Friday 19 January 2018

Chicken manure gives perfect parsnips

By David Medcalf

Even the Idiot Gardener strikes lucky every now and then.

Last year's onion crop was very acceptable, for instance, a plump and tasty flush of success following bleak years of skinny failure. There was no shortage of broad beans either, most of them still lingering like a bad smell in the deep freeze many months later, a frankly chewy challenge to any chef.

My greatest claim to horticultural fame in 2014 and into 2015, however, was the parsnips. They were remarkable in their girth and flavoursome in the pot, the best ones as big as any baby's head, I kid you not. A triumph.

They were the product of a regime which combined mollycoddling the plants with a willingness to take good advice. Previous attempts resulted in plenty of leaf above ground and feck all below, a complete waste of time. The turning point came after the problem was mentioned on the phone to Uncle Robert - for Bob truly is my uncle.

Along with many of his generation who grew up in Ireland, Bob took the mail boat out of Dun Laoghaire as a young man and headed for England after World War Two. After seven decades of merry exile, his accent is impeccably that of his adopted land. He has been assimilated to the extent that he now supports the England soccer team rather than the Boys in Green, though he retains a gut loyalty to Ireland during Six Nations rugby campaigns.

Long retired from work, he has become a master grower in old age of fruit and vegetables. He routinely cleans up at the Bournemouth Show with his prize winning produce in classes all the way across the range from blackberries to broccoli. Bob heard my pain.

A few days after our chat, an envelope arrived with relevant cuttings from a horticultural magazine. The secret of the perfect parsnip, it seemed, was chicken manure and lashings of it. Mercifully, there was no need to head off with a shovel to the nearest poultry shed. Chicken waste is routinely available in odourless pellet form.

I combined the hen guano with sand and peat to create what proved to be the perfect parsnip growing medium. The mixture was used to three-quarter fill cardboard tubes from toilet rolls. A parsnip seed was added to each tube, which was then topped off with some more of the magic mix.

The seeds duly germinated indoors. The tubes were duly planted out in the kitchen garden in spring. The tubes duly rotted in the earth and the roots duly burst out to take on gratifyingly huge proportions, ready for digging up from December on.

Hermione foresaw that no one was likely to believe her spouse's boasts about the enormity of these great bruisers. So she insisted that they be formally weighed on the kitchen scales. A couple of the best came in at more than three pounds apiece, putting them into the superheavyweight bracket. One such mega-root sufficed to feed a family of 17 at Christmas. Honestly!

With this track record to build on, the Idiot Gardener set about repeating the process this year. Toilet roll tubes were collected for the purpose of parsnip husbandry. Grandiose plans to double, treble, quadruple output were laid. A fresh batch of the blend of pellets, sand and peat was tossed into a bucket before being doled into the rolls with the seeds.

And then? And then nothing. Nothing stirring, despite assiduous watering and slug protection. Not a leaf, not a stem, not a sausage, and certainly not a proto-parsnip to be seen. Disaster.

I won't tell Uncle Bob.

Wexford People

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