Friday, 20 April 2012

Hail Devastation

It all started fairly normally. Rain. It's April, after all. More rain. A little hail. I checked on the plants, laid out on the shed roof - I like to give them as much daylight as I can to keep them from getting leggy, and leaving them out in the rain too means no watering. They're also well-hardened-off this way and strong against winds - and anyway, there isn't room in my tiny home to keep them all in all the time. They were fine - they didn't mind the hail at all. They're big now. They're tough. And this kind of thing usually only lasts a minute or two, doesn't it? I took some pictures. The hailstones got bigger, but they weren't coming down very hard so still, the plants were fine. I took some more pictures.


And then it got worse. We're talking brutal. We're talking near-apocalyptic. And the damage was done in seconds.


I couldn't get the plants in fast enough, and it fell so thickly I spent the next hour scraping it away from the stems in each pot in case it frosted them through at soil level. And then I spent the next hour cleaning mud and puddles out of my kitchen.

The hail also battered some of the flowers in the garden, and blasted all the gorgeous blossom off the amelanchier. It even knocked over a couple of pond plants. And there was so much on the ground that it hung around for the rest of the day.


Thankfully not everything in the garden was so affected; all the shrubs seem okay, except for damaged flowers, and my spinach and beetroot seedlings and lettuces, radishes and mizuna are mostly okay. The peas got a bit of a battering but I think they'll be fine. The strawberries have a few holes but are pretty hardy.


Mercifully, all the tomatoes, aubergines, two squashes and a couple of cucumbers were safe in the greenhouse and are unharmed.

The damage looks worst on the squashes, but it's the peppers, that I've been babying since January, that have really suffered, with the growing tips just smashed right off several, and I'm really not sure it's worth resowing them this late. Some young brassicas, too, have bent stems that may not recover. All the plants will be stressed and bruised and set back.

I pretty much feel like giving up right now.

But I won't. I'm trying to figure out whether or not to remove the damaged leaves, to try to reduce stress on the plants and get them thinking about new growth. Then I will spray them with seaweed extract, keep them indoors except in perfect weather, and reassess in a week. I already bought a little bag of seed compost for resowings, and I think I'll get some new ancho chillies started right away as I really don't want to miss out on them.

Oh, for a proper greenhouse...

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Vanishing Onions and Other Worries...

You may remember we gave winter onions, shallots and garlic a try for the first time this year, planting at the start of November with the hope of a bigger harvest with less white rot come midsummer. I bought a pack from Marshalls containing Yellow Moon shallots, Provence Wight garlic and Radar onions, sprinkled a bit of onion fertiliser before I planted, and it all seemed to go very well to start with.

About a month ago, after several weeks away from the plot, I noticed a lot of the onions had disappeared. Almost all of them in fact, despite the garlic and the shallots doing really well right behind them.

Where could they have gone?? There was no sign of slug activity, and no sign of them having been pulled out by birds (this is common when they're still very small, but you usually find the onions lying around on the ground).

It's a mystery, but Wilkinsons came to the rescue, as they often do. I picked up a bag of 'Turbo' onion sets for £1.48 yesterday and filled in the (rather large) gaps. They said plant out March-April, and hopefully the name is an indication of how fast they grow!

The just-sprouting broad beans are having pest problems at the moment too; I thought I had mastered this last year, but something has got in and cut down the new plants despite a web of string all around them!

Is this pigeons, mice, or something else? I'd always thought pigeons, but now I'm not so sure. Mind you, some of the strings making up the cage had moved a bit in the rain and wind, making some bigger-than-usual holes, so maybe a pigeon still managed to get in... It's particularly frustrating because I don't have any spare seeds. Doh!

Finally, I wonder if anyone out there can tell me what's wrong with these tomato leaves:

Little patches between the veins have thinned, leaving silvery-brown papery bits that look the same on both sides. I've seen sunburn through water droplets do this, but these plants are kept in the plastic greenhouse (during the daytime - indoors at night) and I've been quite careful to keep the leaves dry. My other guess is magnesium deficiency, but I'm not really sure... Answers on a postcard if you have any ideas!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Evil Weevil

I've had a tubful of strawberry plants in the garden for three years now which has done very well. Early this spring, however, I noticed they were looking pretty unhealthy, so I thought I'd repot them, take them to the allotment where there's space for them to give me new runners, and replace them in the garden with some new everbearing 'Albion' strawbs I bought.

Look what I found when I dug them up.

The roots - or what was left of them - were riddled with vine weevil grubs; several per plant. These nasty grubs eat roots and can kill plants - and apparently strawberries are one of their favourites! They grow up into black beetles that just do minor damage to leaves - and go off and lay more eggs of course. We now suspect it might be vine weevils in this same area of the garden that killed a favourite shrub a while back!

So we ordered some vine weevil killer by Nemasys (fairly widely available from mail-order garden catalogues or Amazon). It's a biological control - a pack of live microscopic wormy creatures - nematodes - who eat larger grubs such as these vine weevil grubs! (You can get different types of nematodes for different pests too.)

There are fifty million nematodes in this here pack! You have to keep them in the fridge and use them within a couple of weeks, when the ground is moist. Then you mix them into eight big watering cans, water them all over the garden (this pack treats 100sqm! it's tricky to spread them that thin!), and then add more water on top to make sure they reach the soil.

I did it yesterday and phew, how I wished for a hose to do the final watering! After lugging watering cans around for nearly an hour my arm was exhausted! Maybe I need more exercise...

I'm glad to see it's raining this morning - hopefully that will help settle my wormy new guests in and give them an appetite.

Sadly I was too late to save the strawberries!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Nome's First Purple Sprouting Broccoli

Yes, I finally managed to produce some psb this year!

My homegrown seedlings last summer, if you remember, died of... ahem... drought, and I bought some new ones from Homebase later in the year and planted them in big pots in early October. Well, I guess early October was too late, as the plants didn't really get that big. But a couple of them finally produced their first spears a few weeks ago.

I cut them as soon as they got to a decent size, to encourage more shoots. They were delish, even if they didn't add much to a meal!

And the side shoots grew and grew... They were pretty thin, but I thought they might get fatter with time. They didn't.

This morning I went out and cut most of them for breakfast - like asparagus, psb is lovely with eggs.

What a disappointment! Even though the first spears were good, these were bitter and the stems were really stringy and tough! Ugh!

So where did I go wrong? I can't find an answer on the internet. Someone hinted that a mild winter may lead to bitter broccoli, but I haven't heard any other home-growers complaining about theirs. Other than that, I can only think that it might be down to planting out so late, or letting the spears get so tall. Anyone know better?

Luckily I have discovered broccoli leaves are surprisingly good eating (unless they have now gone bitter too) so I'll use the rest of the plants up pronto.

I am determined to do better this year and plant healthy home-grown seedlings out at the proper time!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Barley Straw for Poorly Ponds

Three weeks ago the allotment pond was absolutely choked with blanketweed and algae. The tadpoles were hatching but they could barely move, poor things, and it looked a disgusting foaming green mess.

Eleven days ago I put a bundle of barley straw in the pond.

Today, the water is crystal clear! I'm so impressed. Admittedly my pond is very small - I guess around one cubic metre - but I never expected it would be that effective. And the tadpoles are all grown up and loving it - you can see them chilling out all over the white rock in the picture below.

Barley straw for ponds comes in small packages wrapped in net, so all you have to do is tie a weight to it and drop it in. Blanketweed, duckweed and many algaes thrive in water where there is an excess of nitrogen, usually caused by too much organic matter decomposing in the pond. The barley straw works because as it rots it actually uses up all that excess nitrogen, and the weeds die. Some say the chemical reactions it produces also create a very low, constant solution of hydrogen peroxide (bleach) which inhibits further algae growth - this appears to still be under discussion... I'm hoping it should help my duckweed problem too with a bit more time. Hurrah!

This centuries-old all-natural multipurpose balancing treatment for ponds is not allowed in most of the EU due to 'insufficient research' - can you believe it??

My only question now is: if it's that effective in my tiny pond, will I be overdosing the water if I leave it in for the several months it will take to completely decompose?

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

How to Grow Tomatoes - 10 Simple Rules

I write this primarily for several friends who have taken, or are about to take, spare tomato plants off my hands and who have asked for full instructions on how to look after them, but hopefully lots more people will find it useful too! For some it can be daunting growing things for the first time, or growing things you've never grown before, but really most plants' needs are very simple and as long as you know what those needs are, it doesn't have to be daunting at all!

Here are the needs of a tomato plant:
  1. Warmth. Keep above 5C, preferably 10C, and only plant outside when the risk of frost has passed.
  2. Sun. Always keep them in a sunny location. 
  3. Good compost, which provides nutrients and retains moisture.
  4. Support (except with tumbling types), to help the plant bear the weight of its fruit.
  5. Dryness. Avoid getting the leaves wet where possible. A greenhouse is ideal but not by any means vital. Good pruning promotes air circulation which will help plants to dry quickly.
  6. Pollination. Outdoors, bees will do this for you. Indoors, just shake the flowers!
  7. Regular watering. Fruits need lots of water to swell, and irregular watering can cause fruit to split, so water the same amount every day as far as possible.
  8. Food. While not vital, applying tomato feed once a week can get you a better crop.
  9. Pruning. Pinch out extra shoots or 'suckers' from leaf joints to provide good air circulation and focus energy on fruit-production.
  10. Protection from fungal infection. Remove any leaves that drag on the soil and any that show signs of disease. Consider using a fungicidal spray (bought or homemade - see below) to protect your plants during humid weather.

That's really all you need to know, but if you want more, here's the long version...

Sowing Tomatoes

Tomato seeds need heat to germinate and must be sown indoors, anytime from January to early April, and kept above 10C. Fill small pots (3" is ideal) with clean, new compost, firm it down gently and water it. Then use your fingertip or a pencil to poke a shallow hole, 3-5mm deep, in the middle of the soil in each pot. Drop two seeds into each hole and add a pinch of fine compost or vermiculite to fill it in, or simply 'pinch' the hole carefully closed. Place in a propagator or cover the pots with plastic wrap to retain moisture until the seedlings have appeared - or simply water very lightly with a spray bottle twice a day to stop the surface drying out.

Seedlings will usually appear within a week, and definitely within two. Remove the plastic covering as soon as you see them and keep seedlings in a sunny place - if they don't have enough light they will reach for more and grow very tall and 'leggy' very quickly, which will give them weak stems unable to support the plants properly. When the temperature is above 10C during the day, it's ideal to put them outside in full sun, but keep them out of strong winds and heavy rain/hail showers until they're bigger, and don't forget to bring them in again at night! If two seeds have germinated in the same pot, wait until they grow their first true leaves then select the stronger one and pinch the weaker one off at soil level.

If you prefer, you can sow into smaller pots, cells, or a seed tray. When the plants are big enough to handle, though, they should be carefully transplanted to larger individual pots.

Ready to plant out...

Planting Out

Tomatoes don't like cold temperatures and frost will kill them, so keep them protected from cold but in plenty of sun until the risk of frost has passed. If you will be growing them outdoors, check the last-frost date in your area and wait until then before planting out. In my area, it's early- to mid-May. But if you plant them outside and then a late frost is forecast, don't panic - covering your plants gently with newspaper, a sheet or a towel (don't squash them!) is often enough to protect them. If you're going to be growing them in a heated greenhouse or conservatory, you will be able to plant them out much earlier - as soon as night temperatures in it are reliably around 10C. Plants should be at least 6"/15cm tall before planting out, and you should 'harden them off' for 7-10 days by putting them outside during the day, to gradually get them used to outdoor temperatures and winds.

Like virtually all fruiting crops, tomatoes need lots of sun, so pick a spot for them that gets at least six to eight hours of direct sun a day - the more the better.

I think the easiest way to grow tomatoes is in a growbag, and you can now get growbags specially formulated for growing veg in, which I highly recommend. Roll the growbag on its side to break up the compacted soil, put it in position, then cut holes for your plants and scoop the soil aside to make holes big enough for the tomato plants. Water your tomatoes before planting out to reduce stress, and try not to expose the roots to direct sunlight or leave them sitting around out of a pot for any longer than necessary. Pop them in the holes in the growbag, level and firm the soil around them, and water the growbag well.

See all the little hairs around the bottom of the tomato plant stem? If you plant it deeper than it was before, those hairs will grow into extra roots and give you an even stronger plant!

Tomatoes can also, of course, be grown in pots or in the soil in your garden - just make sure you use good compost to provide nutrients and retain moisture. Plant them around 12"/30cm apart.

Stick a cane in the ground as close as you can to each stem without damaging the roots. This is tricky in growbags as they are not very deep - try sticking the cane right through the bag into the ground, or check out the various types of cane support you can buy or make. As the plant grows taller, tie it loosely to the cane every 9-12" to support the weight of all that lovely fruit you're going to get! Another way to do it is to fix a stake or post every two or three plants, and tie strings between them that pass both sides of the stems. Look up 'Florida weave' for examples of this.

Caring For Your Plants

Uneven watering can cause fruit to split, so try to water regularly. Even in heavy rain, growbags and pots don't tend to catch that much water, so while your plants are fruiting, water them the same amount every day or two, whatever the weather. Growbags can be tricky to water - it sometimes just runs off. I remedy this by cutting the bottoms off plastic bottles and burying them neck down in the soil next to the plants - watering into these takes water straight to the roots where it's most needed, and allows the water to soak in gradually rather than running away.

  Splitting caused by irregular watering.

Many gardeners apply a tomato feed every week or two starting from when the first flowers open - this will encourage maximum fruiting. Using growbags already formulated for tomato-growing, I find this unnecessary, but who knows, maybe I'm missing out on an even bigger crop! Seaweed extract treatments are also particularly good for tomatoes.

Most tomato plants need pruning to keep plants focussed on fruit-production. (If your tomatoes are 'determinate', bush or tumbling varieties, they do not need pruning, but the ones I have given my friends are 'indeterminate' which means the plants will just branch out more and more, endlessly, so pruning is important.) Don't panic - it's very easy! What you're aiming for is a straight upright stem with only leaves, flower trusses and fruit trusses growing from it, like this:

When you see an extra shoot, or 'sucker', forming at the base of a leaf, like this...

Just pinch it off, like this...

If you do this carefully and don't damage the hairs on the stem, you can plant these prunings in pots of compost and grow whole new plants! (They may look like they're dying to start with, but they'll bounce back with a little TLC.) If you don't remove these extra shoots, your plant will end up with lots of extra branches and lots of extra leaf growth, will become tangled and unmanageable and will make your plant more susceptible to fungal infection...

Tomatoes are prone to a fungal disease called tomato blight, especially when grown outdoors, which starts as spots on the leaves, spreads to the stems and will eventually turn the fruit black. Rain carries airborne blight spores down to the leaves and soil, and the infection sets in during hot, humid spells. To decrease the chances of disease, try not to get the leaves wet when watering, and keep plants pruned so that they are well-ventilated and dry quickly after rain. If the lower leaves hang down to touch the soil, snip them off, and if any leaves turn yellow or develop brown or black patches, remove them too. Don't spread infection by touching infected parts and then touching non-infected parts, or by letting an infected plant touch others. If you think your plants may be infected, or during a period of more than 48 hours of hot, humid weather, spray your plants with a 1:1 milk and water solution, or 3 tbsps bicarbonate of soda and 1 tsp washing-up liquid to a gallon of water, to raise the alkalinity of the leaf surfaces and make it harder for fungi to take hold - or of course you could use a chemical fungicide. You can do this every week and after rain to prevent blight, or more often to slow its progess once infected. Spray in the evening or early morning, and always out of direct sunlight. offers a free service to warn you when the weather conditions are just right for blight to hit your postcode so you can take precautions - give it a try!

 When black patches reach your plants' stems, you know it's blight.

If your indoor tomatoes are attacked by whitefly, grow basil around them - the flies hate it. Outdoor tomatoes don't tend to suffer much pest damage, but keep an eye out for slugs, snails, caterpillars and aphids just in case. Encouraging ladybirds in your garden is the most natural way to deal with aphids, but squishing them by hand is also very effective. Slugs, snails and caterpillars are best dealt with manually too - you'll need to go out after dark with a torch to catch slugs and snails - or you could use beer traps or organic slug pellets.

If you're growing tomatoes indoors, you will have to either open doors and windows wide during warm days to let pollinating insects in, or pollinate by hand. This is really easy - tomatoes are self pollinating, meaning they only need their own pollen to reach their own stigma, so it can be done simply by shaking flower trusses, flicking or blowing into the flowers, or by vibrating the flowers with the back of an electric toothbrush or an electric razor with the blade removed to mimic a buzzing bee! Do this every few days when flowers are opening. If you're growing outdoors, bees and other insects will do this for you. If you don't have many bees in your garden, you can attract them by growing more flowers! Here is a list of flowers which help to attract bees. Marigolds, poached-egg plant, poppies, borage, sunflowers and cornflowers are particularly good and easy to grow.


Harvest your tomatoes when they're fully red (if, that is, you're growing a red variety!), but try not to let any overripen on the plant, which may stall further fruiting. Keep your harvested tomatoes at room temperature - the fridge ruins their sweetness!

If you keep harvesting and pruning your plants, they'll keep producing right up until the first frosts around October or November. Enjoy them, and good luck!

And why not try saving your own seeds for more free tomato plants next year? Just click here and follow the instructions!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Herb Garden Revamp

The herb tub outside the back door has been looking a bit sorry since winter. I must have forgotten to cut it back when I should have, and with everything beginning to grow again and the herbs now enjoying the sunshine, a few weeds were popping up.

So I gave it a trim, cutting out all the dead flower stems from last year, got rid of some old stuff, chucked in some new stuff, did a bit of rearranging, and now it's much tidier.

As well as the thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano and garlic chives that were there before, I moved a tarragon plant and a few chives in (and put all the garlic chives together in one place). In the other pots around it there are spring onions, newly-sown parsley and coriander, and a little pot of chives I've had going for a few years now.

And I scored a bunch of sage to dry for later use, too. It's easy to dry herbs - just hang them in a warm, airy place out of direct sun until they crumble easily.

I also took the opportunity to repot my 'Eau de Cologne' mint - not a culinary sort but reputedly good for keeping wasps and bugs away... and it smells good. And when I say repot, I mean take a teeny tiny little sideshoot like this...

...and replant it in a whole new pot of soil. It's that vigorous. Mint is really, really rampant, and the big pot I had this in before was completely rootbound after just two years. It only takes a little bit of root to make a new plant, so divide to your heart's content!

Can't wait to see how my herb garden looks when it's all in full growth in a month or two!

The allotment herb garden is in a sorry state too - the couch grass has crept in, as couch grass always does, and some of my hardiest herbs didn't make it through our mild winter! I don't get it! The rosemary and hyssop are both completely dead, and the Russian tarragon and one of the sages don't look too good either. On the plot, the herbs are mostly there for the benefit of the insects - it's no use relying on them for culinary use when they're a fifteen-minute drive away. But the insects are still a worthy cause, and in the name of companion planting and nurturing a healthy ecosystem, I will still replace them - I've ordered my new hyssops from Victoriana Nursery already.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Born Blind

I recently noticed my Uchiki Kuri squash seedlings were not progressing equally; while one has dutifully produced a healthy first leaf and is making a start on its second and third, the other has no growing tip.

This is called a 'blind' seedling, and occurs from time to time (especially in curcubits, in my experience, but also in tomatoes, peppers, brassicas and virtually any other kind of plant), seemingly at random and for reasons unknown. It's a disorder or defect, rather than a disease. This blind seedling has no true leaves at all, but sometimes a seedling may develop just one true leaf and be left with no growing point, like the tomato seedling below, or even grow a full pair and then stop.

Sometimes, if you keep it going long enough, the blind seedling may sprout a growing tip after all, but it's much quicker and easier just to compost the plant and resow. And that is what I have done.
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