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Food Growing: There is only one skill beginners need to know


Food growing can seem a simple thing but, in reality, it's a skill and takes time to master, says Michael Kelly

In an effort to get lots of people to try it, there's a tendency at times to make food growing seem overly simple and straightforward. I have been guilty of that myself over the years. On one level, of course, food growing is quite simple: you sow a seed, a plant grows and you eat it.

But, of course, as food growers we know that the bits in between those major milestones are where things can get complicated. Sometimes it doesn't get complicated at all and everything flows beautifully. We smile, zen-like, and feel mighty happy with our abilities – but deep down we can't shake that uneasy feeling that we have no idea why it went so well this time.

And sometimes, it doesn't go so well. Seeds don't germinate. Seedlings die. There's too much rain, or not enough. It's too cold, or too damn hot.

The place is overrun with weeds. And slugs. Everywhere you look, there's a weed with a slug on it. Plants bolt or run to seed. Growth is puny, or overabundant. Yield is poor, or there's a glut you can't handle. Too little nitrogen in the soil or not enough. Too acidic. Too alkaline. Too many things to learn, not enough time.

In reality, food growing is a skill and, like any skill worth having, it takes time to get master it. So the most important skill that one can have as a food grower is the ability to take the long view and be patient. You won't learn all the skills you need in one season, or in 10 seasons. And even then, Mother Nature will continue to throw up some stuff that will stump you.

In my first couple of years as a grower, I tried to map the whole thing out in a spreadsheet (former IT geek, you see) with all the different sowing and harvesting times for each vegetable laid out in neat rows and columns.

Typical of me; I was trying to quickly get my head around the whole process.

Now, I recognise more readily that it just doesn't work like that – for one thing, such a spreadsheet would be useless this year when psychotic weather has meant we've had to abandon the calendar altogether and garden by instinct.

So, learning to relax and sit with the discomfort of not being an expert is a very liberating thing. Peas didn't germinate? Chill out. There's always next year. Rhubarb has run to seed? Well, at least the flowers are pretty to look at.

It helps, I think, to view GIYing as a whole range of little individual skills. Eating the elephant in bite-sized chunks makes it feel like a more manageable meal.

Growing each individual vegetable is a skill in itself, because they are all different – but there's a series of core skills that don't really change. These are the foundation skills, the building blocks for everything else. It's like the Leaving Cert on which you can then build your higher education. If you can master these, then you're well set up.

If I were to devise a GIY skills course (hey, that's not a bad idea actually), semester one would be all about getting soil ready, because it all starts with good soil. So, in that soil preparation and improvement category, I would put the following individual skills: good composting, getting soil ready if starting from scratch, single/double digging, soil improvement (mulching, adding compost/manures etc) and then preparing a bed for planting (raking soil to a fine tilth).

Once you've got your soil in good nick, then it's time to move on to semester two: sowing and planting things. In that category, there are, again, some core skills: sowing seeds indoors or under cover (I think if you're shown how to do this right, you will almost always have successful germination of seeds), pricking out and potting those seedlings on, and sowing seeds direct in the soil (things like peas, carrots, onions, spuds etc).

Then you're into a plant maintenance phase and there's another range of small skills to master: weed control (mainly hoeing), managing pests and diseases (particularly slugs), watering (knowing how much or how little to use), and plant maintenance (eg pinching off growing tips to bulk plants out, pinching out side shoots on tomatoes etc).

And finally, we get to the really fun part, when you get to sample your homegrown food. There are important skills there too: knowing when to harvest from a plant, being able to deal with gluts, and being able to 'process' and store your food so you can prolong the season (braiding, pickling, drying, freezing, clamping etc).

Still here? Congratulations – you've just graduated in GIY 101!

These are, quite literally, hands-on skills. Reading about this stuff in a book is fine, but it's all the better if you can be shown the skills by a person who knows what they're doing. In most cases, you only have to see it being done once and you're all set. It's this idea that is informing our approach to Bloom, which kicks off in the Phoenix Park this Thursday.

The GIY Zone at the festival this year is all about helping people acquire these little specific skills that will help make their food growing a little more successful. We will have about a dozen skills stations where you can see and try practical skills such as those mentioned above. You can try and get your head around some or all of the skills. If you want, we will even give you a graduation certificate when you're finished!

Incidentally, we're looking for volunteers to help us man the stations, so if you're interested in helping, then email: therese@giyireland.com.

See you at Bloom!

Things to do this week

* Harden off and begin to plant out seedlings you have lovingly raised indoors – eg, tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, chilli-pepper, celery, celeriac, Brussels sprouts, sprouting broccoli, cabbages, sweetcorn, leeks.

* May is another tricky "gap" month as stores continue to dwindle. You may, however, start getting some new spuds, particularly if you sowed an early crop in the polytunnel back in February.

* Continue picking asparagus, radish, rhubarb, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach and chard. May is likely to see the first real bumper salad leaves like lettuce and rocket – as well as the first garlic, beetroot and globe artichokes.

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

Health & Living