Organic Gardening with Klaus Laitenberger

Organic Gardening with Klaus Laitenberger

Klaus Laitenberger is the man behind'Green Seed Company' which is a select range of vegetable seeds picked for vigour, disease resistance and flavour. Klaus has also written our two favourite gardening books, 'Vegetables for the Irish Garden' and 'Vegetables for the Greenhouse and Polytunnel' which are really a must have for Irish and U.K. gardeners.

I decided to do a little interview with Klaus to give you a little flavour of the man behind the seed co., the books and the courses.

Growing fruit and vegetables is clearly something you care passionately about. Is this something that was instilled in you from an early age?

Both my grandparents and parents were keen gardeners and we were always self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. I remember all the shelves in the cellar with all the stored and bottled fruit and vegetables enough to last a few years. All my friends were allowed to drink fizzy drinks but I had to resign to my mum’s home-made fruit juices. They were terrible. Every Saturday I had to help in the garden - harvesting fruit in the summer and digging the garden in winter. My real passion for growing vegetables started in England when I worked as a young volunteer at a Camphill Community. There was a farm with 6 milking cows, 10 sheep, 25 laying hens, ducks, geese and a pig. We had an orchard and a one acre vegetable garden. It was run bio-dynamically and we were able to feed a community of 60 people which included young adults with special needs. Suddenly it made sense and gave it all a purpose. At that moment I decided not to return to Germany to start my studies and instead found an amazing bio-dynamic market garden in Scotland (Michael Newton) where I did my apprenticeship.

We all know there has been a swing towards home produced food in recent years. Do you find there are more people talking about it than actually doing it or are the numbers of vegetable gardens increasing as much as you'd think?

I think people have been talking about growing their own food for a long time. People become increasingly aware and worried about the safety of food and their health. With the on-going recession it makes complete sense that we grow our own food again. A few years ago an argument against growing your own was that ‘food is so cheap in shops, it’s not worth the effort.’ This snobby attitude is gone out of the window and any penny that can be saved now is valuable. I think there will be an even greater revival in growing your own.

It's unfortunate that many first time growers have a disappointing start to their vegetable growing career. What in your opinion are the most common pit falls for the novice grower?

The problems usually start with getting the ground ready. There is one single truth about gardening: A healthy soil will produce healthy vegetables. Vegetables simply do not grow in poor or poorly prepared soil. It’s difficult for a beginner to know what to do. It’s best to watch or help a more experienced gardener for a few hours.

The most common pitfall for most novice as well as experienced gardeners is impatience. As soon as the sun comes out for a few days in March or April we get that urge to sow or plant up the whole garden. Don’t do it! It will turn cold and wet and windy and most of your little plants die. Delay!

The other difficulty is seed sowing. Some vegetables are very easy to raise from seed while others are a bit more tricky.

We are big fans of your books and found it refreshing to have a reference book that dealt specifically with Ireland. Is there a big difference between Irish growing conditions and the U.K?

There is quite a big difference between growing conditions between Southern England and Ireland. On the other hand the climate in Wales and Western Scotland and Northern England are very similar to ours – a lot of wind and rain. There are excellent vegetable growing books from the UK but the sowing dates are really misleading Irish gardeners. They will all tell you that you can sow parsnips in February or March. You will simply have no chance to get even one parsnip. Another difference is about ground preparation. Most books will tell you to dig over the ground in early winter and let the frost and thawing actions produce a wonderful tilth. This doesn’t happen here. We usually get a lot of rain - with the exception of two unusual winters. The result would be a muddy soil from which most nutrients have leached out. It will also be covered with weeds again. Ireland is one of the few countries where weeds will even grow in winter.

The Vegetable Seed Co. has been a huge success and is interesting because it contains a small and select number of seed varieties. Clearly you see variety as important but does it really make that much difference?

There really is a massive difference between vegetable varieties. For over 12 years I have been trialling different varieties. One year I grew 100 different tomatoes. It really is well worth trying out something new and comparing it. And please if anybody thinks there is a better variety available please let us know. I would love to try it out. The choice of varieties was based mainly on flavour and taste and secondly on natural resistance and healthy growth.

We were delighted to see your new book 'Vegetables for the Polytunnel and Greenhouse' and have found it as indispensable as the previous volume. It certainly seems with the Summers we're having that growing undercover is the way forward. Apart from obvious heat loving plants like tomatoes is there really that much more you can grow in a polytunnel?

Anybody who has a polytunnel or greenhouse agrees that it has transformed their gardening life. You never have to dread going out into the cold and wet. First of all you can raise your seedlings in a tunnel or greenhouse and finally liberate your windowsills. I’m sure your husband or wife will be grateful. Secondly you can extend the growing period for all vegetables. This is very important for Ireland which has a relatively short growing season. For example you can plant early potatoes in late January and harvest them in late April/May. Thirdly you can as you mentioned grow warmth loving crops that can’t be grown outdoors. These include tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, chillies, cucumbers and a whole range of unusual crops. And then in winter your tunnel can be full of really hardy winter salads.

I understand you will be running more of your successful vegetable growing courses, is teaching others to grow important to you?

Yes , I’m looking forward to that. The courses are organised through NOTS – the National Organic Training Skillnets. If anybody is interested you can contact Sean McGloin on 086 1728442. Thank you.