3 Lessons from the Ballyer Backyard: March to July 2017

I’ve learned so much in a short time working in this garden. Mostly what not to do.

Here are some things I need to do right next time, and one thing I think I’m doing pretty well now…

1. Space properly

In my greed to maximise output from my pots and one raised bed I’ve had some over planting and overcrowding issues, which has inevitably led to a lot of waste (most of my lettuce ended up in the compost bin), and unnecessary competition between plants.

Plants jostling for space in my raised bed earlier this summer

I can’t help thinking my garlic would have been a bit more substantial in size, had a given them more room to breath, and there’s a pot of beetroot that I reckon will ultimately yield only mini size veg.

My broccoli, while now growing tall, could do with more space, and the kale is crowded together. Though I did pull a few plants to make more space.

There are other benefits to giving veg a bit more space – in particular it might make it a little more challenging for caterpillars and other pests to scuttle from plant to plant.

In future I need to plan a lot better in terms of quantities of plants to develop and plant out. And to be a lot more brutal with thinning out seedlings. I feel guilty depriving some seedlings with their chance to grow. I need to toughen up!

2. Only grow what you’ll actually eat

Lettuce growing huge in the raised bed, to the detriment of other plants (see the wee beetroot struggling under it on the right)
Most of the lettuce ended up in the compost bin

Prior to having my own garden, I spent a year-plus involved in a community garden (which I hope to write a blog or two about in future).

My gardening skills and knowledge, were non existent prior to wandering in the gate of the community garden in the Spring of 2015.

By the time I moved out of the area and away from the garden, I was still a weeder and waterer at best, albeit a better one than I had been a year or so before.

Sign for Summer Row Garden in Summerhill in Spring 2016

So, when I was buying seed and planning my own garden, I gravitated toward what I knew from the community garden, going for reliable plants like kale, chard and spinach – though I’m not all that keen on eating them.

Between those and the inordinate amount of lettuce – I’d say about half of what I’ve grow so far this year (including some current plants) are of little culinary interest to me.

Next growing season, I hope to be braver with my choices.

3. Good soil nutrition is key

This is an obvious one, but potentially overlooked. At my community garden I picked up some good tips on composting, though I didn’t pay much attention to the wormery there – apart from picking up that worm compost was very rich and ideal for dressing the top of beds, preferably around stems of plants.

When I got my own garden I was particularly conscious that I’d be relying a lot of pots to produce food – making extra soil nutrition vital. So, I bought a prefabricated wormery.

As well as generating nutrient-rich compost, the wormery is designed to  catch the liquid worm ‘castings’ in the bottom, with a tap for siphoning it off.

Feeding time

Now in full production, I’m getting a small soft drink bottle’s worth every week from the wormery as its workers break down the vegetable waste of our household of two. Diluted one part worm castings to ten parts water,  this is ideal plant food.


The wormery delivers compost a lot faster than a bin/heap too. Albeit, in smaller amounts.


Prior to the wormery coming up with the goods, I brewed nettle tea for feeding the plants.

A comfrey plant in the garden is also a great source of nutrition, making a fertilising tea from its leaves.

But to me, there’s something particularly endearing about the cycle of the wormery. I do hope its inhabitants feel the same way.


When planting pots with carrots a couple of weeks ago, I decided to try the tip I’d come across about putting an unbroken raw egg in the pot for an extra nutrition boost. Not sure how I’ll tell if it added anything though.


Harvesting garlic and storing shallots

Garlic laid out to dry in the shed

July is garlic month.

I planted mine in early March, and I’d anticipated it having a longer growing time, but the leaves started to discolour a few weeks ago (I attributed it to too much rain/watering) and then last week the tall stalks started falling over in the same style as onions.

Unlike onions, garlic doesn’t push up out of the soil, so watching the leaves is the only way to judge their readiness.

There are two main varieties of garlic – hard neck and soft neck. The ‘neck’ here is the stem which is stiff or pliable respectively.

When ready for harvesting, hard neck garlic is ready to go when the bottom two or three leaves start to go a yellowy-brown. At this stage it’s advisable to dig up a test garlic to see if it is fully developed. If it is, harvest away. If not, wait till the discolouration of the leaves is more pronounced and then test again.

Soft neck varieties are less subtle and flop over, announcing they’re done growing.

To harvest either variety,  dig around the garlic prior to lifting so they come out easily.

You can leave the garlic to dry in rows in the sun on a rack or mesh so their off the ground and air can circulate. Best not to leave them for more than a day though. Then they’ll need to be brought inside, and dried in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks till the leaves dry out completely. After that cut off the necks and roots and store them in a cool spot with good air flow. Mesh bags are ideal for storing them. Or they can be braided into strings of garlic and hung (I might give that a go when they’re ready).

Mine are soft necks. They were smallish upon harvest, but the all look healthy and unblighted.

The planting cloves were another purchase from Mr Middleton on Mary Street, Dublin.

As my harvest was quite small in number (about 20 bulbs), I won’t be conserving any for planting in the winter, much as I like the idea of starting a garlic family tree in my Ballyer backyard.


My 2017 freshly pulled shallots

I left my shallots to dry under a coldframe (separated and elevated off the ground) for about three weeks, until the leaves were brown and crackling, and the skin around the bulb falling away easily

So yesterday I trimmed back the stalks, leaving an inch at the top, trimmed away any remaining roots and put them in net bags I’ve been saving from shop-bought fruits. I’m storing them in a cool ventilated cupboard.


They should store for several months, if they’re kept cool and have decent air circulation.


Here’s a really useful video from GrowVeg on drying and storing onions (and by extension shallots).

I used my first fully-dried shallots in a stir fry with kale, spinach, and chard from the garden, plus some shop-bought pak choi and broccoli (still waiting for signs of florets on my own broccolis). The stir-fried shallots were lovely. Not too strong and with a nice sweetness. I’m definitely going to grow these again.

Battling the undergrowth

Over the last few months we’ve launched a few assaults on the tangle if ivy and heaps of waste dumped around the small brick-built shed over the years pre-dating our arrival.

The opposition is still winning, but we struck some major blows recently, severing ivy connections, and filling yet another skip bag with waste.

My advice on any similar situation would be – get your clearing done first and foremost – and don’t, as we have done, simply try to work around the chaos!

Ivy pressing up against and filling the back window of the shed
The ivy has had years to wrap itself around the two struggling laburnum trees in the corner of the garden behind the shed, consume the fence dividing us from our neighbours, and form a thick toupee on top of the shed
Corrugated iron panels, an old bedstead, an abandoned wheelbarrow and a couple of tonnes of soil are among the waste we uncovered on the left side of the shed. The soil will at least have some use in forming the lower layer of the larger raised beds we have planned.
Major improvement, but still a bit of a state. And we managed to access the pole to put up our washing line for the first time. Progress!
Mostly ivy and branches in here…

Cabbage butterfly apocalypse


I had been a bit cavalier about the broccoli.

In the spring I’d constructed a netted area over a third of the raised bed to ward off brassica-loving pigeons when the time came.

But, in the intervening time between setting it up and planting out the broccoli, I’d gotten browned-off manoeuvering round the thing trying not to be skewered by bits of protruding bamboo.

So, I took it down, and watched happily as various members of the pigeon and dove family blithely ignored the broccoli and kale patch altogether.

I knew nothing of the real enemy, the cabbage butterfly.

Deceptively pretty as it flutters haphazardly about, this delicate insect is a major pest to brassicas, and is particularly fond of broccoli.

I’m fairly confident that there aren’t too many broccoli plants growing in the neighbouring gardens on our block, so ours are manna from heaven to these butterflies.

I spotted the first few descending last week and thought only how nice they looked. I even cautioned Patch the Jack Russell against eating one (she’s adept at snapping up insects on the fly).

Now, I think I’ll start incentivising her to hunt them out…

It was by accident that I came across a vital piece of information about the true intent of the cabbage butterflies hovering round my young broccoli.

While watching a gardening video about something else, they were mentioned in passing. A simple warning to watch out for them as the like to lay their eggs on the underside of brassica leaves, and when hatched, the caterpillars make short work of your crops.

A quick image search confirmed that the butterflies I’d been fawning over were indeed this fearful enemy… And they must be stopped!

The next day, armed with a damp cloth I carefully inspected the leaves of all the broccoli plants, five larger and three babies in the bed, and six medium ones in pots, wiping away anything suspicious.

dusty, webby stuff clustering at base of broccoli leaves

This included clusters of a dusty looking substance that nestled in the hollow at the base of the larger leaves – the work of another species of pest, annihilated too.


On a few leaves of the larger plants I spotted small yellow or black spots, all were wiped off. And one or two infant caterpillars.


The leaves on the plants in pots however, which were better spaced and more accessible, had all been hit.

Thankfully there was time to clear off the clusters of bright yellow eggs before an army of leaf munchers were released to wreak havoc.

Soon all traces of the enemy were removed, in what was hopefully a brisk and painless apocalypse.


I constructed net protection around the broccoli in the bed. Those in pots are still exposed.

I’ll need to be diligent and check regularly for signs of more eggs or missed caterpillars.

Thankfully I’ve had few aphids so far. Though they may still be along yet with this upside down weather.


Some miscellaneous black things were trying to make a young spinach theirs, so I uprooted the whole thing.

Loathe to murder all the gestating insects, I left some eggs intact in the compost bin, where they can gorge themselves a while yet.

There will probably be consequences to that. But there’s only so much killing I can take in one day.

Gardening is a brutal game really.

Shallot time

Look at them!


And more to come yet. Have the first lot drying under a coldframe as the weather is so unpredictable at the moment.


Two or three weeks in there, then time to prep for storage.

They should keep for best part of a year. But I reckon they’ll be eaten in two or three months tops.

I got the shallot bulbs from the marvellous Mr Middleton’s on Mary Street in early spring. They grew well and fast. It’s been lovely to watch them develop.

Raised bed
The foundations of a long-ago greenhouse make a handy raised bed. Currently home to shallots, garlic (middle), spinach and chard seedlings (cold frame, left) and awaiting broccoli and kale (netted area, right). April 2017
Rich green shallot stalks soaking up the sun
Irish abundance

While searching for info on how best to store I came across this YouTube video, made by GrowVeg: https://www.youtube.com/user/GrowVeg They have loads of useful tips videos.


First carrots and beetroot

After nearly four long months of growing, our first crop of carrots was ready. And it was tiny.

IMG_20170627_125835Thin and gnarly, they had good flavour when roasted up (in a casserole with shallots, kale, potatoes and lentils, and flavoured with herbs from the garden).


While carrots are fine for growing in pots, I felt a little cheated by this small yield after what felt like a long wait.

I now look at the further two pots of carrots that will be ready in the next few weeks and wonder if it was worth it, months of watering and tending, for maybe four or five dinner’s worth?


There was a notable difference in size and growth rates between the beetroot grown in pots and in the raised bed. With the latter taking less time to develop into bigger beets (though the older pot crop would have had an initial slow start in the bland March/early April weather).

I’ll definitely re-prioritise what goes into the bed from here on in, and I’ll make lots of room for more beetroot to grow into Autumn.

The plan is to remodel the garden and have two more substantial raised beds for next year. Can’t happen soon enough…


Mystery plant

No idea what this plant is. We saw it growing everywhere on Gozo – both planted and growing wild. I thought it was some kind of asparagus – but couldn’t find any substantiating info.

If some kind soul out there knows what it is – please tell me!

no idea what these are – but they were being deliberately grown in plots as well as wild around Gozo