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Irish Times 31st May 2010

I got a call last week from Conor. He was doing this article on Grow Your Own and asked for some thoughts.

To the pieces I know that I have written that may refer to my quotes below.

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Grow your own kits cheaper than B and Q. I think it’s a logic alternate piece. There are many products I have reviewed that I purchased from b&q. This just happened to be one I thought was a bit not for me.

This is one post on which compost to buy. If of course one wishes to buy miracle grow compost, which comes with a feed in it, plant in your bedding plants – which have a feed in them and then purchase a liquid or granular feed…

The ultimate guide to chickens. There are hen houses out there that do cost more than others. But if I see one more person tell me that my hens know by instinct to not eat my lettuce, radishes and prize roses will eat weeds and that grow your own hens will save me money…. i’ll implode. €1500 plus is a lot of eggs.

And as a buy the way I also did a talk, quite recently, for one of GIY groups.

The pieces I point out above are just some. There are many others in there. You may have to search within the blog. My comments are in bold below but I do recommend you read the entire original Pricewatch article by Conor Pope.

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Pay Less For Your Greens

The Grow it Yourself movement means gardens everywhere are being taken over by fruit and veg – but growers take note – there’s no need to spend a fortune, writes CONOR POPE

IT IS A WARM sunny afternoon and Trevor Sargent, the former Green Party leader and recently resigned Minister of State with responsibility for Food, is covered in bees. Since he stepped down from his ministerial post in controversial circumstances earlier this year he has become an amateur bee-keeper and has proved so adept at managing his hive that the bees now need a second home.

He is in the process of relocating some of them when Pricewatch interrupts him to talk gardening.

Along with the bees, Sargent has a kitchen garden which has grown rapidly in the last two years. While it is hardly a surprise to learn of this ardent Green’s green fingers, the amount of fruit and vegetables he is cultivating on his small plot of land – no bigger than 7 by 13 metres – is quite remarkable.

This year he has potatoes, onions, leeks, shallots, garlic, beets, chard, kale, cabbage, four types of beans, lettuces, radishes, apples, blackcurrants, plums and a cornucopia of other fruits and vegetables growing in his patch. It has even been floodlit and laid with concrete paths to allow him to garden day and night and in good weather and bad.

For Sargent the motivation is not about saving money but about “appreciating what goes into making the food that appears on our supermarket shelves and understanding the difficulties our growers face. I don’t know how I’d measure the financial cost of the hours I spend in the garden in the middle of the night but it is cheaper than a psychotherapist and keeps me sane. I find the weeding relaxing and something of a therapy after the frustrations of politics,” he says.

Sargent is part of a growing army of Grow It Yourself (GIY) advocates in Ireland and as the movement grows so does the amount of cash we spend on herb, fruit and vegetable plants. It has increased by 40 per cent over the last eight years. The estimated spend on such plants in the gardening year between April 2009 and March 2010 was around €14 million. Spending on sheds, glasshouses growing tunnels and the like increased by 38 per cent to €58 million from 2007 to 2010.

Not wanting to be left out, Pricewatch hopped on the bandwagon earlier this year and we planted our own potatoes in a barrel. In keeping with a long-standing Irish tradition, the planting took place on St Patrick’s Day. Incidentally, this tradition first took root because in the 19th century, the Catholic Church distrusted potatoes because there was no mention of them in the Bible and they grew underground so were obviously closer to the devil. Not wanting to incur the wrath of God or the priest, the peasants sowed their spuds on holy days and sprinkled them with holy water, for all the good it did.

Our seed potatoes cost less then a fiver, the bag in which they are growing cost the same, the compost was another tenner which takes the total cost of bringing our crop to table at around €20. We could, in fact, buy considerably more potatoes for that sum than we’re likely to get, but to look at it from a purely money-saving perspective is to miss the point, says radio and TV presenter and ardent grow your own enthusiast, Ella McSweeney.

“You’re not going to save money in the first year but if you set yourself up properly it is conceivable that you will ultimately cut your costs by growing your own vegetables,” she says. She cautions newbies like us against rushing out and buying all the gear needed to set up a full-scale kitchen garden on day one.

“The more you spend the higher your expectations and the more likely you are to feel like you have failed if things don’t go right from the start.”

She advises people to start with the easy things – lettuce, radishes – and points out that the key is to grow the things that you like eating. The other key is the soil. “If you get your soil right then everything will happen but if you get it wrong then it will be a lot of frustration.” She says people can source well-rotted manure from farms and stables for free or half nothing.

All might not be rosy in the GIY garden, however. Peter Donegan has a landscaping business in north Co Dublin and writes an engaging blog on all things gardening. While he is 100 per cent supportive of people who decide to grow their own vegetables, he expresses grave concern at the rampant commercialisation of the sector and wonders why many of the GIY advocates, those with the loudest voices, are not warning people against spending big money on fertilisers and kits which are entirely unnecessary and ridiculously overpriced.

He cites the example of a grow your own kit which sells in B&Q for €6.99. “For that you get three small pots, three handfuls of compost and a couple of seeds. Given the fact that a couple of handfuls of compost cost virtually nothing – five cent tops – and you can buy 1,000 seeds for no more than €4 and use jam jars as pots, the total cost of a DIY kit could be no more than 10 cent.”

Donegan points out that there are scores of companies trying to cash in on the grow your own movement by selling bags of supposedly enriched fertiliser at sky-high prices, chicken runs for €1,500 and glass houses for even more again.

“Gardening as I knew it when I was five years old was compost-less. It was a handful of muck, sieved and at the back of it all just good craic. But now there is so much claptrap paraphernalia out there now that people are being conned into buying and no-one seems to be shouting stop.”

While McSweeney agrees that we don’t need to be spending much on getting off the ground, she does look beyond the finances and says growing your own gives you “an enormous amount of respect for what you buy in the shops and it gives you a huge insight into what it takes to grow crops. You learn all the time and it is possibly the most satisfying thing of all.”

For his part, Sargent is critical of the “purist approach” supermarkets adopt to vegetables. “Their insistence on vegetables conforming to a standard size for example leads to a huge amount of waste.” He also bemoans the fact that a lot of the stuff cannot be bought from Irish growers in Irish shops. Only 15 per cent of the onions sold in Ireland are actually grown here so if you want to be sure of eating Irish onions your best bet is to grow them.

A lot of vegetables which can and are grown in Ireland never make it on to supermarket shelves because the big retailers and wholesalers prefer to deal with international suppliers who can guarantee a constant year-round flow of information so while scallions grow handily enough in Ireland, the big boys prefer to ship it in from Mexico where they are produced for a pittance by workers paid peanuts. “Wholesalers would have to shift their gaze to smaller Irish producers,” says Sargent. “But they seem reluctant to do that but it is what is going to have to happen at some point if we are ultimately to have food security.”

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Water Conservation

Today I discovered some of plant collection had been, put simply, close on fried. It’s rare for me to complain about the weather…. but here’s my situation.

For gardens that are new, or newly planted [Hi Julie and Terry 😉 ],for best results and knowing that the hose must be used…. try water at night time. It ensures the plant isn’t competing with the sun for water intake and therefore gets the maximum return from the watering and your time in doing so. Also one may find the water, combined with the days sun can act like a magnifying glass of sorts and cook the leaves slightly.

When these water charges do come in – the county councils will most likely up the price of those water butts too. My advice get one what you can sooner.

If however it is newly selected areas of planting, you may find that the water butts are an option to be considered.

As always you can rss the podcasts via iTunes or direct via audioboo or you subscribe to the blog and listen to them right here.

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April In The Garden

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You’d know from the ‘March in the Garden’ post that I had just sown my seeds. Well germinated at this stage, the above photograph shows the results after just after 2 weeks. Growth is starting, slowly but surely and it seems to me we’re going to be on for a cracker of a season!

I’d like to try to try not to write about just growing your own… but when the garden centres now have entire sections dedicated to what I can only describe as a phenomenon, it might just prove a little more difficult than expected. That said, this isn’t your average ‘get out and rake your lawns’ type of a piece, it is was I will be doing this month.

Since last month, mainly due to doing the grow your own course I have now sown or started growing: seed potatoes, onion sets, lettuce, chives, parsley, coriander, spinach, basil, mustard, strawberries… the list is literally endless and in a few weeks I will be giving the stuff away at a rate of knots. The gig here is only to sow in small amounts and little by little. I don’t want to farm the land. And I need to ensure that I continue to enjoy what I have always done…. without it becoming laborious. I have but a wee 6′ x 4′ aged old glasshouse.

To other garden stuff. The weather has been tough and very unpredictable. As I write we had snow yesterday, 30th March. But there are more buds on the trees and some are literally on the verge of bursting.

The daffodils are also in bloom, not all, which is good as it means I’ll have flowers n the window for the first time this year and for a longer duration.

The lawn… don’t get me started. I’ve cut mine once this year. And that’ll be it until that drop of rain stops falling and temperatures start to rise to a consistent 12-14 Celsius. That said, I have been laying rolled lawns this year. Great from a clients and my perspective because there is no watering at all – where normally in ‘good’ weather the high temperatures and lack of water would cause shrinkage and watering would be recommended only at night time.

Outside of that all of the stuff I planted last year is doing great. The rhubarb in particular has just rocketed.

The hens are also back laying again after their winter sabbatical… which is great for baking. Yummy! I’m pretty much getting four eggs a day now. Outside of that there were some other creatures spotted recently around there… A good clean out was given, some bait was put down and the jack russell was let loose… I think this one [above] looks happier 🙂

The only thing I would suggest you do not forget is tree planting season. The leaves are pretty much at bud burst point. And it is around this time that the race is on to get the final bit of the bare root and root balled chores complete. Thinking of buying a tree [?] at its best and best value… do so now.

Did I miss out on anything…. ? Leave a comment and let me know. That’s more than enough to keep you going for the bank holiday weekend 😉 I leave you with this to ponder on….

What d’you think one would do with it….?  🙂

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The Grow Your Own Gardening Class

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It was a weekend ago that I decided to do the grow your own gardening course. And whilst the weather turned good I had to wait ’til now to do my synopsis of it.

How did it go…?

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The attendees in this case were 75% [approximate] apartment dwellers/ balcony owners. the other 25% only wished to garden that same amount of space [unless Nick came up with a great idea 😉 ]. Of course, if everyone had allotments/ waned to garden a larger space – parsley *and parsnip would have been covered. In this case a logic decision to skip most of the root crops was taken…. think rotovator and balcony!

I covered all that I intended and felt was needed from sowing seeds – what, which and why to watering. Onto potatoes, onions, sets growing in window boxes and to plants in a small space such as herbs and the pruning, growing and selecting of so that they could be kept there. I could beat on but Louise really does summise it very well.

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From an alternate perspective. Did the €60 cover charge multiplied by 7 people make it worth my while to do so. No. Not on your nelly. The reason why? We did demonstrations and all of the products [one each of everything] used were taken away. I knew to make money, how I should do it and a comment on the garden blog confirms that.  That and the twitter message. No offence Geoff mate 😉

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Try it yourself. Go into a garden centre, pick up some seed potatoes, onion sets, 2/3 window boxes, some pots, compost and seeds and see how much it costs…. growing your own can be cheap… when you know how 😉 If I’m to talk however on garden design with zero overheads…. Ye know yourself. Moving on….

The flip side of that however is something very different. Did I enjoy it ? More than you realise. I really am so pleased that such a nice group of people collated so I could talk about something  I love so much.

I know that doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t even cover the time spent baking and collecting the products we did use. And yes if I wish to do it again and again I need to refine. But then I knew that already. It was always to be a trial. A way of noting and timing. Perfecting one could say. Perfecting for those those who do attend.

Now I’m just wondering if there’s another 9 or 10 people who’d be interested…. While I brew on that… I’ll go water my own seeds.

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note: it was Jason’s idea that I did this in the first place. Thanks mate. I also borrowed some of his images for this post.

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straw grass…?

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I get loads of these…. some one liners…. some emails. Some without pictures But I try my best and quite enjoy answering them being honest 🙂

Email in on Saturday from Melanie. 😉

Hi Peter,

Thanks for this, myself and Alex are full of enthusiasm for the garden at the moment but neither of us have much of a clue 😉
Alex was out doing a bit of a tidy up this morning and he noticed that we have climbers planted around our wall (they were planted just before we bought the house so no idea what they are), and now there seems to be loads of what looks like straw around the bottom of them all. We’ve no idea where it’s come from, and are a bit worried it might be a sign of mice. I don’t know if you can shed any light on it, but I thought I’d run it by you in case you’ve seen it before. I’ve attached 2 photos.
Thanks,

I responded with the following via twitter [it was saturday…. i was watching Ireland get beat by Scotland at rugby. It was easier 😉 ]
I gave the following answers in 2 messages of less than 140 charachters:

hmmm. the plant is pyracantha. produces fruits and little white flowers – really cool and great for nature but thorny 🙂

the dead grass is just that. may have been sprayed a while ago…. or not. just mow over it. not straw. all looks healthy

Problem solved.

As I said when asked about watering seeds…. maybe a simple answer to someone with horticultural qualification….? but then you probably don’t read this blog 😉

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Other comments:

  • Yes you should no matter how silly ! 🙂
  • maybe do a monthly online publication on issuu
  • You should use them for a column in a magazine / newspaper, like a gardening problem page.
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