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Gardening with Marie Staunton: Down in the veg plot


Marie Staunton  has a look through the produce  in Donal Skehan's  Howth garden

Marie Staunton has a look through the produce in Donal Skehan's Howth garden

Marie Staunton has a look through the produce in Donal Skehan's Howth garden

Not only is it harvest time, but because of the Indian summer, we can still get in a few quick crops of salad leaves. Lots of restaurants use what are called micro leaves in salads and they are so easy to grow on a windowsill. Micro leaves are picked small and never allowed to mature. They provide both a delicate flavour and a fashionable look to a simple plate of food.

Fennel, coriander, celery and chervil are all excellent choices for micro leaves. To germinate, place the seed tray on a light-filled windowsill. Fill the base of a seed tray with a couple of centimetres of vermiculite or compost and firm in. Just scatter the seeds over the surface without covering; the more the merrier in this instance. Pour some water on to a tray (a foil tray is ideal) and sit the seed tray, filled with your choice of seed, into it. Now, just allow the water to be absorbed by the vermiculite and/or compost. Make sure your seed tray has drainage holes, otherwise it won't take up the water. Add more water to the foil tray until you can see that the compost is moist. Seeds need light to germinate and a light-filled windowsill is ideal. Never let the seed tray dry out and just keep topping up the reservoir tray with water as needed.

Harvest the small leaves with a scissors. This is what I call skinny food - it looks great but won't fill you up.

For something a little more robust, try lamb's lettuce, and the beauty of this one is that you can harvest them pretty much all year, as long if you have a cold frame to protect them in the colder months, or indeed a glasshouse.

Rocket is another salad leaf that will last the pace and the peppery flavour is truly gorgeous. Autumn and winter spinach should be sown now. I reckon spinach is probably the most perfect crop for our climate. As a rule, it prefers our usual weather pattern of rain and cooler temperatures. The beauty of this vegetable is that you can pick the outer leaves and go back for more as you need some.

If you have a raised bed you can cover part of it with cloches to protect your tiny crop. Because lettuce is a quick crop, watering regularly is vital, or they will get fed up and bolt on you.

Before we head into hibernation, throw caution to the wind and grow a few interesting varieties of salad leaves and pretend we are living in sunny Spain for a little while longer. I hate to mention work, but if you are planning on growing your own fruit and vegetables, the preparation needs to start in earnest now.

Good soil comes from good soil management and without a little maintenance programme, you may fail before you even start. The presence of worms in your soil are a great indicator of how fertile it is. If worms can't live in your soil, what chance does a decent crop of spuds or cabbage have? Encourage the worms in by adding lovely rich organic matter. Manure, compost and leaf mould are a soil's best friends. Unless you are prepared to put in the work, the payback will be less than bountiful. I'm not saying that you should double dig your plot every year, but top dress it with organic matter and let nature do the rest over the winter.

The blackbirds are getting drunk on my grapes in the polytunnel and our fig tree yielded one gorgeous ripe fig that just burst before I had a chance to sample it. Having said that, it was a fantastic year for plums and apples and the strawberries were the best in years.

Last but not least, start off your broad beans and winter garlic and then put the old feet up for a well-earned rest. Mind you, the rest will be short lived if, like me, you bought a load of spring bulbs that are just waiting to be planted.

Irish Independent