Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Potatoes in containers

Last years potato crop was extremely poor, and the few potatoes raised were mostly kept back for planting this year. This years crop has been very good, despite the dry summer and I have plenty safely stored away.

However last year I had quite a number of small potatoes which weren't worth cooking and really didn't merit being planted in the potato patch. What to do?

Normally I'll boil them up and feed them to the hens, but by the spring some of these had gone rather green.

At the beginning of the year I usually plant a few salad varieties for raising in the polytunnel for an early crop. These are planted in tubs and I use the compost out of containers planted in the previous summer to save cost. The fertility of the compost can be easily raised with the addition of suitable fertiliser. Usually these are harvested from early May and then the containers are vacant. (See  "Early Potatoes" February 2012)

This year I decided to reuse these containers and plant them up with these small green potatoes. I had plenty of compost to use out of the compost bins and it was an easy enough job to fill up the containers, set them on a piece of ground which I wasn't using, and plant in the potatoes. After that they got only the occasional watering.

Today I emptied them out. Yes, they should have been done earlier, and they have been on the list of jobs to do, but other things have got in the way. The compost was tipped out onto the potato patch and I was very pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the crop. A good size, few blemishes, hardly any are green and with a quick hose down they are good enough to take to the kitchen.

Most are salad varieties but one is a good second early potato with a deep red skin, 'Maxine', a variety I haven't been able to get easily any more, so I'll keep that back for planting next year. Certainly the salad crop will make a pleasant change from the main crop which we are eating at present.

The other benefit has been the number and size of the earthworms that have been living in the containers. Many were probably small worms or eggs when they were emptied from the compost bin. They have now gone into the potato patch for the winter.

Was it worth doing? Yes, if you have suitable containers - they don't need to be very big, up to 40cm tall is deep enough, and a supply of compost. They were no trouble to keep over the summer and easily harvested. The crop was good for the size of the tubers that were planted. Main crop potatoes would not be the most suitable variety to use, unless you wanted to bulk up a few tubers for seed potatoes. Definitely worth doing if you've got an excess of small green potatoes and don't know what else to do with them.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Slugs in the polytunnel

The weather may be getting colder but the slugs are still active, particularly in the polytunnel.

I am fortunate to live on a beautiful croft, with a wide variety of wildlife. Many of these help to keep the slug population down but unfortunately they do not always have access to the polytunnel. During the summer the tunnels often have a resident toad or two, but at this time of the year they tend to find a hibernation spot. This leaves any plants more vulnerable to slug predation, and with growth slowing down slugs can make a big impact.

Because of the natural slug and snail predators I am generally loath to use pellets. However during late autumn and early spring, when the tunnels are generally closed most of the time and the predators are hibernating, I do admit to scattering a few organic pellets around vulnerable plants.

Today I was planting out some winter lettuce, having just cleared out the tomatoes. The lettuces have been waiting patiently in the greenhouse and are a fair size now, but as I was forking over the soil I couldn't help but notice the quantity of baby slugs and snails there were. They would be delighted by my new offerings and after all my careful nurturing of the lettuces I could not afford to lose them overnight.

Last week I picked over the purple sprouting plants and took a good handful of slugs to the hens. Pellets here are no good, the slugs are not interested in leaving the canopy of the broccoli. The only way of reducing their impact is careful hand picking and waiting for the colder weather to set in, when they will seek the warmth of the soil. Then as things begin to warm up again, a few pellets or some beer traps will catch quite a few returning to the feast.

In the spring pellets are judicially employed to protect seedlings. I never use them outside, but the polytunnel provides too good an environment for slug and snail breeding. They can often have three generations in a year in the tunnels, and the baby ones, hard to spot but ravenous, are the worst. Beer traps don't seem to interest them, so using pellets to mop up a few just hatching from the soil seems to be the best method.

In the summer, if you feel things are getting out of hand, try nematodes. These natural predators of soil living slugs will make a significant impact when the soil is warm. You get the nematodes from a good gardening product supplier and add them to some water in a watering can and water them over the soil. They will increase the natural population of these nematodes and will continue to be active during warm weather for a number of years.