An Autumn Ground Preparation Investigation!
Tommy O'Neill, better known as Fair City's Detective Deegan, called to Fota this week,but with a rather different line of inquiry! He has recently bought 8 acres of land in Wexford and his aim is to turn this ground into a luscious landscape that will not only sustain himself, but will also nurture natural habitats, biodiversity and eventually become a healing haven for those that need it.
Like anyone facing a blank 8 acre canvas, Tommy has many questions about where to start, so my advice as always, is to start small. In my opinion, creating a garden to feed himself is a vital first step in fuelling this long term project. Wanting to grow food but yet facing fields or a patch of weeds or grass can be quiet daunting at any time of year but especially in the Spring, when there are so many other jobs to do and the earth is waking up and growth bursts happening overnight. Autumn is actually a good time for planning next year's growing ground. If you are planning on cultivating a large area, a green manure as described in my programme 10 blog is probably the best option.
However, if you are planning a small plot or a bed system, my advice would be to invest in a large piece of ground cover such as mypex or black plastic. You could also use heavy brown cardboard, seaweed, layers of newspapers or old carpets etc. Firstly strim the area that you intend to cultivate next year, knocking off all the bulky top growth. Leave this on the ground to rot down and feed the soil. Remove any weeds that are about to drop seed. If you have access to farm yard manure, you could also throw some on. Then all you have to do is cover this area with ground cover and sit back and let nature do it's work. Plenty of heavy weights are needed to keep your ground cover secure from the wild winds of winter. The cover will inhibit light and therefore growth and when you pull back this cover next Spring, you will find this area much easier to work than ground left to it's own devices. It would be a lie to say that you are then good to grow but you will have definitely lessened some of the back breaking work. The grass will have died back and growth of perennial weeds will be stunted. Because of their pernicious roots, docks and nettles will make every attempt to grow and their leaves will have that luminous yellow look, but you will find that these will be a lot easier remove than if left uncovered. When Spring arrives and the weather is suitable, dig out these perennial roots, fork and rake over your soil and voilá, you and hopefully Tommy will be ready to greet the new growing season.
Well the last day of the show and thankfully the weather gods behaved. Crowds of gardening fanatics from all over Ireland flocked to our plots, with oodles of seasonal stories and questions. It was the perfect day to harvest my onions as there were plenty of willing hands on deck. Due to the mixed bag growing season, the leaves had not yet died back but these onions were definitely mature and destined for the table. I didn't want to risk a last minute rot or mould setting in! You could try to accelerate ripening by pulling onion bulbs slightly to break the roots and then pull them completely about 2 weeks later.
These Fota onions were dispersed through the crowds for later tastings but if you have your own at home, now is the time for storing them. Firstly you need to ensure the bulbs are completely dry, so make sure to pull them on a sunny day. Remove excess soil from around the roots but leave the skins and the stalks in tact. In the ideal world, one could leave them outside on their bed to dry but dreams, reality! I advise you to set up a system using chicken wire or an old bed frame in an open shed and lay your onions in a single layer untouching as this allows for air circulation but will keep the rain off.
Once fully dry, they can be tied in bunches and hung in a frost free, dry shed to keep you going throughout the winter until next March. Only store onions that are in perfect condition. I was never good at hair braiding, so I'm not much better at plaiting onions. Instead, I use a piece of baling twine about 90cm long and tie my onions onto this using their dried stalks. These strings work great and the onions are really easy to pull off. Like any stored vegetables, regular checking is vital and make sure to remove those that look like they are beginning to rot.
Putting the Beds to Bed
Once the onion job was done and dusted, the work had not finished. It was time to put the onion bed to bed for the winter. As mentioned before, leaving bare soil exposed to the elements to erode makes bad gardening sense and has no place in an organic system. We must do everything in our power to mind our precious soil, 'an ithir beo', and to enrich it as opposed to degrade it. Instead of sowing a green manure in this bed, I decided to give it a winter cover. This simply meant forking in some farm yard manure into the soil. Use compost or seaweed if this is more accessible. I then covered the bed with mypex and am happy in the knowledge that the earthworms and the soil are being nurtured as I hibernate and hatch my garden plans for next year. You could also use other mulches like layers of cardboard, newspaper or straw. These are organic mulches and sources of carbon and will break down into the soil over the winter. Remove any chunky remains next Spring and you'll be ready for action. Black plastic and mypex can be stored for use again next year.
Herbs for the Winter
Time flies when you are having fun or once you get stuck into a garden. I can't belive another growing season is nearing an end. Growth has slowed down, the days are closing in and I'm beginning to think of ways to prolong my garden fresh supplies and keeping winter flus at bay. Herbs are defintiely one answer and it's no surprise that some of the best herbs for warding off sore throats and colds are winter hardy. Thyme, rosemary and sage are three of those and even though all will grow outside over winter, it's no harm potting up a few to grow inside or at your back door for an easy accessible living pharmacy. Plant small plants into a container of your choice, recycled, upcylced or bought new and brew up the fresh pickings. Make your own cough syrups or simply boil, strain and serve with a dollop of honey to keep your vocals right over the winter.
These herbs also work great in bouquet garni and stuffings but if you are looking to enjoy some parsley sauce in December, your'e going to have pot up some parsley to bring inside. It's not best advised to move plants when they are still growing, but if you some fresh parsely pickings in the depths of winter, you may need to break a few rules. If you have a polytunnel, you could try moving established parsley plants there or if you have a conservatory or large window sills, pot up a plant and bring inside. The most important part is to to dig up a good parsley clump, taking lots of soil and ensuring the root ball is well covered. Transfer into an ample sized container and water in to settle the roots. Growth obviously slows down over the winter but it is possible to have your own fresh parsley for sauces and touching up tapa's all year round.
So that's all from us folk down in FOTA. I hope I have inspired you at least a little in ways to Create Your Garden and Eat It!