Thursday, 29 September 2011

Tomato report

Yesterday's sunshine and heat was a reminder of what we didn't have during the summer. The rain showers have returned and we now need to get those tomatoes ripened and any plants that have finished cropping removed.

All my tomatoes are grown in the polytunnel and for the most part the temperatures there have been reasonable but there has been a lack of sunshine and high humidity levels. Mildew has been problematic this year and, though most tomato varieties set fruit well, ripening has been slow.

So which varieties proved best? Earliest to ripen and giving frequent cropping throughout the summer was a baby plum 'Lucciola' and a yellow cherry 'Sungold', though 'Sungold' didn't have the heaviest tresses. These were from 'Golden Cherry' another yellow cherry with a good flavour and now ripening very fast and allowing frequent cropping. 'Chocolate Cherry', an unusual brown/pink, also ripened quickly and has been giving a steady crop throughout the summer.

The larger tomatoes have had heavy trusses of fruit but they are very slow to ripen. 'Brandywine' set a reasonable number (it is never prolific) and the ones that have ripened have been worth the wait. 'Roma', a plum tomato that usually does very well for me, is ripening very slowly and I have not had the crops that I have had in previous years. They do make a very sweet sauce and can ripen in a warm place so I still have hope for the remaining tomatoes.

Friends with tomatoes in greenhouses have had healthier and better crops which I put down to the extra warmth, light and lower humidity levels. For the number of tomatoes I grow my greenhouse is not big enough!

So what to recommend when summers are not warm and sunny enough? First grow a variety, some tomatoes will perform better than others and part of the fun of growing your own is to eat what you can't find in the shops. Secondly try cherry or small tomatoes which seem to be inclined to ripen earlier. Thirdly ensure good hygiene and don't be too greedy, thin out plants to let light and air to the fruits. This will aid ripening and reduce mildew.

Those are tips for next year so what to do now? Continue to pick ripe fruits, cut back new growth and dispose of diseased or surplus growth. If temperatures drop and you still have green fruit try hanging up trusses in a warm sunny place or even bring fruits into the kitchen to ripen.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Broad beans

I first came across broad beans in New Zealand where they were part of Christmas dinner. Young and sweet beans are a treat here in early summer and as a hardy bean they should be part of every northern kitchen garden.

Of all the beans I grow the broad bean is the most reliable and can be successfully grown outside. All other beans only do well for me under cover, but this year has not been good for them, poor flower set and damp humid conditions has led to a lot of mildew. Of the polytunnel beans the borlotti beans have been the most successful.

Outside the broad beans produced a good crop and then I left some pods to produce seed for sowing next year. The wet September has been trying for all when harvesting is due but today I finally cleared off  the weeds and harvested the pods. The very black ones had become damp and the seed spoilt but the green ones had protected their seed and this has been laid out to dry in the greenhouse. Discard any that show rot and when the seed is properly dry store them in a cool dry container.

The seed is from Jade, a short sturdy bean which produces good flavoured beans early to mid summer. This is not a variety suitable for autumn sowing. I start them in pots in the greenhouse in January, they don't require heat and usually germinate within a couple of weeks or so. I always sow the seed on its side not flat. I have tried autumn sown varieties but haven't found any advantage, they don't produce any quicker, and if the ground is very wet the seed can rot. Once the seed is through I will grow it on for a few weeks before hardening it off and planting outside. This will generally be about March time depending on the weather. They don't require any protection or staking and little further attention until cropping.

Friday, 16 September 2011


For many years I have grown strawberries very successfully in the polytunnel. The variety is an everbearer or perpetual meaning that it produces fruit throughout the summer rather than just in one flush.

To minimise slug damage and make them easier to pick I grow them in raised troughs that I made myself from some offcuts of wood. As the demand from strawberries has increased from my family I also grow them in the raised beds under the tomatoes.They fruit well from late May until the frosts and are very sweet.

This year I decided to try some outdoors and planted them last autumn through black weed suppressing membrane on ridges. They looked a little sorry for themselves as the winter started, disappeared from view under snow for a couple of months, and then reappeared in early spring and took off, beginning to flower in May and producing their first fruits in June. The revelation was that these fruits were even sweeter than the ones under cover, and though they started later they cropped heavily and with little slug or bird damage. This despite the fact that this has been the coldest British summer for 18 years! It has been so successful that it will be repeated.

Strawberries are best moved onto fresh ground on a regular basis and new plants used every 2 to 3 years. My experimental bed used up part of the bean/pea patch. To increase the quantity would mean reducing the amount of peas and beans, not good. I have decided a dedicated bed needs to be created. The ridges will run north - south to enable sunlight to reach both sides. Ridges allow the fruits to hang down without necessarily lying on the ground. Water also runs away from the crown of the plant minimising rot. The black weed suppressing membrane kept the weeds out and the fruits clean and dried quickly after rain helping to prevent rotting fruit. Giving adequate space to the plants is also crucial, they grow large and air flow around the plants keeps mildew at bay. Two feet either way is not excessive although it might look too much when they are first planted. Planting in autumn is best, the plants settle in quickly in the mild weather, frost helps flower bud initiation and they are likely to produce an earlier crop. We were enjoying large bowls of sweet, tasty strawberries about 3 times a week with a couple of helpings of homemade strawberry icecream. With a punnet of strawberries selling at £2 or so that is a significant saving for not much effort and much better tasting.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A new potting bench.

I have just purchased my very first purpose built potting bench and a good piece of kit it is too. It folds away for storage, has a lower shelf, a small galvanised top shelf, substantial galvanised work surface and a drawer. It now stands in the greenhouse and almost looks too good to use.

A potting bench is one of the most useful and used pieces of equipment. When I first started I used the kitchen table, covered with newspaper, and a reasonable sized plastic potting tray. Not the most convenient places to sow seeds and prick out seedlings. Every time I had to bring everything into the kitchen, compost, pots, seed trays etc. In the greenhouse I then had I didn't have space to do much work, it was a space for bringing plants on. In the summer I resorted to working out of a wheelbarrow!

In the nursery I have the luxury of a potting shed and I built a workbench on which I continue to use my plastic potting tray. Everything is to hand and no more need to tidy up afterwards. So why a new potting bench?

In the very early spring I start off the majority of my seeds. In the potting shed there is no heating and the stone walls retain the cold. In the greenhouse there is a heater, and the sun rapidly makes it warmer and lighter. I can be pricking out seedlings for hours, traipsing back and forth to the greenhouse with pots and trays of seedlings. I also put my compost, ready mixed for sowing or transplanting, in buckets in the greenhouse to warm up. (In the potting shed last winter the compost was frozen). So I frequently take my potting tray to the greenhouse and work there, but that uses up bench space, and the bench is not quite high enough and I end up with a sore back. Hence the need for a purpose built potting bench, and when I found the one I liked the look of I knew that it would make spring sowing a much more pleasant experience. As it also folds away I can remove it if necessary or take it down to the polytunnel. It promises to give many years of good service. If you do lots of sowing and transplanting I would recommend you get yourself a potting bench, whether home made or bought, it will be a worthwhile investment.

Thursday, 8 September 2011


Weeds in a kitchen garden are inevitable, how do you expect them to resist freshly turned fertile soil?

The mild weather has now turned into penetrating heavy rain and the wet soil should not be worked. Digging saturated soil will lead to compaction and destroys the soil structure. However the last of my onion crop needs to be lifted before the wet weather causes rot, so I resort to lifting them with the fork and just forking out the worst of the weeds so that the ground is cleared and I can see that all the onions have been harvested.

Of more importance is removing any flowering weeds before the seed sets. Some weed seeds are particularly long lived. Dock seed can remain viable for 50 years or more and one seedhead can produce hundreds of seeds. If these are allowed to fall on the ground it will be impossible to remove them, but on the stalk one snip with the secateurs and the problem is resolved. Even on wet days the flowering stems can be removed and the roots can be dealt with later. Mix these stems with some grass cuttings when you add them to the compost heap and the heat should destroy any viable seed or rot them down in a bucket of water first.

Friday, 2 September 2011

New Perennial Planting

As work in the kitchen garden begins to wind down attention can be turned to other parts of the garden.

In this mild, damp weather the soil is easy to work and it is a good time to remove deep rooted weeds that have crept in and to make changes or additions to perennial plantings.

Personally I leave most divisions to the spring when the plants are growing vigorously. I never divide or move grasses at this time of year as they can succumb to rot during the winter. I will however move flowering plants during this month and they generally have enough time to settle in prior to the frosts. I will remove the flower stems of any moved plants to direct their energies to the roots rather than into producing flowers or seed. Perennials that have been pot grown and are planted now can retain their flowers but will settle in better if you take away the flower stems. This is a perfect time to introduce young perennial plants which will build up their rootstock to produce a good display of flowers next year.

In the garden I am tackling a new area of ground which has been under black plastic. It is easy to remove any remaining roots and weeds but the soil is very dry. I incorporate some compost in the planting hole when replanting the moved plants and that should help the soil absorb some of the rain we are getting during the night. Once the soil is wet again I will cover the bare ground with a fine covering of grass cuttings. The grass cuttings will prevent weed seeds germinating, add nitrogen and humus to the soil when it rots down and, as long as it isn't applied to thickly, will not turn into a slimy mess. It must be applied after the soil has been well soaked or it will prevent the rain reaching the soil.