Wednesday 23 May 2007

War on pests!

After seeing the damage done to my poor bean plants last week by the slugs and snails, I rushed out and found organic slug pellets in Homebase. They're "certified for organic use", more rainproof than traditional slug pellets, and they break down into harmless iron and phosphate in the soil. I tried them on my patio first; usually I daren't leave my seedlings outside after dark, and if I do they're covered in snails when I remember them. With a scattering of the pellets all around them, I've left them out three or four nights now and none have been touched. HA! Take that, nasty little molluscs!
So I spread them all around my crops on the allotment, particularly around the beans and the grassy edges of the plot where I'm sure they must all hide, a few days ago. When I went back today there were hardly any left in most areas, but as we were weeding we kept finding dead slugs and snails hiding under leaves so it looks like they're doing the trick! I scattered more before I left - they're not getting away with it any more!
Slugs and snails are not the only pests I've been dealing with. I arrived at the plot the other day to find the asparagus ferns covered in asparagus beetles. They're funny, exotic looking things - I thought I had a good general knowledge of British insects but I guess you only ever see these on asparagus beds, and mine is the first asparagus bed I've seen! What with the wind and my camera wanting to focus on the ground beyond the tiny stems instead of the stems themselves, I completely failed to take a decent picture, but here is one I found on Wikimedia:

All those I could find met their end today in a cup of soapy water, but not before laying dozens of eggs. You can pick them off but it's a really fiddly, painstaking task so I might leave them to the ladybirds and lacewings - and there are hundreds of ladybirds around, mating everywhere!

SO, apart from the pests, my crops are doing fine. You can see the onions getting bigger, the potatoes are leafier and more vigorous than ever, and the strawberries are flowering happily. The weeds are also incredibly prolific - we dug the strawberries out today from under a forest of them and the onions will have to be done again as soon as we have time. It's been so weedy I've completely missed out on a spring crop of baby carrots, and the red onions must have been completely swamped - they should be up by now but there's no sign. I'm hoping it won't be so bad in future years; the soil must be full of seeds from last summer's weeds, it's been growing wild so long, but of course next year that won't be the case.

The strawberries are going to start to fruit soon and I'll need to cover them with net to keep the birds off and mulch them with straw so the berries don't touch the ground, which will need some thought. I don't really have the cash at the moment to build beautiful frames out of beautiful wood like everybody else does! Also how do I work it? With three rows of plants, I don't want to cover all of them at once and have to remove the whole lot to harvest, but if I enclose each one separately I'll need to leave room for runners so I've got more plants next year, so how big do I need to make them? It's complicated, this business!

The pond is still doing really well, although the water level has dropped dramatically again since the sun's come out. Look - you can see right to the bottom! Although it doesn't look like our very expensive water lily is doing much down there...

Unlike a couple of weeks back, it's bursting with life; the tadpoles are getting huge, we've got at least two different kinds of water beetle in there and our first pond skater has arrived! And our Iris flowered:

The lettuce/spinach patch that I had started in my last blog is planted now, with (are you ready?) little gem lettuce, iceberg lettuce, lollo rossa, rocket, watercress (apparently it will work if I water it enough!), land cress, swiss chard, two types of beetroot, two types of basil, coriander, spring onions, spinach, New Zealand spinach (does better in hot weather), perpetual spinach (does better in cold weather, and should keep going all winter), corn salad (lamb's lettuce) and a patch of mixed lettuce leaves. I probably should have sown just a few of each and then more at fortnightly intervals or something, but I'm afraid I didn't have the patience (and I've been rubbish at keeping up with the things I should be sowing at home), so I expect a glut in a few weeks time and then I'll try to re-sow as I harvest. Actually, the trickiest thing will probably be to stop them bolting in the hot, dry summer we're expecting; I'll have to water them all loads.

That done, I've got almost no excuses left not to dig the next strip of the plot...

Monday 14 May 2007

It rained!

It rained! In fact it's been raining for a week now, and of course I'm starting to wish the sun would come out again... And while digging has been a miserable task in the rain, it has done the whole plot a world of good.

I took the opportunity a few days ago to water in my 'Nemaslug' - a 30 million strong army of slug-eating eelworms. It was more difficult than I anticipated; said worms come in suspended animation in a fine clay powder which you're supposed to mix with water - sounds easy enough but it was really hard to get the stuff to mix, and little lumps kept blocking the rose of my watering can. I spent half an hour sitting on my bench with my arm in a bucket of the stuff trying to squidge out all the lumps, and ended up with it all over me and a large amount spilt around the bench, on the bench, on my shoes etc... Next problem was distributing it evenly; one watering can with the correct dilution of nematodes is enough for about an eighth of my plot, but it was raining so hard at this point I think my guesswork may have been a bit off, and on the very overgrown patches I'm not even sure how much of the solution even managed to reach the soil (though if I'm lucky the rain will have washed them down off the plants fairly quickly). All in all I'm not really sure how good a job I did, and I'll think twice before spending that £20 again unless the results are incredibly good!

Unfortunately signs already point to no; the wet weather has turned the whole site into a slug and snail paradise, and though I'm delighted that all my little beans are popping their heads up at last, the slimey little beasts are delighting in them too and several are already a sorry, leafless sight:

I didn't want to, but I'm going to have to buy some slug pellets; the nematodes only deal with slugs anyway so while they will (hopefully) protect things like my potatoes underground, something else needs to be done about the snails. I've seen some kind of organic slug pellets on the web, so I'll try them as soon as I can; I'm not having all my hard work eaten before I get the chance to!

The potatoes all seem to be doing really well, and have stuck their leaves above the soil again already after I earthed them up last week. They're such vigorous, healthy-looking plants it's a pleasure just having them there next to certain less-successful or slower crops. I just hope the harvest is as good!

Elsewhere the beans are shooting up, as I said, the onions are starting to swell (and starting to get swamped by weeds again already!), the strawberries are flowering (I've decided I think I'll leave them to fruit - I've spent my money; I'm blooming well going to have at least a small harvest this year!) and the herb seedlings I planted out over the last couple of weeks are settling in nicely (well mostly; the snails have completely polished off one of my nasturtiums). The borage in particular is growing amazingly fast; I swear this one has quadrupled in size in the past week!

The rain has done the pond a lot of good too; the water is full to overflowing and has gone from foggy green to so clear I can almost see to the bottom, and yes, there is still life in there! Millions of daphnia and other tiny wriggly things, loads of water-snails, whole families of water boatmen and far more tadpoles than I thought we put in there in the first place! Mysterious, but I'm not complaining; I was feeling rather disheartened about the whole pond thing last week but now it's just lovely!
The plants are thriving too and our iris is even thinking about blooming. If you look closely you can see the purple bud:

We are nearly ready to plant our next eight-foot square as well, which will contain lettuces and other salad leaves, swiss chard, spinach, beetroots (as much for the leaves as for the roots), spring onions and some herbs; basil and coriander. The idea is to create a patchwork of small areas of different crops - all that leafy foliage in different colours will look fantastic when it's growing - so when we finished digging the patch today we began marking out the different beds with stones (until the weather drove us away again). When we've finished this patch will contain sixteen squares of sixteen different crops, dotted with coriander to try to keep aphids away and lined with marigolds. Pretty!

Monday 7 May 2007

Army wanted: apply within

The hot dry weather continues (stupid weather for April!) and our pond is really suffering; if it carries on like this I'm actually gonna have to start watering the pond plants! Not only is the water level getting incredibly low but the tadpoles we imported from Mum and Dad's pond two weeks ago are today mysteriously absent... I knew there was a danger of water boatman eating them but I didn't think they'd get the lot! I think a new shipment might be in order... The water boatmen, actually, are thriving with tiny baby ones appearing everywhere (though I can't imagine one of those teeny things taking on a big fat tadpole!).

Although I'm really struggling with the rest of the digging now, we've been trying to get down to the allotment to water every two days at least, and we've been battling with the weeds coming up on patches already dug. Turns out Eddie is a high-speed-weeding-machine; he did a great job of clearing one of the troublesome onion patches and is half way through the rest!

In fact, the plot itself has been working much harder than I have; the potato plants have all popped up nicely (and I can tell now which row is the new potatoes, as the foliage is different - phew!) so today I earthed them up, completely covering all but the biggest plants.
This is supposed to make them put out more roots - and therefore more potatoes - higher up the stem. I thought it was going to be really difficult and I'd have to bring earth from elsewhere on the plot to cover them, but in fact it was really easy to just rake the soil from in between the rows up over the leaves. I was worried the beans and peas would be too dry to sprout in this weather (the red onion and marigold seeds certainly seem to be struggling), so I'm relieved that they've now started to emerge, albeit patchily so far. The bird netting seems to be doing its job too. There's also a bramble trying to grow in the middle of the bean patch which I keep digging out only for it to come back in four different places...

We have our first strawberry flower, which is quite exciting even there's no sign of any others... I'm not sure whether to leave it or pinch it out; the first year you're supposed to stop the plants from fruiting if they're "not growing strongly", but what does that mean? They're perfectly healthy little plants, putting out plenty of new growth, but they're still very small, so should I or shouldn't I?The asparagus plants are turning into pretty little ferns and are covered in buds - I can't wait to see what they're going to do next 'cos I haven't a clue! I've been trying my best to earth them up as we've had some strong winds in the last couple of days and I think they'll start to suffer, but there isn't much earth going spare and I've had to borrow it from other corners of the plot. I must admit I'd expected more foliage from each plant, but then it doesn't really matter what they do this year I suppose; it's next year that counts!

Finally, I've planted out some nasturtium and borage seedlings; borage between the bean rows and next to the pond, just to fill in some space, and trailing nasturtiums around the compost bin - hopefully they'll climb up and over it and make it look pretty - and in a few other gaps. I'll keep a couple in pots too to plant out in the border further down, when we've dug it...

That leaves our kitchen a little clearer of seedlings but there are still dozens of tomato, sweetcorn, cucumber and squash plants waiting for a bare bit of earth! I've been cutting down the biggest weeds and nettles on the untouched part of the plot but with the ground so dry I feel like I need an army to conquer the rest. We actually have rain forecast for the next few days so (if it happens) maybe it'll be easier after that. My anti-slug nematodes go out of date in a week too - they need moist earth to get established so if it doesn't rain soon they're doomed to die either frazzled in the dust or in a plastic packet in my fridge, poor things!
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