Saturday, 20 April 2019

Staking the Broad Beans

The advent of warmer weather has meant that I have been able to remove the tunnel cloches from over the Broad Beans. It's just as well really, since the first row of bean plants was beginning to push up against the roofs of the cloches.

I find that if Broad Beans are left unsupported they do tend to flop all over the place, so I give each plant a bamboo cane to keep it upright. I use 5-foot canes - that's one foot underground, and four above. Of course some varieties of Broad Bean are taller than others, so this height is variable. For instance "Stereo" and "The Sutton" are very low-growing varieties and hardly need any support at all.

I tie the plants to the canes very loosely, using soft garden string, like this:-

As the plants grow, I will repeat this process three or four times.

You will notice that the plants in one of my two rows of beans are a lot bigger than those in the other. This is because I sowed the second row later, in order to spread the harvest over a longer period. If you are growing beans for the freezer, this is not a good idea and you'll want them all to mature at the same time, but since I only have room for a small number of plants I never have a crop big enough to freeze, and we eat all our Broad Beans fresh. This staggering of the harvest is also improved by sowing beans of at least two different varieties.

Over the years I have experimented with different spacings for Broad Beans, but I have come to the conclusion that the ideal number of plants in one of my raised beds (2.4 metres x 1 metre) is 20, in two rows of 10, so the plants are very approximately 20cm apart.

I have also learned to leave a decent gap between the rows - something like 50cm - to allow good light penetration and air circulation. I did once try growing a row of Radishes between the rows of beans but they were starved of light and never came to anything, so I won't be repeating that experiment.

In case you were wondering, I'm also going to stake the other row of beans, but that will take place in a week or so, when the beans are big enough to conveniently tie to the canes.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Protected potatoes pushing up powerfully!

Tucked up inside their little plastic greenhouses, my potato plants are doing really well.

On sunny days I unzip the lids for a few hours (as seen above) so that the plants don't get too hot. Our nights have been very cold recently, so the covers are definitely closed long before dark!

April weather is very changeable at the best of times, one minute warm and sunny, the next dull cold and windy, so I often hedge my bets and leave the greenhouses partially open, like this...

Notice the bricks for added stability.

The tubs inside the upright greenhouses hold the "Foremost" (1st Early) tubers. They are growing rapidly and I have already earthed them up once (that's to say I have added another layer of compost).

In the first of the lower "Seedling Greenhouse" structures are "Annabelle" (Left and Right in pic below) and "Lady Christl" (pot furthest from camera). They are all well-advanced too, and growing very strongly.

This is one of the "Annabelles". It, and all the other First Earlies were planted on March 20th.

Despite being planted a week later, some of the Second Earlies are only slightly behind. These are "Nicola".

Slowest so far are the "Charlottes", which have only just broken the surface. It's good to have the different varieties developing at different rates, then they don't all mature at the same time.

Apart from opening and closing the greenhouses to regulate the temperature, the only other thing that needs doing at this time is watering. The aim is to keep the compost moist but not wet, so the pots only need water every few days at present. With the weather now warming up this will become a daily task. If the plants get parched they will produce a small harvest, and the potato tubers will probably be dry inside too. Earthing-up, whilst traditionally done at least once during the development of the young plants, is not strictly necessary. Just ensure the plants have a good depth of soil/compost for the roots to go down into and they'll be fine.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Crop protection equipment

In England, the month of April is traditionally associated with very variable weather - especially the sudden (but usually brief) April showers. The nights are still very cold (we have had frost a couple of times this last week), and although there are often periods of sunshine the sun is not yet very strong and the daytime temperature is often only 10 - 12 degrees Celsius. Having said that of course I see that predicted temperatures for the forthcoming Easter weekend are 19 - 21C!

What this is leading up to is the need to be prepared to provide some good - and flexible - protection for your tender young plants. Of course every gardener's house is full of those at present.

Over the years I have gradually built up a collection of different pieces of crop-protection kit. Some of them are short-lived, like the horticultural fleece, which only lasts a year or two at most, but others are real veterans by now.

In the photo above I'm displaying 4 types of equipment. In the foreground is a simple propagator which is just a clear plastic lid that fits over a standard seed-tray. I use these for germinating seeds indoors, but they are also useful for protecting tiny seedlings on their first few outings into the garden. Behind the propagator is a lightweight wooden-framed coldframe with polycarbonate panels. I use this for bigger seedlings and small plants, keeping it closed unless the sun is shining strongly. It heats up very quickly so I often have to prop the lid open to stop it overheating. Even with the lid open this coldframe is very good as a windbreak.

Behind the coldframe are four 1.2-metre tunnel cloches. Despite being rather flimsy, (and in my opinion over-priced at about £35 each when I bought them several years ago) I use them a lot, and move them around the garden very frequently. The end-pieces were never much good and were discarded long ago. Nevertheless these cloches provide a good level of protection from frost, wind and animals and let in a good amount of light. They have protruding "feet" at each corner which can be pushed down into the soil to provide stability, or left up to increase ventilation. At present they are covering two rows of Broad Beans, but they will have to come off soon as the plants are beginning to touch the roofs.

In the background of the first photo are my plastic mini-greenhouses. I have three 2-tier upright ones, and two lower-profile ones marketed as "Seedling Greenhouses". The latter are shaped like a traditional coldframe - high at the back and lower at the front. Both types are extremely useful, and good value for money. I think I paid about £12.99 for the upright ones and probably about £20 for the others - though don't quote me on this, because my memory is a bit hazy!

In the Spring these greenhouses are absolutely vital to my growing regime. It is inside them that my early potatoes are raised, and subsequently my chillis and tomatoes inhabit them for a couple of weeks during the process of "hardening-off" (gradually acclimatising them to outdoor conditions). The greenhouses are very flexible (no pun intended). The doors on the upright ones have zips at both left and right, so it is easy enough to adjust the ventilation level as required. Furthermore they have removable wire-mesh shelves so they can accommodate two layers of small plants or a single layer of tall ones. Their only real weakness is their lightness: I always weight mine down with a few bricks to stop them blowing away!

The Jewel in the Crown of my array of crop-protection hardware is undoubtedly this upright coldframe:

Here on my blog I refer to this as the Gabriel Ash coldframe, for the simple reason that it was manufactured by a company of that name. This fabulous piece of kit costs nearly £700 to buy, but it didn't cost me a penny because my lovely wife won it for me in a competition! It is very sturdily built, in metal and real seasoned timber, so it's very heavy and in no danger of blowing away unless we get a proper hurricane.

The coldframe came with two shelves, but I seldom use the top one, which is a half-width one, because it fits in at a very high level, meaning that it is only suitable for very small plants. Again, this coldframe has a lot of flexibility in terms of ventilation, with not only double doors at the front, but also a hinged lid which can be propped open at two different angles. I sometimes use a little stone wedged between the lid and the main body, to keep the lid open just a crack so that the inside doesn't overheat. At present the floor of the coldframe is mostly taken up with pots of beans (only recently sown, so not yet germinated) and a couple of frost-tender Geraniums, while the shelf supports trays of tomato and chilli plants, which are brought indoors at night-time, by the way.

I must make mention of the good old Horticultural Fleece, some of which is visible at the right of this next photo.

Fleece like this is a very useful alternative to the "hard" types of crop-protection. It's inexpensive, lightweight, easy to store when not in use, and quick to deploy. It is best used draped over some sort of support mechanism, such as plastic hoops or lengths of semi-rigid water-pipe, or even some sticks, to ensure it has a layer of air between it and the plants. This is because the material is easily saturated by rain (or snow!) and if it then freezes the plants underneath it are not going to be happy if they are in contact with it. [NB: During hot dry weather, a single layer of fleece draped loosely over the plants can provide a useful protection from sun-scorching.]

Before I finish this post, I want to mention one other little trick I have learned. One of the biggest dangers faced by my young plants is encountered in transit from back door to coldframe and vice versa. There is a narrow gap between our house and our neighbours', and the wind fairly howls down it, even when it seems like just a gentle breeze elsewhere in the garden, so to protect my plants during this brief but perilous journey, I place each tray of plants in turn inside this large plastic crate, which acts as an all-round windbreak.

Taking the plants to and fro in this manner is a lengthy job, but if it saves them from damage, it's definitely worth it.

Sunday, 14 April 2019


Inspired by my success with growing onions at that plot I tended at Courtmoor Avenue last year, I have decided to try some in my own garden this year.

Onions at the Courtmoor Avenue plot, July 2018.

In the past I have avoided growing onions because I didn't consider them to have a high Value for Space Rating (VSR). The amount I could grow in my garden wouldn't keep us supplied for very long (we use a lot of onions in our cooking!). Nevertheless I discovered last year that home-grown fresh onions are really delicious - so much nicer than (probably old) shop-bought ones - so I have changed my mind. Quality, freshness and flavour outweigh quantity, that's for sure.

I sowed my onion seeds in modules, a "pinch" of seeds (maybe 6 or 7?) in each module. This has the advantage of saving space, meaning that it is practical to germinate them indoors in a single seed-tray on a windowsill, but it does also have the disadvantage that you have to subsequently prick them out into individual pots or modules when they get bigger. Or do you...?

I have seen people advocating growing onions in clumps, rather than separately, again as a way of saving space and labour. I tried it last year with some Long Red Florence onions and it worked quite well, although they never got very big. This was not a problem because I wanted them to be used as salad onions anyway, so small size was actually a benefit.

"Long Red Florence" - photo from July 2018

I'm going to see if the technique works well with traditional Brown Onions too. These are "Ailsa Craig".

So, I have planted six little clumps in one of my raised beds:

In the interests of semi-scientific comparison I'll also be growing some of the same variety in the "normal" way - individually - but I am going to wait a bit longer to plant them. They will be easier to handle when they are bigger.

It will be interesting to see how the two methods compare. I'll let you know later in the year.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Self-seeded Hellebores

In one of the borders of my garden I have a patch of Hellebores, which is gradually expanding. Although this plant is a fairly slow-growing one, it seems to self-propagate very well. A few years ago I bought a small plant of a variety described as Helleborus Orientalis "Red Spotted Hybrid". Its flowers seem to be slightly different each year, but this year they have been predominantly white with purple/red spots, like this:-

This particular plant overhangs the edge of the border and last year it evidently shed lots of seeds in to the shingle underneath. This Spring lots of little plants have popped up.

I don't want them growing there in the shingle, but I wouldn't mind them elsewhere, so I have carefully dug up a few and put them into individual compost-filled modules.

At present they are very tiny - they mostly have just one proper leaf above the twin cotyledons (aka seed-leaves), but I'm confident that if well looked after they will soon put on some weight.

I have so many of these available that my plan is to give most of them to the plant stall at the local school's fair, which takes place in mid-June, by which time these little plants should be fairly well established. It will be at least a year, probably two, before they flower, so I suppose I'll have to provide a picture of what they're going to look like so that potential buyers will know what they're getting.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Return of the herbs

Sounds like the title of a Science Fiction film, doesn't it? Nothing that entertaining, I'm afraid, but it's something I look forward to every Spring: the emergence of fresh new growth on the herbs. Some of my perennial herbs (e.g. Rosemary, Chives, Celery Leaf) grow in open ground, but I also keep some in pots. During the Winter, I move as many of those pots as possible into my coldframes, to protect them from the worst of the weather.

Without protection, potted herbs are quite likely to die, because their roots can get frosted. Plants growing in the soil are (perhaps surprisingly) less susceptible to this.

This Winter Savory plant has been in a coldframe, and you can see plenty of light green new growth on it. Definitely a survivor!

Winter Savory

This Thyme plant has been in the same coldframe, and although its new growth is not so obvious, it's definitely there. It's beginning to look green, whereas all through the Winter it has been grey.


Despite having spent the Winter outside, there's no mistaking the vigour of this Greek Oregano plant either:

Greek Oregano

My Mint gets different treatment. Left out in the open, it dies down completely, with just a few brown woody stalks visible. Then, when it starts to reappear (usually about the middle of March) I repot it. I cut a few vigorous-looking chunks of root and pot them up, two to a 12-inch pot, in fresh compost, and discard the majority of the previous year's matted tangle of roots. With plenty of space and fresh compost, the new plants grow very rapidly. I think these will be ready for cropping in about ten days or a fortnight.

Re-potted Mint

Sage is a herb that we use a lot in our cooking (especially these days in our Italian-style dishes), and it is sometimes hard to ensure we have enough of it. Last year in the long Summer drought, I lost about half of my Sage plants, so this year I am going to try to re-stock. In the past I have had mixed success with rooting cuttings in pots of compost. Many of them didn't "take" - either shrivelling up or going mouldy before becoming established. This time I'm going to root some in a glass of water and only pot them up when I can see they have viable roots and I think they are almost certain to grow.

The herb used most often in our kitchen is probably Parsley. During 2017 I started what I hope will be an "everlasting" bed of Parsley. I broadcast-sowed a huge number of seeds, a good proportion of which matured into decent plants. At the end of the season I let several of them flower and subsequently scattered the seeds they produced, in the same place, last year. In normal circumstances Parsley is a biennial - it grows and crops in its first year, and flowers in its second, so hopefully I will have 1st- and 2nd-year plants in the same bed simultaneously. This is a technique I have copied from my Aunt and Uncle (who once owned and ran a nursery). I saw it working very successfully in their garden, so hopefully it will work for me too. This is it, now. It doesn't look very impressive at present, but hopefully once last year's seeds begin germinating, it will.

Friday, 5 April 2019

A chilli update

This year I sowed my chillis on February 17th (I always choose the nearest convenient day to Valentine's day, 14th Feb). The first ones germinated 5 days later, and I was initially very pleased with such a quick result. However, after the first rush germination rates were less good than usual. I sowed 22 pots, each with 2 seeds in, and 8 of them were No Shows. I have reached the conclusion that many of the seeds I used were too old. I normally reckon that chilli seeds will remain viable for at least 4 or 5 years, and I suppose that many of mine must have passed that point - especially some of the ones that I have received from friends, because I have no way of knowing when those ones were produced. I think I'm going to be brave and throw away ALL my chilli seeds, and make a new start next year! (NB: This is subject to confirmation. I may chicken out...)

Looking on the bright side though, the seeds that did germinate have made some very nice little plants:

In most cases it was a case of All or Nothing, and where any of the seeds germinated, they both did. Although I had intended to pinch-out the weaker seedling in such cases, I haven't done so. I've transplanted each one to a separate pot. This means that although I have fewer varieties of chilli than I had hoped for, I still have a good number of plants. At the last count it was 21.

The quality of my chilli plants is better this year, due in large part to the absence of aphids. I have to admit that this is because this time I have not over-Wintered any of last year's chilli plants indoors. I have six in the garage (though I'm not sure whether any of them are going to spring back into life), but none of them came inside. I'm fairly sure that in previous years aphids or aphid eggs have been harboured in the soil of over-Wintered plants, emerging to invade the succulent growth on the new generation of young plants - and in turn causing me to counter-attack with sprays of dish-washing soap etc, which is not really beneficial for the plants!

Anyway, some of the plants are about 8 inches / 20cm tall now, and for the past week or so I have been taking them outside to the big coldframe for a few hours a day to gradually acclimatise them to outdoor conditions. Saturday was a glorious sunny, warm day, and the chillis had an hour or so in the direct sunlight at one stage.

The 'A' team

This acclimatisation thing (aka "hardening-off") is another area where I (re-)learned a stark lesson last year. Acclimatisation must be done gradually - over a period of at least a couple of weeks. Last year I made the mistake of putting my little chilli plants in the full sun one day when they were still very small, and left them there too long. As a result they got scorched - the leaves lost their glossy surface and many of them went pale and papery. In the end the plants survived, but it was a close-run thing! This year I am being a lot more cautious.

In my usual fashion I have set aside a few of my chilli plants as a 'B' team and am treating them differently, just as a sort of insurance policy. If the main group (the 'A' team) goes in the sunshine, the 'B' team stays in the shade etc. This means that if one lot gets damaged, the others will not. I hope that both will be fine, but it's sometimes better to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket, if you know what I mean!

'B' team

In a couple of weeks' time most of these chilli plants will be strong enough to be able to live in my little plastic greenhouses for most of the day. I will put the wire shelves back in and then the chillis will have the upper decks, above the tubs of potatoes down below.