Thursday 30 May 2019

Making Comfrey Tea

I have a little patch (let's be honest, 2 plants!) of Comfrey in my garden. Over the last few years it has languished in the dry shade of my neighbour's conifer tree. I had hoped that it would spread rapidly, but that hasn't happened. Both plants have remained small. However, now that the tree has been felled, the Comfrey seems to be having a new lease of life, which means I'll be able to harvest it and make a small batch of the plant-food commonly known as Comfrey Tea. [NB: this "tea" is definitely NOT for human consumption!]

A couple of days ago the Comfrey reached the flower-bud stage.

This is the time when the plant is most full of nutrients, and the best time to harvest it.

Initially, I have only cut one of the plants - the biggest of the two. It had four big chunky stems, which I cut down to about 15cm above ground level.

I separated the big leaves from the stems. The leaves are now in this bucket, squashed down and just covered with water.

Over the next month or so the leaves will deliquesce, leaving a brown sludgy (and evil-smelling) mess. This is the so-called Tea. I will add it to the water with which I irrigate my tomato and chilli plants. The piece of clear acrylic over the bucket is intended to keep flies out, and also to prevent the liquid being diluted too much by rainfall (if we ever get any).

Normally I would have put the stems (cut into sections) in the bucket along with the leaves, but on this occasion I kept them back to use as cuttings, with which to increase my stock of plants.

I know from personal experience that a short (15cm-ish) section of stem like this will root very well 9 times out of 10. This is how I established my original 2 plants. You simply dig a hole, shove the piece of stem in it, backfill, water well and hope for the best!

So around the cut-down plant there are now 9 would-be new plants.

I'll repeat this procedure with the second plant in a couple of weeks' time. That way I'll have a supply of the Tea over a longer period. I'm also reasonably confident that the cut-down plant will soon re-sprout and allow me to take a second cut in maybe two months from now. Let's see...

P.S. Rather belatedly I remembered that last time I made Comfrey Tea, I used a couple of these:-

With their close-fitting lids they are ideal receptacles in which to make the tea. Incidentally, if you drill a few drainage holes in them they also make good plant-pots.

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Casualty replacement

I short while ago I wrote about the value of spares. Just recently I have had to follow my own advice and replace a casualty with a spare kept specifically for this eventuality. When you have a small garden, every plant is precious!

I had planted-up 12 large tomato plants, and they all seemed to be doing well until one afternoon I saw this:-

That plant (a "Moneymaker") was definitely looking pale and droopy. It was a hot sunny afternoon, so at first I thought the plant was just suffering from the heat - although its neighbours seemed fine. I gave it a drink and hoped it would recover.

18 hours later it looked like this:-

That's terminal! A tomato plant in that condition is not going to recover, so I decided I had to replace it.

Now, this past week I had given away most of my spare tomato plants, but I had kept just a few, one of which was fortuitously another "Moneymaker", so a like-for-like replacement was possible.

When I dug up the dying plant I saw that its stem was soft and brown. I still don't know what caused this. It looked like over-watering, but I honestly don't think that was the cause - and all the others, which have been the subject of an identical care regime look fine still.

Anyway, out with the old and in with the new:-

The replacement plant looks nice and strong, despite having been kept in a small pot for longer than desirable.

Here it is, surrounded by its peers. I shall be keeping a very close eye on them for the next few days, that's for sure!

One of the benefits of having a small garden to look after, and it being literally right outside my door, is that I can inspect everything frequently and take immediate action if it's required. Of course, being Retired and not having to go to work is a big advantage here too!

Sunday 26 May 2019


Most amateur veg-gardeners grow beans of some sort. In the UK, Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) are very popular and can be seen in their thousands in gardens and allotment sites all over the country, but I think other types of beans are becoming much more common these days, perhaps because they appeal to people who think Runners are old-fashioned and boring. My wife and I love Runner beans, so I always grow some of those, but I usually augment them with one or two other types, just for variety. Last year, for instance, I grew "Cherokee Trail of Tears", and "Tunny" beans.  This time I have Borlotti "Firetongue" and "Kew Blue" climbing French beans.

Bean plants - especially the French type, Phaseolus vulgaris - are quite frost-tender, and are therefore not usually planted or sown outside until the danger of frost has passed. This is why my "Kew Blue" ones are only just germinating:

So that you can get them in the ground a bit earlier, it is a good idea to sow the seeds in pots, which can be kept inside or in a coldframe or greenhouse until the weather is suitable.

I expect many readers don't need much advice about how to grow beans, so today I'm just going to offer a few nuggets of miscellaneous information about beans, perhaps things that you didn't know or hadn't previously thought about.

For instance, did you know that it is easy to tell the difference between young Runner and French bean plants by observing whether they have visible cotyledons or not. [The cotyledon is the seed-leaf part, from which the bean plant's shoot emerges]. Runner beans leave their cotyledons underground and you therefore seldom see them, whereas French beans emerge with their cotyledons held up high.

These "Kew Blue" beans are French beans, and you can clearly see the cotyledons pushing up through the soil before releasing the shoot with its first pair of true leaves:-

These are Runner beans, so no cotyledons can be seen:-

Sometimes a bean plant comes up "blind" - in other words it's growing-point is absent, and it therefore won't develop properly and should be discarded. Here's an example:-

I can't explain the science behind it, but bean leaves can cleverly adapt their posture in reaction to sunlight and temperature. When the temperature is relatively warm, but not hot, the leaves lie horizontal in order to absorb heat from the sun, like this:-

When the sun gets too hot for comfort the leaves adopt an unright posture which exposes less of the surface to the sun's rays. This photo was taken in the early afternoon, and the bean leaves have folded up:-

When it is cooler, for instance at night-time, bean leaves often fold downwards, to conserve warmth, and they appear to be hunched up. I don't have a good photo of beans in this position; this is the best I can do:-

Another curious fact for you: Runner beans climb clockwise (when viewed from below), whereas almost all other beans climb anti-clockwise. Why? I don't think anyone knows!

My next "nugget" is the idea that pinching-out the growing tip of a climbing bean plant may be a good way of maximising its yield. The theory is that if you pinch out the main growing-point it diverts energy to the sideshoots, and you get two "pretty good" shoots instead of one very strong one, so this...

...becomes this:-

Personally, I'm not convinced by this. It may or may not work. My own observation is that if you have too many stems on a bean plant it may well get overcrowded, with too much foliage and end up producing a smaller yield than if you had just left it to grow naturally.

Does anyone else have any interesting facts about beans that they could tell us?

Friday 24 May 2019

More options for seed-sourcing

I mentioned the other day the poor response I had experienced concerning a sub-standard pack of tomato seeds. This has caused me to think again about where I (and you) should be buying seeds. I have often thought that the Big Name seed-merchants charge far too much for seeds, even the really common ones, and they frequently don't give you many seeds in their packets either. As for their Customer Service - well, it isn't always great...

This week we did some shopping in a Lidl supermarket near us, which has recently undergone a refit and expansion. We don't often shop in Lidl, but I have to say I was impressed - particularly by the value for money of some of their offerings. Of course I had a good look at their vegetable seeds!

The seed packs are grouped into several different Price Codes, and those in the lowest bracket - PC1 - are priced at a mere 29p. This seems to me like excellent value. The number of seeds in a packet also seems pretty good. For instance, the pack of "Vorgebirgstrauben" cucumbers includes approximately 60 seeds, whereas a pack of something similar from one of the Big Names would probably have about 8. I'll see how the seeds perform before I commit myself, but I can see myself shopping for seeds at Lidl again.

When it comes to buying seeds, not all suppliers are equal.

You have probably seen me mention a few times having had seeds from Growseed. This is another company which offers excellent value for money. For instance, their fairly unusual "Malaga Violet" radishes are 99p a pack, and that's for approximately 500 seeds.

"Malaga Violet"

A pack of the bog-standard "French Breakfast" ones produced by Johnson's Seeds and sold at the usually keenly-priced Wilko's come in at £1.50 - that's to say half as much again!

If it's a large number of seeds you want, then the place to buy is Seeds of Italy, who sell the Franchi brand of seeds. Most of their packs include hundreds if not thousands of seeds. For example their "Flamboyant 3" radish offering (very similar to "French Breakfast") includes a nominal 2250 seeds, and still costs only £2.45. I think this is great value. I can also say for personal experience that whilst you might think no-one would ever want that many radish seeds, they do last for ages (at least 3 years, probably more), so one pack can last you for several seasons.

Some other good value seed-suppliers that I know of are:-
Seed Parade - packs start at 59p
Simply Seed - some packs at 89p
Real Seeds - they sell some of the more unusual stuff
Moreveg - check the quantities: "French Breakfast" radishes are 60p, but you only get 100 seeds

If you are into growing unusual beans, this is one for you: Beans and Herbs. I got these wonderful "Tunny" beans from there.

"Tunny" beans, aka Cow Peas

One other seed-supplier I want to mention is Iden Croft Herbs. Unsurprisingly, they specialise in selling herb seeds! Their nursey is not far from Sissinghurst, in Kent. It was from them that I was able to get real Greek Oregano a couple of years ago, when no-one else seemed to stock it.

Greek Oregano

I know there are loads of other good-value seed-suppliers out there, and I urge you to shop around and give them your custom. It doesn't make sense to always buy from the Big Names. The prices and customer service are often much better when you buy from a smaller company!

Which is your favourite seed-supplier? You might want to tell me in a Comment...

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Making maximum use of space

I've mentioned a few times that my neighbour recently cut down a very big conifer tree (a Cypress of some sort), which had formerly shaded a corner of my garden. Well, now that the tree has gone, I have the opportunity to use an area of my garden that was previously completely unsuitable for growing vegetables. Unfortunately, the soil in this area is very poor, the result of years of depletion of both moisture and nutrients by that tree. If you dig down a few inches you find a dense mass of roots. For this reason I think the only viable option in the short term is to build up, not dig down.

I have used a big plastic crate to form what is effectively a very small raised bed, and in it I have planted four Borlotto "Firetongue" bean plants. The crate has some drainage holes in it, by the way.

The already-established plant in this photo is a Horseradish.

At each of the four corners - and outside the crate - I have positioned one of my new Hazel rods.

Allowing for a few inches of the poles being underground, and then a few more inches for the height of the soil in the crate, I think these beans will have about 5 feet of vertical support. It's probably not as much as they would like, but then Borlotti are not as vigorous as their cousins the Runner Beans, so they will probably do OK.

I'll see how the beans perform this Summer and then decide what to do with this corner of the garden. I might move that compost bin and the pallet (which is a bug hotel) and build a triangular raised bed.

But I might also just devote the area to Comfrey, (some of which you can see in the foreground of the photo above) because I know it will grow practically anywhere.

Monday 20 May 2019

Starting off some Cucurbits

I normally reckon that squashes don't grow well in my garden, because it is too shady, but since my neighbour's huge conifer tree was cut down a few months ago, things have changed for the better and I have decided to have another try. Of course, space is at a premium too, and I can't afford to waste any on something that might not do well, so on this occasion I'm only planting one squash, and it has to go in a position I would describe as "sub-optimal"!

Here's the squash plant, a "Crown Prince":

And here's the location:

A "Good King Henry" plant and a log-pile (for insects) to the right; compost-bin in the background; Comfrey plants to the left. Before very long the Comfrey will be cut down to make plant-food, which will allow the squash to get more light. As you can see, I have covered the plant with a plastic bell-cloche, which is more to protect it from animals than from weather. I'm thinking particularly about one of the local cats, who likes to cross the fence by climbing up onto that compost-bin, and jumping down from it when he returns.

In my usual fashion I have another spare "Crown Prince" plant waiting in the wings, just in case of disasters. Here it is, along with a couple of cucumbers:-

Unlike the squashes, I have had a lot of success with growing cucumbers. I have four cucumber plants this year, two each of "Marketmore" and "Delikate B".  This is one of the "Marketmores" - just producing its first true leaf.

The cucumber plants are nowhere near ready for planting-out, but their eventual home is waiting for them to move in whenever they are ready:

Incidentally, the germination rate of my cucumbers was only 50% this time, but I'm sure this is because I was using old seed. The squashes were 2/2, but they were fresh seeds. They were from Growseed, whose seeds have performed consistently well for me.

In other news... Yesterday I harvested my first Radishes of 2019.

Yes, it was only four of them, but you have to start somewhere! They are "Malaga Violet", again from Growseed. I love the colour! It makes a refreshing change from plain red.

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: