All posts by peter

Invasion of the Ivy Bees

ivy bees on tomatoes in polytunnel in UK
A bee or not a bee, that is the question

When about a thousand bee/wasp creatures came to live in my garden polytunnel a couple of weeks ago, I emailed our local permaculture group members for help identifying them.  The bees/wasps were feeding on the split tomatoes by day, and at night were going to sleep in clumps on the floor.  The polytunnel doors were wide open, but they showed no signs of planning to leave.

The mystery of what they were was soon solved.  Someone else had recently had the same thing happen in their polytunnel, and the insects had been identified as Ivy Bees.  These are a fairly new species to us, first seen in the UK in 2001.  They hatch out in the autumn and feed on the ivy which is flowering at that time.   When I looked closely at the ivy in my garden, lo and behold, more such stripey bees were indeed buzzing round the ivy flowers.

I was told that the Ivy Bees were docile, only stinging under very extreme provocation, which seems to be correct as despite having hundreds buzzing round me when picking tomatoes, I haven’t been stung.  They are fairly short-lived, and sadly most of mine have now died (in heaps on the polytunnel floor!).   Apparently they lay their eggs in burrows in the ground, with many females making burrows close to each other.

I wonder if they have made their burrows inside the polytunnel?  Perhaps I will see their descendants this time next year.  I can’t help thinking that they’d be better off living outside, taking nectar from the Ivy flowers.  After all, they aren’t called Polytunnel or Split Tomato Bees.

 

Austrian Scythes

Grass too long in your orchard?   I finally got a chance to try out an Austrian Scythe recently, having heard about them for several years.   They’ve become popular as they are lighter than the traditional English scythe.  I was impressed, much easier to use than I expected, even for a beginner, and far more effective than the petrol strimmer would have been!

Scything an orchard with an Austrian Scythe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are several places to buy them online in the UK, including these nice people: Scythe Cymru

Plants For Sale

It’s the time of year for planting out courgettes, squashes and tomatoes, and once again I have plants for sale.  The current list is

Tomatoes: Sungold, Alicante, Gardeners Delight, Japanese Black, Red Alert, and saved seed from orange and red cherry tomotoes

Squashes: Butternut, Crown Prince

Courgette: Gold Rush, Nero Di Milano

Herbs: Basil

All grown using organic methods in peat free compost.

 

Potato Day and Stroud Community Seed Bank

There’s very little gardening to be done in January other than pruning fruit trees, but one very important task is thinking about the seeds that will be needed in the coming season.   So I’m getting out my box of left-over and saved seeds, and checking what I have, and what seeds I’ll need to buy or swap to be ready for the growing year ahead.

There’s a great event coming up in Stroud that will help with this.  The annual Stroud Potato Day (Saturday 3 Feb, 10 till 2.30, Merrywalks Shopping Centre)  is an un-missable opportunity to buy seed potatoes.  They have a huge selection, and you can buy large or small quantities, even just one or two of each type if that’s what you want to do – great for testing potato varieties you’ve not grown before.

Stroud Potato Day 2018 and Stroud Community Seed Bank

This year, Stroud Community Seed Bank will also be at the Potato Day, offering members of the public the chance to have a share of the seeds lovingly grown, saved, and packaged by the volunteer members of this pioneering local group.  You can get old favourites,  heritage varieties, rarities, and local varieties.  For example,  Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, Jane’s Flat White Beans, Oskar peas, Purple Ukrainian, Tangerella, and Hawkwood Cherry Tomatoes, Thrupp Parsnip and no end of flowers.   All available for a donation of 50p or £1 per packet.   More info about the Seed Bank on their website, and their Facebook page, and you can download the full Stroud Community Seedbank Catalogue here.

Packet of Stroud Community Seed Bank BeansThere are also Seed Swap events coming up in Stroud: at the Stroud Valleys Project shop in Threadneedle Street on Saturday 24th Feb 10.30 – 1pm, and at a Stroud Community Seed Bank filmnight at Lansdown Hall 7pm, Friday 2nd March.    The Seed Bank’s seeds will also be available at both events, and at the Down To Earth stall at Stroud Farmers Market on Saturday 27th January.

And if you’re itching to get sowing, what seeds can you plant at this time of year?  It’s still very early, but I’ll be sowing some onions seeds in trays in a cold greenhouse next week, and starting a few early tomatoes on a widowsill in early Feb, when you can also make outdoor sowings of broad beans.  Apart from that, almost all seed sowing takes place in March and April onwards, so there’s still plenty of time to think about what seeds to sow this Spring, and get out to a seedy local event.

 

(Blight) resistance is not useless!

It’s been a pretty dreadful summer for blight on outdoor tomatoes – there was such a lot of rain all through August, and blight thrives in damp conditions.  So it was good timing for my trial of a new blight resistant tomato – Mountain Magic.   They did really well – when other outdoor tomato plants have long-since died a horrible death, the Mountain Magic plants are still thriving and perfectly healthy!    Their tomatoes have a pretty good flavour too, so I’ll definitely be growing more Mountain Magic plants in future years, for customers who can only grow their tomato plants outside.

An outdoor-grown Mountain Magic tomato plant, September 2017 – thriving, with no sign of blight long after other outdoor tomato plants have died of it.
A very sad looking outdoor-grown Sungold tomato plant, September 2017.  Plant and fruit destroyed by blight.

In a dryish summer, ‘normal’ tomato plants can fruit well outside in a warm sheltered spot such as against a south-facing wall.  But on the basis of this year’s experiment, I think it’s well worth growing a mix of Mountain Magic and other tomato varieties, in case the blight strikes early as it did this year.   Fifty percent Mountain Magic would probably be my recommendation.

If you grow your tomatoes in a greenhouse or polytunnel, of course you don’t need to worry about blight, as indoor tomatoes are rarely affected (their leaves stay dry, so the blight spores don’t multiply on them).

Here’s looking forward to the introduction of other blight resistant outdoor tomato varieties –  a cherry tomato would be nice, as Mountain Magic produce small-ish full sized fruits, later to ripen than cherry-sized fruits would be.    If you’re wondering about blight resistant potatoes, the family of Sarpo potatoes, such as Sarpo Mira, are pretty good in my experience – mine are still healthy and flourishing in mid-September after a very wet summer… and they’ve grown some really massive potatoes thanks to all the rain!

Wading and weeding

It’s not often that a gardening job involves something totally new to me, but recently I’ve been working in a large garden that is surrounded on all sides by water.   So on a couple of the recent hot days, I’ve been in waders in the river, weeding it, as the owner has a legal duty to keep the water course free of vegetation.   Luckily, the owner knows a lot about water plants, as I don’t!  I’d heard of water mint and water cress, but not water parsnip or water forget-me-not!

Before weeding
weeding a river - after the weeding
After weeding

In my own garden and allotment, I’m doing much more conventional tasks for this time of year.  The biggest job is picking the soft fruit – I aim to get as many berries as possible into the freezer, to have with my morning muesli throughout the winter.

Redcurrant bush heavily laden with fruit
It’s a bumper year for redcurrants and blackcurrants.

Other than that, all the food plants are planted, and the work in the kitchen gardens has eased off, which gives me time to admire the newly extended border in my back garden, which is pleasingly crammed with flowers, including lots of nicotianas, clarkia, rudbeckias, penstemons and cornflowers grown from seed to fill up the new space.  Gardens are such heaven in June and July!

 

 

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.