Shirley laniganVegetable growing tips from Lavistown

The Goodwillies have been farming on the edge of Kilkenny city for many years. Well known as award winning cheese and sausage makers, the family are also gardeners to be reckoned with. On a recent visit to the gardens at Lavistown I saw how they work the walled kitchen garden. I also saw exciting renovations being carried out in the bigger surrounding gardens. The renovation work is an eye-opening example of how much work can be achieved with very few hands when those hands are organised. But given the time of year, in the middle of the really busy time in the kitchen garden, today’s subject is the sound advice gathered from Roger Goodwillie about growing better vegetables and fruit.

The Goodwillies have been farming on the edge of Kilkenny city for many years. Well known as award winning cheese and sausage makers, the family are also gardeners to be reckoned with. On a recent visit to the gardens at Lavistown I saw how they work the walled kitchen garden. I also saw exciting renovations being carried out in the bigger surrounding gardens. The renovation work is an eye-opening example of how much work can be achieved with very few hands when those hands are organised. But given the time of year, in the middle of the really busy time in the kitchen garden, today’s subject is the sound advice gathered from Roger Goodwillie about growing better vegetables and fruit.

Standing at the top of the valley-shaped walled kitchen garden, looking down over the sloped expanse, I had to remind myself of two things: Firstly that this two-thirds-of-an-acre walled garden is worked by one man in his spare time. And secondly that it is done without an arsenal of chemicals. It was a sight that could make you believe that anything is possible. I came away realising that it’s not necessary to break your back to work a large kitchen plot. Organisation is the key.

For a start, Roger told me that he never digs too early in the year. It just gives the weeds extra time to get going before you need the soil for your vegetables.

He allows weeds grow on the beds over winter. When it comes time to attack them in late spring he uses a reciprocating hoe. This is a tool not often found in garden centres which mostly stock the less effective ordinary hoe. The reciprocating hoe has a swivelling square head that works as it is pulled backwards and forwards on the ground, slicing up annual weeds with ease. They can then be dug back into the bed to feed the soil. If you cannot buy or order a reciprocating hoe from the garden centre, order one directly from one of the mail-order companies like Fruithill Farm in Cork.

In the case of perennial weeds like bindweed, the answer is burial under a sheet of black plastic.

“Two years under plastic seems to do it” declared Roger. We looked at two areas newly emerged from their two-year treatment. One is now ready to become a blueberry bed. The second area was an old rhubarb patch into which the bindweed insinuated itself. The rhubarb had to be sacrificed. This might seems like a drastic measure, but it involves no hard slog, just patience. And if your garden is small and you have no desire to be confronted by expanses of black plastic every time you go outside, cover the plastic with a layer of prettifying bark mulch.

We next passed a little bed of comfrey grown to enrich the soil. There are many elaborate ways of using comfrey, such as making comfrey tea to water onto plants. Roger simply chops the leaves and adds them to the compost heap, substantially enriching it.

We next came to the sprouting broccoli bed. Sprouting broccoli is a crop that has become very popular in Ireland, a fresh, tasty green vegetable to harvest between February and April when there are not a lot of greens in season. If you want to grow sprouting broccoli, get ready to plant the seeds in trays between now and the end of May. Plant out the young plants into their eventual home, with a space of about 50 cms between plants in July. About four to six plants will provide an average sized family with their needs. Next spring you will be enjoying your own crop of broccoli. Roger reminded me that the plants come to maturity at different times, making it a good vegetable for picking over a long number of weeks. They don’t all need eating at the same time.

In the potato beds, he opts for blight-free ‘Sarpo Mira’ as he has no wish to worry about spraying for blight later in the year. He grows ‘Foremost’ over winter in the greenhouse for eating from the beginning of May. Happily there is no fear of blight on this crop as blight is a summer disease.

We stopped to look at the gooseberry bushes where the day before Roger had spotted what he knows to be a rare Irish bee. “It’s a small golden bee, and it’s only ever been found here in Maddoxtown. It seems to like the gooseberry bushes” he added. The bee was in hiding during my visit however. On the subject of bees, Lavistown is where the Kilkenny Bee Keeping Society holds its meetings.

Another of the beds we looked at was the asparagus bed. Roger planted this about six years ago with a variety called ‘Ninja’.

“It’s quite tough” he commented, but tasty too.

His advice on the business of minding asparagus is to use bought-in bags of compost as a thick mulch around the necks of the asparagus plants, administered as the plants are beginning to appear over ground. Bagged compost is sterile and weed-free. It is important to keep asparagus weed-free. Home-made compost has too many weed seeds in it for this job.

Passing the black current bushes, I asked if he put nets over his fruit bushes.

“No.” came the answer. “We just pick the fruit early and together. Our trouble is with squirrels. They go after the gooseberries. They squeeze the juice out of the fruit and leave mounds of skins under the bushes!”

We left the garden by way of a small plum tree. The variety is ‘Blue Tit.’

“I bought it from an English catalogue. It carries small blue fruit which is very good.” He also grows the more usual ‘Victoria’ and recently planted a French Mirabelle and gage cross, which has yet to fruit. He will see how that one fares in the years to come.