Sunday, 28 March 2010


Last week was the first day of spring equinox, but the season itself comes when it wants to, and this year it’s coming late to Ireland. We have had six months of strange weather – unprecedented flooding last fall followed by an unusually cold and snowy winter, and the spring is up to four weeks late.

That’s just as well for us – we must rebuild our garden from scratch this year; we scrounged old scaffolding for the bed walls and yesterday got a tonne or two of old horse manure from a farmer friend, but before we put the beds together we must heft a lot of stones out of the ground. Irish soil is filled with glacial till anyway – people here joke that rocks are their main crop – and after the house construction our soil is also filled with builders’ rubble. Right now we have carted off about twelve wheelbarrows of rocks just from our front field, and we have the beginnings of a stone wall lining our driveway.

The good news is that Ireland has such mild winters – the last one notwithstanding – that some things grow here year-round. Salads and legumes are summer crops, but many root vegetables can simply be left in the earth here and picked whenever needed, and cruciferous vegetables like kale can be picked through the winter.

If your part of the world is still coming out of a harsh winter, you can still start your plants as seedlings, either inside, in a greenhouse or polytunnel or in cold-frames. Coldframes are simply boxes with clear plastic on top – often with one side higher than the other, so the top can slant towards the sun.

If you haven’t ordered seeds yet, get some heirloom varieties adapted for your climate – here in Ireland, we have Seed Savers in County Clare, and there are similar organisations in America and around the world. Buy seeds for more than one year to be on the safe side.

Look around for larger areas to garden beyond your own property. In all seasons, you can look for a legal community garden and jump through the appropriate hoops – advertising, door-knocking, meetings with local officials – but keep in mind places that can be used in case things go south quickly. Fields, backyards, vacant lots -- even parking lots could be filled with raised beds, as my group, FADA, did with our garden behind the Newbridge Town Hall. If you have an elderly neighbour, ask if you can garden their yard, and in exchange they don’t have to mow a lawn anymore and get a cut of the crop.

If you create raised garden beds, you can fill the bottom half with sticks to save on topsoil. If you or your neighbours get a newspaper, remember to recycle it or compost it into the earth – you can lay it over soil like mulch, with holes to let seedlings poke through. Ask your neighbours if they’d like to donate their lawn clippings for your compost – if it’s from their back garden, and not the roadside -- or check into last years’ hay. Offer to mow their lawn in exchange for the clippings.

This is the perfect time of year to pick bags of nettles, dandelion shoots, cowslip and scallions. We have bottles of cowslip wine, and I make nettle soup and freeze some for later in the year.

Everyone is spring cleaning and throwing things out --- in the UK and Ireland, check charity shops, boot sales and the Buy and Sell. In America, the Salvation Army, thrift stores, pawnshops, garage sales, Craigslist and Freecycle. I used to live in a college town, and every May 15 and August 15 was Free Stuff Day. Dumpster dive near college fraternities for the best material.

Finally, if your weather is getting nicer, get some exercise: Take a walk, bicycle or bring kids to the playground. As soon as I get these rocks out, I look forward to doing more of that myself.

Photo: The five-year-old, walking across wooden paths over the Wicklow Mountains.


Amanda said...

Another great post, I do enjoy reading them. Visiting Ireland is something my boyfriend and I would like to do in a couple of years and perhaps go through his family tree while we are there.

I have a question though, what do you do with bags of nettles? You don’t hear to much about nettles in the States?

Brian Kaller said...

Thank you, Amanda. Nettles are found in the US but are more common here -- they can be made into tea, soup, stew, sauteed vegetables, kim chi, beer and all kinds of things -- even rope and clothes. I make mine into soup and tea fresh, and then freeze nettle soup for later. I also dry them out and use the powder for extra vitamins through the winter -- you could add them to bread dough before baking, curds before cheesing or just sprinkle them on other foods.

I wrote a piece about this last summer, published here on Energy Bulletin:

Thanks for reading.