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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 11 December, 2019
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From the Garden: The spirit of meitheal lives on as the neighbours come to lend a hand

Turning over the soil in the polytunnel is a breeze with a little help from friends – who also provide some helpful tips, writes Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Grower

WHEN I GOT the big tunnel a few years ago, our neighbours John and Bridget agreed to help with some of the workload in exchange for some fresh produce during the summer.

Both are at or near retirement age (well, you don’t ask) and although they still have some raised beds in the garden, they don’t bother with a polytunnel in their garden anymore.

They are fond of their tomatoes and so were enthused by our hare-brained tomato project, and with over 70 plants, there’s more than enough to go around.

John also loves a nice French bean which we always have in abundance – they grow fantastically well under cover.

In exchange for the produce, we get access to their labour – very rarely at this time of the year, except for the occasional big winter project like turning soil, or digging up tomato plants. But much more frequently in the summer months when the tomato plants, in particular, require watering and side-shooting every other day.  

It’s a great swap, produce for labour, and truth be told we probably couldn’t manage the big tunnel without them.

Both are experienced growers and they had an organic box scheme way back before such things were trendy. That means we can always swap notes, and I learn a lot from them while they are here.

I’ve never seen a man as useful with a shovel as John, and he’s probably fitter than most men half his age.  They often arrive by bicycle to do an hour or two of tomato side-shooting or digging before disappearing off on the bikes again. Now that’s fit.

Meitheal

The word meitheal describes the old Irish tradition where people in rural communities gathered together on a neighbour’s farm to help save the hay or some other crop. Each person would help their neighbour who would in turn reciprocate.

The idea of the meitheal is practically lionised these days, held up as an idyllic example of community spirit.  But the system was also an entirely efficient, speedy and cheap way to get a major job of work done.

Last weekend we removed the mypex from the tunnel and turned over the soil inside.

Because the soil isn’t great still, I think it needs this work (although the no-dig aficionados among you, would I am sure, disagree).

Given the size of the tunnel and how long it would take – such a job would be haunting me from the back of my mind for weeks – but with the three of us at it, we did it in about an hour.

A meitheal really is ideal for work of this nature and I was struck by the brutal efficiency – a daunting piece of work made simple by the sheer number of willing arms.  

Of course, we also chat about everything and anything and it’s the sense of camaraderie that brings us all back to work the next time around.

The Basics – Buying a Polytunnel

A polytunnel extends your growing season at both ends and brings a warmer, drier climate to a corner of your garden.  Here are our top tips if you are considering buying one:

  • Get as big and tall a polytunnel as you can possibly afford or have space for – you will always want more space for growing and the head-space will be appreciated when digging etc.
  • A typical tunnel for home gardeners is 3x6m/10x20ft in size with a height of about 2m/6ft.  For suppliers, check out Colm Warren Polytunnels, D-Plant or Polydome

  • It should be positioned on well-drained soil and on level ground, in a sunny spot, orientated east-west.

  • Chose a warm, dry day for erecting the tunnel.  This will make the polythene supple and therefore easier to pull tight.  

  • Get lots of help – it’s perfect meitheal work. Proper anchoring of the plastic in the soil is vital otherwise the whole thing could blow away in a gale.  

  • In the summer there can be extreme heat in the tunnel.  Therefore you should build in as much ventilation as possible, i.e. wide doors at both ends with ventilation panels.

  • If well fitted and maintained (washed each year with a soft brush and warm, soapy water), the polythene can last 10-15 years.

  • Watering is essential, especially in summer.  Having a tap in the tunnel, or at least close enough for a hose connection, will save a lot of effort!

  • A bench, shelf or table in a polytunnel provides a great location for propagating seeds and bringing on seedlings.

  • Read up! I can highly recommend Joyce Russell’s excellent book on the subject, The Polytunnel Book (Frances Lincoln) and Klaus Laitenberger’s Vegetables for the Polytunnel and Greenhouse.

Recipe of the Week – Kale and Black-Eyed Pea Soup

This feels more like a broth than a soup, but it’s delicious and makes a virtue of kale which is so wonderfully in-season at the moment.  

This will make a great healthy lunch or if you want to turn it into a hearty supper, add 100g of cooked pasta (something small like macaroni) and serve with crusty bread.  Serves 6.

 Ingredients:

  •  2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 small onion, diced

  • 6 large carrots, chopped

  • 2 stalks of celery

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 400g tin dried black-eyed peas or pinto beans.

  • 1.8l vegetable stock

  • 225g kale, chopped

  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary

  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped dried sage

  • 1 teaspoon cumin

  • 1 chilli pepper, finely chopped

 Instructions:

In a large saucepan on medium heat, add coconut oil and onions and cook until softened.

Add in celery, carrots, and garlic and cook until the mixture is nice and caramelized and cooked through.  

Add herbs, spices and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper and stir well. Pour in the vegetable stock, beans, and kale.

Cook for 1-2 hours on a medium heat until the beans and carrots are tender.

Michael Kelly is an author, broadcaster and founder of GIY. 

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About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Grower

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