Updates from May 2013.
Update 16th May
After the first week of glorious sun, we have now had a week of rain which is welcome, and winds, low temperatures which are not helpful! Everybody hereabouts is fed up with the ceaseless wind of late winter and spring, let’s hope it reduces now because plants do not grow well when constantly buffeted. Also, after 66 hours of sunshine in the first week, we have had lots of gloom and just 11 hours of sun in the second week. Worse than that is cloud clearing by night rather than by day, resulting in ground frost… and all my garden is icy as I upload this. I covered potatoes last night with cardboard and fleece, also put fleece over tomatoes and courgette in the tunnel, but the greenhouse is a little warmer. One more frost is forecast tonight, 17th, then warmer.
Fleece has again given miraculous protection from wind. For example, I have so far picked around 7kg lettuce leaves off the bed we planted on April 1st, (see April 2013) and I just push the fleece to the other side in order to pick and weed one side at a time (lots of couch grass!), then recover with fleece. Leaves have been super healthy thanks to the earlier dry conditions and lack of slugs. Now of course, slugs are returning.
Not all has been successful and leatherjackets are persisting, with quite a bit of damage to spinach and lettuce in the dig, no dig experimental beds made in December. A third of the lettuce have been replanted and I did a first pick on May 13th, yielding 580g on the dug bed and 680g on the undug, off about twenty plants on each bed.
Still on soil pests, spinach on a more recently made bed (in March, below) has grown almost perfectly. Perhaps the leatherjackets are still chewing on the dying grass and weeds underneath it. On other, older beds I have lost a lot of beetroot plants and have had to sow again in modules.
Bindweed continues to pop up in many places and I fear there may be a lot of roots lurking, which have been invisible until now. So I am busy with my trowel and do a patrol every couple of days, also for couch, cow parsley, buttercup, docks etc, finding that regular weeding seems quicker than leaving a fortnight between, and is also better for morale. This was brought home to me by two beds which I had fleeced and where I had not noticed all the couch growing through compost and manure, and hidden by the fleece – it was a big job to trowel it out, and ongoing now, looking for a reduction in growth of new couch soon. The first year is hardest!
I am loving the new greenhouse which is noticeably warmer than the polytunnel. Automatic vents help as they keep in the warmth in on spring days when the sun suddenly disappears behind black clouds, at which point a polytunnel cools rapidly. It will be interesting to compare growth of the same tomato, cucumber, pepper and melon plants in each structure.
The greenhouse and its hotbed have also been amazing for plant raising and I have never had such healthy looking tomato plants for example. Perhaps there are some nice vapours coming from the hotbed! However it has caught me out a little as courgette and squash plants are ready before it is quite time to plant them outside: last year there was a ground frost on May 16th and I suspect it looks like happening again in 2013 so I am planning to wait before planting some squash and courgette outside this weekend, then covering with fleece. Also it is time to plant celeriac if they are ready, again worth covering with fleece for the first three weeks or so to help them establish; last year that made all the difference and my roots averaged nearly 1kg each.
If you do not have plants ready or just need more plants, have a look at www.organicplants.co.uk who sell a range of well grown vegetable plugs and pots, from which I have had good results. This year I am trialling some more of their grafted plants which mostly have not impressed me, yet, but Gardening Which did succeed with grafted melon and I am trying them. But beware their cost and only buy them if confident of having a warm, sheltered place as melons need heat more than anything, and don’t grow them outside unless, perhaps, in a walled garden in south east England.
The same need for warmth is true for sweet potato and many of the heat-loving exotic plants I see being recommended – read between the lines as it is not made clear that many new vegetables are new because they do not normally succeed in Britain!!
Often one does better to concentrate on getting better results with existing vegetables. I planted some Boltardy beetroot in the polytunnel in April, from a March 16th sowing, which seems a little crazy as beetroot can grow well outside. But it will be earlier, and I find that the first roots are always breathtakingly delicious and sweet, something to look forward to soon – in fact the roots on my second hotbed (outdoors), sown on March 9th and covered with fleece, are nearly ready now!
I am already picking outdoor lettuce
Spring is late so far this year, although April has mercifully been far drier than last year, with 31mm rain here instead of the 140mm of 2012. I have been reminding myself of this on every cool and windy day, that at least the soil is dry enough for easy access and I can push a wheelbarrow around the garden without any mud in my wake. Yet in spite of some fine weather, the temperature in April has been only half a degree higher than in 2012, and was still a whole degree below the April average; in fact the continual frosts of early April are even now showing their effect on flower and leaf buds which are only just emerging so cautiously.
However, that is increasingly behind us and the weather looks more promising for May with lots of sunshine on offer, and no excess of rain. How long before we want some moisture? You probably do already if on sandy or chalky soil, whereas undug clay is fine for a long time yet as long as plants are established or watered in, and seed drills want watering in their bottoms only, with seed placed on top of the wet furrow and then dry soil drawn over the top. Slugs are less interested in dry surfaces and carrots should be coming up well, mine certainly have, compared to 95% losses in the wet weather of last April.
Perennial weeds need trowelling when you see any!
If you have not sown courgettes and squashes, now is time to hurry on with it, undercover, for planting out by month’s end. For sweetcorn and climbing beans there is less urgency as they are so prone to setbacks in cold soil but you can sow any time from now until the third week. I am growing Borlotti French beans and Czar runner beans from last year’s saved seed, which I shall not pick until autumn for use as dry seed through winter; this year they have given so many delicious meals and indeed still are.
Tomato and cucumber plants should be well underway and can be planted now undercover, or outside in a month’s time. Really you can sow almost anything at this time of year, the only vegetables I am not sowing in May are oriental leaves, rocket. endive, chicory and chervil which all flower in late spring, so they are best sown in July and August by which time they are ready to make leaves instead of flowers. I also have finished sowing spinach and wait until July to sow it for autumn, then in August for winter spinach.
Some brassicas are good to sow in May, such as Brussels sprouts, swedes and hearting cabbages for autumn and winter. Other brassicas grow well from from June sowings, such as purple sprouting and kales, which I like to plant in July after early salads, potatoes, spinach, broad beans and peas.
This year because of moving garden I did not plant broad beans until Christmas Day, instead of in November, so I was lucky that January was mild and they were established as small plants by the time it became really frosty, and have survived really well (see dig/no dig beds above). As it happens, a November sowing may have struggled more because the stems would have been longer and more vulnerable to frost and also to the high winds which have been so common this last two months.
Fleece has been especially invaluable in the winds so far and nearly half of my beds are currently white, protecting lettuce, spinach, onions, beetroot, cabbage, peas, carrots and parsnips, both from wind and also from animal pests such as pigeons eating leaves, and blackbirds scuffling compost over baby leaves. Most of this fleece will be off by mid May, at which point I shall need to net the brassicas against pigeons, and put sticks up for peas which usually gives them some protection from birds. Then I shall be using the same fleece on plantings of squash, courgette and celeriac although the latter may not be ready to plant until June, as the cold weather of late March slowed its germination in the greenhouse.