures, problems and disappointments, but these will only make my successes taste that much sweeter!
On Friday 12th August, we opened our gardens to the public and despite the rain, gardening enthusiasts from around Ireland turned out in their droves. I suppose us gardener’s are hardy types and are only too delighted to talk about the highs, lows, trials and tribulations of the growing season, even in the downpours of rain. I was delighted to meet people of all ages and gardening experience to hear how their raised beds were behaving. With lots of little helping hands, I harvested the lazy bed and now those heritage potatoes are being enjoyed or saved for seed around the country.
Even though it was a bit early, I planted overwintering garlic to follow on my spuds, thus sticking with my BASL rotation. In my experience, Autumn sown garlic gives the best results and you can sow it right up until early November. Make sure to use good quality bulbs and avoid trying to plant supermarket garlic as it is more than likely from Spain and unsuited to our conditions or sprayed with a germination inhibitor. Cloves should be planted about 10 cm deep and leave ample spacing each way in the rows, approx 20cm should allow for good sized bulbs to be harvested next July. If your soil is very heavy, plant in a raised bed and you could try planting through ground fabric for that added bit of winter protection.
I'll be looking at putting those important beds to bed and a well know detective drops by to carry out an investigation on autumn ground preparation so as to make life easier next Spring.