Sunday, 26 June 2016

More on the weedkiller problem

Several people have contacted me to say that having read what I wrote last week about further problems with weedkiller contamination in my tomatoes, they think they are suffering from the same thing. I'm pretty sure that this issue is a lot more widespread than you might imagine - and it's certainly not something that the compost manufacturers want to own up to. What a shame that the UK has chosen to leave the EU, because the EU is currently showing much more inclination than ever before to ban the use of harmful chemicals (such as Glyphosate / Roundup) in agriculture!

To help other people to determine whether their plants are affected by weedkiller, today I am posting some more photos of the symptoms. Before I go any further though, let me say that this year my plants are less badly affected than previously. Some of them even seem to be "growing out of" the problem - in other words producing slightly more normal foliage now. But the bad news is, what I'm showing here is a mild dose!

The most obvious symptom is the pronounced inward curling of the leaves, some of which have adopted a sort of corkscrew spiral configuration.

Many of the leaves have developed a blistered texture like this:

The worst affected plants have both of these symptoms, as well as blotchy discoloured leaves.

One of the plants, the "Stupice", is exhibiting the so-called "fern-like" foliage which is a well-known characteristic of this issue. Instead of being broad, the leaves it is producing now are long and spindly, and brown at the tips.

Here's a close-up:

The brown bits are not dry and crispy, nor are they soft and mushy. They are normal leaf texture.

One of my plants ("Cherokee Purple") is very stunted - about 30% smaller than its peers - and has weak yellow leaves with brown tips:

This plant was the first of my 17 plants to set fruit. I can't help thinking that this is because it wants to reproduce quickly before it succumbs! Which sort of leads me to my final point: if you see that your tomatoes are affected by this problem, don't despair, they will probably still produce a viable crop. It may not be a big crop, and the fruits may not be particularly beautiful specimens, but they will still be worth having.

In the long run, my plan is to use less and less commercial compost, and more of my own home-made stuff. I'm also working on a plan to acquire some locally-sourced Hazel rods and beanpoles, so maybe next year you'll see me advocating the elimination of bamboo as well.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Growing Lemongrass

We eat lots of Oriental food in our house - Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, you name it, we love it! One of our favourite flavouring herbs is Lemongrass. The name says it all: it's a grass that tastes of Lemon. It is used a lot in Malay and Indonesian cuisine, and is a prominent ingredient of the dish Beef Rendang.

Mature Lemongrass. Photo by Jo Jo Yee (with permission)

Jo Jo Yee, who took the photos above, was a contestant in the TV programme "The Great Allotment Challenge" a couple of years ago. She writes the blog Fusian Living, in which she uses her Chinese heritage to write authoritatively about Asian cuisine and how it can be adapted to Western tastes. Even if you're not planning to grow Lemongrass, Jo Jo's blog is worth a browse for all the recipes! By the way, although of Chinese ancestry, Jo Jo was (like me) born in Malaysia, though until a few years ago she used to live in Australia, where I imagine growing Lemongrass is a whole lot easier than it is in the UK!

These days it's not too hard to find Lemongrass in the shops in the UK. It's usually on the shelf where you find garlic and ginger (and hopefully fresh chillis).

However, it can be expensive (at Sainsbury's it is currently 80p for 2 sticks) and it is often not very fresh when you buy it, so I thought it would be a good idea to grow some in my garden. One way of doing this is to buy some stalks of it and root them in water prior to planting-out in a pot of soil, but I decided to grow it from seed. I purchased my seeds from Simply Seeds. Theirs is an Indian variety that grows to only about 30cm tall. Interestingly it is also described as frost hardy, though I doubt that.

In the pack were approximately 500 seeds. I wasn't sure whether one plant would produce one stalk or many, so I sowed about 30 seeds. I have subsequently learned that a Lemongrass plant will produce multiple stalks, so 30 plants might perhaps be a bit OTT!

The instructions on the pack said to sow Lemongrass in April, May or June. I sowed mine indoors in a small pot of moist compost on 28th April. I think they must have all germinated. A month later they had shot up:

Now obviously 30 plants are not going to be happy in a little pot like that for very long, so just recently I moved them on a stage. I separated the clump of little seedlings into four, trying hard to minimise root disturbance, and planted them into a much bigger (10-inch) pot, filled with John Innes No.2 compost.

Each clump comprises several seedlings, so I think I will eventually need to separate them into individual plants and give each one its own pot. (I may be having a Plant Sale at that time!)

At the rate these are growing, they will probably need re-potting before the Autumn, and my plan is to bring a few of the plants indoors - or maybe into the garage (which has a window) - for the Winter. Although Lemongrass is a perennial, it is of oriental origin and I don't think it would take to kindly to being left outside over the Winter months. Of course, since I have so many plants I will be able to experiment, so I might just leave a couple outside to see what happens.

I would think that the plants would probably prefer to spend the Winter in a greenhouse or conservatory though.

Has anyone else in the UK tried growing Lemongrass? And if so, how did it go?

Friday, 24 June 2016

Watering of a different sort

Normally at this time of year I would spend a few hours a week watering my plants, particularly the ones in pots. I'd probably have to use the hose-pipe on the raised beds every few days. The water-butt might well be dry by now. This year is different.

Overnight Wednesday / Thursday we had a really bad thunderstorm that lasted several hours. The amount of rain that came down in a few hours is barely credible. The sort of thing that prompts words and phrases like "the heavens opened"; "cloudburst"; "tropical downpour"; "a deluge of Biblical proportions" etc. The weather-station at Farnborough (3 miles away from us) reported that 46mm of rain had fallen in 8 hours. We're not used to this. Thank goodness that our house is built on a little (very little) hill. Otherwise we might well have been flooded-out.

Lying in bed at two-o-clock in the morning listening to the persistent rumble of thunder and the rain hammering down I was very worried for my garden. I had visions of all the plants being completely flattened. Things always seem worse in the middle of the night, and fortunately when it went light it became apparent that my fears had been unjustified. Yes, everything was bent double with the weight of water; yes, one or two pots were full to the brim, and the birdbath and micro-pond were overflowing, but no major damage. The worst damage was to some of my big tomato plants, which are lined up close to the house. Torrents of water falling on them from overflowing gutters had shredded many of their leaves.

They will survive, but they undoubtedly had a big shock. I have since moved the plants away from the house for a while...

As soon as it was feasible to do so (and with rain still falling), I went out first to assess the damage and then to do what I could to alleviate it. One very necessary job was to remove from under the tomato plants their water-retaining saucers, which are definitely not required just now! I also went round the garden gently shaking the branches of all my shrubs to reduce the amount of water on them. My Philadelphus tree is in full bloom at present and its branches were sagging nearly to ground level, as were those of the big white rose-bush.

I have seldom been so grateful that I possess some little plastic greenhouses. Having seen the weather forecast the previous evening, I had taken the precaution of moving a number of delicate young plants into cover in one of them. This probably saved them from destruction.

With the threat of a repeat performance 24 hours later, I brought some of my long cloches into action, so that everything very vulnerable was under cover.

It's times like this that being Retired can seem like a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is convenient that I didn't have to rush off to work, and thus had the opportunity to repair damage, but on the other hand it's depressing to sit at home watching more rain coming down on an already saturated garden. It might (almost) be better to be at work so that my mind would be on other things!

Looking on the bright side, I'm conscious that my tall raised beds are a big asset in conditions like these. They drain well, and keep everything above the general water level. When we first lived in this property and the back garden (now my veg-plot) was mostly a grass lawn, it frequently used to flood after heavy rain, and without the raised beds my veg would have been in dire trouble these last 48 hours.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

A focus on pots

The main part of my garden has a fixed layout - the seven raised beds and the patio made of paving-slabs can't be shifted - but with pots and containers I can give the garden a fair degree of flexibility. I like growing plants in pots, but it does demand a lot of effort and attention, so this is the subject of my thoughts today.

One of the best things about growing plants in pots is that you can choose different pots every time if you want. Selecting pots and containers can be a hobby in itself! For a food plant you probably want a plain, functional container, like the plastic ones I use for potatoes, chillis and tomatoes:

But an ornamental plant can often be enhanced by something a bit more decorative - maybe a coloured glazed pot like this one I chose for my recent purchase of Variegated Sage:

Or this one which was chosen for its colour and motif, to match the fern I planted in it.

When you have plants in pots you can move them around at will. I do this often. I try to put the best-looking plants in the most prominent position. When they have faded they can be moved elsewhere so that something else can take a turn. For instance, every year I have pots of Daffodils and Tulips right outside the glass doors of the Living Room, where we can admire them, but when the flowers finish, the pots are moved round to the side of the house, out of sight, while their by-now unsightly foliage dies down.

At any given moment, there are pots of cuttings and seedlings scattered all around the garden. Cuttings are often concealed in shady corners so that they don't get stressed by too much direct sunshine before they get established (as if!). Likewise, young plants that have been recently potted-up, or divided and re-potted, get the same treatment. These are cuttings from the Pelargonium I bought at Dipley Mill the other day. By the way, I think I have identified this variety as "Grey Lady Plymouth".

The main plant, from which I took these cuttings, went into a tall elegantly tapered terracotta pot (to match the plant). It's one that is already naturally "aged":

Most of the plants I raise from seed start their lives in a pot or module of some sort.

Some never get any further than that, like these, destined to be used as salad ingredients at a young and tender stage:

Salad ingredients- Peashoots and Greek Cress

Some of course are only in their pots for a brief period before being planted out.

Young Tomato plant

By the way, not ALL pots are easily re-located:

It needs at least two strong people to shift this container!

You will have gathered then that I like pots. But pots have some disadvantages too. Since they usually contain only a limited amount of soil or compost (preferably compost, because soil dries out too quickly and often becomes very compacted), moisture retention is an issue. If you are not prepared to check the moisture levels in your pots frequently, and also add water to them frequently if needed, you would be well advised not to use them. Even the so-called "self-watering" pots will only keep your plants hydrated for a few days. I check my pots at least twice a day when I'm at home - in fact I'm probably sub-consciously doing it all the time when I'm in the garden. You might think that relying on rainfall is sufficient, but it's not. Very often the leaves of a plant divert the rain a fair way away from its roots. That's OK if the plant is in soil, because the roots will spread out in search of the water, but if it's in a pot the rain-water may fall outside the pot and thus be unavailable.

Sometimes I stand my pots in saucers. The reason for this is that all too often when you are watering - particularly if you have allowed a pot to dry out too much - the water runs through the compost and straight out at the bottom. The saucer collects this run-off and the plant will be able to slowly absorb it in the hours that follow.

If you haven't got purpose-made pot-saucers, you can always improvise with seed-trays!

Of course, when the weather turns bad, you have to remember to remove the pot-saucers, otherwise the plant may get waterlogged!

The final point I would like to make today is this: plants do, to an extent, adjust their size to the size of their container. Give a plant a big pot, filled with decent compost, and it will usually grow bigger than if it were to be in a small pot. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the lack of competition from neighbouring plants. It's certainly something to consider when making your choices of plants and pots.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Sprinter Bean

As usual, when I sowed my bean seeds earlier this year, I sowed several more than I really needed, so that spares would be available if required. As it happens, none of my beans became casualties and the spares were not required. I gave away most of those spares, but I have been hanging on to a couple of my favourites - 3 "Cobra" climbing French beans, and 3 "Streamline" Runner beans.

Of course, these are both types of bean that like to climb, so they put up tall climbing shoots, just like their siblings that had been planted out in a raised bed. After a while, these shoots became top-heavy, so I pinched them out, holding back the growth of the plants for a little while longer - just in case they might be needed... Anyway, my main-crop beans have now reached the tops of their supporting canes and I therefore consider them out of danger. I went to throw away the spares, but I changed my mind at the last minute. What if...? What if I were to grow them in their pots as a sort of "patio bean"?

These are the Runners - two reasonably decent plants, and one (in the middle) much smaller, very sickly-looking pale one.

Close inspection reveals that the pinching-out of the main shoots has prompted the formation of several subsidiary shoots, each bearing flower buds. I reckon that if I can keep the plants compact I might be able to get a small crop of pods from them - and probably much earlier than the climbing ones, hence the nickname "Sprinter Bean"!

Notice the pinched-out main shoot in the centre.

I removed the small, sickly-looking plant from the middle and retained just two plants in this 10-inch pot. After a bit of a tidy-up they didn't look too bad:

I gave them a good feed of liquid Growmore, which will hopefully restore their leaves to a better colour, and provide energy for converting those early flowers into beans!

I have given the "Cobra" beans the same treatment. They are in worse condition though. The very pale leaves indicate that they have used up all the nutrients in their pot  - in this case a smaller, 8-inch one.

Hopefully the Growmore will do the trick, but if not, nothing is lost really. If they don't pick up soon I'll compost them just as if this experiment had never taken place.

Still on the bean theme, I also have a few Dwarf beans (some green, some yellow), growing in a spare big plastic tub, using some spare soil - almost the last of that big bag of Norfolk loam which you see in the background of this next photo.

This is another "might as well try" venture. It's probably not the best way of raising Dwarf beans, but I reckon it will deliver a crop of sorts.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Tomatoes are taking over

Well, notwithstanding the weedkiller problems, my tomato plants are getting quite big now. The distortion of the plants is not as severe as it was last year or the year before, so I'm a bit more optimistic than I was 10 days ago.

Since the plants are expanding, I have spaced them out as much as possible along the wall of the house. Good air circulation around the plants is a factor in disease-prevention. It also makes maintenance (watering, side-shooting and tying-in) easier. There are 9 big plants here:

And at the other end of the house, beyond the water-butt, there are 4 more. The one right at the far end (not in a self-watering pot) is the late addition "Supersweet 100".

The bush tomatoes are along the side of the raised bed which has carrots in. I have resigned myself to the fact that the tomato plants will block some light from the carrots!

With bush tomatoes (otherwise known as "determinate") you don't remove the sideshoots, so you finish up with very dense tangled growth. These ones are looking pretty bushy! The two at the left are my "Maskotkas", and then there is one "Montello" and at the far end of the line (currently the smallest of the 4 plants) is "Grushkova".

A week ago I was writing "none of the tomatoes have set any fruit yet", but now several of them have. This one is "Stupice". But just look at the puckering on that leaf - almost certainly caused by the weedkiller problem, because "Stupice" seems to have been the one most badly affected.

This is the first fruit I have spotted on one of the "Maskotka" plants:

Fortunately the bush tomatoes seem to be unaffected by the weedkiller thing, which seems to confirm my suspicions about the contaminant being harboured in the canes.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Harvest Monday - 20th June 2016

This past week has been very similar to the previous one, where my garden is concerned. Harvests are still sparse, but of course there's always lettuce!

This is a lettuce that looks like an endive. It is called "Can Can".

This particular plant has an interesting history (for a lettuce, that is). It was sown on August 22nd LAST YEAR! In the Autumn it never grew very big, but it looked healthy enough, so I covered it with a cloche to protect it, and it survived the Winter, hardly changing size at all. Then in the Spring it suddenly decided to grow normally, and here we are with a mature lettuce this week.

This is a completely different style of Lettuce - "Little Gem".

Most people probably wouldn't recognize Little Gem with its outer leaves on, because it is normally sold as just the heart - like this:

I was particularly pleased with this one, because it was very dense and heavy. When I disassembled it, it seemed even bigger.

At the weekend I lifted another batch of potatoes. These are "Lady Christl", a First Early variety.

The big reveal...

Like the last batch, these are really smooth and clean, without the slightest sign of scab or anything. However, the size of the tubers is very variable - some of them are bigger than ideal for a new potato - and the overall yield is not so special (876g). I put this down to the dryness of the soil / compost mix, as I mentioned last week. I won't be buying the Wickes multi-purpose compost again.

Taste and texture-wise though, these potatoes were superb. I think new potatoes fresh out of the ground have a quality that cannot be matched by anything that has sat in a shop for weeks on end before being sold. In fact, I often think the potatoes sold as "new" are actually kept in cold storage for months before they are even put on sale!

I'm linking my post to Harvest Monday, hosted by Dave at Our Happy Acres.