Saturday, 18 May 2019

Potting-up tomatoes

With the weather forecast now showing a string of mild nights coming up, I have "taken the plunge" and potted-up my tomatoes. By this I mean moving them into bigger pots which will be their final homes. Most of my big varieties of tomato have gone into 30-litre black plastic tubs, like these:

I have done six like that, with a single bamboo cane for support, simply because I only have six good cane-support devices. I do have some of a different design, but over the last couple of years they have let me down a few times, collapsing under the weight of a big plant laden with fruit, so I have decided not to use them. This is what the good ones look like:

The cane is inserted through the two rings, and is further stabilised by one of these things on its base:

Since the other cane-support things are inadequate, I have conceived this arrangement as an alternative:

It has one central cane, to which I have tied the tomato plant, and three other canes to support the first one. It might work...

Work in progress

The plants I have put into those tubs are mostly Indeterminate types (i.e. the vines just keep on growing until you stop them) and will be grown as single cordons (i.e. the sideshoots are pinched-out, leaving just a single stem). I usually stop mine, by pinching-out the growing tips, when they get to the tops of their canes, which means they will be about 150cm tall. A couple of the plants are Dwarf types, grown from seeds kindly gifted to me by the famous tomato guru Craig LeHoullier. Dwarf tomatoes, whilst short like the so-called Determinate or Bush varieties, are more like Indeterminate ones in their growth and fruiting habits. A Bush tomato usually produces all of its fruit at the same time, whereas an Indeterminate variety ripens its trusses of fruit in succession. On Craig's website the Dwarfs are described thus: "Craig, through his seed collecting, was aware of a very few so-called dwarf growing varieties, distinct from the determinate types (which were also relatively compact) in that the flavor seemed in general to be better in the dwarfs. These dwarf types are very distinctive in having a thick central stem, stout compact growth, and dark green, crinkly looking (so-called rugose) foliage." I grew a few of these last year and whilst they may have been quite low-growing, they were big plants and needed a lot of support. For this reason they will be given the tripod support system seen above.

Dwarf tomato plants (immature - they got a lot bigger. Photo from 2018)

As well as the big tomatoes I have as usual planted some smaller ones. My favourite cherry tomato is "Maskotka", which is a trailing variety well suited to growing in hanging baskets or tall planters like this:

Notice how one of my "Maskotka" plants is very weak and spindly. I only had four seeds (half of last year's pack of 8). Three of them have produced quite decent plants, but the less said about the fourth one, the better! These are the best two:-

The three rather scruffy-looking specimens seen here (not the one on the left, which is a new-season "Montello") are also "Maskotkas" as far as I know. They are the ones I found self-seeded in the shingle and over-wintered indoors. They are now positioned at the front of our house, below the kitchen window.

I don't know if they will produce a worthwhile crop, but it will be fun finding out! One of the plants has a couple of fruit on it already, and they appear to be ripening.

Last of the various types of tomato I am growing is the tiny "patio plant" type, which only grows to about 30 or 40 centimetres tall, and (allegedly) needs no support. I have two plants of the variety "Minibel". I have put them in 24cm pots, and will grow them (Surprise! Surprise!) on the patio.

Note: my 12 varieties of "big" tomato are Moneymaker, Gardener's Delight, Marmonde, Super Marmande, Golden Sunrise, Noire Charbonneuse, Cherokee Purple, Black and Green Mini, Coeur de Boeuf, Dwarf Caitydid, Dwarf Beauty King, and Little Lucky - with Ferline possibly tagging along later to make 13.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Watching and waiting

As for most gardeners, there is always a big flurry of activity in my garden during Spring - preparing ground, spreading compost, sowing, planting etc, but then at some stage comes a short lull before harvesting begins in earnest. I have now reached that stage. Everything I want to grow this year, with the exception of successionally-sown crops like lettuce and radishes, has been sowed or planted and there's no room for anything else. Time for a pause; a pause in which to just revel in watching things grow and gradually fill-out. A few weeks ago the garden looked bare, but now the bare soil is rapidly vanishing! I just have to be patient and let Mother Nature do her thing.

As well as "watching things grow", I have been keenly watching the weather forecast. I have lots of tender young tomato and chilli plants in small pots and I'm just itching to pot them up into their final homes.

This is only SOME of them!

The trouble is that whilst we have had a spell of beautiful sunny weather and daytime temperatures in the high teens / low twenties, the nights have still been bitterly cold - down to 3 or 4C most nights this past week. Temperatures like that are not good for tomatoes or chillis, so I have had to keep bringing my plants indoors at night-time, or at very least keeping them in closed coldframes.

Tomatoes and chillis in my big coldframe

Once the plants go into the big pots and containers that will be their final homes they will not have this opportunity any more, so I have been biding my time. It looks as if that time is just about to arrive though, with the forecast predicting night temperatures of 9, 10 or 11 for the next few days at least. After that, really cold nights are much less likely. I've assembled pots, canes, fertiliser etc, and I'm just awaiting the right moment to start.

This is one more little job I have done in anticipation of warmer weather... I have erected a support-frame for my cucumbers to climb, using some of my recently-acquired Hazel poles. These ones were nominally 6-foot ones, but they are actually nearer 7-foot, so allowing for some of that being underground, the cucumbers will have at least five and a half feet of vertical distance to play with.

The green container is half of an old water-butt

Of course, after so much sowing and planting, I'm very eager to start harvesting something. I always sow lots of radishes, not least because they grow very quickly compared to other crops (but not quickly enough for my liking!). The first of mine are just beginning to swell, so hopefully they will be ready for cropping within the next week or ten days.

The First Early potatoes are not far off maturity either. I'll be harvesting the first of them very small, so this will probably be in the first few days of June.

Do you remember that the other day I cut down my PSB plants and put them in a bucket of water, in order to allow the flowers to open fully and make them available for the bees? Well, this idea worked a treat, and the bees have had a feast:


Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Beans under attack!

Something has been attacking my newly-planted Runner beans. The day I after I planted them, I went out into the garden in the morning only to find that something had ripped off both the big leaves of one of the plants, but surprisingly had left the growing-point untouched. There was no sign whatsover of the missing leaves, not even a tiny fragment!

I removed the damaged plant and replaced it with one of my spares. Next morning: same thing! The spare had been neatly de-foliated too, plus some parts of two more plants had been ripped off. By this time I'm suspecting that birds are the culprits - particularly pigeons, a lot of which visit my garden - though I have not actually seen them doing the deed. Anyway, three out of fourteen is a serious casualty rate; this called for robust countermeasures... In my store of Useful Stuff I just happened to have a box of very lightweight netting, which I have hastily deployed, and I have held it in place with stones.

It's not pretty, but I think it will probably work. Hopefully it only needs to be there for a few days. This netting is extremely light and rests directly on top of the plants. I have left plenty of slack so that the plants can grow unrestricted, although Sod's Law says they will grow through the netting rather than just pushing it up. I'll probably end up cutting the netting to remove it.

Still, the netting is from Poundland, where occasional bargains are to be found, so it only cost £1!  It is 6m long by 1.5m wide. Normally I'd say that this is too narrow to be useful, but on this occasion it fits the bill quite well.

This is one of the casualties. It lost one complete leaf and the tip of the other, but I think it will survive because the growing-point is undamaged.

And to think I had been congratulating myself on the recent scarcity of slugs and snails...

Monday, 13 May 2019

Planting Runner Beans

Up till now, I have had my Runner Bean plants growing in pots. This way it is easier to protect them from weather and animals until such time as they are strong enough to fend for themselves. Now I have planted them out into one of my raised beds - the one in which I erected those 9-foot Hazel beanpoles.

The beans had certainly developed some good roots already! I had to gently tease them apart for planting singly.

I put one bean plant at the base of each pole, so that's 14 plants.

I like to plant my beans quite deep, so that their roots are well underground, where they will be cooler and will have better access to moister soil that has not been dried out by wind and sun. I usually set them so that the first pair of leaves is just above the soil surface.

Doing it that way also has the beneficial side-effect of making them less vulnerable to wind damage. Immediately after planting, I gave the beans a good drink of water, to settle their roots well into the soil and to lessen the transplant shock. It is normal for them to droop a bit after planting, but they usually pick up within an hour or two. Of course, if any of them fail to "take", then I always have plenty of spares waiting in the wings!

By the way, this year I have two varieties of Runner bean - "Scarlet Emperor" and "Painted Lady". The former has plain red (scarlet) flowers, but the latter has bicolor pink and white flowers.

While I'm on the subject of beans today, here's a couple of shots of a different type of bean. They are my Broad Beans (aka Favas). As you will be able to see, they are looking strong and are now producing lots of flowers.

The first row of plants has reached about half a metre in height, and the second row is at about 35cm.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Thinning Carrots

The instructions of packets of seeds (particularly small seeds, like carrots and lettuce) always exhort you to "Sow thinly", but in practice this is harder to do than it sounds - especially if you are sowing in soil that is not broken down into a very fine tilth (i.e. it has big lumps in it still). And of course there is always the temptation to sow more seeds than you really need, just in case the germination rate is poor!

This year the germination rate of my carrots has been very good, and I have ended up with rows that are definitely too crowded;

If I were to leave these as they are I would probably end up with thin, spindly carrots that had more leaf than root. They definitely need to be thinned-out to allow them room to develop properly. In my opinion, a smaller number of good carrots is better than a bigger number of poor ones!

As you probably know, my carrots are protected with a covering of Enviromesh to keep out the Carrot Root Fly:

In order to do the task of thinning, the cover has to come off, but it makes sense to leave it off for the minimum length of time, because those pesky flies may be lurking, looking for their opportunity to get in! Unfortunately, thinning carrots is fiddly job that cannot be done in a hurry without the risk of causing damage to your delicate seedlings.

This is a typical clump of seedlings in my row of  "Autumn King" carrots:

"Autumn King" is a maincrop carrot and its roots can get very big, so the plants need to be well spaced out. I would say not less than two inches apart, but ideally much more. My other varieties - "Chantenay Red Cored" and "Harlequin" are smaller types and can manage with less separation. For me, deciding what spacing to use is a tricky decision, because I only have a small space available and if I went for ideal spacings I would end up with not many carrots.

Thinning carrots is best done when the soil is moist, to minimise root-disturbance, so if it hasn't rained recently it is advisable to water the rows generously before you start. Also, once you have finished thinning, water the carrots again, to settle them in as firmly as possible.

Anyway, after much careful removal of superfluous seedlings, I ended up with this:

The row in the foreground has been thinned; those in the background have not

One other piece of advice: carrot thinnings can get damaged during the course of removal, which releases their strong aroma - hence attracting any Carrot Root Flies that may be in the area. Because of this you should bury the thinnings rather than just putting them on your compost heap.

So, I did all three of my rows today, and it's Mission Accomplished!  Here's hoping for some nice (and big) carrots later this Summer...

P.S. This has nothing to do with carrots, but...
I'm conscious that it is a long time since I have written anything about food or cooking. I intend to rectify this soon, but in the interim I just want to show you a couple of photos from the dinner I cooked last night. It was another meal inspired by one of my favourite Food Heroes, Yotam Ottolenghi: spicy lamb kofte with tahini sauce and toasted pinenuts, accompanied by mixed grains (bulgur, freekeh and quinoa, not pictured) and salad.

Spicy Lamb Kofte, with tahini sauce and toasted pinenuts

"Red salad"

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Potato progress and a sub-standard tomato

Thanks to the protection I have given them, my potato plants are coming along very nicely!

Some of the plants are too tall now to allow me to close their greenhouses. Last weekend we had some very cold night-time temperatures (down to about 3C, I think), so I rigged up a temporary arrangement to protect them from possible frost:

In the event we didn't get any frost, but my policy is to not take any unnecessary chances. The foliage of the potato plants is currently very soft and luxuriant, so it would be very vulnerable to frost.

The "Lady Christl" plants are just beginning to produce buds, which is usually an indication that tubers are forming down below soil level. I'm expecting these ones to be ready for harvesting in about another month or so.

Changing the subject... Most of my tomato plants are doing fine, but one particular variety is not. That variety is "Ferline F1", one that I have been growing now for many years. Last year the pack of seeds I bought only had 8 seeds in it and only one of those germinated for me. I contacted the seed-merchant (Plants of Distinction) at the end of April and asked for a refund. They replied that they would refund me but also replace the seeds. Eventually, after some chasing-up, I got another pack of seeds (no refund though), but I reckon the replacement seeds must have been from the same batch as the first one! By the time I had received the replacement seeds it was too late (18th June) to sow them for 2018, but I did sow them this year. Again there were 8 seeds, of which 4 germinated, but only after a VERY long time (about a month).

The two one the left are particularly weak

My four "Ferline" plants are still very weak and small - a lot smaller than any of the other tomato plants I have, if only because in terms of development they are about 2 - 3 weeks behind the rest.

"Ferline" on the right, "Cherokee Purple" (typical of  most of my other plants) on the left.
Apart from anything else, when I pay £3.25 for 8 seeds I want them ALL to germinate! I have taken this issue up once more with Plants of Distinction - or at least tried to do so: after 10 days I have still had no response to my email. "Ferline" is a variety that I want to grow every year, but I also want reliably good plants, so next year I shall source my seeds elsewhere.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The value of spares

When you have a small garden like mine, and you want it to be as productive as possible, you have to make best use of all the space. Empty space = wasted space, in my opinion! And when you have a small number of any type of plant, it becomes practical - nay, necessary, to keep a close eye on every single one. This is the reason why I always sow/grow some spares. If I think I'm going to need 10 of a particular variety, I sow 12 or 15 - just in case I get some casualties, or one of the plants fails to develop properly. A policy like this doesn't usually cost much extra, but it can make a big difference to the overall result. To illustrate this thought, I'm going to use my current batch of Broad Beans as a Case Study.

I have planted two rows of Broad Beans, each with ten plants.

Most of them are doing very well, but I have recently noticed that one of them is lagging behind its peers. It's the middle one of the trio seen in the foreground of this next photo:

Notice how it's a lot shorter than both of its neighbours. Also, the lower leaves are limp and turning  yellow.

This plant is at best weak, and probably sick. It is unlikely to develop well.

Fortunately, when I sowed my Broad Beans I sowed some extras. I knew I wanted 20 plants, so I sowed 30 seeds! Since the plants in my raised bed had seemed to be well-established I have given away some of the spares, but I kept these three:

They are good strong, healthy plants, but beginning to become pot-bound in those little 3.5-inch pots. At the weekend I decided to give one of the spares its long-awaited opportunity. I removed the weak plant and replaced it with the best of the three spares.

Of course, having been confined for so long to such a small pot, this new plant is also small, but it looks very strong and already has three stems. I expect it will now put on a growth spurt and by the time the others in the row are cropping it will have caught up.

I conducted a "Post Mortem" inspection of the plant I removed, expecting to see grubs of some sort gnawing at its roots. Surprisingly, I didn't find any, but the stem/root junction looked hollow - perhaps damaged.

To be honest, that plant would probably have survived, but I don't think it would ever have been strong, and it would probably have delivered a small yield, so I'm glad I replaced it. My policy of having spares readily available for this purpose was vindicated.

Of course there remains the question of what will become of the remaining two spares... At some point soon I will have to either plant them (where??), give them away, or compost them. A difficult choice.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Hazel beanpoles

More news on the beanpole front... I have taken delivery of the Hazel rods I ordered a few days ago.

I had asked for 30 rods, 6 feet long and no more than 1 inch in diameter, because I had envisaged using them for supporting my tomatoes. In the event the rods turned out to be nearer 7 feet long - it was a bit of a challenge to get them home inside my car! I'm not sure that I will stick to the original plan. One of the ideas I'm mulling over is to make a tripod to support each of my tomato plants, but these rods may perhaps be too bulky for that. They may end up becoming bean-poles instead. I'll think about it for a few days before I commit myself.

On Saturday I put up the 9-foot Hazel poles which I have had for a few years now.

I have put in 7 pairs of poles, with a crossbar along the top for added strength and rigidity.

I'll be using this structure to support Runner Beans, and probably some climbing French Beans as well. The weather at present is not conducive to planting out beans, which are very vulnerable to frost, but I expect that by next weekend things will have improved enough for me to risk it.

Random fact: I'm convinced that bean plants prefer Hazel poles to bamboo ones. They seem to find it easier to grip the rough surface of the wood, whereas they find the smooth bamboo quite slippery! When using bamboo I usually have to tie-in the bean plants with some string, to help them hang on.