On Ducks and an ark and an ancient rime…

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Mrs. Dirtdigger, all wrapped up against the elements

It began earlier than usual and set in much sooner than expected. And as though to mirror its incongruous beginnings winter 2017-18 now seems set to linger longer than any other winter in living memory, obstinately determined in maintaining its mortiferous grip on everything and in so doing completely obliterate early spring of 2018.
It has been a long and dreary six month winter, and though today we have bright sunshine for the first time in weeks, grass temperatures at dawn this morning were still as low as minus 6 Celsius. Everything is saturated, sodden, barren and frozen; and once again the farming community on this cold, damp outpost on Europe’s western fringe has had to ask neighbouring countries for large supplies of animal fodder, as our own national pastures remain bare and untrafficable to all livestock.
It is generally accepted across continental Europe that we here in Ireland have some of the best grazing pastures in the northern hemisphere. This is literally the foundation to one of our biggest national industries, our agri-food sector. There is nothing, and we mean nothing remotely comparable to a fine spring or summer’s day stroll through any area of the Golden Vale, or a walk through the lush green summer swathes the whole length of the river Shannon’s wide banks. There is nothing anywhere in the world to compare with the heady, hazy and intoxicatingly long lazy summers days spent in the Irish countryside. But, when Mother Nature rebels everybody knows about it; and this winter she has certainly rebelled. Winter had set in by mid November. Then with a cooler than average December quickly followed by a colder and duller than average January, and the envoi of a very cold February we had hoped that March would at last herald the long winter’s end.
We were wrong. March turned out to be the coldest March on record, with record snowfalls, and ice days recorded for the first time in the month of March since records began. We’ve had national warnings and weather advisories and red and orange and yellow flags and enforced stay at home days and Facebook fun and frenzy and Brennan’s Bread and snowmen on St Patrick’s Day and enough memories from this one single month to provide material for a whole series of Reeling in the Years. 2018, The year of big white Emma on Patrick’s Day will live long in the national psyche, and in years to come many’s a pint will be stood and shared over cool, cool reminiscences: the year we had to trudge through 6 feet of snow (acceptable exaggerations allowed) to get home from work; the year we climbed over the frozen gates to feed the starving ducks and swans; the year the floods were so bad that the ducks actually began wading in the ponds on our allotment; the year the shops ran out of bread; the year the grass didn’t grow till at least???? And here we are, still awaiting reasonable prospect of some early spring-like weather this 5th day of April. We may, as some say, live in hope, but most gardeners actually garden in faith, their faith being in the fact that if they persevere they will eventually reap some sort of reward. National media outlets may be reporting the unfolding catastrophe now facing our farmers and food growers as a result of the extended bad weather, but, we here on monsterinthecorner have no need as yet to paint the adverse winter weather whammy in the dire and calamitous terms suddenly being ascribed to the situation. April, in our experience, always comes up trumps; sometimes it snows, sometimes it shines; and though it can be said that winter can often drag its heels all the way to many weathered March, the most that must reasonably be said of a cool April is that we’re having a cool spring. The winter was long, and cold, and wet, and that was then and this, being April, is spring! The temperatures will normalize; and the watery chaos will abate. We’ve kept look out for an ark, and a raven, or a dove but these must have settled elsewhere. The waters above will separate and dry up and we’ll not have so much water below. Dry land will show itself once more; and every gardener and Plantsman/woman shall renew their personal covenant with their garden and the earth therein. And we’ll plough our furrows and dig our drills; and we’ll sow our seeds once again, and to ensure success we’ll actually then water them in. It’s all about perspective, and with the advent of one single warm day, we’ll cast off the weight of winter memory.
The monster’s measure is saturated and has been totally flooded for weeks on end. The clay is heavier than Uranium, and though the beds’ boards are sodden through and through they have not as yet begun to shrink: No dead Albatrosses with the monster.

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Reflection of a reflection…recycled coffee cups filled with germinating summer potential

With the exception of the garlic (in situ since last Halloween), and the onion sets we grounded during a brief respite in early March, the monster’s visage looks bare and forlorn, the only saving grace being that the Dutch Masters are beaming bright yellow. We’ve put nothing else to ground as yet, and even the tomato, pepper, zinnia and marigold seeds sown and subsequently potted-on now run the risk of stilting and becoming leggy due to the persistent low light levels. But what plans we have, and because we’ve had little else to do we’ve been planning. Recycling, and planning, and oh! What plans we have…

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Dutch Masters

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Moneymaker Tomato seedlings On The Go!

 

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International Greenfingers Day

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At last, something besides the weather to post about…

Once again we head towards early April, and it has to be, just has to be so much better that the year to date

Saturday April 7th will once again see us celebrate International Greenfingers Day. 

International Greenfingers Day! is that day each spring when we set to celebrate the potential that the new growing season and year presents.  It is a day to celebrate gardeners in their gardens, a day to plant up some pots and trays, or plant up a raised bed or drill on your plot.  It’s a day to take some seed sowing selfies as a record and have  something to look back on in late summer and autumn.  It is also that day when we get to enthuse and encourage other people to do likewise and sow something from seed or set, and hopefully introduce them to, and inspire them with all of the benefits of growing something for themselves.  It is a day for giving someone a gift of some seed, and helping them to get their hands a little grubby: a packet of seed, a small pot or tub with compost, a can of water and some labels.  The rest is in care and patience.

So, why not?  Gift the gardener in your life with some seed if for no other reason than for the day that’s in it, and watch the enjoyment as they get their hands dirty…

International Greenfingers Day! This is what it’s all about

 

Spring, interrupted…

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5 days on, and still plenty of lying snow around the monster’s perimeter

It has been a thoroughly grey and wholly sunless 5-6 weeks since February 1st, and to compound the hopes and expectations of all early growers and sowers, we here in Ireland, as with our neighbours across the pond on mainland Britain, have just experienced our harshest and heaviest winter snowfalls in over 35 years. Today, some 13 days after it ceased snowing there are still large drifts and clearance mounds right across the country.

In like a lion, out like a lamb” the old saying goes, and March certainly roared into the gardening year on this occasion.

This coming weekend brings on our national holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, a date by which many gardeners like to have established their broad plans for the coming spring, and traditionally the date on which many allotmenteers set the first potato drills of the year; but I think we’ll delay things a little this year. A lot of ground is still too sodden and very cold from snow-melt and run-off, and as hardy as some of our modern spud varieties may be, they don’t come supplied with accompanying life-jackets…

So, as with many other allotmenteers and kitchen gardeners right across Ireland and Britain spring activity on monsterinthecorner is most definitely interrupted this year; another week or two at the drawing board and in the potting shed, drinking milky tea and listening to Lyric. The seed onions have succumbed, dampening-off en masse so, we’ll go, and sow again. We’ll also go purchase the Celeriac and Kohl Rabi seed we meant to purchase but had, hitherto, forgotten to, and we’ll also add a little more organic material to some areas to compensate for the flooding leach-off…

So, another week or two of chitting, and wit-pitting against nature’s surprising elements; another fortnight to get it right; another fortnight waiting for the greenlight, and a favourable rise in fahenheit, another fortnight waiting till the risk of frostbite is out of sight; another fortnight to reset the solent wight; a fortnight to resow the gardener’s delight; another fortnight to just sit tight, knowing that with many weathered March things are never ever black and white, and that the early days of spring are never watertight.

Another fortnight, waiting for the lamb to slight the lion.

To Sow, and Not To Sow…

Reticulated Irises

Reticulated Irises 2018

The snowdrops are showing; reticulated irises have brightened in glorious patches the last week or so, but the daffodils? The daffodils, being totally narcissistic, seem to be taking their own sweet time, though with that just said, yesterday one or two of the Tete-a-Tetes finally put their radiant trumpets on public display.
It has been a thoroughly Irish winter, and one that lived up to the Irish gardener’s seasonal expectation. With the exception of two slightly milder days this past weekend, it has been a long, wet and chilly period of hibernated-vernilization since the last week of last November. Things however are noticeably turning. There is a little more light to the end of each day, but with the constant cloud cover the benefit as yet is not fully appreciated. The temperatures are still just about normal for this time of year, which means that taken together with the low light levels we have the classic combination that too often conspires to undo the early undertakings of eager seed sowers. Many a gardener’s desire to get ahead of the posse by sowing seeds as early as they can often proves a redundant exercise with the experience of dampening-off. This is what occurs when seeds that are sown too early in the season either refuse to germinate, or else having germinated – often sporadically so- decide conditions are not yet tolerable enough to make the effort for. Seeds that are left standing in cold damp compost too long end up with root rot, eventually laying themselves down en masse, adding their inchoate transparent leggy stems and cotyledons to the dank dark medium which gave rise to their brief green existence.
But, there are signs that things are a turning. The rhubarb stools are putting out new petioles; the pruned rose bushes are displaying delicate bright orangey-red flags; the garlic which seemed to have stood still since mid December is stretching ever so slightly at last; the parsley pots are greening up more than yellowing down and allium snouts are poking through the heavy damp clay. Perhaps it is just wistful thinking but there also seems to be a noticeable increase in birdsong from the hedgerows.
Despite the ancient Celtic Imbolc quarter day observance it is not quite spring. The milk may be flowing in the belly of the ewe, but there is a sting or two to the winter’s tale and tail yet. Mindful of all we have just said, we did nonetheless make some tentative progress this last weekend. Being a little more tolerant of cooler sowing conditions and not being quite as finicky as their allium cousins we put some red shallots into one of the raised beds. We also strew two small trays of zinnias and marigolds, while at home we popped some Rosa Blanca aubergine seed into a pot for a south facing windowsill. We filled some starter pots with compost and popped red baron onion sets into the polytunnel, and finished off by covering a few Nero di Toscana kale seeds, as they’re also cool weather tolerant.
The trees have been pruned and where and when required they were washed. The monster’s bolt hole has been tidied; all pots and trays are clean and good to go; seeds and sets have been sourced and sorted and whatever could be done during the darker wetter days was done. Things are drying up, slowly. The badgers are on the move; with little or no ground cover left for camouflage at winter’s end the hares are more skittish than usual, and today crows could be seen making the most of seasonal casualties, gathering and relocating winter fallen twigs to the still naked canopies of the oaks and beeches.

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New rhubarb petioles, Red Baron onion sets and new rose bush growth

We’re not there yet, but we are getting there.

Softly, softly still though, not too far ahead of the posse should you go.  And in deciding whether to sow or not to sow, remember that the surest course to no carrots and beetroots for harvest is to sow them now.

Tete-A-Tete Daffodils

Tete-A-Tete Daffodils 2018

When The Weather Clears

The days are dull, dark and damp. It is most definitely mid January and unmistakably deep winter. The Christmas decorations are once again consigned to attic or shed for the next 11 months, and the New Year’s celebration bubbly bottles have been emptied and recycled through the local bottle banks. Something which only a few short days before still held a certain charm and relevance can suddenly find itself out of place and out of time once its sell by date is reached, and once Christmas’ celebrate by date is passed, it is definitely passed. That which was full of bright promise in the latter days of December can seem abruptly garish and jarring just these few short January days later.
I suppose when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

The same of course must be said of things here on monster in the corner. No longer can we say that we are working our way through the first year on a new plot. Everything we said we had planned to relocate in the moving to our new plot was relocated, and everything we said we had hoped to sow and grow on that new plot was actually sown, and thankfully most of it grew as expected. This time last year we set ourselves some new year’s tasks and we experienced quite some pleasant success when late last August monsterinthecorner was awarded the prize of Best Overall Allotment 2018 at the annual awards. So no longer can we say that we are only in our first year for we are not, and in all truthfulness the monster is now well and truly established at its current location. When it’s time to go it’s time to go, and last year was last year; and that was then and this is… well, now.
The monster’s new year begins midst squally, sleety, stormy weather (in stark contrast to its beginning at this time last year) and where the last three years saw us experience relatively mild and generally uneventful winters, this year the winter season is providing us with plenty of weather.
In a posting from a frosty November morning just as this season was setting in we wrote that perhaps, if we were lucky, we would get just such a winter; noting that a little sharp vernilization in general, is a good thing for the kitchen garden.

So, reminder to self…be mindful of what you wish for!
It has been a very wet and notably cold winter to date, and once more this week we are subject to influences of large polar maritime air masses which seem set to dominate things again for the next seven to ten days. Regardless of how mild -or otherwise- any given winter can be, according to Long Term Average analysis the coldest period of Ireland’s winter season is from mid January to mid February, and it would seem all is right on cue.
With winter truly bearing its teeth this year, there is little that can be done on the allotment. Any attempt to turn or cultivate growing areas will backfire spectacularly, and any pruning which needs to be done and hasn’t yet been done is best long-fingered till things at least dry up a little. There is still ample time to shape and coax next year’s fruiting spurs and blooms from the present dormancy, and where cold weather pruning is par for the course, it’s best done during a dry period to minimize damage to newly exposed wound wood by extended exposure to wet conditions.
Other jobs for the allotment at this time of year are the standard housekeeping requirements for all gardens and plots and are, and have been, well documented over the decades. There are however one or two activities that can be undertaken now which are not so weather dependant and these are some of the gardening year’s gentler activities. While waiting for the weather to clear you can busy yourself perusing the gardening supplements and seed catalogues which suddenly seem to be arriving two-a-penny with every weekend newspaper, offering hints and tips together with design and advice to amateur and professional alike on everything from soil nutrition and pond depth, the latest must have celebrity endorsed tools, to current developments in Hydroponics and what it is that you simply must do now to ensure bigger, better blooms and harvests later in the year. All standard commercial fair mind you, aimed at planting that persuasive seed of need into your plans in the hope it will germinate in your pocket or purse. Or you may, if you wish, undertake something that we here do annually before the gardening season gets under way in earnest. About this time every year we at monsterinthecorner take out our seed storage box to examine and inspect the contents. It is a curious exercise sifting through the packets and envelopes and recalling what it was we had originally plotted to do the previous year. There are always a number of wallets and pouches that will have remained unopened and as such unused, and it is often puzzling trying to remember why we never followed through with the plan that made us buy them to begin with. But, we suspect most gardeners have such a box of curious perplexities. Of course, having opened the box it then becomes necessary to assess the viability of its contents, and this is where you need to be ruthless. Fresh seed looses its viability over time and the process of degradation is speeded-on once the original storage packet has been opened. How long seeds are likely to retain their viability largely depends on two things: the seeds own inherent shelf life, and secondly how they are stored once packaged. Moisture and unnecessary heat are two of the main conditioners contributing to seed deterioration, and seeds last longer if stored in a cool, dry environment. Nonetheless, regardless of how you store them some seeds naturally last longer than others: parsnips, celeriac and parsley will not last much longer than one year; whereas peas, tomato seed and some beans can remain viable for over a decade. Most leafy vegetable seed should last for at least 5-6 years; beetroot and radish for 3-4 years while carrot, turnip and swede seed will last for 2 years if you’re lucky. By and large this is in line with our own experiences over the years of sowing and growing, and though we’ve only outlined vegetable seed here, much the same storage guidelines apply to bloom and meadow seed as well, although with that said, it is generally accepted that a lot of flower seed has a much longer shelf life than most kitchen garden seed.
And so once again we’ll pop the lid on our seed treasury chest and we’ll scrutinize. We will examine the remaining basil seed purchased in Malcesine 4 years ago, the beans and sunflower seed sourced by the Dirt-Digging missus herself in Toulouse 3 years ago together with the beans and pumpkin seed brought home from Toronto in August 2016. It’s something we do while on our travels, a potential living memento of our foreign excursions should we be lucky enough to get them to germinate and grow in our home clime: some warm sun-filled reminiscences to help buffer January’s dreary days. We’ll also need to check the condition of the foraged poppy, sunflower, pumpkin and cosmos seed collected from the monster’s own beds and borders last autumn.

And then we’ll wait; wait for the weather to clear; wait till there is not so much weather about; wait till we can get out and about once more and the monster’s ways are trafficable enough to allow us empty some of those packet contents into pots and trays and beds and get the whole process under way once again; but, only when the weather clears.

That Time Is Now…

This Week last year the monster was in flux:

January 2017 saw monsterinthecorner begin the arduous task of relocating all stock and holding to a new allotment plot some five miles away from its established site. We speculated then what the coming year would bring, and whether we would be capable of rising to the challenges of starting again from scratch on a new plot, in the depths of winter. We postulated then that the monster would be completely transformed by the same time next year, and that we would relish the transformative process and our part in it.  Yet little did we realize just how much we could, and eventually would, achieve.

One of the very early postings from our new stomping ground last January was titled     By This Time Next YearSo, by way of  follow-up the best we can say is that  That Time is now…
We could have –indeed should have– posted many more updates during last year, but as you’ll appreciate we got busy doing as we had quite a lot to do, and it was no mean task to cultivate a totally neglected and overgrown large allotment into a prize winning kitchen garden plot, and to do so in the space of 25-30 weeks. We had many hours of wonderful fun; we’ve made some wonderful new friends and acquaintances, and mostly we learned to relearn all we formerly thought we knew about allotmenteering.

Of course, as the overall prize winning allotment last year monsterinthecorner has, (as many of our new neighbours are constantly and good-humouredly reminding us) set the standard not only for others, but also for ourselves in the seasons and years ahead. And who knows? with our template now well and truly settled after a frenetic first year, perhaps ( just perhaps) we’ll have a little more time to cultivate here as well.

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the monster’s montage from year one at the our new stomping ground

A very happy New Year to all.

Keeping Cold: a view to a chill…

Crisp, clean and crystal clear, and conjured from unobstructed air the first frost of this winter season greeted all worm catchers yesterday morning. Cool and bright and star-shiny sheer the winter’s first offering of season’s secret ministry glossed most low lying grassy areas and hardened exposed shallow pools. Though our met service had forecast frost, this was no sharp event and certainly no f# affair with much of the crystalline magic dissipating with the first rays of early sun. The cool air exposed all al fresco breaths in bamboozled bewilderment, and as though having seen it all before car windscreens glared with vague subfusc opalescence, awaiting intervention with kettle or pot to clear their view to the chill.

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Tweed swede and Tender & True all on a bed of fast fading rocket

Last winter’s first frost did not occur till quite late in the season; with November and December both recording above LTA (Long Term Average) temperatures the first frost of last winter did not settle till 5th January this year.  So,  we’ve had the first frost of last winter and the first frost of this winter ten months apart and in the same calendar year. This year it seems winter is settling in early: we’ve covered and cleared what we needed to, and we’ve started to harvest and use the autumn and winter stocks of swedes, parsnips and kale. We’ve greased the bolts and oiled the latches, and we’ve stacked and stored the planters and pots. And while still trafficable and feasible to do so we turned sod on that area where we had scattered wildflower seed last spring and summer in the hope that exposure to the harsher elements of the coming season may just tame its unwieldy clumped lumpiness. The constancy of Mrs Dirtdigger’s deadheading drill together with the relatively mild October weather meant we still had some blooms to brighten the monster’s visage on our recent visits, but, we thinks the creeping crystal carpet may have put an end to this.
Still, it’s good to feel this early seasonal chill, and ideally our wish would be that this first frost is but a precursor to a winter of some sustained wintry weather; maybe not too much though (mindful to be careful of what one wishes for), but, as most gardeners should have learned, the earthen canvas in which we cultivate our dream performs best after a period of vernalization: rhubarb stools and gooseberry bushes; blackcurrant, apples and pears all benefit from a measured stretch in Mother Nature’s chilling cabinet, and much the same can be said of the early spring bulbs and flowering perennials.

So, just as we here at monsterinthecorner prepare to cover and muffle and wrap our bodies up against the elements of the coming season, our hope would be that the monster itself stays quite cold. And safe in the knowledge that most gardens invariably survive the wintriest of storms, our wish is that our little plot keeps cold, and does not get too warm, for once tender shoots have been top-dressed and strawed, spring’s cheery show creeps best from chilled sod…
So, stay chilled, keep cold.

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All 2lb 2ozs of winter parsnip root

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Another pair of swell parsnips

Battens, Hatches and Hurricanes

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We’re still standing… the morning after the hurricane before

Sprawled squarely and perceptibly on the horizon, winter  looms unequivocally large now. Although still registering daytime temperatures of 63 degrees (17 Celsius)- which by all accounts is extremely mild for the time of year– as we enter the last week of October the sense of foreboding that always accompanies Samhain is curiously palpable once again. Summer is definitely fled, and try as it may autumn can no longer camouflage that it too is rapidly losing its grip on seasonal affairs; the sun takes longer to get out of bed each morning, soil saturation levels are back to saturated, and leaf fall speed has increased significantly as we steadily yet unmistakably slide toward first frost.
Last week’s weather heralded a once in a lifetime occurrence on this our little green isle, as a bona fide hurricane swept across our country. News and media outlets played it for all its worth with live on the spot updates and saturation reportage from correspondents right across the country. Ophelia was a category 3 hurricane, downgraded to category 2  before being designated extra-tropical and eventually an ex-tropical storm. Ophelia was also the easternmost major Atlantic hurricane on record, and though sadly lives were lost, thanks to our own met service who tracked this all the way over the previous 5 days, things could have been a whole lot worse. The storm resulted in wide-scale damage and destruction to property over large swathes of the country and, as mentioned,  sadly some deaths too as a result of the high impact weather event.
Having lost most of its destructive power coursing the cooler waters north of the Azores and subsequently along our own western Atlantic coastline Ophelia nonetheless retained enough potency to bring most of our public services to a standstill, before drifting toward Scotland making landfall in Sweden and eventually dissipating over Finland and eastern Russia. However, 5 days after Ophelia left through the backdoor, Brian blew in the front door. A hurricane and North Atlantic Storm all in the same week! We’re a hardy bunch us Irish; a well-weathered people; a wintered people: Hibernians, literally.
Just as with the rest of the country monsterinthecorner took it all in her stride. A quick drive-by visit next morning to assess damage and casualty revealed a fairly shaken and stirred allotment site, but, not too much mayhem. The last of the sunflowers, cosmos and hollyhocks were well and truly obliterated as Ophelia deadheaded in a way that no gardener ever could; miles of green windbreak fencing was shredded and fluttered in furious surrender, wheelbarrows and compost bins had been relocated to neighbouring plots, a shed or two had transferred to neighbouring farmer’s field and even a polytunnel had stripped totally bare, its skeletal remains framing the shambolic misfortune of feeling the sting from Ophelia’s tail.
The last storm of summer meets the first storm of winter. High impact selfie weather events and yet we are still turning down the auto home and office heating settings.

Where the summer’s months saw us acquaint ourselves with and try to adapt to a growing medium with the consistency of set concrete, the last two weeks have revealed that the monster’s autumn terra is yielding to soft to say the least, the recent weather events highlighting spot areas that will require attention over the autumn/winter season with pooling of excess water, thankfully not too much though. This being our first year at the monster’s new location we are still learning how it acts and interacts with nature as we uncover some of our new allotment’s unique peculiarities and anomalies.

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SETTING THE GARLIC

We have begun clearing out the beds, and as they empty we’ll leave them rest. We are now harvesting swede turnips, parsnips and kale, and last weekend we set out some Solent Wight, Vallalado and Iberian garlic. And just as we did at our previous location we’ve also planted some daffodil and allium bulbs that will, hopefully, add a splash of colour and interest early next spring. Compliments of storms Ophelia and Brian we had to undertake some running repairs over the last couple of visits, but we’ll dig and chip away at those other long-fingered tasks over the off season; constructing our planned wooden perimeter fence, finishing the monster’s pathway, perhaps a weeping run-off drain for the wet corner whilst not forgetting to compost, cover and mulch…and in so saying to do realise that we are fast approaching the end of our first year on our new plot.
Yes, the verdant greens at our new location are a distancing memory, and the remaining gold’s and ochre’s are being stripped at lightning speed from the beds and branches. 17 degrees and holding. But casting an eye to the horizon the monster sees winter’s merciless march already begun: time to pinpoint the battens and place them near the hatches…