Time to plant out tomatoes, courgettes and squashes – plants now for sale, and the story of my cedar greenhouse.

From the start of June it’s safe to plant out courgettes, squashes and tomatoes outdoors. The garden centres would have you believe that these things can go outside from March when they start selling them… but of course they only care about selling them, not whether they survive!

As usual I have lots of tomatoes, courgettes, and squash plants for sale, lovingly and ecologically grown in my back-garden polytunnel and newly restored greenhouse. See my Plant Sales page for an updated list of what I have available.  Send me an email (peter@stroudgardener.co.uk)  or give me a call (07729 103263) to buy plants.

Restoring the greenhouse has been a major project this spring – finished about a month ago, just in time to be useful.   It’s a ‘vintage’ cedar wood greenhouse, which I was lucky to acquire for free a couple of years ago from a friend in our local permaculture group.   I’d wanted a cedar greenhouse for as long as I can remember!

My cedar greenhouse after restoration.

When I received the greenhouse, the wood around the bottom was in a very sorry state with lots of rot – it had either been used or stored in damp conditions without enough air circulation around the frame.  The amount of work involved put me off starting the repairs for quite a while, and I also built a rather lovely compost toilet when I should have been fixing the greenhouse (that’s another story).   However, having found suitable cedar timber for the repairs, this spring I machined it to the correct profile, cut out the old wood and fixed in the new – luckily, woodworking is something I enjoy, and over the years I have built up a well-equipped workshop.

My cedar greenhouse during the repairs

With luck, after all this attention, the greenhouse will be good for another 20 or 30 years.  In theory it could last forever, as the nice thing about wooden structures is that they are always repairable.  Cedarwood doesn’t rot outdoors in the correct conditions (well drained, well aired), but this old greenhouse proved that cedarwood can rot if left shady and damp for too long.  Of course, the nice thing about aluminium greenhouses is that they never rot… but on the other hand they just don’t look so good in the garden!  I’m glad to say that the cedar greenhouse now mostly blocks out the view of my polytunnel, which is far from a thing of beauty, for all its usefulness.

Red Russian Kale, and tips for planting onion sets and reusing old plant labels

One of the best things about March, apart from the clocks going forward of course, is Red Russian Kale.   It grows generously this month, producing wonderful tender leaves and delicious flower shoots that are better than purple sprouting.  If you could only grow one vegetable, this is the one I’d recommend!  You won’t find the seed in many shops, but it’s easily available by mail order, e.g. from the excellent Tamar Organics.

Red Russian Kale - by far the best of the brassicas?
Red Russian Kale – by far the best of the brassicas?

If you’re going to grow onions from onion sets, this is also the time of year to be planting them.  Onion sets are so simple to plant, but I disagree with the traditional advice which is to leave the tip of the little onion poking out just above the soil surface.  If you do this, curious birds come along and pull them out, and you either have to keep putting them back into their holes, or cover the whole lot with netting.   Here’s a really simple solution: plant them deep enough so that the tips are just buried.   “But won’t that be bad for them?” you ask.  They really don’t mind.  I learned this from a commercial veg grower, who plants onion sets using a machine which not only puts them under the soil, but doesn’t even bother to get them all the right way up… and they grow just fine!

There's no need to follow the traditional advice to plant onion sets with their tips showing. Cover them right up - unless you want to provide entertainment for the birds who will enjoy pulling them up!
There’s no need to follow the traditional advice to plant onion sets with their tips showing. Cover them right up – unless you want to provide entertainment for the birds who will enjoy pulling them up!

Finally, as I start the spring sowing of seeds, I find that I have dozens (probably hundreds) of previously-used plant labels.  I wouldn’t dream of throwing away plastic plant labels just because they have been used once or twice – and here’s the best way I’ve found of quickly cleaning them up to use again:  give them a rub (about 5 seconds) with good old-fashioned wire wool.   Much more effective than washing them or using a pencil eraser, and it leaves the plastic nice and clean with a slightly matt surface which is ideal for writing on with a pencil.

Clean up old plastic plant labels quickly by giving them a rub with wire wool.
Clean up old plastic plant labels quickly by giving them a rub with wire wool.

 

February – thinking ahead for blight resistant tomatoes and potatoes

I recently wrote a long-winded email full of advice for my niece who has just taken on an allotment, but what it boiled down to was “don’t do anything in January, and in February all you need to do is buy some seed potatoes”.

Her new allotment had been fairly well kept, so the beds aren’t overgrown or full of weeds. If they had been, then I’d have referred her to to the ‘Controlling Weeds’ section of this Natural Pest and Weed Control factsheet that I wrote for the LowImpact.org website a couple of years ago.

Back to the potatoes:  all allotment holders and most vegetable gardeners enjoy growing at least a few potatoes.   Don’t grow too many – if it’s your first time, buy no more than 6 or 12 seed potatoes so that you can find out gradually how much work, space, and storage they take up.

Unless you’re growing big quantities of potatoes, it’s best to buy the tubers (seed potatoes) from somewhere you can select them individually.  That way, you don’t have to buy a 2kg pack of 30 when you only need 10, and you can pick and mix a range of varieties.

The ideal place to buy seed potatoes is a ‘Potato Day’, which you can find in most towns in February.  This is a one-day event, usually run by a gardening group, where there are sacks of a dozen or two varieties of seed potato, which you can buy individually for about 20p each.   Stroud has an annual potato day run by Down To Earth and Transition Stroud (see video if curious).  This year, it is Saturday 4th February, 10am to 2pm in the Merrywalks centre.

chitting seed potatoes in an old egg boxOnce you have bought your seed potatoes, get them out of the bag as soon as you get home.  If they are left in the dark they will grow long thin shoots, which isn’t what you want.  Spread them out on a windowsill in a cool room, to ‘chit’, which means to develop small, dark green buds.  If you want to be really professional, lay them out in old cardboard egg trays, with the ‘rose end’ upwards… if you look carefully, you’ll see that one end has the place where a stalk was attached, and the opposite end has a group of tiny buds – that’s called the ‘rose end’.

Plant your seed potatoes in March or April, about 3 inches (75mm) deep in soil with manure or garden compost mixed in, or just in bags of peat-free bought compost.  Each time the growing shoots poke through the surface, ‘earth them up’ with a little more soil or compost, until the seed potato is eventually buried by about 10 inches (250mm) of soil or compost.  Keep them well watered, and the time to harvest is usually after the potato plants have flowered.

Potatoes are really easy to grow, and will give a good crop so long as they have plenty of food and water.  The main disease that affects them is Potato Blight, which kills off the tops in late summer, or earlier in a bad year.  Blight thrives in wet conditions, and the spores are carried across the country on the wind.   Some years it is more of a problem than others, and if you are only growing early/new potatoes, then there’s not much to worry about.   For a main crop potato, I recommend Sarpo Mira, which has been bred to be almost completely blight resistant.  It’s the only type of potato that I grow on my allotment these days.

Outdoor-grown tomatoes are even more badly affected by blight.  Tomatoes and potatoes, as you may know, belong to the same plant family, the Nightshades, or Solanaceae, a large family of plants which originated in South America.  If you try to grow tomatoes outside in the UK, they will often be killed by blight before you get any fruit from them.   Growing tomatoes in a polytunnel or greenhouse protects them from blight as it keeps the spores off them, and keeps the leaves dry.

If you do want to grow outdoor tomatoes, there is a new variety with excellent blight resistance, called Mountain Magic F1.   It’s expensive (£2 – £4 for a packet containing just five or six seeds!) but I was extremely impressed by the results obtained by Bill, my brother-in-law, last year.   In a garden where every other tomato plant was long dead from blight, the Mountain Magic tomato plants were still alive, thriving, and giving good, large cherry-sized fruit.  Available from Kings or Thompson and Morgan, but can be found from £1.99 per packet including postage on ebay.

Finally, don’t forget that February is the time for pruning fruit trees and bushes, if you haven’t already done yours.

Jobs for October – Apple Picking, Garlic Planting, Hedgehog Housing 

Three brief pointers about autumnal tasks this month.

testing if apples are ready for picking
My delicious Herefordshire Russets, which were ready for picking earlier this month.

If you are lucky enough to have your own apple trees, apple picking mainly runs through October and November.   Don’t pick them too early.  The tree will tell you when the apples are ripe for picking.  If the tree doesn’t seem to want to let go of the apples, you are picking too soon!

To test an apple’s readiness for picking, just lift it up gently from the branch, giving it a gentle twist of a quarter of a turn as you lift it.  If the apple comes away in your hand, it is ripe for picking.  If it doesn’t, then leave it for a week then try again.

Windfalls on the floor can be a useful sign that the apples might be ready.    All the apples on the tree won’t be ready to pick at the same time, so test their readiness every week until you have picked them all.

Bear in mind that some varieties of apple should be stored after picking and won’t be ready to eat straight away.  Search on Google for “storing apples” and the name of your apple variety to check this…but if they taste delicious straight away, obviously no need to store them!.

Seed garlic for sale at Stroud Farmers Market - plant most garlic varieties in November
Seed garlic for sale at Stroud Farmers Market

Next… the best time to plant most types of garlic is November, so make sure that you buy it this month before it’s all gone.   The cheapest option is to buy planting garlic from Wilkinsons (£2 for 3 bulbs), or you can buy from the Isle of Wight Garlic stall at Stroud farmers market.  This has a great selection of varieties, but they are not cheap, at £3 per bulb.   If you grew your own garlic last year, you can also plant some of your best saved cloves.  It’s best not to plant bought “eating garlic”, as it will most likely have been grown in a warmer climate so won’t be a variety suitable for UK growing.

I’ll be planting some Solent Wight from the farmers market, some Casablanca from Wilkinsons, and some of my saved home-grown garlic cloves.  It’s always interesting to compare the results (and too easy to forget the varieties that you bought last year… so this year I’m making better labels for them).

October is a good time of year to buy or make a hedgehog nest box
October is a good time of year to buy or make a hedgehog nest box

Finally, I’m working on a big woodwork project at the moment, and I’ll use some of the leftover wood to make a hedgehog nesting box.  Hedgehogs hibernate in about December, so now is a good time to buy or build a nesting box for them.  They need all the help and encouragement you can give them, as they are declining nationally and are fairly rare in Stroud.

If you want to build a hedgehog nesting box, you’ll find lots of plans online, including this simple design courtesy of Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital which is what I plan to make.    If you’d prefer to buy a ready-made hedgehog nesting box, you can order a locally-made one from the Stroud Valleys Project ( 01453 753358) for £25-£30.

You can also improvise a one-season nesting box by cutting a doorway in a stout cardboard box, covering the top with some plastic sheet,  and partly burying it in a pile of leaves or debris in a sheltered spot in the garden, with just the doorway side showing.

Automatic watering systems are ideal for summer holiday plant care

It’s a problem faced by almost every gardener… what do you do about watering if you are going to be away from home during the summer?

If all your plants are outdoors in the ground rather than in pots or in a greenhouse, it may not be a problem.  Plants outdoors  in the ground should be fine for a week or two, and in a normal UK summer I’d not expect to water borders at all, except just after planting out or during a drought, so a couple of weeks without water should be fine.

However, most gardens include some plants in pots or containers, and these, plus any that are under cover in a greenhouse or conservatory, most definitely will need watering if you are away from home.  What to do?  The easiest answer is to ask a neighbour to do some watering for you, and that’s probably the best solution if possible.  However, if you don’t have a capable and willing neighbour, or if you don’t want to impose, then what you really need is a timer system to automatically water your plants.

A dripper system for pots, combined with a cheap electronic water timer, can be set up for under £30.   This summer I’m using a dripper system for the containers in my front garden, and spray irrigation for the more numerous and transient plants on my back garden terrace.   Drip irrigation and spray irrigation really need to be on for different lengths of time, so this meant installing a second garden tap so that I could have two timers in use at once (luckily one of my hobbies is plumbing!).

using water timers for plant watering when on holiday
Two outside taps and watering timers side by side, one for a short daily burst of overhead spray irrigation, and the other for longer morning and evening sessions of drip irrigation elsewhere in the garden.

My drip irrigation pipework and drippers came in a kit that cost £6 from Wilkinsons, and other similar kits are available on ebay, or slightly more expensively in garden centres.

Black flexible pipe runs from pot to pot, with a dripper in each pot and a stopper at the end of the pipe.
Black flexible pipe runs from pot to pot, with a dripper in each pot and a stopper at the end of the pipe.

The kit consists of about 20 metres of pipe, and lots of T connectors and drippers, plus end stoppers.  You can have all the drippers running from a single pipe, or have ‘branch lines’ for pots in different areas.  The pipe is easy to cut with scissors and the connectors and drippers push easily into the pipe.

For overhead irrigation, last year I simply clamped a hose sprayer over a garden table, but this year I installed purpose-made irrigation sprayers intended for use in polytunnels (kits obtainable for about £30 from First Tunnels).   This pipework is wider diameter and somewhat harder to work with – the connectors take quite a lot of force to push into the pipe, which needs to be warmed up in hot water to soften it.

Overhead irrigation sprayers used for outdoor watering - these were part of a kit intended for polytunnel irrigation.
Overhead irrigation sprayers used for outdoor watering – these were part of a kit intended for polytunnel irrigation.

Whether you are setting up spray irrigation or drip irrigation, you use the same sort of watering timer, which connects to the irrigation pipework using normal hose fittings.  Last year I used an expensive £50 Gardena water timer, but was disappointed when it ceased to function just outside its 2 year guarantee period.   This year I bought two timers for £20 each from Screwfix – they are extremely simple to set up thanks to their detailed LCD display of settings.   I hope that these ones outlast their 3 year guarantee period by a considerable margin (but I’m keeping the receipts carefully just in case).

Once set up and running, automatic plant watering is a fantastic work and worry saver – well worth the modest investment of time and money.

For my polytunnel watering, I have a third system, porous rubber pipes in the polytunnel borders, fed by gravity from a large rainwater tank.  This system has been running entirely trouble-free for two years (no electronic parts!), completely relieving me from having to water the polytunnel borders in which dozens of tomato plants happily grow – I’ll write more about this in a future article.

Lawn mowers – the benefits of using human power

Lawns have been growing very fast this summer thanks to the alternating warm and wet spells that we’ve been having.  So there’s been lots of mowing to be done, but what sort of mower is the best choice for the average garden?

Hardly anyone buys a ‘push’ mower these days.  I think that’s because mowers are usually purchased by (and/or sold by) men, and many men seem to have the attitude that tools aren’t worth having unless they have engines or motors, and the bigger and noisier the better.

Let’s please not forget the humble push lawnmower, a simple, elegant, efficient piece of equipment with lots of advantages compared with its powered relatives: petrol lawnmowers are noisy and smelly and require regular servicing, and with electric mowers you spend half your time faffing about with the flex and extension leads, which constantly get in your way while mowing.  With my push mowers, on the other hand, I can finish cutting a lawn before I’d have got the extension lead out for an electric mower, and with none of the hassle, noise and smell of a petrol model.

push lawnmowers - invented here in Stroud and quieter, less smelly, and often quicker than power mowers
Push lawnmowers – invented here in Stroud and quieter, less smelly, and often quicker than power mowers

So I’d like to give three cheers for the push lawnmower.  It needs no supplies of petrol, creates no fumes or CO2, is calmingly quiet,  and doesn’t tie you up in flex or electrocute you.   I have two that I use regularly – a wide Husqvarna, which is a high quality mower for larger lawns, and a small cheap Powerbase mower which I rescued from a skip after someone had thrown it away!  Both of them cut quickly and smoothly, just needing half a turn a year with a spanner on the blade height adjuster nut to keep them performing beautifully year after year.

Thank you Edward Beard Budding, who invented the lawnmower here in Stroud in 1830.  Looking at the old illustrations, there’s very little difference between early push lawnmowers and those we buy and use today, except that modern mowers are much lighter, as they are no longer made of cast iron!

Tomato, courgette, squash, and herb plants available

I can’t believe how much my plants have grown since my last blog post five weeks ago – as you can see from the picture.   They are ready to leave home now and to be planted out at their new owners’ gardens, patios, allotments and greenhouses.  The weather has warmed up a lot in the last two weeks and I think we should be safe from any overnight frosts now.

IMG_20160518_090722702

I have lovely huge  Sungold and Gardeners Delight cherry tomato plants for £1.50 each (many are already 18 inches tall and flowering).  Sungold are sweet and orange-fruited and amazingly full of flavour.  Gardeners Delight are slightly larger-fruited red cherry tomatoes, a traditional favourite amongst growers.    They can both be grown in a greenhouse or outdoors.   The ideal outdoor spot is against a sunny fence or wall.  The beauty of growing cherry tomatoes is that they ripen so much earlier than larger fruited varieties – particularly important if growing out of doors.

Also at £1.50 are courgette plants (seed variety ‘Nero Di Milano’ from Tamar Organics) and butternut squash plants (also from Tamar Organics seeds).    I also have a small number of yellow courgette plants available and Crown Prince squash.  On the herby front, I have huge sage plants, just about to burst into flower (worth growing just for the flowers but a useful culinary and medicinal herb)  and big rosemary bushes and young basil and thyme plants.

My plants are available via stroudco.org.uk,  or by calling round to collect them from my house in Uplands, Stroud (just send an email or give me a call on 01453 759284 to check stock).

Spring veg plants and compost sales

It’s the time of year when I get lots of exercise carrying tender seedlings out to the polytunnel every morning, and back to the safety of the house every evening.  They need to go out to benefit from the daylight (and hopefully sunshine) to make them grow sturdily, but night time temperatures still regularly go below zero in the tunnel.

tomato plants stroud
Sungold tomato seedlings, a few days after germination in early April.

Sylvagrow Compost StroudI will be supplying tomato, courgette, and squash plants from late May onwards.  I’m growing Sungold tomato plants in bulk (orange cherry tomatoes with exceptionally good sweetness and flavour) plus a few other varieties including Gardener’s Delight (red cherry tomato) and Marmande (big slicing salad tomato… also ideal for making tomato soup).  I will also have yellow and green courgette plants, and butternut and Crown Prince squash plants.   Plus a few other items like leek plants, red russian kale, and some herbs.   If you’d like any plants, you can reserve some now or wait to see what’s available later.

This year I have also bought excellent peat-free multipurpose compost in bulk.  This is a new product, Sylvagrow, which I used for the first time last year and was very impressed with. Sylvagrow is the best peat-free compost I’ve tried, and was awarded Best Buy status by Which? magazine this year, competing against all composts, including the environmentally damaging  ‘normal’ peat-based composts which nobody with a conscience should ever buy.  I have Sylvagrow compost available at £6.50 per 50 litre bag (the standard garden centre price is £7, though it’s hard to find at normal garden centres).  It’s good for seeds and brilliant for potting up.

 

Fruit pruning time

January is traditionally considered a good time for pruning fruit trees and bushes… and let’s face it, there’s not much else to do in the garden at this time of year.

With the unusually warm winter we’re experiencing, it’s all the more important this season to do any necessary fruit pruning now rather than leaving it until February or early March.   Trees and bushes will be coming out of dormancy much earlier than usual this year.

  • The crossing branches from this young apple tree should be removed.
    The crossing branches from this young apple tree should be removed.
  • A typical thicket of raspberries before cutting down and thinning
    A typical thicket of raspberries before cutting down and thinning
  • Half the rasberry canes in this bed have been thinned (rear row) and half cut down to the ground (front row).
  • This redcurrant bush has been pruned to create a more open, goblet-like shape.
    This redcurrant bush has been pruned to create a more open, goblet-like shape.

 

Soft fruit is very straightforward to prune.   Autumn fruiting raspberry canes are usually all cut off to a couple of inches above the ground in Jan/Feb, and summer fruiting raspberry canes thinned out leaving one new cane every 3 inches (also remove all the old dead ones which  will be browner and sound hollow).

However, often people don’t know whether their raspberry canes are supposed to be summer or autumn fruiting… don’t worry, just treat half the row as summer fruiting, and the other half of the row as autumn fruiting.  Any canes left standing will fruit earlier, and any cut right down will fruit later, giving a crop of berries over a longer period whatever sort you have.

Currant and gooseberry bushes are pruned with the aim of creating an open shape, like a bowl or wine goblet, with no branches in the centre of the bush.  This improves air circulation (and simplifies picking too).   Also obey the general principles of fruit pruning, removing any branches that are dead, diseased, damaged, or that cross over their neighbour, and cut back any that are too long and spindly.

Apart from that, it’s a good idea to try to create a 6-12 inch clear section of stem at the base of gooseberry bushes to aid weeding and prevent overladen branches from resting on the soil and taking root.   The last thing you want is a thicket of gooseberry bushes – they are hard enough to weed around at the best of times with their long vicious spikes!

Blackcurrant bushes appreciate hard pruning, but red currant bushes should be pruned more lightly.

Moving onto the pear and apple trees… just follow the general principles (remove dead, damaged, diseased or crossing branches and cut back spindly ones to half or two thirds their length).  Apart from this general tidying up,  a long term aim is to create a nicely shaped, balanced tree, so remove branches if they are over congested, or if there are too many one one side of the tree.

Leave your cherry  and plum trees completely alone if possible, as they don’t like to be pruned.   If pruning of cherry or plum trees can’t be avoided (e.g. the tree is getting too big, seriously unbalanced, or is damaged or diseased) then don’t prune them in winter as this runs the risk of the tree contracting silver leaf disease.  Prune young cherry or plum trees in April, and established trees in July.

 

 

Plant garlic and broad beans this month

This is less of a blog post than a simple reminder.  There aren’t many pressing jobs in the garden this month – things stay fairly calm until April.  Late autumn and winter are a good chance to catch up on pruning, tidying, designing new beds, building log stores etc, all weather permitting, and thinking, planning, and ordering seeds for next year.

Planting garlic at the allotment in November
Plant garlic cloves about one inch deep, 8 inches apart, leaving enough space between rows to hoe easily. They need a fertile soil so add some compost or manure along the rows in a month or two once they have sprouted.

However, there are two crops which really should be planted in November for best results – garlic and broad beans.   If you’re local, you can buy garlic bulbs for planting from the garlic stall at the Farmers’ Market on Saturdays.  Alternatively you can find garlic at Wilkinsons in town, or Pound Farm Garden Centre on the way to Gloucester at Whaddon (opposite Wynstones School).   If you grew good garlic this year, you can re-plant the cloves from your best bulbs.   Probably best not to plant normal supermarket garlic as it will have been grown in warmer climates than ours, so may not do so well in the UK.

Aquadulce is the variety of broad beans to plant in November.  Some other varieties are for spring planting, so be sure to buy Acquadulce (or another autumn-sowing variety if you find one).   Plant the seeds about an inch deep (or deeper, see comments below), in double rows so that the plants help to support each other.  Leave about 6 inches between seeds, and the same between the two rows.  The next pair of rows should be about 2 feet away from the first pair of rows.   A problem with planting broad beans seeds is that they sometimes get eaten by mice before they germinate – so,  if you have enough seeds, you might want to sow them a bit closer together to allow for losses, then thin them out.   (If they all get eaten, which is unlikely, sow them in pots in the early spring and plant out when the baby plants are about 4 inches tall).

I’m sowing saved broad bean seeds, and a mix of saved garlic and new bulbs of Isle of Wight varieties from the Farmers Market.  If you have any trouble getting your garlic and broad beans locally, Tamar Organics is a very efficient small mail order company.   I’m always amazed at how quickly they send things out, and their postage charge is very reasonable (£1.60, but free over £20).