February Gardening Newsletter

Dear Fellow Gardeners,

In Ireland February is the beginning of spring. I personally think it’s a little optimistic to think of spring in February but there are definitely signs that nature is waking up after a long sleep. My enthusiasm for gardening, however, is still dormant. In the past I was slightly concerned if I made the right choice in becoming a gardener as I had no enthusiasm during the long winter, but every year around late February/early March when the birds begin to sing and the first rays of sunshine warm your back – then I know that I couldn’t do anything else. I have stopped worrying, knowing that it will come for certain, this sense of being part of life.


Over the next few newsletters I will write about soils – their importance to us and to all life forms in general as well as some depressing facts.

I’m helping to organise a national Soils Conference to celebrate the International Year of Soils. The conference will be held at Claregalway Castle (Co. Galway) on the 3rd July 2015.

Eamonn O’Donoghue has kindly offered the grounds and the castle for this purpose and he is equally passionate about this subject, especially after having been to Brazil and witnessing the degradation of soils on a very large scale.

Already we have booked a series of excellent speakers:

  • Dr. Elizabeth Stockdale – a soil scientist from Newcastle University
  • Ian Tolhurst – an amazing organic grower from the UK as well as advisor and author of a wonderful book: Growing Green
  • Pat Lalor – Organic Farmer (Ballard Organic Farm)
  • Dan Clavin – Organic Advisor (Teagasc)
  • Frank Macken – Organic Unit (DAFM)
  • Gavin Lynch
  • Hopefully Jim Cronin

One of the key problems we (the human species) will have to face in the next decade is the degradation of our valuable topsoils.

To put it simple: The world population (of humans) will increase substantially while at the same time the fertility of our soils (worldwide) will decline at an even faster rate.

Up to date 1.2 billion hectares of land have been degraded.

On the global basis, the soil degradation is caused primarily by overgrazing (35%), agricultural activities (28%), deforestation (30%), over-exploitation of land to produce fuelwood (7%), and industrialization (4%).

Ireland has a land area of 6.9 million hectares and the agricultural land area is 4.4 million hectares.

If you think about it 1.2 billion ha is 1.200 million ha that would be the equivalent of 173 islands of Ireland which have been degraded by humankind.

In other words – 1ha of land could feed about 5 families (mainly vegetarian diet), so 1.2 billion ha could have fed 6 billion people.

As a matter of utmost urgency we have to identify what the problems are and how they can be solved. Hopefully the conference will shed some light on these issues.

It’s not all doom and gloom – there are many success stories where ecological farming practices did enliven already degraded soils.

So hopefully we’ll see you in Claregalway on the 3rd of July. You may know already the Galway Garden Festival is held the on the 4th and 5th of July.


Jobs in the Garden:

It’s great to be out in these cold and clear days. A few gardening jobs that can be done in January include:

Pruning autumn raspberries

Autumn raspberries are a lot easier to maintain than summer raspberries. The only maintenance for autumn raspberries is to prune them at ground level at the end of January/early February. They don’t even require staking. Better even – they produce fruit from summer right up into November.

Two good varieties include: Falls Gold (yellow) and Autumn Bliss (red). Bare root plants are available at a very reasonable price from English’s Fruit Nursery in Co. Wexford. You can plant them until early March.

Pruning blackcurrants

Ideally blackcurrants should have been pruned in early autumn. Remember – blackcurrants fruit on last year’s wood. That means that you want to encourage strong branches from the base. To achieve this you prune them hard by cutting about a quarter of all the branches right down at the base. Never ever snip around the top of the branches. If you haven’t done so earlier you could still do it now.

Pruning gooseberries, red and white currants

Gooseberries, red and white currants are quite different. Their fruit is produced on so called ‘spurs’. These are clusters of buds that will produce fruit every year. So a much gentler pruning regime is recommended for these ones.

General pruning guidelines

  • Cut out the three D’s – the dead, diseased and damaged wood.
  • Then prune out crossing branches, inward growing branches and then branches that hang too low.
  • Low branches are a particular problem with gooseberries. Be ruthless with them otherwise you’ll end up with a sprawl, weedy and unmanageable bush.

Once you have done the general maintenance pruning you shorten all the new shoots by half to encourage spurs. If you have the patience you prune them just above an outward facing bud.

I have to include some plant science here. The term is: ‘Apical Dominance’. It simply means that after pruning the top bud that remains will become active, even though it was dormant before. The interesting bit is that you can determine in which direction the new shoot will grow.

Another general rule is: the harder you prune the longer the replacement shoot will be and if you only prune a little the new shoot will be small. This seems quite logical but if you are aware of it you can apply it anywhere.

So remember: Hard pruning for blackcurrants in late summer/autumn to encourage strong shoots and relatively little pruning for gooseberries and red and white currants in January.


New on the website:


There is a new Question and Answer Section called Ask Klaus on the website – so for any gardening query (sorry only for vegetables and fruits) please send me an email on: milkwood.farm@hotmail.com


Interesting Website:

One of the students at the MSc Organic Horticulture course came across this website. It shows how to make a pit greenhouse – a greenhouse built into the earth and like geothermal heating it warms itself and provides frost protection. Great idea.

Have a look at:



Courses in February and March:

6th February: Grow your own organic vegetables

Venue: Kenmare AEC, Co. Kerry

Booking: 064 6641157 or email info@kenmareaec.ie

Cost: €40


7th February: Growing Vegetables – Planning, Soil Preparation and Propagation

Venue: Hydro Allotments, Tower, Blarney, Co. Cork

Cost: €30 and free for unemployed

Contact Margaret at NOTS on info@nots.ie

This is my favourite allotment and Zwena offered delicious coffee and food for participants for a donation of €8. I’d come for the food alone.


8th February: Growing Vegetables – Planning, Soil Preparation and Propagation

Venue: Bantry, Co. Cork

Cost: €30 and free for unemployed

Contact Margaret at NOTS on info@nots.ie


14th February: Beginner’s Guide to Growing Vegetables

Venue: Inagh, Co. Clare

Contact Sinead on: sineadsaddress@hotmail.com


21st February: Growing in Polytunnels

Venue: Ballybofey, Co. Donegal

Contact Dean Gillespie on 086 3760448


Gardening Weekend in Renvyle House, Connemara, Co. Galway

Date: Friday 27th and Saturday 28th February 2015



21st March: Beginner’s Hands on Gardening Course

Venue: Our own place in Leitrim – Milkwood Farm

Contact us on: milkwood.farm@hotmail.com

There are only 2 spaces left on this course.


Enjoy your garden