Now that it's March we can look forward to getting really busy in the garden. And if you're planning to grow some edibles this year, you can be out in the garden this week preparing the ground.
It is an economically challenging time for many people. In past decades, when more of the population was living in rural parts of the country, many people grew their own food, whether they were farmers or not.
It's a skill that we've lost to a large degree, but I often think if people realised how easy, cheap and satisfying it is to grow your own vegetables, many issues could be tackled.
In areas where things are extremely difficult, thousands of gardens lie neglected. Spaces to the front and back of the houses are given over to grass and maybe some decking.
We need to educate people on the advantages of growing your own and the enormous benefits of letting children see you grow your own. The relationship between what we eat and where it comes from has been heavily distorted. We need to get back to working with the soil.
Growing vegetables is fun. Yes, it requires work, but it comes with great rewards - they are fresh, taste better than produce that has been deep chilled or flown halfway across the world, and you have complete control over what goes in the soil to feed your food. If you want, you can keep your fruit and vegetables pesticide-free.
It's not complicated. It's a matter of putting stuff in the ground and taking it out later on, and growing material such as seeds or plugs will come with very precise instructions as to the timing of these two events.
So, where to start? What should you be doing now?
Your first task is to choose your site. Vegetables like to be grown in a sunny position so the produce can use the warming rays to grow, swell and ripen. But your site should not be too exposed.
For practical reasons, I like having the veg and herb patch near the kitchen. It makes sense if you want to grab a bit of rosemary when you're cooking but don't want to go for a hike to get it - especially with the Irish weather.
Traditionally, veg patches have been hidden at the end of the garden, but so many vegetables have inherent beauty themselves that it's a shame to hide them.
The next step is to dig or fork over the soil. If you are growing carrots, you must loosen the soil up quite a bit so they can easily root. You want the bed as weed-free as possible, and remove any stones as well.
Add plenty of well-rotted manure or seaweed and home-produced compost, digging it in and creating rich, friable texture.
This is the most labour-intensive part of the preparation but contains all the nutrients that your plants will need. Seed beds need some extra preparation; rake to a fine tilth for sowing.
If you have been growing vegetables already, you probably know about rotating your beds. This just means that you shouldn't grow the same stuff in the same place year after year as pests and diseases build up in the soil.
If you grew potatoes last year in one spot, grow something different here this year, such as peas and maybe cabbages next year. The following year, it will be OK to return to growing your spuds again in this position.
If you're stuck for space, remember you can always grow in containers as well. Raised beds are another popular option. As well as adding at least half a foot of extra top soil, they are much easier to manage - far less bending over!
What are you going to grow? The golden rule is to grow what you like to eat. This is especially the case when gardening with kids. Grow stuff they love to eat such as sweetcorn, rhubarb, strawberries and raspberries.
It's a good idea to make a plan on a piece of paper, mark out what is going where and assess how much you can actually grow.
Soft fruits (which can be planted out now) need plenty of space to grow. Perennials such as rhubarb and asparagus can also be planted out this week. These vegetables and the soft fruits will stay put so they won't be part of your rotating beds.
Marrows, cabbage and broccoli will take up quite a bit of space whereas radishes, spring onions and salad leaves can be tucked in between rows of veg.
Don't forget an area for herbs - they don't need heavily manured soil, just plenty of sunshine.
It's also important to consider, if the area is large, whether you will need pathways so you can easily access the vegetables.
Armed with your plan you can go shopping for seeds, onion sets, soft fruit, and seed potatoes. In just a few weeks you can sow indoor seeds of tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines and peppers, while outside you can pop broad beans, onion sets, carrots, salad leaves, radishes and parsnips straight into the ground.
Your potatoes should be chitting away on the windowsill for planting mid-March. It'll soon be all systems go so get the ground work done now.
Home & Garden
My worst gardening habit is procrastination, putting off until tomorrow what I should be doing today. The new year brings with it our annual time of renewal, an excuse and reason to start over. It's perfectly positioned for gardeners. The weather isn't inviting enough to tempt us outside but what we can do is make a list!
I visited a friend's house last weekend to give advice on some tree planting he is planning for the winter. We have been developing his garden for some years now on an occasional basis. Seeing a long-term project beginning to come together and reach the potential you dreamed of can be very rewarding.
It's the start of a somewhat tumultuous new gardening year, with storms and flooding giving way to more typical frosts and occasional snows. As gardeners, our world has been somewhat topsy turvy with bulbs shooting up when they shouldn't be and flooding or puddles reluctant to drain away.
As you tuck into leftovers from yesterday's Christmas feast, spare a thought for the sparrows outside. We are in the heart of winter and the autumn plethora of berries has diminished quickly. And with all of our recent storms the poor birds don't know whether they're coming or going.
Home & Garden
Now that it's cold, wet and wild outside, it's the perfect time for some armchair gardening. Put on the kettle and browse through a few seed catalogues (whether it be online or on paper). Winter is the time for garden planning and nothing beats the promise of life contained in packets of seeds.
I started planning and building gardens in the late 1980s when the trend du jour in suburbia was rockeries. They evoked a hint of history, drama, mystery and fun. You could even incorporate streams and pools or add a set of plastic or concrete gnomes.
As a nation we Irish are very fond of a cup of tea - after Turkey, we drink more than any other nation per head of population, averaging between four and six cups a day. But did you know that whether it's Chinese or Indian tea, it all derives from one plant? All budding Mrs Doyles should know the name camellia sinensis.