August 2013

Updates from August 2013.

August 1st

Starting with the weather, once again…. what a July that was, the third warmest month I have recorded, after August 1995 and July 2006. I don’t think any of us were expecting it after such a cold spring, showing how you never know what is coming next. The moon has some clues and the recent change to showery conditions coincided with full moon on July 22nd: new moon is on August 6th, perhaps that will settle things down again. At least it looks like staying on the warm side, with mainly south westerly winds.

The combination of warmth and moisture means less watering, more slugs and more weeds. Annual weeds have been easy to control so far this year, in soil much drier than usual, but now you need to watch for any early signs of unwanted green leaves and run a hoe through the soil, of give a light scuff with a trowel, almost before you can see the weed seedlings, to be rid of them in their hundreds sometimes, for little effort. Current candidates are likely to be grasses, chickweed, sow thistle, groundsel and any weeds which seeded recently: regular attention to SMALL weeds is quick to do and keeps soil looking nice and clean, also it is a chance to keep an eye on other things like perennial weeds!!

Potato, Tomato

Late blight needs watching out for as well, and if you still have potatoes in the ground I would harvest them as soon as you can, unless they are Sarpo types or were late planted and the leaves are vibrant green. The increasing risk of blight, allied to a return of slugs in damp soil, means you can sometimes lose more tubers than any potential gain by leaving plants to grow more.

For outdoor tomatoes there is not much remedy to blight once it arrives, so let’s hope there is enough dry weather in August to keep it at bay. I have already picked a whole truss of outdoor Sungold, against a south-east facing wall, but Gardeners Delight has yet to ripen; another plus for Sungold, always my first tomato, although Steph grew Latah this year for early fruit (Real Seeds), and it is early ripening but the flavour is well hidden!

Other promising tomatoes at present are Matina, whose medium sized red fruit also ripen early and taste good, Black Russian and Brandy Boy F1 beef tomatoes, and Rosada Fi cherry plum, whose flavour is as good as ever.

But I have had some problems with tomatoes and am reminded how hard it is to grow consistently good plants, of many varieties, at all stages of the season and in different weather and shelters. For example the hot weather of July meant extra watering, but I think I overdid it from not appreciating the slower drainage of water through soil here compared with at Lower Farm. At least, that seems to be the case at present, until worms get busier. By mid-July the fruit of a few varieties showed blossom end rot, and mostly in the greenhouse where perhaps the heat and light are stronger. By contrast, the plastic cladding of polytunnels has a light diffusing effect which really helps plants, all without losing too much light, so my plants in there have almost caught up those in the greenhouse and have less blossom end rot, which is apparently caused by a lack of calcium from irregular watering. I am not convinced by this idea and think it is more to do with general stress levels, such as plants finding a temporary shortage or excess of moisture or ventilation, and certain varieties having a susceptibility. Most of my plants are fine most of the time, so that is a good starting point, but do bear in mind with tomatoes that they are working really hard for us:

  1. Still growing
  2. Flowering and setting new fruit
  3. Swelling existing fruit
  4. Ripening an increasing amount of fruit

To do any one of those things on its own would be good, let alone all four. On the subject of (1) above, I pinch out the topmost growing point of indoor tomatoes some time in the second week of August, to give plants one less job and help them put more energy into fruiting; continue sideshooting and remove only the leaves below the lowest truss with fruit on.

Dig/No Dig and Onions

Onions are swelling after the rain and there is the perennial question, is it worth bending the tops over? If soil is dry and the sun is bright, it is not really necessary but in damp weather it can help onions to switch their energy into bulbing and also to make necks thinner and bulbs easier to dry. Also, when to pull onions and break their roots, again to encourage drying and for better storage? I reckon to do it when about three quarters of onion tops are lying down, so that growth is mostly done and then I can clear the ground for new plantings. Also remember to harvest any remaining garlic, as soon as possible before decay sets in and bulbs become unattractive.

Interplanting and new sowing

You have a huge choice of plants for new sowings in August, mostly salads, any of oriental leaves, wild and salad rocket, spinach, chervil, coriander, parsley, and then towards month’s end is good for sowing spring cabbage and spring onions to over-winter. Also lambs lettuce is best sown at the end of August, you can pop seeds between existing vegetables such as fennel.

New beds

I have made another couple of beds, for planting in autumn:

Update 15th August

Summer continues in a nice vein of weather, yet also it is time, over the next two months, to prepare for winter, by filling the gaps with new seeds and plants to add to all the other vegetables you have sown and even harvested already, such as potatoes, garlic and onion.

The main vegetables to sow now are salads, as well as spring cabbage (third week of August) and onions from seed (25th-30th –  and spring onions at the same time). Overwintering onions from sets can be planted as late as October.

Salads sown now, either direct or planted in September, will be good to cover with a cloche or fleece in autumn, after one or two autumn harvests. You have lots of choices for salad sowings in August: lettuce, endive, chicory, spinach, land cress, winter purslane, wild rocket, chervil, coriander.

For the faster growing salad rocket and oriental leaves such as mustards, mizuna, leaf radish and pak choi, sowing in late August is better when you want plants to stand the winter, as they still have time to develop good roots but without becoming too old. In human terms, I reckon that an age between 18-35 is good for plants in early winter; mature but not too wise!

Using the same yardstick, it follows that for growing in polytunnels and greenhouses, where growth is stronger, sowing dates are later and mainly from about 5th-20th September, according to the different speeds of growth. But if you are growing just a few plants, it is alright to sow them all at the same time to save time, say around mid September, just make sure that you have seeds ready to sow then: one packet of mixed oriental leaves would be a good start, perhaps another of mixed ‘other’ leaves such as lettuce and endive.

Harvesting continues apace now and onions should all be pulled, drying either on the soil for a few more days, or undercover on staging or in crates, with air around the drying leaves. When tops are yellow and mostly dry, they can be tied loosely and hung or plaited to hang somewhere dry: onions keep well in warmth so they are a nice kitchen ornament, garlic too. I have some lovely ones this year, the best have been Stuttgarter from sets and Red Baron from seed, the latter bolting less than set-grown onions. I grew some from ‘heat-treated’ sets and they are no bigger, but there were less bolters in the red onions. Do try red onions from seed next year if bolting is a problem.

I have not picked any runner beans as they are all for seed to eat, to harvest late September and October. We had a wonderful storm of 21mm rain here on August 3rd and that has helped all the beans to yield more, and last week I was amazed at the big harvest of dwarf French beans. Squashes also are looking promising with plenty of fruit and plenty of time still for it to ripen.

Tomatoes have been the opposite to last year, in all good ways. I have been picking some lovely outdoor Sungold, which is also my star variety undercover, both for flavour and earliness, even for yield so far as the Gardeners Delight is so slow to ripen by comparison, although Rosada is now well underway and tastes wonderful.

Beef tomatoes are producing nicely except that all my greenhouse tomatoes are yielding only half the fruit of the tunnel ones, Blossom end rot was a lot of the problem but since that is supposed to be from irregular watering, and I water greenhouse and tunnel similarly, it is clear as mud. I suspect the extra midday heat in July, in the greenhouse, may be a cause – but all other plants in there are fine: wonderful aubergines (my best ever, variety Black Pearl), peppers, cucumber, melon, basil, stevia. Also some bountiful but unexciting cucamelon, which I just pulled out. Bitter gourds and Kiwano have grown fast but decline to grow any notable fruit, preferring to make a foot of new growth per day instead.

Now is time to stop all growing points on tomatoes, so they just finish growing and ripening the fruit and flowers they have. Water a little less now (except if hot), then water less-again in September to encourage ripening. Take some lower leaves off but leave at least the top half of the plants’ leaves, so they bring flavour, size and sweetness to developing fruit.

For preserving the summer gluts, tomatoes can be frozen without pre-cooking, but are then soft when thawed out and used for cooking rather than eating raw. It always used to be said that vegetables “ned blanching before freezing” but I have read some experienced people now writing that there is no notable difference in flavour and quality compared with just putting them in bags raw – another job saved.

Butterflies have been abundant in the fine weather and I made a big mistake with the cabbages on my Shumei experiment, because I covered them with fleece to keep the insects out, but there were just one or two holes….. The resulting damage looks worse than if plants had been left open to the air, perhaps birds and other predators are then able to keep caterpillars in check, to a point at least. But if you want nice hearts of autumn cabbage, a mesh cover is worthwhile, but I do not cover my kale and purple sprouting as they keep growing through the insect damage, especially from October when the caterpillars have finished.

For something different: I am speaking at an exciting event in Waterford, Ireland on September 14th/15th where “Grow It Yourself” gather hundreds of keen gardeners at their conference and agm. Also they have an ambitious project to create a food centre where the links between soil, plant and food can be further enhanced. They need funds so you could vote for GIY’s GrowHQ in the arthurguinnessprojects and help to make make homegrown food the norm again, and not only in Ireland as GIY have recently launched in the UK. For voting see