THE 'hungry gap' is a term for that dreaded period in the GIYers' year when last year's produce has finished and new season crops haven't yet come on stream. The phrase harks back to a time when people were fearful of actually going hungry at that time of the year. It seems like a pretty quaint concept from the lofty heights of the modern age, where supermarkets are open 24/7 and seasonality doesn't seem to exist at all.
For all the alarming implications of the phrase, I like the idea of a vegetable-patch hungry gap. It reminds me that I have become more focused on seasonal eating and that my relationship with food has shifted and deepened. It gives me a connection with the ancient seasonal rhythms and an awareness that the food supply is temporary and fragile.
Now of course, when my own supply of produce wanes, our family won't go hungry, thankfully -- we will simply go back to buying vegetables again, reluctantly and with some frustration.
Back in the day, the hungry gap was, of course, a far more serious proposition. I'm always intrigued by the notion that the variety of kale called 'hungry gap kale' was introduced in wartime Britain -- it was so called because this venerable brassica was to be celebrated for its ability to reduce the impact of the hungry gap since it could produce leaves right through the winter and spring.
After a few years of growing food, I was surprised to discover that the hungry gap doesn't happen in winter. In fact it comes much later in growing season, usually from March to May.
May has been the trickiest food month in my garden over the years -- this always strikes me as deliciously ironic since it's also a month when one typically gets the first great surge of growth in nature.
There are ways to lessen the impact and severity of your hungry gap. I've found the polytunnel to be of tremendous help in this regard, since it extends the growing season at both ends. A greenhouse will achieve the same thing. You can grow things in it later in the year, and you can start sowing in it earlier in the year than you can outside.
Some very timely sowings of very specific vegetables will also help diminish the impact of the hungry gap -- having some purple-sprouting broccoli and kale plants in your patch, for example, will provide lots of delicious, nutritious food.
I should also mention that the freezer and larder are vital tools in the battle against the hungry gap. But these instruments are useless unless you spend the time in the autumn processing your gluts of vegetables.
Though we haven't quite reached hungry gap territory yet in our garden, I do have a sense in the last few weeks that we are beginning to pass the point of plenty. We still have plenty to eat in the veg patch and in stores, but things are a little scarce and some vegetables are starting to run out altogether.
In December we tearfully opened the last of our onions, and though we still have a braid of shallots in the kitchen, we've been buying the occasional net of onions to supplement them (usually imports from Holland or France, which is annoying). We are in the death throes of our 2013 carrot crop and I am simultaneously pleased to have made it this far and annoyed that I didn't grow more.
Often it's just the luck of the crop- rotation draw -- not all my veg family 'areas' are the same size, and I think the area I was growing my root crops in was rather small this year. Being the quintessential stock pot and soup ingredient, carrots are one of those vegetables that you really can't do without, unlike say butternut squash which one could happily forego for a couple of months.
There are still active sources of food in the vegetable patch. In the kitchen I still have plenty of garlic, squashes, pumpkins, chilli-peppers, and the aforementioned shallots. I'd be lost without the pickle/chutney shelf in the utility room, particularly when it comes to the school lunches -- a simple slice of ham can be turned in to seriously good sandwich with a good dollop of some chutney or other.
The freezer still turns up an occasional nugget of wonderfulness -- yesterday evening for example, we had some beautiful broad beans that were harvested last September.
In the polytunnel, we've still plenty of winter greens -- it hasn't really been cold enough over the winter to knock them back completely. I also noticed this week that heads have formed on the calabrese (broccoli) plants that I bought as young seedlings in plug trays from Sean O'Driscoll on a visit to Ballybeg Greens in Waterford back in August.
In the veg patch I still have a decent number of parsnips in the ground. I haven't counted them, but if I had to guess I'd say there are maybe 20-25. Close by, there's a great crop of leeks -- surely another four to six weeks' worth. We used the first of them over Christmas and they are wonderful -- though they are not classed as a 'green', they taste fresh and spring-like.
Finally, there's also still plenty of life in my kale and perpetual spinach plants (see tip below) and I noticed the other day that the rhubarb plants are showing signs of life again too. So, all in all, we won't go hungry yet!
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY
Recipe of the week -- Colcannon
I LOVE the warming earthiness of colcannon -- it's my favourite way to eat cabbage. You can also use kale for this recipe. Serves 4
* 500g of cabbage -- stalks removed and then shredded
* 500g potatoes, scrubbed
* 2 sticks butter
* 150ml hot milk
* 4 spring onions, finely chopped
* Steam the potatoes in their skins for a half hour, then peel and mash them.
* Add a lump of butter.
* Season well.
* Meanwhile, steam the cabbage or kale in a small amount of boiling water until tender. Don't overcook.
* Put the milk in a pan and throw in the spring onions, simmering for about five minutes.
* Add this and the cabbage/kale to the spuds and beat well.
* Serve with a knob of butter on top and sprinkle with some parsley.
* Some chopped ham or crispy bacon added in before serving also works a treat.
Date for your diary
A Permaculture Taster -- learn how we can live more sustainably, grow food intensively and strengthen the resilience of our communities using Permaculture Design. A one-day introductory workshop hosted by Davie Philip of Cultivate and Bruce Darrell of Feasta, both based at Cloughjordan Ecovillage. Saturday January 25, 2014, central Dublin venue, €55. For further information see www.cultivate.ie
GIY Skibereen meets for its first meeting of 2014 this evening. More details at www.giyireland.com/events.
Globe Artichokes - Why Grow it?
Globe artichokes are no relation to Jerusalem artichokes -- in fact, they couldn't be more different. Whereas Jerusalem artichokes will grow in any soil, and produce enormous yields of knobbly tubers underground, globe artichokes are grown for the dense hearts that are inside flowerheads, which grow on top of a massive thistle-like plant.
Growing from seed is possible, but many GIYers use more reliable "offsets", which are the sideshoots from an established plant. They will need a very fertile soil in a sunny, sheltered position. To grow from seed, sow seeds in module trays indoors in March -- plant them on in to larger 10cm pots and plant out in June after hardening off. Space them at least one metre apart. Cover the plants with fleece if there is a risk of frost. Offsets are planted about 5cm deep. Trim the leaves to 13cm after planting.
Keep plants weed free and water well. In the first year remove the flowerhead as soon as it appears -- this will give you a better crop the next year (sounds great in theory, but not so hot if you are an instant gratification kind of person). To prepare plants for the winter, remove any dead stems and dying foliage. Fork over the soil around the plants and then put a thick layer of well rotted manure or compost around them. Give them a high potash liquid feed in the spring.
Harvest the largest, top globe first when it turns fat and soft and just before the scales start to open out. Then harvest the other heads as they mature. You will get about a dozen of them between June and August. Globe artichokes will produce globes every year for three to four years and then they start to produce progressively less. At this stage, it's worth propagating new plants by cutting offsets from old ones.
GIY recommended varieties
Violetto di Chioggia, Green Globe.
Globe artichokes are relatively problem free apart from the usual suspects -- snails, slugs, aphids etc.
* Make sure you water the plants well in the summer -- if they don't have enough H2O you will end up with disappointingly small globes.
* Globe artichokes make a beautiful, edible addition to the flower border
Watch GIY tutorials on growing vegetables at www.giyireland.com/videos.