Sunday 22 October 2017

Taking the short root can put you on path to success

When life is busy, 'cheating' is an appealing option – and my carrots are proof that it can be the best way of doing things

IF THERE's a shortcut I can take in the veg patch, then I will generally take it. It's not that I am lazy, it's just that sometimes it's hard to find time for all the jobs I should be doing in the garden, with so many other things to do.

Of course I would love to be spending all my time in the veg patch at the weekends, and I would surely have quite an immaculate patch if I did so – but as anyone with a young family will know, that's seldom possible. There are swimming pools to be visited, a skate park to frequent, washing and ironing to catch up on, and so on.

So, as with most people, my GIYing always has to find its place amidst a crowded schedule of things to do. I am pretty good at sticking to the broad outline of the growing year schedule and getting the 'must-do' things done each season – among other things, returning fertility to the soil in the winter, sowing in the spring, watering and weeding in the summer and harvesting in autumn. But beyond that, when things get a little more, ahem, discretionary, things get tricky.

I can comfort myself to a degree with the thought that there's nothing madly urgent to be done at the moment. There's nothing major being missed, no major milestones being ignored.

Most of the work that needs doing could be broadly grouped under the phrase "clean up", and that's a discretionary category if ever there was one. Still, it means that when I take a trip down to the patch these days to grab some carrots, or pick some salad leaves, I have to avert my eyes from the many jobs that need doing.

Over here, a green manure seems to have self-seeded rather alarmingly on the gravel path. Over there, a courgette plant is looking bedraggled. The fact that there are a couple of small courgettes still on the plant provides a handy excuse for leaving it there till next weekend, just to see what will happen to them in a heavy frost you understand (so it's practically a science experiment). I don't even have to go in to the polytunnel to know that there are tomato and aubergine plants in there that should have been removed and composted weeks ago.

Worst of all, there are four Brussels sprouts plants still in pots in my veg trug, which should have been planted out months ago. My own spring-sown Brussels sprouts plants were eaten alive by slugs earlier in the year, and I bought these as emergency replacements from a garden centre in September, pretty sure that it would be too late for them to amount to anything before the winter.

I put them sitting on the soil in the veg trug (under some bionet to keep the cabbage white butterfly off them) to let them acclimatise for a few days before planting them in the soil. And then? Well, let's just say other things took over.

There was the GIY Gathering in September to deal with, and something else (I'm sure) in October, and this week I was going down to feed the ducks, hens and turkeys and noticed the plants, looking rather sad, and still waiting patiently to be planted out nearly three months later. For shame. If I planted them in the polytunnel now, would they produce some sprouts in the spring? Who knows. . .

Occasionally, however, you take a shortcut and something magical happens – you realise that the shortcut might in fact be the best way of doing things. For the first time, I didn't thin my carrots this year, because I simply didn't get around to it. Normally, I would go up and down the row, thinning out the carrots to leave about 5cm between each one. This means that each carrot has plenty of space to grow and get bigger.

But this year I didn't find the time, and so the carrots were left to sort the whole spacing thing out for themselves. And you know what? They did a splendid job of it. The bigger ones grew bigger and sort of crowded out the smaller ones. So at harvest time you get a good mix of lovely big ones, and then some of the smaller baby carrots, too.

There are many moments of great joy in the veg patch every year, but I think harvesting carrots must be among the greatest. As luck would have it, my crop rotation plan brought the root crops to a particularly good part of the veg patch this year – in soil that I brought in to the garden a few years back from my wife's cousin's farm in Wexford.

Unlike my own soil, which is a heavy clay, this one part of the patch has beautiful crumbly, friable soil. It's a part of the veg patch that's always a joy to work with, and the carrots loved it there too, celebrating their easy-going conditions by becoming long, stout and utterly delicious.

I almost always harvest carrots using a fork, easing them out gently from my heavy soil so that they don't break. This year, because the soil they are in is so soft and crumbly, I don't need the fork at all – I can simply pull a bunch of carrots by the leaves and out they pop. What a wonderful thing for a lazy GIYer like me.

Finally, just to mention that 'Permaculture Magazine' editor and all-round permaculture superstar Maddy Harland is our guest expert on the GIY website this month. This Wednesday at 1pm, I am doing a web-based Q&A with Maddy all about permaculture – you can watch it live and even ask questions on the subject. More details on giyireland.com/events

Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY

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