Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Another stroll on the Common

I've been out walking on Velmead Common again. I'm beginning to realize what a huge diversity of flora and fauna it holds. Every time I go, I see something new. Even going to the same place at a different time of year usually means you will see something different. These days, with Google and the social media to help it is very easy to identify an unfamiliar plant too.

Our Summer, such as it is, is well advanced and bits of the Common are beginning to look more Autumn-ey. To me, these Rowan, or Mountain Ash berries are very evocative of Autumn.

Rowan berries come in a range of colours, from yellow through orange to red, though the redder ones are most common. They can be used when ripe to made a preserve somewhat similar to Redcurrant jelly, though not as sweet. We made some once, but I think the berries must have had some mould on them, because we were very ill when we ate the jelly, and have never made it again!

I was looking very carefully for fungi, but I didn't see many. I think it's too dry for fungi at present. This one was evidently fresh though. Nearby there were two or three more of these, just bursting through the surface of the soil.

Lots of the trees, like this Birch, are sporting a dashing orange coat of lichen at present:

These are the "fruits" of the Arum Lily - Arum Maculatum - looking very impressive. Don't be tempted to eat them though, because they are extremely toxic.

Here's a plant I had not consciously seen before:

Did you recognize it? It's Common Centaury - Centaurium Erythraea. The flowers grow on stems about 12 inches tall. I found quite a large patch of it just next to a track in one of the more open areas of the Common.

I had to seek help with identifying this next one, which is Enchanter's Nightshade - Circea Lutetiana. Despite its dramatic name, it is apparently not very poisonous.

Circea is very invasive, and for this reason seldom used as a garden plant. It's amusing to note that one variety sometimes used in gardens is called "Caveat Emptor", which seems very appropriate in the circumstances!

I didn't see much in the way of animals or birds this time. I expect they were all resting in the heat of the day (it was early afternoon), prior to coming out after sundown. I wonder who might have been hiding in here...

The hole is surrounded by a dense array of spiders' webs, but it's probably not a spider's home. I think maybe the spider is hoping to catch whatever it is that lives there, as it comes or goes.

My most interesting sighting on this occasion was of a really vivid Cinnabar Moth. It very obligingly sat still for a couple of minutes while I photographed it.

Cinnabar Moths mainly feed on Ragwort. Indeed, Wikipedia tells us "It has been introduced into New Zealand, Australia and North America to control poisonous ragwort, on which its larvae feed."

This is some Ragwort, which I photographed nearby.

Well, the larvae may feed on Ragwort, but the adult moths evidently enjoy Yellow Vetchling. In this next (zoomed) photo you can see the moth's long proboscis probing deep into the flower to drink the nectar.

I hadn't realised that Cinnabar Moths were so "woolly"!

I saw this huge old weathered log, and thought "Wouldn't that be great in a childrens' playground?"

All kids love balancing on logs (and falling off), don't they?

Well, that's a selection of the things I saw this time. I'm sure I'll be back there again soon, and I'm equally sure I'll see something interesting and new!

Monday, 25 July 2016

Harvest Monday - 25 July 2016

Several of my blogging friends in the USA (e.g. Dave, our host for Harvest Monday) are very keen on making lacto-fermented vegetable products, such as sauerkraut, so I think I know what they would do with this lovely specimen. It's a "Cabbice" cabbage (Pronounced as "Cab Ice" - it's alleged to be as sweet as an Iceberg lettuce.)

It didn't look very big outside on the garden table, but when it came indoors it seemed a lot bigger! It weighed 768g (1lb 11ozs).

We are not keen on fermented vegetables, so our cabbage was cooked conventionally - lightly boiled, and served as an accompaniment to a meal of roast Lamb, with fresh Mint Sauce.

That meal also included the last of my Broad Beans (picked last week) and some of these "Nicola" potatoes.

These potatoes are the best so far in terms of yield. As with the other varieties, I planted two tubers in a 35-litre pot, and these ones yielded 1.33kgs. I have to say though that there were about 100g of very tiny tubers that had to be discarded because they were really not big enough to be worth bothering with, which has not been the case with the other varieties.

The salads keep coming too. This is the latest "Ice Queen" lettuce.

After removing the coarse outer leaves, a firm crunchy heart is revealed. It's rather like a loose-textured Iceberg.

As I described a couple of days ago, I finally got round to removing my exhausted Pea plants, which gave me an opportunity to pick one last little batch of pods. At the same time I got a few of the "Cobra" climbing French Beans, which are just starting to come into their own.

I'm keeping the purple-podded "Desiree" peas to be seeds for growing next year, but the green "Early Onward" ones went into a mixed-vegetable curry that Jane cooked for us.

This week also saw me picking the first Runner Beans of the year, always a precious moment since Runners are amongst our favourite vegetables. This is 350g of "Streamline" beans.

Runner Bean "Streamline"

When there are Runner Beans to be had, the French beans always take second place, but there's no denying that these "Cobra" beans are good!

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

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Cucumbers: good news and bad

My "Cucumber experience" has been a bit mixed this year. One of my plants got flattened (and killed) by heavy rain; one never got going at all, and now two more have just spontaneously died. It's amazing how quickly a Cucumber plant can die! One day it looks fine, and the next it's a limp shrivelled wreck. I conducted a "post mortem" on the two recent casualties and I found that their roots had been completely eaten away, but by what I know not. In the container there is now just one Cucumber plant remaining, and to be honest it doesn't look strong. The Cucamelons, on the other hand, look fine and are growing enthusiastically.

Pot with 1 x "Passandra" Cucumber (yellow leaves!) and 2 x Cucamelons

The remaining Cucumber plant has so far produced only one fruit, though it does have another one forming - seen here:


Fortunately, I have two more cucumber plants elsewhere. One of them is that unknown variety that has grown from a seed that nearly got sent to a friend [Read the story HERE.]. You can see it in the middle of this group of pots.

I honestly have no idea what type it is - it's probably not even an outdoor type - but we'll soon see.

The last line of defence is the spare "Diva" plant that I couldn't bear to throw away, the one squeezed in near my Philadelphus tree. It's actually looking pretty good and is now about 4 feet tall and happily climbing its bamboo wigwam:

The spare "Diva"

It has its first flower too, so maybe it will soon produce its first fruit.

The loss of  Cucumber plants like these can be particularly galling because they are expensive plants to raise. A packet of seeds costs about £3 or £4, and typically contains only 5 seeds if it's an F1 variety. I'm lucky in that I have not lost out financially because my seeds were very kindly supplied FOC by Marshalls - but it's still annoying to lose plants that you have nurtured, before they have a chance to deliver a crop.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Beetroot revealed

This week I finally cut down my Pea plants, after picking the few remaining pods, seen here with some "Cobra" French beans:

I was keen to get rid of the straggly and dried-up pea plants in order to give the Beetroot planted alongside them some more light. To be honest, I wasn't sure what I would find, because the peas had largely obscured the Beetroot. The centre row particularly must have been almost completely starved of light. This is what I found:

Most of the Beetroot were "not too bad" as you might say. I think you can tell that the ones on the right got most of the light!

The centre row was understandably a lot less good than either of the outside rows. Furthermore, there was an enormous gap where something (badgers?) had repeatedly dug up the plants despite my attempts to prevent this by inserting a barricade of sticks. I don't know what it was they were digging for just there, but I must have filled in that hole at least 3 times!

Close inspection reveals that though none of the Beetroot are ready for harvest yet, there are a few that have reached about the size of a walnut, so it won't be long.

I have given the rows a big drink of water to which I added some liquid Growmore GP fertiliser, and the plants are now basking in the unfamiliar sunshine! I expect they will soon put on some weight...

A couple of days ago I sowed some more Beetroot seeds, in one of the containers that until recently held potatoes. As each pot of spuds gets harvested, I am sowing or planting something else in it, in the hope of having something to harvest in the Late Summer / Autumn. So far I have Dwarf Beans, Leeks, Peas, Carrots, Cucumber and now Beetroot (though of course the latter haven't even germinated yet).


Friday, 22 July 2016

Growing potatoes in containers

Recently I have posted a few photos of the potatoes I have grown, and these have elicited a lot of comments - mostly along the lines of "Wow, how did you do that?". My potatoes are usually clean and blemish-free, and the yield per seed-tuber is usually pretty respectable.


I thought it might be a good idea to write a few words about how I grow my potatoes, so here we go...

Note: I'm assuming that most readers will know the basics of chitting, planting and earthing-up potatoes, but if not you'll find plenty of advice about those subjects elsewhere on my blog. Either use the Search facility in the sidebar, or follow the hyperlinks above.

1. Size matters! I have learned through experience that potatoes do better in big containers. I used to use florists' buckets and the containers in which pelleted chicken manure is sold. Yes, it is possible to grow potatoes in such containers, but bigger ones are better. Last year I bought some big plastic 35-litre pots, and I think these are ideal. Small containers dry out too rapidly, but larger ones do better.

35-litre containers, big enough for 2 seed tubers each

2. Use the correct growing-medium. Again, experience has shown me that plain soil, or plain multi-purpose compost is not going to be sufficient. I think it is important to have a mix that gives the potatoes enough nutrients (you could use proprietary "potato food", though I don't), but the texture of the medium is more important. Potatoes grown in very dry compost are prone to the disease called Scab, which produces unsightly lesions on the potatoes' skins. The best potatoes I have grown were grown in a mix that had a very high proportion of "organic matter" - in my case, composted stable manure. Grass clippings could achieve the same effect, as long as your grass has definitely not be treated with the dreaded Clopyralid weedkiller! I like to add a fair proportion of home-made compost too, because commercial compost is often very poor, and does not retain moisture well.

"Lady Christl"

3. Water copiously and often. Potatoes hate dry soil, and containers can dry out very rapidly, so you need to water very frequently - often daily if the weather is hot. And I mean proper watering, not just a light sprinkle. You need to ensure that the water gets right down to the plant's roots, not just moistening the top inch of soil. If you are using small pots, it is worth sitting them in pot-saucers which will maximise the benefit of the watering, by allowing the soil to absorb the moisture over a longer period.


4. Choose the right varieties. You will probably not manage to grow good Maincrop potatoes in containers. They just take too long, and often fall victim to Late Blight before their tubers have had a chance to mature. Better to go for First Early or Second Early varieties, which mature much more rapidly and therefore often avoid the blight - the ones that are usually called "new potatoes". My favourites at present are "Lady Christl" (First Early) and "Charlotte" (Second Early), but there are many different ones available.


5. Know when to harvest. A lot of people are too impatient with harvesting potatoes. They want to dig them up far too early, and therefore end up with a very meagre crop. The signs to look for are these: when the plants produce flowers, there are normally some useable tubers, though they may not be very big. If you want bigger tubers, wait until the plants' foliage has completely dried out. Here's another thing: if the plant's stems are still upright, they are probably still growing. When they flop over, the plant normally stops growing, and it's time to dig them up.

The moment you've been waiting for...

And the result? I normally hope for a yield of about 500g per plant, (i.e. one seed tuber), which will be very approximately 10 new tubers. Good luck!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

After the sunny spell

"Phew, what a scorcher!", as they say. We finally had some proper Summer weather. Our so-called Mini Heat-Wave lasted three days - Monday to Wednesday - with official shade temperatures over 30C on Tuesday. Now we are back to the low twenties again. Still, most of the plants in my garden loved the sunshine - especially the chillis and tomatoes.

Unfortunately the Blight has also enjoyed the hot conditions. Several of my tomato plants are affected with this disease. I have been doing my best to halt its spread, by inspecting all the plants very carefully at least once a day and removing any affected leaves. Most of the big Beefsteak-type tomato plants have got some sizeable fruits already, and it would be a real shame to lose them. Until yesterday I would have said that this big "Larisa" was my best prospect at present:


Regrettably yesterday's inspection showed the biggest of those fruits to be infected with blight already, and it will definitely be lost.  The stems leading to the smaller fruits are also affected, so those will be lost too.

Blight is in the stems as well as on the leaves.

"Larisa" seems to be very vulnerable to disease. Last year mine suffered badly from Blossom End Rot, and this year it was one of the first to contract blight. I have removed a lot of its leaves, so that it can concentrate on ripening some fruit, but this will probably be a battle I lose.


"Black From Tula" is looking pretty promising. It is a very big plant, and it has several fruits on it already, with more setting all the time.

"Black From Tula"

Another big tomato is this "Caspian Pink":

"Caspian Pink"

It's a long way off producing ripe fruit, so I just hope I can keep the blight at bay for another few weeks.

The tomato plants grown from side-shoots are basking in the warmth of the mini greenhouses still, and growing very quickly. They all have at least one truss of flowers now, though no fruit forming just yet:

The Runner Beans are just about to deliver their first pods.

Being originally of tropical origin, beans like this appreciate the warmth too, as long as they can get enough moisture. I am being very careful to keep them properly hydrated. A long soak every few days, using the hosepipe, is much better than a little superficial sprinkle every day. To keep a row of beans like mine properly watered needs about 40 - 50 litres a day, in hot weather, possibly more.(That's 4 big watering-cans).

The salads are also vulnerable to abnormally hot weather. If they don't have sufficient water they will quickly bolt. Some may even get sun-scorch (evident in the browning of leaf-edges).

Salad crops generally have a high water content (e.g. lettuce), and if they get insufficient water the plants will be tough and leathery, and probably bitter, so not good to eat.

During the very hot spell I moved my trays of salad seedlings into a shady spot to stop them getting scorched. These are lettuces, endives and radicchio, some of them nearly ready for planting-out.

This is my one and only Sweet Pepper plant:

It produced flowers very early, well before any of the chillis. One or two of the flowers even set fruit; but then the plant seemed to go into suspended animation for about 6 weeks. Luckily, the advent of much warmer weather seems to have stimulated it into growth again, and many of the embryonic fruits are beginning to swell at last. This plant goes by the nickname "Turkish Bell Pepper", because I don't know its real name. The seeds (of its parents, or is it grand-parents?) came home with us from a holiday in Turkey a few years ago. I don't like eating this type of pepper, but Jane does, so I'm growing this one to keep her happy!

This year's Cabbage-patch has done well, producing some cabbages much bigger than most of the ones I have grown previously.

The dull, relatively cool weather has suited the cabbages quite well, but they don't like blazing hot sunshine and are liable to bolt if their soil gets too dry. I temporarily moved the netting so that I could check the condition of the soil, which seemed OK. The enormous leaves provide shade for the plants' roots. Two of the cabbages are ready for harvesting and I will be cutting them in the next day or two. However, I saw that holes are beginning to appear in some of the leaves. Nothing too alarming at this stage, but something that needs to be stopped before it gets too severe.

Close inspection revealed this - the culprit caught "in flagrante delicto", as they say. He was soon dispatched!

I have also been careful to ensure that my Parsnips and Carrots have had a drink. They will survive better than most vegetables in hot weather, due to their long tap-roots, but if there is heavy rain soon after a dry spell (as seems likely this week), the roots may split.