Growing in the Community

The wind is howling again as another storm rolls in from the Atlantic. It was a lovely weekend after the rain finally stopped. Wet and windy is what you expect from the winter in the West of Ireland which makes those occasional breaks in the weather special. Low tide was at just about the right time early on Sunday morning and I was able to get to the beach to collect a new load of washed up seaweed for the garden and for the polytunnels at the community centre.

IMG_1383 (2)

I have been trying to promote a “community garden scheme” using some of the land that surrounds the community centre. It’s a grass patch which I now know is around 450m2, I know it is that size as my son James lent me a hand drawing up a template that we can use for planning the new garden. He is doing technical drawing at college and I welcomed his offer to help me out. The site is right next door to the tunnels and I hope we will be able to combine these resources to develop this space into a place that will produce both food and a place to sit and enjoy nature. Goleen Community Garden


I have organised an information and planning meeting for next Sunday and I am advertising it in the newsletter and on the village Facebook page. I have managed to persuade my college tutor to visit me on site this Wednesday and I am hoping he will give me some advice on how best to develop this space. There are a lot of experienced gardeners in the area as well as a local youth group and a couple of primary schools and my dream is that we will all be able to come together to create a space the community will be proud of.


A Selection of veg for the Social Centre

Wish me luck, it will be a long term project but every journey start with a first step and that has now been taken.


College is going well. We have been setting up a number of experiments with various nutrients, making solutions in beakers and test tube where we are planting broad beans and wheatgrass. We will be recording how the seedlings are affected and it will probably show us a bit about deficiencies. Some of the solutions included Sulphate of Iron, Potassium Chloride, Boron, Magnesium Sulphate, Dolomite lime, hydrated lime and organic products like rock phosphate, chicken manure, chicken feather and bone, seaweed and other combinations.  I have been experimenting myself trying to develop my own hydroponic nutrient formula using horse manure, seaweed, coffee grounds as well as nettles and comfrey and a few “secret” ingredients. I think getting consistent concentration levels is the difficult bit.

Everyone is talking about the temperatures dropping this week; one of the headlines in the paper was “Flake News” as there might well be snow. I am not sure it will get that cold down here but you never know, the kids would love it! Me? Well I am not so enthusiastic about the idea.


A Cationary Tale

I know I am not a great blogger, I think a great blogger is someone who can write with an interesting point of view very regularly. If you are already interested in the subject it helps but even so some can write about stuff which I have no in-depth interest and still make it interesting. I started blogging as a way of keeping record of some of the things I am learning at college about horticulture, I thought it would be a useful way of revising and retaining some of this new knowledge. I don’t think I have done a particularly good job at that as it come out more as a diary with a few abstract and fairly irrelevant thoughts I have while I’m gardening.


This particular article is about cation exchange, I don’t think I had ever come across this expression before, other than a reference in my syllabus notes at the beginning of the term. If you know all about cation exchange you can stop reading now!

I actually thought it might be a spelling mistake and it was supposed to be caution but you live and learn. Obviously I am not going to write about it as an expert as I have only just learnt about it so don’t go quoting me or using me as a reference but I do want to try and put down what it is about for my future reference and for reasons I have already outlined.

Cation Exchange comes under soil science. We have already covered pH levels, texture, moisture content, organic content and the effects of parent rock and we are going to do more on the nutritional elements but this week it’s all about cation exchange. So what is it?

Cation exchange is the ability of soil to hold and adsorb positively charged ions. Adsorb if you are not familiar with the word means to hang on to on the surface a bit like static. Some soils are good at it and some are not. Faraday came up with the term and it is to do with ions being attracted to cathodes in electrolysis.

Clay and organic matter have negative charged sites so are particularly good at attracting positive ions (opposites attract) which are useful as Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Sodium which are plant nutrients have a positive charge and are found in alkaline soils. Hydrogen and Aluminium neither of which are useful nutrients to plants have a negative charge and are found in acidic soils.

So if a soil has a good cation exchange capacity (CEC) it means that it can hold onto plant nutrients rather than let go and watch the good stuff be washed away in the rain. So a soil with good CEC can store nutrients like a larder and plants can then snack on them and grow big and strong.

Organic matter is very useful in the soil for many reasons but as it has both the ability to adsorb positive and negative ions digging it into the soil benefits the plants. The underlying nature of the soil is not so easy to change. As I have already said clay has negative charge so can adsorb positively charged ions which are the useful ones to us, however some types of clays are better at it than others.

You can measure the CEC of soils but it is fairly complicated. We ran an experiment to just demonstrate the capacity so the result was not “measured” giving a figure. CEC is measured as ME or meq, which stands for 1 milligram (1/1000 of a gram) of exchangeable H+.

We took 5 grams of soil. The soil we used was the fine soil particles of less than 2 mm in size we produced during our textural analysis; this soil would have the highest concentration of clay particles in our samples. We put that into a funnel with filter paper and a beaker to catch the resultant liquid.

We added a solution of potassium chloride (1g/250ml), not a lot just about 10ml and then after the liquid filtered through we added a few drops of an indicator liquid. The indicator liquid indicated the presence of positively charged ions, in this case calcium by presenting a white cloudy solution.

There is obviously more to cation exchange than I have written up here but I hope I have given you some idea of what it is and how it affects the nutritional content of your soil.


Ideal soil pH 6.4 for cation exchange

The amount of humus, and the amount and type of clay, determine how much Cation Exchange Capacity a given soil has.

An ideal base saturation percentage for soil: 65% Ca (Calcium), 15% Mg (Magnesium), 4% K (Potassium), 1-3% Na (Sodium)

The Year Ahead

I hope everyone had a good Christmas and New Year’s Eve? We did, in the sense we eat a bit too much, drunk a bit too much and spent time with each other celebrating the end of the year. It has been a good year for me personally. I have made a lot of changes to my life and I am spending much more time doing the things I enjoy. Starting Horticultural College in September was a big move, not just for me but for the family as well as we had to make quite a few adjustments but I think it has worked out well so far.


Kale and other brassicas in the tunnel

Winter should be a quiet time in the garden but with so much time spent in college I treasure the time when I can get out and prepare the ground and do all those clearing up jobs that need to be done. I have planted a load of willow cuttings this year, the hare population seem to be particularly fond of them and it is frustrating to find the tops neatly pruned but I still love having hares in the garden, I will just have to find a way of protecting my young tree saplings from having their bark nibbled.

I have cleared an area alongside the barn where I intend to train a medlar and a quince along wires. They both seem to be a bit “old fashioned” but I kind of like that and the quince vodka I made earlier in the year proved to be very popular over Christmas. I haven’t had enough medlars to try out any recipe for them yet, the French call them cul de chien which means dog’s arse, I think more because of the look of them and not because of the taste which is more like a squishy apple.


Snowball turnips

We have had a good spell of rain over Christmas so I haven’t been able to do much other than clear out more ditches to prevent the drive being washed away and we have had a couple of strong storms which has also meant that outside work is limited. However I have more than enough to be getting on with in the polytunnels which are still being productive especially within the salad department. The Oriental mix is still providing well, I love the shape and form of the mizuna and I have a few Winter Density Lettuce beginning to heart up.


Mizuna in the tunnel

I have been planting loads of garlic and shallots to follow on from the potatoes last year as I try and get the tunnels back into some kind of rotation. I have planted a few bulbs from last year’s crop but I also tried out planting some garlic cloves from the Lidl after seeing how fast they grew at college and they have come up a lot quicker than my “home grown” variety.

Unlike most of the rest of the country we have had no snow but I do have a good crop of snowball turnips in the tunnel. I am not a big fan of eating turnip but these are quite sweet and are nice grated raw into salads.

I have been growing an old fashioned cabbage this winter called Wheeler’s Imperial. I first planted them out in September and I have been growing them successionally over the last couple of months. It is probably a bit late in the day but I got a propagator for Christmas (Thanks Kate!) and I was itching to set it up, so I am trying out some more cabbage and some more Winter Density just to see if I can grow them this late in the year.

The kale is almost ready for picking and the kohl rabi is hearting up well so there is plenty to keep my busy in the tunnels.

I got a propagator for Christmas and I have been trying it out and got my salad to germinate in 3 days rather than the usual week. I am ging to start off some early flowers just to see if I can!


I went back to college this week and we have been revising some of our soil science and measuring cation echange in our soil samples. I do love doing science experiments, I don’t think I could work in a lab or anything but it’s a bit like CSI and that’s fun


I have also been busy with a sowing project while the weather is too wet to get anything significant done in the garden and I am making myself a fancy waistcoat, I just have to decide on the lining.


I’m hoping this will be a productive year and I am really looking forwrd to the challenges ahead I have the feeling it will be a good one.

A Study Summary

I’m only going to write a quick blog as I haven’t posted for awhile as I have been spending my time writing up my notes for college, here is a quick outline of some of the stuff we have been up to this week!
Training apple trees
We trained an Apple Tree by pruning the branches for shaping along a wire and tying the branches to the wire. Two support wires were attached to existing poles using straining devices.
training appleIdentifying which buds produce leaves and buds will enable you to tailor your pruning for optimum harvest.
• Fruit buds contain flowers that if pollinated will carry fruit. Growth buds will develop later on behind the developing fruit
• Wood or growth buds develop into a new shoot carrying carry leaves, but no flowers

Pruning Blackcurrants
Prune blackcurrants when dormant – from late autumn to late winter. Fruit forms on young wood, so when pruning aim to remove older wood, leaving the young shoots.

Maintaining Strawberry Plants
Runners were taken from established strawberry plants and some plants were potted into a peat based compost. It must be noted that the crowns from these plants need to be planted at the right depth.
Dead leaves were cleared from the established plants and the ground was mulched.

Air Content Soil
Soil is not a solid object, as examined in our Soil Texture experiment, soil is made up of different elements as well as Moisture and organic materials such as Humus. Air is an important element to this structure enabling living organisms to respire leaving carbon dioxide. Soil retains water within pores, however if all the pores were filled with water the soil would only be able to act anaerobically and the majority of plant roots, unless adapted, would rot.

Soils with large pores generally have good drainage (less water) and aeration, while soils with small pores generally have poor drainage and aeration.

Air within soil unlike atmospheric air is not exposed to currents and tends to be more humid with a higher level of carbon dioxide than oxygen.

Examining the levels of air within soil can give an indication of the suitability of the soil for propagation.

1. Prepare a can with holes made in the bottom
2. Weigh the Can
3. Invert the can and press into the area selected to extract soil
4. Weigh the Can and Soil
5. Immerse the Can and Soil in a bath of Water until all the air bubbles stop
6. Weigh the Can
7. The difference in Weight indicates the amount of air present. 1g of Water = 1cm3 of air.
Propagation Using The Blocking Technique
Blocking is a technique that requires the use of a growing medium which has the property that it can be pressed into a square which retains its shape and then can be used to plant seeds.

A press is used to make a series of blocks of varying size dependent on either it being used to plant seeds or to transplant seedlings into.

A small press can make 20 seed blocks rapidly these maximise space and does not need to use either plastic or expensive alternatives. Containers do not need to be sterilised or stored so space and material are maximised and other than the cost for the initial press, costs are limited. A tray containing 500 seeds can be germinated in a small area.

As an experiment we made 500 blocks and sowed a selection of seed. The blocks were then placed into the propagator

Measuring Evapotranspiration of Plants
Transpiration is a physiological process in plants, by which loss of water from stomatal openings takes place. Stoma are pores present in the foliage, stem, roots, and flowers. In most cases the number is higher on the under-side of leaves. They exchange gases and moisture, between plants and the environment.
The rate of evapotranspiration can be investigated by measuring the decrease in mass due to water loss, or by measuring the volume of water absorbed. This experiment was set up in order to measure the amount of water lost by leaves and the amount of water that was absorbed by sample plants.
We also measured the transpiration of water by a plant using a potometer which can be used to measure the volume of water absorbed.

Leaves of a Rhododendron were selected for the experiment. The surface area of the leaves were measured by tracing their silhouette onto squared paper of 50mm2 and the squares were then counted and divided by 4 to reach a cm2 result. One set of leaves was covered in a petrolium jelly another had just the top layer while another had the underside of the leaf and one set was left without. There was not much difference in the loss of mass between the totally covered or the under side leaves, showing that water is mostly lost through the stomata on the underside of the leaves.


The view on the way home from college

There’s loads more sciency stuff from college as it has been pretty miserable outside, if you want any more info just ask, I didn’t put it all down as I wouldn’t want to be boring but I am finding it fascinating.

In my own neglected garden I have managed to plant my garlic and some onions in between the rain and gales and I have been harvesting loads of oriental salad from the polytunnel for the social centre.

We had out Word Processing exam today and I am hoping that went well and we have a few assignments to finish off before taking a break for the Christmas Holidays. Phew that is just about it for me as I have a few more things to finish off including some Christmas Presents for friends.

BTW We sampled a few of our Christmas tipples last night as we watched the kids decorate the tree, I highly recommend Quince Vodka and the Sloe Gin was a hit, so a Very Merry Christmas everyone 🙂





Winter in the West

Without doubt it is winter in West Cork. There is a cold wind blowing and reports of snow and ice. Living so close to the sea we haven’t had a frost here yet but I’m sure we will soon enough. You might think that there wouldn’t be much to do in and around the garden but with having so little time to spend outside with all my college studies, I am just able to snatch a few moments here and there when I can, the jobs are piling up.


Its three weeks since my last blog post and as few of you were wondering where I had been. The answer to that is nowhere really just getting up at 5am, taking the kids to school and on to college. It is dark when I leave and dark when I get home. I have taken to using a headlight when visiting the polytunnels in order to keep everything growing.


Goleen Community Tunnels

I have been supplying the local social centre with mixed leaf salad which has been growing well and the spinach and Swiss chard have also been well received by the retirees. The winter cabbage is beginning to heart up and the turnips are swelling so it all looks pretty good.


Mixed Oriental Salad

I was given a couple of Komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) plants from a batch we are growing in college. The plants at the college are getting hammered by flea bettle but thankfully I don’t have that probelm and they are thriving in the tunnel conditions.



I have a load of small cuttings including some Crysthanamums which might be a bit tender against the cold, so I went to see my friend Clayton at the fish shop and I am now the proud owner of two large polystyrene fish boxes, so hopefully I can keep them nice and snug during this cold spell.


Experimenting using old coffee cups

I have been planting willows around the place hopefully they will act as a wind break but I am also hoping to have some willows for weaving in a couple of years and if I can get my act together I am hoping to lay a “fedge,” half hedge and half woven fence.


The veg plot has really come on and I am just waiting for the rest of the kale, carrots and parsnip to finish off and now we have a bit of cold weather the parsnips will be worth harvesting as they taste so much better after sitting out in the cold for awhile.


With no light outside I have been spending my evenings with my embroidery, I have at least 5 different projects on the go at the moment and I should just concentrate on getting one finished but I have never found it easy to just work on the same one all the time, I do hope to get at least one done before Christmas and maybe it will end up as a present if I do.


An ex-cinamon bun

As it is winter Kate is less busy at the café these days and she has the time to experiment with her baking, this is a time that the whole family enjoys and we have been treated to the most amazing selection of stuff, pesto rolls and recently the yummiest cinnamon rolls I have ever tasted, I would like to include a photo at this point but they are never around long enough to get one!


We have a great selection of pickles, jams and alcoholic beverages stored up for Christmas this year I am really looking forward to opening up some of the treats, I had a little taster of out Quince Vodka, just to check it was doing ok and ooh la la! It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

We have been working hard at college learning loads of stuff. I have made significant progress with my soil analysis of my vegetable patch.

My results so far are: pH 6.3, Moisture Content 33%, Organic Content 50%, Clay Content 63%, Sand Content 14% and Silt Content 24%. We still have to analyse mineral content and cation exchange. The Clay content is a bit high and Sand a bit low but the soil samples I have used are ones I took before I started adding sand.



We have also been learning various propagation techniques and this week we covered Layering, Air Layering, Stool Layering and Hedge Laying. I have often used simple layering but have not done either Stool or Air layering but it looks pretty easy.


Here is an excerpt from this week’s notes:

Air Layering of Hawthorn

A branch was selected and smaller branches surrounding the chosen area were cleared. A willow branch was cut to be used as a supporting post. The selected branch was wounded a hole was made in two plastic bags and the branch was covered using the bags which were filled with compost and fastened to the branch and supported by the willow branch.


Stool Layering of Apple root stock

An apple root stock was selected which had under gone a first stage of stool layering. The bottom of a flower pot was removed and placed over a number of branches that had formed from a previous stool stage. The pot was then filled with compost.

A second suitable root stock was selected and cut. A second flower pot with its bottom removed was placed over the top of the stem and filled with compost in order to encourage growth of branches.

For those of you who have followed by Blog for awhile I have an update on my Heliotrope plants (Heliotropium arborescens) described as “easy to grow” by a number of websites. After a couple years without success this year I used stratification in the fridge and then the germination using a heat mat I was delighted when I had these small seedlings appearing. For some reason they then seemed to decide to take a break from growing and stayed as small seedling for around 2 months.


I tried various things putting some outside in the ground, a few in pots on the window sill and a couple under glass but they just sat there doing very little. I took a few down the polytunnel at the end of August as I was doubtful whether they would do anything. I saw very little difference but in mid September a couple of them that had been planted into the ground started to grow and now nearing the end of November I have a couple who have decided to flower! I am hoping to grow these plants into bushes that I can use to take cuttings to propagate more plants. I have no idea why this little plant has given me so much trouble or why is has proved to be so contrary but I am hoping to have a least one whiff of Cherry Pie before Christmas.

Half Term Break

There has been a real contrast in the weather and consequently in life now the storms have past. This week is half term and it has given me an opportunity to get on with work in the garden. I have a week but it doesn’t seem long enough, there is so much to get on with.


Gladiolus Communis Byzantinu (

I managed to plant out most of the bulbs I bought, so I am hoping for a splash of colour in the spring and early summer, these include the magenta coloured Gladiolus Communis Byzantinus, flashy red and yellow Tuips Kalifmanniana Sresa, more yellow with Allium Molly Jeannine and the delicate blue Chionodoxa Lucillae. I also have some pink and white daffodils Salome but I’m not quite sure where I am going to put them yet.


I have also been preparing my liquid fertiliser. I like to make a variety using comfrey, nettles and seaweed. The smell is very pungent but now they are all bottled up I can store them away for use during the spring to give everything a bit of a boost.


A major enlargement of the vegetable plot and redesign is taking more time than I had planned but it is gradually coming together, it will be 17m x 6m when completed and that should give us enough space to make a significant increase in production.

Yesterday was a very full day as I was down to the beach for low tide at 7.30am to gather some seaweed for the garden. I only take the seaweed that has been washed up on the beach rather than anything growing and it can go straight onto the garden. It was then down to the polytunnels to give them a wash as there was quite a bit of algae especially in the one where the pumpkins and squashes were growing, it is amazing the difference it makes as the increase in light is very noticeable. The Swiss Card, Spinach and Salad Leaves are going really well and the cabbage and turnips are growing rapidly.


I went down to the pier for a spot of fishing at high tide, I didn’t manage to catch any fish but spent my time watching a pair of seals playing in the very calm waters and I was also treated to a visit from a travelling pod of dolphins making their way up the bay. There were Oyster Catchers, Cormorants but no Gannets, who I expect have gone out to sea for the winter.


It was back to the garden for the rest of the afternoon to clip back the hedges which lets so much more light back into the garden which is in short supply during the winter months. There was just enough time to get ready for Halloween and get down to the village for our annual sweet hunt with the kids. Most of mine own kids were away enjoying their own parties but thankfully we have a few nephews who we can join in with and go visiting.

A Blow-ins tale



There is no denying it has been a tough week living in the wake of Ex Hurricane Ophelia. One side of the barn roof finally gave up the struggle, it wasn’t unexpected as there had been some damage in a previous storm and it being such an expensive job I hadn’t managed to secure it, I’m not sure what we will do with it but it will have to be tackled. It has been a week without electricity and that means our pump hasn’t been working and neither our stove or any of those other things that we now rely upon so heavily. I don’t know if I regret getting rid of the old wood burning stove that served us faithfully for so long but it seemed like a good idea at the time and with four kids we would never had enough hot water for our shower obsessed teenagers or the regular piles of school uniforms and dirty clothes that have to be constantly washed. The up side is they are a clean bunch so things could be a lot worse.


Having no electricity was kind of novel at first and no phone reception certainly opened up a whole new world of sociability. Board games and parlour games were dusted off and there has been some fun filled evenings of laughter but navigating by candlelight come with its own stresses. My wife has been amazing cooking on a one ring camping gas stove and we managed to roast a whole chicken quite successfully on the open fire, wedged between two metal roasting dishes but the recent heavy rain has put that on hold. Our family and friends have pulled us through letting us use their washing machines, charging electric stuff and even cooking evening meals, it is so heartening when people pull together for you like that and makes us thankful to having them so close by.


“There is potential for mean wind speeds of 50km/h to 60km/h and gusts of 90km/h to 110km/h, especially in coastal counties.”

We seem to be in a small select group still without power, we are at the end of the line here and I think there are only about 20 or so of us this side of the peninsular still without electricity, strangely enough our phone line, which normally goes at the drop of a hat managed to remain in place during the storm even though some poles are at alarming angles along the side of the road. The kids were off school for the first two days and my college was also closed but we are back in the swing of things again even if some of the roads are now flooded by the constant rain. We are bracing ourselves once again as the unassumingly named Strom Brian is threatening our shores this weekend but there is little we can do but hang on and hope it all blows over and we can try to get things back to normal, we have to be thankful as there are some who got hit far worse than we did.

The garden fare reasonably well, we did lose a couple of bits and pieces, my favourite pink buddleia was split in half, the rose arch was demolished and I lost the winter broccoli  but all in all I was pleased that the hedging stood its ground and protected the more sensitive parts of the garden. I won’t really find out if the saplings in the big field survived until next spring as they are leafless now.


The work in the polytunnels still progresses and I have my winter salads growing well and some turnips, Swiss chard, cabbages, kohl rabi all establishing themselves, the temperature has dropped recently to 80C this morning and it is definitely on its way down the scale but I am optimistic that we will see this period through and things will progress. By the way I highly recommend getting a headlight it has prevented me from falling over loose school bags and various other objects littering the floor around the house.

Hopefully my next blog will have put these storms well behind us and some kind of normality will have resumed.