Dishwasher full of weird red stuff? Fix it!

Two years ago, I was staying with some friends who, incidentally, had our old dishwasher. It was a cheap slimline model which perfectly suited my husband and I as a couple with no kids (I think these days I’d go for a full-size model as we now cook with more plates and bigger pans).

I opened it up and was surprised to see that all the inside of the dishwasher, all the parts that should be white, were covered in this weird red stuff. It looked like the whole dishwasher was coated in those tea stains you get at the bottom of cups, it was the same reddish-brown colour but all over the dishwasher (except the metal bits). In the 6 years I’d known this dishwasher, I’d never seen anything like this before.

It turns out there is a special type of mould that affects dishwashers in one very specific situation. I was stunned to learn what had happened! My friends’ plates were too clean when they put them in the dishwasher! Can you believe that could be a problem?

So, yeah… The red stuff was a mould that grows in dishwashers if the dishes you put in them aren’t dirty enough. Here’s why:

When the dishwasher tablets don’t have enough to clean, they make the inside of your dishwasher more alkaline. This red-brown mould thrives in the damp, alkaline environment and is an absolute nuisance to remove once it sets in.

I found out how to get rid of the red mould in the dishwasher and here’s how I did it:

I started by doing the trusty “run the dishwasher through an empty load with a cup of white vinegar standing in the top rack”.

It didn’t work.

I was stunned. This always works.

The mould wasn’t shifting.

The first thing to know is that you can’t wipe this stuff off with a cloth. You need a hard scrubbing brush.

The second thing to know is that soaps and bleach are alkaline, like dishwasher tablets. If you try cleaning this stuff with any of those, you are basically feeding it, and it won’t go away.

So what you need is lemon juice or white vinegar. These are acids, which you might remember from high school science (or your biochem PhD… I’m not assuming anything, here) are the opposite of alkalines. When you have a mould that thrives in alkaline conditions, you need an acid.

However, it can’t be a strong acid because it could damage the dishwasher. So don’t use max strength toilet cleaner, even though it’s tempting to want to fight the mould explosion with something nuclear (or, more to the point, ionic).

Dip your hard scrubbing brush into your bowl of neat lemon juice or white vinegar and literally scrape the red mouldy stuff off each part of the dishwasher it has affected.

To accelerate the process, you can add salt (not bicarb) to the mixture for more scrubbing power.

Given how badly affected the dishwasher was, this took about an hour to scrub off every last bit of red mould, and I still couldn’t perfectly remove it from all the corners, but I was 8 months pregnant and very, very tired (also: nesting. I mean, who actually visits friends then obsessively cleans their dishwasher? Basically just pregnant people). I think partly I did it out of guilt, too, that this had been my dishwasher and I felt a bit responsible for it still. I didn’t want them to think I’d left them with a duff dishwasher.

Then run the dishwasher through an empty cycle with a cup of white vinegar, as above, and do this every week for a month to be sure the mould is really gone. Long-term, though, you need to stop washing your plates in the sink before dishwashering them. They need to be a bit dirty.

So that’s how to get rid of the red stuff coating your dishwasher shelves. It’s not a quick or easy fix, unfortunately, but if you find yourself in this situation, it’s absolutely worth doing.

You might be tempted to leave it as it looks more like a red staining than a mould growth, but here’s some of the health hazards of mould in your dishwasher:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Exhaustion and excessive tiredness
  • Constant upset stomach (mimics IBS)

Mould can also be an irritant, especially if you have sensitive skin like I do. And you need to take care when cleaning your dishwasher out for the same reason. When mould is disturbed it can produce spores (which is how it reproduces).

Inhaling mould spores can cause an allergic reaction, with symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, red eyes, a skin rash, and it can also trigger asthma attacks (source: NHS website). So be sure to wear a mask if you’re working with a very mouldy dishwasher (I wish I’d done this) and wash your hands and arms thoroughly after working on your mouldy dishwasher, to remove any mould residue or spores that might have landed on your skin during the cleaning process.

Mould can be toxic and people have died from household mould exposure, so once you’ve identified mould in your dishwasher, you should absolutely take steps to get rid of it!

The other problem with mould is that it can spread really quickly. What was a bit of a brown stain (maybe you thought it was a tea stain) in the filter or blades of your dishwasher one week can completely overtake your whole dishwasher in as little as a few weeks! So keeping on top of a good dishwasher cleaning schedule is really important when you start to notice it getting a bit dirty!

40 things you can clean in a dishwasher

Got a dishwasher? Did you ever think its powerful cleaning capabilities could be used on other things than plates, cups and pots? Here are 40 things you can clean in a dishwasher:

Bin lids

Put them on the bottom shelf at the highest temperature for maximum cleaning.

Small plastic rubbish bins

If you have those little bathroom or bedroom bins (the 8 or 10 litre ones, or smaller), you can wash it in the dishwasher, if it fits. Just check the dishwasher’s cleaning blades still spin once it’s in.

Your kitchen compost collector

If yours is anything like mine, it gets completely disgusting with mold. Run it through the dishwasher regularly to sanitise it.

Fridge shelves

If the glass shelves of your refrigerator fit, you can clean them in the dishwasher regularly to keep them spotless.

Fridge drawers

For some reason, my vegetable drawers in the bottom of the refrigerator regularly get food residue on them. It’s easy to clean them up by placing them in the dishwasher, on either the bottom or top rack. Remove the dishwasher’s cutlery holder if you need a bit more space to fit these in!

Hobs

Those metal things that hold your pan off the heat on a gas cooker can usually be done in the dishwasher carefully. Check your manfacturer’s manual if you’re concerned about damaging your hobs. I’m more concerned with having a hygienic home and removing that impossible-to-shift grease that builds up. If that means the finish on the hobs gets a little less pretty, I can live with that. Put them through with half a tablet for peace of mind, and don’t do them more often than twice a year.

Grill tray

See the advice about hobs. The shiny metal part goes into the dishwasher no problem, but the grease-catching tray may rust if it’s not made to withstand intensive cleaning.

Oven rack

The shiny metal oven rack on which you put oven trays and casserole dishes can go in the dishwasher too. Position it on the bottom shelf carefully and check the dishwasher’s blades still spin. Don’t put cheap flimsy replacement oven racks in unless you don’t mind them getting a little rusty. Only use half a dishwasher tablet for oven racks.

Plastic laundry pegs (bag them first)

If your pegs have cobwebs or algae build-up on them, or just dirt from being outdoors, put them in a mesh bag and leave on the top shelf of the dishwasher to get them clean!

Safety child plugs

Those plastic plugs that stop toddlers sticking their fingers in electrical sockets? If they get dropped in treacle or paint, don’t worry, it’s easy to run them through the dishwasher. Just place under a cup to stop them moving around or getting lost.

Some lampshades

If your lampshade is plastic, you may be able to clean it in the dishwasher (carefully). I’d only use half a tablet and I’d also put the temperature to its lowest setting (such as a “quick wash” at about 50 degrees celsius. In theory, a lampshade should be able to stand higher temperatures (because they are next to light bulbs) but with modern energy-saving bulbs, some lampshades might not be up to the standards they used to be.

Glass mirrors (be careful)

Some glass mirrors can go in the dishwasher, but they need to be a) a sealed unit that can dry out b) non-electrical (don’t ever put illuminated mirrors in the dishwasher) and c) The backing needs to be protected. You can do this by covering the back with foil. I’d only do this as a last resort to try and fix a VERY dirty mirror (e.g. it has crayon or paint on it) as the best way to clean normal household dirt/dust off a mirror is using window cleaning spray such as Windowlene or Windex. There is a chance this could still ruin the mirror’s backing so do take care!

Glass from picture frames

Again, take a LOT of care and only put the glass in (not the frame). These can be laid flat on the top shelf. Small picture frames might not be heavy enough to stay put so I’d avoid putting in any that are lighter than an egg cup as I wouldn’t like to clean broken glass out of the bottom of the dishwasher. A better way to clean very delicate glass picture frames for ordinary household dirt/dust is to use window cleaning spray (see mirrors, above).

Toothbrush holder

Does the bottom of your toothbrush holder get a white or faintly yellow residue building up sometimes? Sort it out by chucking it in the dishwasher on the top rack with your cups.

Plastic cars

If your toddler has been feeding biscuits to his plastic cars, run them through the dishwasher to get them squeaky clean. Don’t put toys with very small parts (such as Matchbox-sized diecast cars with tyres) in the dishwasher.

Lego

Put dirty, sticky and chocolate-covered Lego (and derivatives) into a mesh bag such as the ones for washing powder tablets and put on the top shelf of the dishwasher or in the cutlery compartment if yours has an open area where you could put this.

Mega Bloks/Duplo

Bigger than Lego, I’d still put these in a mesh bag if they’ll fit, or place each individual block under a cup on the top shelf to get them clean.

Breast pump (cleanable/non-electric parts)

This can go in with your usual wash. Don’t put the tubing in. The basic rule is: if you can clean it in a sterilizer, you can safely put it in the dishwasher. Regarding hygiene, I would probably wait until your baby is about 6 months old before using the dishwasher, as before that, you need to use the sterilizer to properly obliterate the bacteria that your baby has no immunity to, yet.

Vases

Some vases can go in the dishwasher, if they’re either crystal/cut glass or glazed/fired pottery (such as Emma Bridgewater). Don’t run them through too often, but if a plant died in your vase while you were on holiday, this is a great way to properly clean it out.

Glazed pottery ornaments

Be very careful, especially if these are expensive. Small ornaments can be quite light and might get washed around the dishwasher, potentially damaging them. You need to be sure they are held down e.g. under a cup or in a (dishwasher-safe) net bag that’s anchored to something. I’ve had good results using the dishwasher to clean up cheap second-hand Jasperware I bought on ebay.

Plastic phone cases

If your phone case is plastic (not fabric or leather etc) you can spruce it up in the dishwasher. I put mine in the top rack, laid flat, and I put a cup on top to stop it escaping.

Dummies/pacifiers

These can go in your normal household dishwasher load. I hold them down by putting them under a mug so they don’t get washed around the dishwasher and end up in the bottom and dirty.

Children’s potty

If you’re toilet training your little angel, you might want to freshen up the potty every so often instead of rinsing it out all the time. Pop it in the dishwasher on a high temperature (follow the directions for the toilet brush, below, and remember the potty and toilet brush can go in together safely).

Toilet brush

Gross, right? Some people swear by it! I’m not entirely brave enough to try this one as I’d be scared of getting poo on my cups in the next wash, but if you’re going to try this, be sure to rinse off any brown bits in the toilet and put this through the dishwasher on a separate wash to anything you eat off. Use a wash temperature that’s over 65 degrees celsius to be sure to kill any bacteria (this is usually the 70 degrees celsius intensive wash option and has a picture of a pot with a lid).

Dish brush

All scrubbing brushes can work well in the dishwasher. Just don’t put them in with lots of pots and pans covered in thick sauces or other food residue, or the bristles will catch the residue. These could work well going into the dishwasher at the same time as the lint filter of your tumble dryer (see below).

Washing machine’s powder drawer

Have you ever pulled out your washing machine’s powder drawer? Were you horrified to discover that it was mouldy at the back? Maybe yours just has a build-up of powder/detergent residue in the compartments? Put the drawer in your dishwasher and watch it magically become clean! Be sure not to do this if you use a highly foaming detergent (most washing machines don’t) or you may end up with a dishwasher full of bubbles.

Tumble dryer’s lint filter

Put it on the top shelf of the dishwasher after removing as much lint as you can, to get rid of fabric dust and other ingrained yack. The dishwasher will clean it like any other fine-meshed sieve. Don’t put any papery filters in the dishwasher, or they will pulp!

Vacuum cleaner’s dust collection compartment (if no electrics in this bit)

If you need to get rid of all the dust in your bagless vacuum cleaner, put the dust collection compartment in the dishwasher; it will be sparkling in no time! Avoid putting paper-based vacuum filters in the dishwasher as they may turn to pulp.

Crocs

They’re plastic, so if you’re trying to remove ingrained dirt from your Crocs, you can run them through the dishwasher (not at the same time as your dinner plates, you don’t want cross-contamination). Remove any of those charms that you can stick to them, you wouldn’t want them getting lost!

Garden trowel

If it’s quality stainless steel or plastic, it can go in the dishwasher. Be wary of wooden handles, however, as these can be damaged if they’re left in water for too long (just like wooden spoons)

Empty plant pots

It’s easy to clean out your old plant pots (plastic or ceramic) ready to re-use for next year, just plonk them in the dishwasher together (in a separate load to your kitchen ware), add a tablet and hit “start”.

Beauty blender

Put it under a mug so it doesn’t wash away. Don’t put it in with an exceptionally dirty load of stuff because it’ll absorb the grease and grime instead of being cleaned.

Artists’ painting pallettes

Water and oil-based paint should come out in the dishwasher (dishwasher tablets are designed to cut through grease, after all). Acrylic is a bit trickier and cleaning dried-on acrylic paint in the dishwasher is less likely to produce a perfect result as acrylic paint is plastic-based.

Food trays (not ones which are cushioned)

These can go in your usual dishwasher load if there’s room.

Empty glass jars for recycling

Remove the labels first, or you’ll be scraping them out of your dishwasher filter later. If you want to reuse the jars for another project, running them through the dishwasher is a great way to clean them up. On the other hand, if you’re just putting them out to recycle, a quick rinse in the sink is far less effort.

Plastic fly swatter

The water jets in the dishwasher can get into all the crevices and get rid of those disgusting dead flies.

Paint roller drip tray

The dishwasher can remove water-based paint such as Rust-o-leum Chalky Paint but it can’t remove gloss or emulsions as these are usually designed to be resistant to water.

Paint roller handles (but not the fluffy part)

If they’ve gotten dusty or are otherwise manky from being left on a shelf for months, run them through the dishwasher.

Blender jug

Only if the jug separates from any electrical components, nothing electrical can go in the dishwasher. I find it’s particularly useful for cleaning the lid of my Kitchen Ninja (the rest of it can’t go in) which has the most awkward shape and is really uncomfortable to clean in the sink.

Hairdryer diffuser

Remove the diffuser attachment from the rest of the hairdryer and put it in the cup rack to get rid of product build-up

Hairbrushes (non-cushioned ones)

Plastic vent brushes, most combs, Tangle Teezer-type brushes (not travel ones) can all go in the dishwasher to get them effortlessly clean.

And some important exceptions:

Take care putting anything metal in the dishwasher. Cutlery is usually treated and alloyed to make it resistant to cleaning products and rust. Many other metal items are not. Metal oven cooking trays seem particularly susceptible to this.

Avoid putting anything electrical in the dishwasher. If your blender jug is like the Kitchen Ninja where the electrics are all attached to the jug, it cannot get wet so it can’t go in the dishwasher.

Never, ever, ever put anything aluminium in the dishwasher. This includes those continental coffee pots that heat coffee on the hob. I ruined a brand new one of these recently by trying to wash it in the dishwasher before using it. The inside is blackened and no amount of scrubbing gets it clean. Sigh.

Got any more ideas for things you’ve cleaned using your dishwasher? Let me (and everyone else) know in the comments!

Caution

Follow these tips at your own risk. The author takes no responsibility for damage to items washed in your dishwasher. Results could vary based on make/model/age/state of the things you’re trying to wash. Always follow manufacturer’s instructions.

10 Plants for Pollinators in Ireland and UK (and how to plant them)

When we first viewed our new home, I was surprised that the back garden was just grass. There was no fencing on one side of the garden, either, and next door’s back garden (and the one after them) were also just grass. It seems like people on our street just don’t really bother about landscaping.

Mowing the lawn seems to be a pastime here. Most of our neighbours have either a petrol mower or a ride-on petrol mower! I know our garden is large (compared to most of the ones in our price range… still not large enough to accidentally plant the wrong type of willow tree, see below) but seriously, I couldn’t imagine using petrol to mow! Most people do their front lawns weekly and their back ones every two weeks.

When I think about it, I wonder how many “new build” estate houses (ours isn’t that new but it was built in the 21st century) just have a big green blob of grass out back which people mow because heaven forbid any grass actually grow to its full height out there.

I’m looking at our grass-covered garden as a blank canvas. We’ve already completed some big projects this year, such as drainage, but mostly there’s so much that needs doing, we’re basically just getting it ready for next year.

One thing we’re both in agreement on is turning the final metre of garden into a wildflower haven to attract pollinators. One of the best things about high-pollen plants is they are usually very beautiful to look at, too.

Obviously, if you have allergies you need to plan your pollinator garden more carefully but there may still be ways to do it. For example, if you’re allergic to night pollen, plant flowers which produce more pollen during the day and avoid things like night-scented jasmine; if you’re allergic to tree pollen, give your garden height with shrubs instead of trees.

Pollinators are the insects such as bumblebees that pollinate all plants. Pollen-heavy plants attract them, but once they’re here, they will also pollinate your vegetables, fruit trees and other plants as well. And their numbers are decreasing. For more ideas about how to attract pollinators, check out this article.

With that in mind, here are ten plants that attract pollinators and how to plant them:

Buddleia (aka buddleja)

This lovely shrub grows to about 1.5 metres cubed (actually it won’t be cube-shaped, but you know what I mean) and attracts butterflies and bees. I’ve talked about it before in this article.

In many parts of the world, it’s a weed, and you might recognize it if you commute to London on the train as it really likes TfL’s railway embankments. I’ve also seen it thriving in the wild in Belfast, Donegal and Aberdeen so it can definitely cope with everything Britain/Ireland have to offer in terms of temperature/weather!

Buddleja Davidii seems to be the most common buddleia available at the moment, and it comes in several colours/sizes, but there are actually lots of other varieties of buddleia available to buy/plant. As it’s a shrub, it’s usual to buy a ready-grown shrub from a garden centre then plant it in a nice spot and watch it grow, rather than cultivating from seed. I got mine from Letterkenny Homebase and it was about 30cm when I bought it but in the past month it’s already grown to about 45cm.

How to grow buddleia:

Plant out: May-Sep

Flowers: July-Sep

Buddleia allegedly needs full sun and well-drained soil, but in my experience, it’s a very forgiving plant and can tolerate some shade and imperfect soil. If you don’t have good drainage, add horticultural grit or sharp sand to your soil and mix it in. The amount of grit/sand you need depends on the original state of your soil. Buddleia can thrive in partial shade, too, so don’t give up if you don’t have a full-sun spot for it!

Verbena

Growing up to 2m high, verbena can add height and structure to your garden, creating a layered effect when planted along with plants of other sizes. Verbena has purple flowers at the top of long, thin stalks. Visually, it can work well with lavender, sea holly and rosemary.

How to grow verbena:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-May

Flowers: Jun-Sep

Verbena needs well-drained soil that is watered regularly. It prefers full sun but, due to those long thin stalks, it needs to be sheltered from high winds–a difficult twin requirement to pull off unless you have a south-facing garden with a short-ish fence at the bottom. The best way to plant it is by the fence that gets the most sun in your garden, then plant something shorter in front, such as lavender, to protect the verbena’s stalks without obliterating your view of the flowers.

Salvia

The main variety is salvia officinalis, commonly known as the herb sage. But there are tons of other salvias available in all sorts of beautiful colors and sizes. With over 900 subspecies to choose from, some salvias can be quite fussy while others are very hardy. Some other salvias aren’t as attractive to pollinators as they don’t produce enough pollen, so do your homework before placing an order with a nursery.

How to grow salvias:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-Jun

Flowers: Jun-Nov

Salvias need to be in full sun. They also require well-drained soil. If you have heavy soil (such as clay soil) you need to add sand or horticultural grit to your garden and potentially put in a drainage system such as a French drain (named after a Mr. French, not the country). The fussiest salvias are not frost resistant, so plant those ones in containers that can be put in a greenhouse or a potting shed over winter and during cold snaps.

Lavender

With its characteristic fragrance, it’s easy to identify lavender. There are varieties in purple, bluey-purple, pink and pure white, making it easy to match lavender to the rest of your garden’s planting scheme. Most varieties don’t grow too tall, making it an ideal choice for borders. And the visual effect of lavender works extremely well when you plant a section of about 2 metres or more.

Lavender has a reputation for being tricky to grow from seed, but I’ve found it wasn’t, certainly compared to some other plants, such as echinacea. The main two varieties of lavender are English (lavandula angustifolia) which has smaller heads and overall is a more compact plant, and French lavender (lavandula stoechas), which is taller and has these odd long petals that make it look like it grew a ponytail! The French version is more fragrant but the English one is not lacking in scent, either! I’ve grown English lavender from seed this year (see picture above).

How to grow lavender:

Sow/Plant out: Sow indoors March-June; plant out June-Aug.

Flowers: It doesn’t flower in the first year. After that, it should flower Jun-Sep.

Lavenders prefer full sun but they also enjoy growing in partial shade. Their main requirements are excellent drainage alongside a constantly moist soil. In pots or planters, lavender can easily dry out if not watered frequently enough. As far as soil type, they prefer sandy soil, so if you have heavy clay, consider creating a raised bed and adding a hefty amount of sharp sand to the soil to accommodate lavender. They don’t really need extra plant feed or fertiliser. Lavender will die in waterlogged heavy clay.

Campanula Rotundifolia

One of the most beautiful sights along the Donegal coastline is the wild, natural campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell, AKA the harebell) which grows in clumps alongside the sandy paths on the way to the beach.

There are a few other varieties of campanula which you can grow (and 500 worldwide varieties in total). The Scottish bluebell variety is edible and can be used to decorate cupcakes (although the picked flowers will shrivel if left more than a day, of course). I’m not sure about some of the others, but there are other varieties such as campanula rapunculus which are also edible. You can buy the campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell) variety in packets of seeds, but check the full Latin name of the seeds you’re buying before eating, in case you have one of the other types of campanula.

I’ve noticed Homebase and Tesco in particular are bad at not giving the full genus/species name for plants they’re selling (I have a plant from Tesco that’s just called “aloe” with nothing on the label stating whether it’s aloe vera or aloe barbadensis or something else enirely). This article from Gardener’s World outlines 10 of the most interesting campanulas to grow in the UK/Ireland.

I bought my campanulas. The RRP was €6.45 but I got mine for 50¢ as they were “looking a bit dead”. As you can see from the photo they have perked up a lot over the past two months and are now flowering!

How to grow campanula rotundifolia:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: June to first frost, so usually October in most parts of UK/Ireland

Campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebells/English harebells) grow best in well-drained soil, they don’t thrive in waterlogged conditions, but they also don’t enjoy 100% sand soils, because they like a bit of fertility to their soil. They are a coastal plant in Donegal and native to some of the rest of the Irish west coast, too, which tells you they like it wet and well-drained! They don’t require any pruning/maintenance, although you might need to thin them out every so often if you planted a lot of seed close together.

Erica (heather)

If you’ve ever been to the Scottish Highlands, you can’t miss the way the landscape changes from grassy, human-cultivated fields to a magical wilderness where heather takes the place of grass and suddenly the ground is a riot of colour.

Heather can work well in an ericaceous garden (surprisingly, since all heathers are ericas), alongside hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas, although none of these others are especially attractive to pollinators. An ericaceous plant that does appeal better to pollinators is the blueberry bush.

How to grow heather:

Plant out: Depends on type (see below).

Flowers: Depends on type. Some flower at Christmas, due to being accustomed to the colder temperatures of very high latitudes/altitudes, while others are summer-flowering in the UK/Ireland.

Heather thrives in peaty, nutrient-packed soil with a high organic matter content, with high moisture and acidity. It won’t enjoy most clay soils, because clay is generally alkaline (not all clays are like that… test yours with universal indicator paper cheaply available from any soapmaking supplier, or a pH meter if you have cash to splash), so you would have to put heather in a specially-adjusted area of your garden, or grow it in a planter. Planters are difficult for heathers because you have to fertilise regularly to maintain the level of fertility they require, which can be effort for the busy gardener.

Snowdrop

Another plant with a billion different species, the snowdrop (genus galanthus) is a winter-flowering plant. The most common one is galanthus elwesii, and this is the one you might have seen quietly blossoming on the forest floor during a crisp winter walk.

Snowdrops are perennials, and more will grow each year. Thinning is required once a year in March or April (dig them out and plant the extra ones somewhere else) to ensure they’re not competing with each other for nutrients, water and space.

How to grow snowdrops:

Plant out: October/November

Flowers: December-March (depending how far north you are)

Snowdrops like shaded areas such as beneath trees in wooded areas, and they dislike full sun. Most pollinators are hibernating in the winter months, but those who aren’t will surely appreciate your efforts to provide them with some delicious pollen! They require fertile soil rich in organic matter (ideally humus from dead and decayed plants, so compost is a much better choice than manure for snowdrops… think of them as vegetarians). Snowdrops tolerate wet soil, but like most other plants, they don’t like being drowned during heavy rain, so a soil with at least passable drainage is best if you want year after year of snowdrops (remember that when they’re not flowering, the bulbs lie dormant in the ground for the rest of the year). Mostly, if you get the growing conditions right, they’ll take care of themselves (aside from requiring thinning as mentioned above).

Borage

A bright blue plant with distinctive, star-shaped flowers, borage is an edible plant whose flowers can be used as a garnish for dishes, although the leaves can also cause dermatitis if you’ve got sensitive skin, so be careful. Because it’s edible (and non-toxic), borage is a great choice to plant in a child-friendly garden or near your vegetable patch to attract pollinators.

Borage is an annual, so it lives and dies in one lifecycle, but it’s also self-seeding, so when it dies, its flower heads drop seeds that will grow again next year.

How to grow borage:

Sow/Plant out: Sow March-May, plant out May-June

Flowers: June-November (may stop flowering earlier depending on when the first frosts are)

Borage prefers full sun or very partial shade, but it will still survive in a bit more shade and less sun. It also needs well-drained soil. Borage doesn’t grow well in containers as it has a taproot (like carrots and dandelions) that needs at least 30cm of well-drained soil to enable it to grow to its full size, but it’s doable with a very deep container.

Willow trees

The willow tree is one most people have heard of. But did you know there are a lot of different varieties, and there’s almost certainly one which will suit your garden! The fluffy catkins attract pollinators.

Depending on what sort of garden you have, you might want to grow a salix chrysochoma, aka the weeping willow (loves waterlogged soil, but has a huge root network so needs to be about 20m from your house at its full height), or you might prefer a salix alba, the upright white willow, so-called because of its pale trunk, branches and twigs. It prefers a slightly less wet garden but still drinks a lot of water and grows very tall.

If you have a smaller garden, the more compact salix caprea (which grows to only 2m high at its tallest) or salix purpurea pendula (which reaches 2.5m high), both of which will require regular pruning to keep them from looking like a giant birds nest.

How to grow willow trees:

Plant out: All year round. Don’t plant in the middle of a hot sunny day, wait until evening or risk scorching the roots. Likewise, don’t plant out during a frosty spell, the roots might freeze in the cold soil.

Buy a sapling from a garden centre. Check the full Latin name of the tree you are buying to make sure you are getting the right type of willow tree for your garden. If you have a small garden, take care not to buy something from a supermarket that’s just labelled “willow tree” because it’s likely to be one of the tall ones (they’re cute when they’re babies but be sure you have the room for when they reach 20 metres tall).

Willows will mostly take care of themselves but you do need to ensure they have enough water, either by watering them yourself or (better) only planting them if you have a soil that’s damp most of the year around. Prune them in October (it’s illegal to prune trees during bird nesting season which lasts March-September).

Poppy

Another plant with many different varieties to choose from, the poppy is a beautiful wildflower native to the UK and Europe. The most recognizable poppy for anyone who grew up in Great Britain is the red Flanders poppy, which the cardboard November 11th Remembrance Day poppy sold widely in Britain is modeled after. Poppies are easy to grow and some seed companies even do children’s grow-your-own varieties.

Aside from the Flanders poppy, there are also poppies in different colours and sizes to choose from, such as the Himalayan blue (which has the hilarious Latin name meconopsis), the great scarlet poppy, or the bridal white poppy, which in recent decades has become an increasingly-popular symbol of peace in the UK. There’s also the orange Californian poppy and the yellow Mongolian poppy. Really, look at the range on a seed site like Thompson and Morgan and you’ll be amazed at just how many different poppies you can buy!

Be aware that not all poppy seeds are edible, and some can be toxic. Poppies are where the old-fashioned drug opium came from and some countries ban them completely because of this (you cannot get poppy seed rolls in China, for example), so be sure not to try flying with a packet of poppy seeds!

How to grow poppies:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: May-July

Some poppies are a little longer-lived than others, but like most summer-flowering plants, they’re best sowed between March-June (although if you live in the Highlands of Scotland or Ireland you might get away with planting them into July). They thrive in almost any soil type (except waterlogged) and prefer full sun or partial shade depending on the variety.

Allium

A tall, gangly plant with a long, thick stalk (like a daffodil’s) and a globe-shaped flowerhead, allium is actually a flowering variety of onion. In fact, if you’ve ever tried growing your own onions, you may have had a couple that flowered instead of becoming onions. If you plant a supermarket onion that has sprouted, it will flower, too (I tried this once).

Alliums are gaining popularity amongst gardeners because they are a structural, geometric-looking plant which is great for pollinators. They’re also fairly easy to grow and can tolerate most soil types.

How to grow allium:

Plant out: Sow directly into the ground in Oct-Nov.

Flowers: May-June

Alliums will grow best in a well-drained soil rich in organic matter, but they’ll tolerate almost every soil type. They are planted in autumn to “overwinter” which means the bulbs will lie dormant in the ground until springtime when they will finally start to grow (much like autumn-planting onions, shallots and garlic, which they’re related to).

Alliums are annuals and I haven’t yet managed to get them to self-seed. The usual advice is to dig them back into the garden (mulching) once the leaves have died.


Read next:

5 ways to attract pollinators to your garden

Bees have been in decline for about the past 15 years. I believe it was 2006 when David Tennant uttered the immortal line on Doctor Who: “Why are the bees disappearing?”

It was a question they never answered. Because no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no noisy battle with the Daleks could fix the problem. The bees ARE disappearing… [read more]

Preserving the onion harvest: 3 easy ways

I have been growing onions as one of my main crops this year. Finally, over the past few days, they’ve been showing signs that they are ready to be harvested. Onions can last about 7 days in the ground once they’re ripe, so I tried to time the harvest to avoid the abundance of stunning rainstorms we’ve had this week (I love watching the rain).

Since I lifted such a good amount of onions from the raised bed this week, it seemed like a good time to talk about what we actually do with them after they’ve been dug up. Onions are very easy to grow and they tolerate very poor soils, as I’ve learned this year from experimenting with where I planted them.

You don’t need to make much effort to grow onions, they are zero-maintenance, and not especially vulnerable to any of the major garden pests. Once they’re ready to harvest (when the stalks go floppy and fall over), it’s also quite easy to store them so you can have a decent supply of onions throughout the winter.

Onions are a good choice for self-sufficiency as they can be used to make French onion soup which is a traditional meal to help fight off colds during the cooler part of the year. They can also be used as a very versatile way to add depth and flavor to a variety of dishes such as spaghetti bolognese or lasagne (aka lasagna in the US).

You can plant onions in Spring or Autumn but the difference between harvest times seems to only be 1-2 months so your decision to plant autumn onions should depend on whether you have any other overwintering crops (such as broccoli) that need the space or whether you need to replenish the soil (such as by planting green manure crops e.g. clover).

Onions require regular rotation so don’t just plant them in one area every season or you’ll mess up your soil.

You can just store them in a cool, dry, dark (very dark) place on wire racks and they will last a couple of weeks, just like store-bought onions.

However, if you’re homesteading, you probably want your onions to last a bit longer than that, because you’ve probably grown rather a lot of them, to see you through winter. So here are three easy ways you can get them to last longer:

1. Canning

Canning works best for tiny onions. To can onions, you need to take care to treat the onions so they stay preserved. You can’t just put them in a can with some brine and expect them to store.

First, you need to peel the onions. Soak them in boiling water for 20 seconds, drain, rinse with cold water and the skins should come away easily. They should be showing their white all the way around the onion before you start preserving them, and they should be clean.

Next, place them on a plate or on a tray and sprinkle the onions with salt. Every onion needs to be salted so don’t pile them too high. Cover with Saran wrap (cling film) and leave to work for about 24 hours.

The next day, rinse the onions well to remove all the salt, and put them in a big glass canning jar. Cover the onions with hot vinegar, leaving the minimum air gap possible, put the lid on and seal the jar using a pan of boiling water.

Let the onions mature for at least 6 weeks before eating.

2. Freezing

If you have a freezer and a reliable electricity supply, freezing your onions probably makes the most sense. It’s also the easiest method for preserving onions.

Simply peel your onions, chop them (I tend to dice mine) and put them into freezer bags. Write the date on the freezer bag and seal, then place into the freezer. The freezer will smell… pungent for about twelve hours, until the onions have reached the correct temperature and fully frozen.

The beauty of freezing onions specifically is that, if your electricity supply is disrupted later down the line, you can always remove them from the freezer, defrost them, and dry them following the steps for method 3, below. Even with a prolonged powercut, frozen onions can be easily saved.

3. Drying

You can easily dry onions using a dehydrator and they will last a very long time. Drying your onions removes all the water from them, so there’s nowhere for bacteria to live or reproduce. You can then reconstitute the onions at a later date by soaking them in boiling water before cooking with them. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your dehydrator as temperatures and timings may vary between machines.

If you don’t have a dehydrator, you could lay out the diced onions in a thin layer on baking paper on a big oven tray, and heat at 65 degrees Celsius (150 degrees F) for 4-5 hours. It should be obvious when they’re done, they’ll have turned papery.

Once your onions are fully dehydrated, decant them into a storage container such as a Tupperware-style sandwich box (the ones with the clips around the sides are especially good) or a sealable ziplock bag. Write today’s date somewhere on your container of onions so you know when you dried them.

So those are my three very easy methods for preserving your onions throughout the winter. Now I just need to figure out if there’s any use for the onion stalks, or whether I should just throw them into the compost.

How will you preserve your onions? Do you have a method I haven’t thought of? Let me know in the comments!

5 Foods to Forage in August: Ireland

One of the most wonderful things about living out in the country in a large village is the abundance of wildlife all around me. I love seeing the birds every day as the coal tits come to my bird feeder followed by the ravens, who usually grab some of the pest bugs from my vegetable garden while they’re here.

I get excited when the blackberries appear, green at first, then red, before turning that barely-black shade that means it’s time to pick them. And I always smile when I see the rose hips starting to form at this time of year, looking like dewy pink rosebuds again, as nature gets ready for the transition into Autumn.

August is the month that many berries are ripe for picking. These are usually full of vitamins (especially vitamin C which boosts your immune system among other things) and preserving these berries through making jams, jellies, wines or cordials is a traditional way to ensure you have a healthy winter.

The earliest of the nuts appear at the end of August, too, although most taste best when harvested next month or even October. If you can find hazelnuts to pick, you’ve hit the nutritional jackpot this month!

Here are my top 5 foods to forage in August if you live in Ireland:

Blackberries

ripe blackberries
Ripe blackberries… totally different to blackcurrants (but everyone thinks they’re the same thing).

These are native and you’ll find their distinctive brambles all over the place.

My grandma used to say never to pick blackberries from by the road because the toxins from petrol cars would get into the berries and make you ill. She was a district nurse/midwife so probably knew what she was talking about. She lived in an era where car fuel contained lead, but she also grew up in rural Ireland at a time when there were significantly fewer cars on the roads, so I’d still heed her advice because we know a lot more about the toxicity of other petrol fumes these days.

I wanted a reliable source of blackberries as I adore blackberry jam, so since April I have been growing my own blackberry bush in a container (to stop it taking over the garden… it’s already trying haha). If you’ve a blackberry bush, it should fruit in the second year.

Ironically, it turns out there are also blackberry brambles in the little spinney at the bottom of my garden, and they have grown through the fence, so it looks like we’ll be inundated with my favourite berries next year! I always had a great crop of wild blackberries growing in the hedge at our old house in York, England (despite my mother in law’s attempts to remove the bramble “weed” when she visited), so I can’t wait to have them in my garden again.

Choose ripe blackberries which are a dark purple (almost black), and avoid ones which have been pecked at by birds or eaten by insects. If they have brown damage to the berries, leave them for the birds, too. Absolutely never pick mouldy ones (these will have green fuzz on them).

Remember, it’s better to leave some behind than to pick everything then throw it away, because other animals depend on naturally-growing fruits for their survival.

The best thing to do with blackberries you’ve foraged is to make my grandma’s blackberry jam recipe. If you don’t have time to do it immediately, freeze your blackberries until you can make them into jam.

Raspberries

My other grandma was Scottish. She lived near an abandoned railway line where canes of raspberries grew in late summer and her freezer always had a little supply of them ready to be made into her delicious pies with homemade pastry. Aside from the berries, raspberry leaves can be harvested, dried and made into tea which tones the uterus and helps stimulate labour contractions for pregnant women (avoid when pregnant until the end of your pregnancy).

To harvest the berries: Pick them when they are a pinky-red colour. The berries are delicate so store in Tupperware-type containers. You can either eat them as-is (or as an ice cream topping), freeze them, or make them into pies or jam. Avoid fruit that is damaged or looks like old lady skin, or has gone a strange colour. Also avoid unripe fruits.

To harvest the leaves: Pick them when they are green. Avoid ones with holes in them or ones which have aphids or other insects living on the back (or front, but usually insects colonize the backs of leaves). At home, wash them thoroughly then put on an oven tray. Bake at 65 degrees Celsius (150F) for 4 hours to dry them and put them into small muslin bags or tea filters when you want to make raspberry leaf tea.

Elderberries

Elderberries are a versatile natural fruit berry growing in Ireland in August. The berries are small and round, a deep purple that looks black, with a shiny surface.

There are a few other plants that have berries that look similar, including deadly nightshade (not a tree, but it can be parasitic around trees and I’ve seen it reach heights of 10 metres or more when entangled around a tree), so if you’ve never picked elderberries before, do consult a plant or tree identification guide to be sure you’re picking elderberries.

Elderberries can be used to make jam, cordial, or wine, depending on what you prefer.

Hazelnuts

Finally, a source of protein! Hazelnuts are supposedly native to Ireland in some areas, although I’ve never seen any myself. I’d keep an eye out because they’re the jackpot when it comes to foraged nutrition.

They’re hiding in little papery structures on hazel bushes, and they’re reddish-brown when they’re ripe (don’t pick green ones)

You can roast them and salt them, or even pickle them to preserve them!

Crab apples

Crab apples are a lot smaller than regular apples. They look a bit like rose hips, and are a similar size, except crab apples are perfectly round, not rosebud shaped. If you’re familiar with the plant where you’re picking them, you should know if, earlier in the year, it had dog rose/wild rose flowers (either white or purple with a yellow centre) or whether it didn’t, and that’s a good clue, too. Don’t worry at all if you get them confused. Both are edible.

Crab apples are best used to make crab apple jelly to be served alongside chicken as a condiment (like cranberry sauce for turkeys, but more European).

Installing a high raised bed: Garden update

I’ve decided to put in a high raised bed on one side of the back garden. We are still working on the drainage problem and I will write a lengthy article about this once it’s all sorted. Part of my waterlogged clay drainage plan is to build a high raised bed (30cm tall by 2m wide by 1m deep) which can accommodate a whole load of the displaced soil from other areas of the garden (it should take about 0.6 metric tons of soil, if you put those measurements into a calculator).

This came about because we have about 3 tons of soil that’s been displaced from digging 50 metres of drainage trenches around the garden. The soil type we have is heavy clay soil, and although we have a south-facing garden, the fence at the bottom is 4 metres high so that part of the garden is in shade for most of the morning, and even in this heat (I measured a 45 degree ground temperature two days ago) the clay soil just can’t dry out because behind the 4 metre high fence is a huge garden whose ground level is 2m above our ground level.

This means all the water from their garden comes to ours. Their garden is the lowest on their street (the street goes uphill from there) so we’re getting water from about 20 houses percolating into our back lawn.

It’s squelchy.

Even with the drainage ditches (which have created a beautiful stream water feature in our garden), it’s too waterlogged to grow anything useful or interesting. And I can’t have a pond and a water garden because I have a toddler (and will soon have 2 under 2) who can drown in an inch of water.

So instead I’m building up. The positive about clay is, it’s fantastic for holding nutrients in the soil for plants. It’s just the drainage that’s an issue. So I’m making adjustments to the soil (more on that later) to make it drain better.

The plan is to grow onions over winter in this raised bed, or to plant green manure (to fertilise it naturally), and dig that in, ready for squash or pumpkin planting next year.

Being quite pregnant, a very raised bed is great because it means less bending over to work with my plants. I used offcuts of recycled wood and built each side separately (long sides are 2 metres by 30cm, short sides are 1m by 30cm). Once each side has been made, you can nail them together using square chunks of wood in each corner to give them stability and strength.

First of all, I prepared the site by laying down some thick (but not waterproof) weed control fabric (aka weed proof membrane) to kill the grass and weeds that were already here. The membrane stops the sunlight getting to the grass and it dies because it can’t photosynthesize.

There was a lot of moss in this area and weed control fabric isn’t much use for that. However, iron sulphate works well for moss. Usually, iron sulphate is used to acidify soil (to make so-called ericaceous soil, suitable for erica, heather, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, citrus plants and other acid-needing plants). Since moss thrives in waterlogged alkaline conditions (especially in shady areas), acidifying the soil can help with this.

My problem with this method was, when the soil is this waterlogged, all that will happen is the water will dilute the iron sulphate until it’s not very effective (any pH of acid or alkaline can be neutralized when diluted with enough water). We would need to drain the area before using that remedy on the moss. Instead, I dug over the whole area after removing the weed control fabric so the moss was dug into the soil. It needs light (even a little bit) and oxygen to survive so this was another effective way of getting rid of it.

The wood needs to be thick enough to hold a ton of soil and remember, that soil will be wet, which will shorten the life of the wood if it’s untreated. However, untreated wood is better for your plants because the chemicals from treatments can leach into the soil. With a large bed this is less of an issue.

The structure was easy to make and here’s instructions, if you want to make one, too.

Instructions for making a high raised bed:

You will need:

6 pieces of wood (length 2m, width 2cm, height 10cm)

6 pieces of wood (length 1m, width 2cm, height 10cm)

4 square corner posts (length/width 5-ish cm, height 30cm)

12 screws or nails

Method:

Step 1: Attach 3 pieces of 2 metre wood to 2 of the square corner posts, using one corner post at each end of the wood. Repeat this step with the other 3 pieces of 2 metre wood and the other two corner posts. These are the two long sides of the bed.

Step 2: Attach 3 pieces of 1 metre wood to one square post at the end of each long side. These will make the short sides of the bed. Repeat with the final 3 pieces of 1 metre wood. See diagram above (the green lines are the square posts and the grey dots are nails or screws).

Step 3: Put your bed where you want it. That’s it!

Once the whole structure was complete, I sited it in the ground. I left a 6-inch (15cm) gap between the end of the bed and the fence, to protect the fence and to ensure better drainage from the higher garden behind ours (I don’t want their garden draining into my onion bed haha). In the images below, the bed isn’t in its final resting place, yet.

Because I used recycled wood, one of the long sides has an extra piece of wood nailed on the inside that doesn’t appear on the plans.

Next, I filled it with soil. This soil was all extra stuff from digging drainage trenches all around the garden, so if we didn’t find a use for it, we would have to figure out how to dispose of it, which seemed weird, because it’s soil.

The soil needed to be adjusted to it useful for growing plants, which involved adding sand and manure. The sand will improve drainage and the manure will increase the nutrients available for plants. You can’t use just any old sand, however, and there are several ways of adjusting soil.

You also need to take care not to use the soil too soon after you’ve made adjustments to it, because the repaired soil needs time for its structure to change after you’ve worked on it. I’ll go into detail on how to adjust your soil in another article.

I removed the turf all around the bed, too, and replaced this with gravel for better drainage and access to the bed. Clay soil suffers badly from compaction when it’s waterlogged, and walking on it will literally damage the peds (the individual cells of soil) by making them platy, so they can’t absorb water, which makes the waterlogging worse.

Compacted soil also makes it hard to grow anything. You can see this out and about if you’ve ever walked past a farm gate where cows have stood around, compacting the soil with their hooves. In summer, when that soil dries out, there will usually be a bare patch around the gate where things don’t grow so well. Compacted soil can produce dangerous conditions around farm animals (especially cows) as their feet can get stuck in it and then they might get injured.

In a garden, the main issue with compaction around walkways (where you’re not growing your flowers or vegetable crops anyway) is that it looks really unsightly. It also usually produces a very sticky mud that attaches itself to your shoes and refuses to let go, resulting in lots of scrubbing to get them clean!

Overall, then, soil compaction is not great for a number of reasons, and it’s best to avoid it wherever possible.

Switching the turf for gravel around this bed should also reduce the chance of excessive grass/weed growth around the edge of the bed, which has been a problem with my much smaller (120cm by 120cm by 15cm high) bed which is currently housing most of my crop for this year.

Also, the gravel looks pretty and will mean I can work on the bed without having to wear wellies to keep my feet dry!

So there you have it, that’s how we changed this dark, squelchy corner of the garden into a large high raised vegetable bed.

Avoiding tomato blight organically in Ireland

Friday morning, my husband’s weather app came up with something that we both found confusing.

“There’s a blight warning for Ireland!” he told me, thinking it was bizarre.

I raised an eyebrow because I didn’t know this was still a thing. For me, potato blight is the stuff of history books and represents a very painful chapter in Irish history. Also, I’m not currently growing potatoes. And I didn’t know blight affected anything else. Surely, I thought, in this day and age, there’s a cure for it.

So I went to Met Eireann, the Irish Meterological Office, and checked what they said.

I thought this only affected potatoes so I wondered if I should plant mine out asap or leave them. See, in the past when I have a bag of shop-bought potatoes and they have started to sprout, I planted them in the ground and got a big crop of delicious new potatoes. Article here. I currently have a bag of sprouting potatoes in our veg drawer, and this week would be the perfect time to plant them, given that the end of June is really the last time you can plant anything in our climate if you want it to crop before winter.

I looked up how to avoid potato blight and found out it’s much worse than that. It also affects tomatoes. The two plants don’t just sound the same when Gene Kelly sings about them in Shall We Dance, they also are very closely related. So close, they get the same disease.

Even having to think about dealing with this feels like trying to deal with the plant equivalent of the Black Death, but I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve found out.

There are two types of blight. Early blight, which affects North America earlier in the planting season, and late blight, which affects Ireland and southwest Britain. Remedies for early blight won’t work for late blight, because the diseases are two different species.

Once late blight takes hold, it cannot be cured. The first sign is the leaves are damaged, then your crops look… ill.

Farmers can spray their crops’ leaves aggressively with fungicides to keep the blight away. None of these seem to be available for homesteaders, smallholders or gardeners. I’m currently five months pregnant and so I don’t really want pesticides or other chemicals like that anywhere near me. I don’t even use weed killer.

Luckily, there are some steps you can take to prevent blight affecting your organic tomatoes without using any chemicals. It’s spread when wind carries spores during humid conditions followed immediately by rain. The goals are to keep the leaves off the soil and as dry as possible to protect the plants.

First, stake all your tomatoes up off the soil. I’m growing Tumbling Tom variety, which tends towards the ground, but I’ve found it’s not too hard to anchor them to a bamboo pole and get them to grow upwards.

Second, remove any leaves that grow close to the soil. Tomatoes have more leaves than they need, especially the lower ones where the plants don’t flower or produce fruit, so this pruning will not damage the plant but could save it.

If you have a greenhouse or shed, move your containerized tomatoes into it while conditions are good for the spread of blight. Consider growing your tomatoes in your greenhouse instead of your garden as this is the best way to keep them safe. You can also grow them in a polytunnel but I’m assuming if you had one, they’d already be under it.

If you don’t have a greenhouse, or your plants can’t be easily moved, get some polythene sheeting and make a DIY polytunnel to place over your tomato crops. Make supports for it from bamboo poles laid diagonally, so they meet at the top where you can tie them together (like an old-fashioned tent). Use a pair of four-foot bamboo poles roughly every 2-3 feet and lay the polythene over it. You can anchor the polythene with big stones or with tent pegs, if you have any.

If you can’t get hold of polythene sheeting or don’t want to use it, get a parasol or large umbrella (or a gazebo if you have one) and cover your tomatoes with it. It won’t be as effective as the other protective measures because the spores will still be in the air and an open-sided raincover won’t keep them out, but it will be better than nothing. The rain carries the fungus. Keeping the rain off the leaves will help protect the plants. Be aware of wind conditions, however, because high winds could damage or blow away a parasol, umbrella or gazebo.

If you’re really stuck, cover your plants with bin bags for the duration of any rain during the weather warning and be sure to take them back off before too long so the plants get enough sunshine. White bags would be better as they will let more light through and not overheat the plants (black bags will conduct heat more whereas white reflects heat). Given that I don’t have any of the above, this is what I’m going to end up doing. Be careful not to tie the bags too tightly around the stems in case it snaps the stems. Tomatoes at this time of year shouldn’t be as delicate as, say, courgettes but they don’t exactly have tree trunks, either.

When watering, water the soil, not the leaves. Take the sprinkler attachment off your hose or watering can and use a gentle flow of water, trying not to splash the plant at all. Again, the goal is to keep the leaves as dry as possible.

Our warning says blight will be hitting Munster, Connaught and Leinster later today or tomorrow, but won’t reach Ulster until Sunday or Monday, so I have some time to try and prevent my plants getting blighted. Honestly, if I’d known this was a potential issue I would have bought a variety of tomatoes that was blight-resistant or I would have kept them indoors instead of planting them out.

Of course, this leaves the issue of what on Earth to do with this bag of sprouted potatoes. Will they grow healthy or will they get blighted if I try to grow them now? I haven’t really got a place to plant them which is the only thing that has been stopping me. I know it’s a bit late in the year to grow them, anyway, and lots of people’s potatoes are cropping already; maybe this particular batch will just have to go on the compost instead of in the ground.

Container gardening update

So my back garden is now baked solid with its clay soil, and all my vegetable crops are in containers or my 120cm-squared (four foot square) raised bed. Here’s an update on how it’s all going!

My goal is to be self-sufficient although that’s not likely this year since I struggled to buy many of the seeds I wanted to grow, couldn’t buy many containers to put it all in, and the soil here was too poor to plant most things straight into the ground (waterlogged clay that goes solid in summer).

So far this year I’ve managed to start the following plants from seed:

Spaghetti squash x2

Courgette x6 (2 surviving currently)

Purple sprouting broccoli (one square foot of broccoli)

Tomatoes (tumbling Tom variety) x4

Peas (one square foot of peas)

Onions (from bulbs) (four x 1 square foot in the raised bed, plus a container of bad clay soil).

Lavender (one propagator full)

Echinacea x8

Sunflower x2

Results so far are as follows:

The vegetables:

The spaghetti squashes are probably the hardest to grow and definitely the least resilient. They insist on growing really tall and curly, they refuse to stay attached to the poles I fixed them to. One of them has a stem which has split open in two places when I tried to re-attach it to the pole again. I don’t see it surviving to the end of the week. How these plants survive in the wild is anybody’s guess. Maybe they’re a very cultivated hybrid.

The first batch of courgettes died immediately when planted out in early May. I now know they have to stay indoors longer and be put out later. The second batch of two courgettes were planted out yesterday into the raised bed, 60cm apart (as per the instructions on the packet) and seem to be doing fine so far despite being smaller and younger when I planted them out than the first batch were.

The first batch of purple-sprouting broccoli was in mint condition when I put it out a month ago. Since then, it established itself with some difficulty. Then a bird ate it and now it has no leaves but it still seems to be alive. I don’t know if they will grow back. The second batch of broccoli went out yesterday. I need to get some netting or something to keep birds away.

The tomatoes have been easy to grow. No special treatment. They just sat on my kitchen windowsill forever until it was warm enough to plant them out. They are now happily sitting in containers and two of them have tiny green fruits developing while all of them have yellow flowers. The main issue with them was ensuring they were in big enough pots to grow as much as they liked.

The peas were also easy. This is my second year growing dwarf peas and I know this time that they need to be picked when the pods are small.

The onions are all doing great. The ones in the good soil in the raised bed are about 5 inches taller than the ones in the container full of bad clay soil. So that’s busted the myth that onions prefer bad soil. But it also proves that they can grow in waterlogged clay soil with no major issues they’re just a little smaller.

The fruit plants:

The blueberry bush is flowering in its container. I don’t think we’ll get fruit this year but I may be surprised. I bought the plant in December and kept it indoors until April. You can’t change the container or re-plant a blueberry bush in May and it was a bit of a mission to get it outside in time for the end of April, due to my hyperemesis gravidarum being in full swing in April and through May. I think we were saved a bit by the cold May this year.

The blackberry bush is also happy in a container. I’m thinking of keeping it in a container even if we can make the necessary soil adjustments, just because blackberry bushes can be quite invasive (the brambles at my old house in York produced incredible berries that made great jam but OMG they grew fast and suddenly were everywhere, which seemed to offend my mother-in-law who tried to rip them out).

The two dwarf cherry trees I bought last March are still happy in their pots. They are living at the front of the house for the time being until I can plant them somewhere permanent. They are self-fertile but I think they enjoy each other’s company.

The Flowering Herbs

In an amazing surprise, I went to weed the cherry tree containers yesterday and discovered some chamomile growing in there. I’ve tried to uproot it and re-plant it in its own pot, but I think a good amount of the root snapped off so time will tell whether the chamomile will re-root or not. I’m really pleased about finding it because it must have seeded from the chamomile I grew last year, which I was sad about leaving in a hedgerow to mark a rabbit grave.

In another surprise, my echinacea has sprouted, and a second seed sprouted in the same pot, so I carefully re-planted that in its own pot about three weeks ago and it’s established itself really well since then. Both echinacea plants are thriving and I can’t wait to see the flowers. Echinacea is THE hardest plant to grow from seed in the UK/Ireland. I have two more pots with seeds in on the windowsill in the downstairs bathroom but I am not expecting them to sprout since I planted them over a month ago. We’ll see.

And my lavender, also notoriously difficult (but not echinacea-hard) to grow from seed, was finally ready to move outside today. It’s actually looking like lavender, now (very tiny lavender) which is so exciting! I learned this week that lavender won’t flower until its second year, which may explain why it’s so expensive to buy flowering lavender plants in the shops.

Only one of my two sunflowers has sprouted but it’s thriving and I moved it into a bigger pot two days ago. I’m hoping we can harvest and store the seeds as they’re one of my favourite sources of protein.

So that’s my gardening update, how is yours coming along? Let me know in the comments!

Vegan white sauce recipe

White sauce is the foundation of most milk-based sauces, including cheese sauce, peppercorn sauce, bechamel sauce, parsley sauce and soups such as clam chowder (the white one).

I know this because, when I was 11 and learning Home Economics (now called the much edgier “food technology”) at school, I spent most of my time copying pages and pages out of textbooks while my classmates were busy cooking.

At my school, the teacher would buy the ingredients for us and we just had to bring in the money (usually about 80p-£1), or we could bring in the ingredients if we preferred. My mum refused to give me the money for the ingredients OR to buy the actual ingredients, which often left me not able to participate in home economics. The teacher, thinking I was just lazy, made me copy out of textbooks as a “punishment”.

I think I learned more from this than my classmates did. In my experience of attending 13 schools and 3 colleges, home economics teachers are singularly oblivious to the social issues that prevent children from learning. They all seem to be jolly-middle-class women who think everyone has “tagliatelle” at home.

I had been cooking for the whole family since the age of 9, but because I had never eaten a fairy cake, let alone made one, I was seen as “bad at cooking”, a label I internalized and carried with me into adulthood until I finally realized, at 27, I wasn’t bad at cooking, I just didn’t know how to cook the standard middle-class British dishes of the 1970s (which people still seem to judge us on today).

That’s fine, because people like that home economics teacher who think there’s one true way to cook “properly” are usually the first people to get upset about catering for dairy free guests, on the basis that they only know how to follow a bunch of recipes they learned at school or from Delia Smith (sorry, Delia, but you have some unimaginative readers).

So I took great pleasure in subverting white sauce for the vegan agenda and I hope you enjoy the fabulous results of using this sauce as a base for all your dairy-free milky sauce dishes that Western cuisine seems so obsessed with.

This dairy-free white sauce is very customizable, because it’s the base for so many other sauces. Leave it as-is for béchamel sauce (for lasagne/lasagna), or add things to make cheese, parsley, peppercorn sauces etc. It only requires three ingredients to make the basic sauce.

Ingredients:

25g Dairy-free butter

250ml Soy milk (other milks such as almond also work)

25g Flour

This will make enough sauce to cover two servings of cauliflower cheese. As you can see, the measurements are a ratio: For every gram of butter you need one gram of flour, and 10ml of dairy-free milk (add a bit more milk for a thinner sauce). This makes a very easy-to-scale recipe and I often measure my ingredients by eye, adding one part flour to one part butter, then I add the milk slowly from a big carton until I hit the right consistency.

Method:

Put the vegan butter in a saucepan and put it onto a medium heat. Melt the butter.

As the butter turns into a puddle but before it starts to bubble, add the flour gradually, stirring constantly. You are currently making something called a roux, which is the base of most thickened dishes.

Keep stirring (it might start to feel quite dry) until the roux turns crumbly and very slightly golden yellow (don’t let it burn). The quality of the roux will determine the quality of the finished sauce. If the roux turns brown, throw it away and start again.

The flour and butter should look like this.

Gradually add the non-dairy milk, a dash at a time (about a tablespoon’s worth, or a shot, if that’s easier to eyeball), stirring continuously. Only add more when the milk starts to thicken. I usually take the pan off the heat for this part because it’s easy to burn the milk. If you add the milk too quickly, you will get a LOT of lumps (some lumps are inevitable). Squash the lumps out with your fork.

Keep stirring the mixture until it’s a nice, thick, saucy consistency.

Now you’re done! It’s time to either serve it, if you’re making this as a béchamel sauce, or to add the other ingredients such as dairy-free cheese, if you’re making cheese sauce, or peppercorns, if you’re making pepper sauce.

Has your sauce gone lumpy? Fix it!

The main way this sauce can go wrong is if you end up with lots of lumps in a fairly watery sauce. There are two ways you can fix this:

Either use a fine-meshed sieve (if you have one; the sort with holes small enough to drain rice without any grains falling through) or a hand blender.

Lump Removal Method 1: With the sieve, get the bowl ready, put the sieve over it (bowl must be wider than sieve, unless you tilt the sieve so all the sauce falls from one place, or you will have cheese sauce everywhere), pour the cheese sauce into the sieve, and wait for the sauce to drain out, then throw away the lumps that are left.

Lump Removal Method 2: With a hand blender, leave the sauce in the pan and just blend out the lumps.  It usually thickens a LOT when you do this (because the lumps are the flour and butter that is also the thickener that gives the sauce its consistency).  If it’s too thick, stir in more milk, a little at a time, until it reaches the right consistency.

Container gardening: 12 mistakes I made

Last year, we were living in a cottage that had zero garden. It was in the middle of nowhere and literally all we had was a space the size of a standard apartment balcony around the back door. In that space, we had to be able to store our bins as well as hang out our washing.

I started container gardening in March 2020, having previously had a “regular” garden at our house in England. I started most of the plants from seed, with the exception of trees.

Gardening for me has always been a process of making mistakes and learning from them for next time. When something works first time, I am amazed. Here are the mistakes I made and what I learned from them:

Never plant out too soon

A lot of packets of seeds say “plant out when risk of frost has passed” but they don’t tell you that’s a proper gardening date that varies based on your region. You can find out your last frost date by searching for it. If you really can’t find out, don’t plant out until after 20th May in the UK.

If you plant out too soon, the night temperature will be too cold for your young plants to handle and they will freeze to death.

Move new plants into bigger pots when you get them

I bought some trees, including two lovely dwarf cherry trees and a raspberry bush. They were from different garden stores and arrived separately. The trees were very obviously in need of bigger pots when I got them, so I put them straight into the big containers they have lived in for the past year.

The raspberry bush came in a 5 litre pot and even though it was quite a big plant I didn’t think it needed planting up into anything bigger. So I left it.

This was not a good plan. More on the raspberry next.

Don’t put hardy outdoor plants beside a radiator that’s hotter than an active volcano

Worried about protecting my raspberry plant from frost, I’d read that raspberries won’t crop if they get too cold in their first two years, so I decided to keep it indoors until May. I popped it on the deepest windowsill in the kitchen. It honestly didn’t occur to me that being next to a radiator would cause any problems. Our heating was badly-controlled and was only on or off, it had no thermostat (this was a rented house). When the heating was on, the heat from the radiator rose into the air and killed half of the raspberry plant (you can see it in the picture for this article, it’s the plant with yellow and brown leaves sat on the white plate).

Don’t listen to well-meaning but badly-informed people about plants, especially if they are not container gardening

I put the raspberry bush outside, still in that 5l pot. Its leaves turned white and then brown, and my aunt told me that it wasn’t a bush at all and I needed to separate the “canes”. So I dug it out and, stupidly, pulled the plant apart trying to save it, until I found out it was all attached and had one main stem beneath the soil. If it hadn’t already been dead I would lose a lot of sleep over this.

Cress on kitchen towel needs watering 3x daily

I was really excited about growing cress as it can be done indoors with no special know-how (allegedly). It’s aimed at children so how hard can it be, right? Wrong!

Cress dries out (like, the paper towel shrivels up and goes hard) about 2-3 times per day. It needs so much nannying and constant attention that it really only works if cress is the only baby in your life.

Unfortunately, I have a human baby to look after, so time after time my cress dried out and died. I got it to crop a grand total of once without it immediately drying out and dying, and that was scattered over soil, not on kitchen roll. I ate most of that. I haven’t really mastered cress or other microgreens very well.

Pick your veg when they are ready

I bought pea seeds that were advertised as ideal for container gardens. I planted 4 in a big pot and put them outside. They grew perfectly. I hadn’t counted on needing to stake them and so they grew sort of curly near the soil until I sorted that. They never got very tall, and I’d expected them to reach 2-3 feet (bearing in mind regular pea plants can easily reach 6-ish feet or 2 metres-ish). Pea pods grew and went fat and green but they were tiny. Maybe 4cm across.

I thought they were still growing, not quite understanding that dwarf plants mean dwarf crops. So I left them. They turned yellow then brown and died. I picked them at that point and even tried one. It was bitter and inedible. I should have picked them when they were ready instead of waiting for them to look like full-sized pea pods.

Echinacea doesn’t grow easily in Ireland

Echinacea is a coneflower native to North America. I wanted to grow it because when the pandemic hit, the shelves were emptied of echinacea tea by all the sensible people who know about its immune-boosting properties.

It is really hard to get it to grow in Ireland especially if you follow the instructions on the packet. It has taken me 8 attempts to get one to sprout, then it immediately died, and two more attempts to get one to live a month (and counting).

Don’t assume seeds will be easy to get next year

I also successfully grew chamomile, another of my favourite tea-herbs. I got a bumper crop in a 60cm trough, enough to last for months if I’d cut and dried it. When our rabbit Timmy died, we buried him in a hedge, and we planted the chamomile on his grave.

It’s always been a readily-available plant in the shops and online, it never occurred to me that would be the last time I’d see a packet of chamomile seeds. But it was. I would have brought the perennial plant to our new house if I’d had any idea about how hard it is to get chamomile in Ireland these days.

It’s okay if the soil goes moldy

The first time my propagator got a layer of white mold over the surface of the soil, my seeds (broccoli microgreens) hadn’t sprouted yet and I threw the lot away. The third time it happened, I left it alone and the seeds grew through fine.

Now I understand that if I’m covering a plant pot or propagator to keep seeds warm, it’s a fact of life that the soil will go moldy before the seeds sprout. I haven’t done anything wrong.

You will need more containers than you think

I couldn’t grow all the things I wanted to last year because there wasn’t enough space in the kitchen to start them off (I had nowhere else to do it), and even if there had been, there were no containers to put it all in. In the UK, all the garden centres got emptied of their stock las year due to fear of food shortages, and I was lucky to get three containers and two troughs but it wasn’t enough for all the seeds I was waiting to plant.

Small plant pots blow away in high winds

We had several big storms last year and every time, my smaller pots blew away and ended up either on next door’s drive, in the hedge, or completely AWOL. I lost two mint plants, a sunflower and two broccoli because one rowdy wind storm began overnight. The storm was so bad it actually brought the wall down next to where my plants were standing.

In the morning I had to walk around searching for my plants, putting them back into pots and sitting them on my storage bench again. A thyme plant sadly died from all of this. I’m not sure what the best answer is, but now in bad weather I move all my pots up against the house, using the bigger containers to form a protective palisade around the little ones.

The baby plants were indoors for longer than I expected

This one doesn’t apply if you buy everything ready-grown from a garden centre or nursery, but if you grow from seed, it will take 15-60 days for them to germinate, then they have to grow big and strong enough to go outside and the risk of frost must pass and some plants have to slowly acclimatise to outside over a series of days or weeks!

On average, plants started from seed lived in my kitchen for 2 months. This made it impossible to do successive planting and I’ve had the same issue this year (but less stressful as our house is double the size of the old one but places to put plants are still limited due to having a curious toddler on the loose).

Bonus tip: Cut microgreens and cress with scissors if you don’t want to eat soil/other weird stuff.

So that’s the twelve (actually 13) things I learned from container gardening last year. The plants were in my house much longer than I’d expected due to living so far north. That alone helped me plan my gardening for this year a lot more effectively.

Overall, last year’s experience with container gardening has made me a more resilient problem-solver when it comes to growing food. When I discovered in February that our new, huge back garden was a waterlogged heavy clay soil which was terrible for gardening, I wasn’t phased, and have switched to a raised bed and a bunch of containers for this year’s plants, because it was too late (and lockdown has closed down everything) to adjust the soil in time for this year’s growing season.

I think every gardener could benefit from learning how to do container gardening.