Monday, 23 January 2012

Garden - what worked last season and what didn't

Maybe it's a good time for a quick round-up of the successes and failures of the last growing season. So the spring was okay but the summer cool and damp then the autumn was great. Overall that was fine for salad leaves and chard, beans - all kinds, globe artichokes and courgettes but not much good for tomatoes and chillies and aubergines (despite my home-made tomato shelter... that's a good place to start... with tomatoes)

Tomatoes then. Every year I grow them outdoors and often they get blight. Blight is an airborne virus which is much worse in damp years and which can be passed between tomatoes and potatoes.
Blight is really horrid. Once it starts on outdoor tomatoes all you can do is pick unblemished fruit straight away and use it straight away - in green tomato chutney or ketchup or green tomato curry or as fried green tomatoes. All delicious once you've got over the disappointment.

Usual advice is to grow tomatoes and potatoes as far apart from one another as possible, to leave space between tomato plants for air to circulate and to keep their foliage as dry as possible. All of which are easier said than done (especially if you're short of space and don't have a greenhouse), but this year I spent an afternoon building a "tomato house" following these instructions.
This is what it was meant to look like... but I knew it wouldn't...even if I used exactly the right ingredients (which of course I didn't)

I had to buy a few more canes of the right size but I had suitable plastic (from a new mattress). I now remember it wasn't all that suitable as it was too small so wouldn't tuck under the pots at the front.

This meant that the whole thing was in danger of blowing away so I improvised by threading string through sections of cut up old bicycle inner tube and running that under the pots. This was better than string alone which tends to slide around - and more importantly justified my hoarding of old inner tubes in the first place. Using old tennis balls to make the joins between canes at different angles was one of those ideas which end up being more trouble than having a tidy shed and remembering that you had a pack of Build-a-Balls all along. But that was later...

The tomato house was against a west facing wall so I used the plastic to create a roof and to protect the plants on the north side, leaving the south and west facing sides open. This was partly because there wasn't enough plastic...

So in May everything was looking promising - here's a few home-grown tomato plants and a couple of aubergine plants (bought from the organic veg growers at the Farmers' Market). In the end there were about 6 tomato plants and a few chilli peppers in there sheltering from the rain. The stones around the plants are to deter foxes from digging them up.
And the massive crops? Well... those tomatoes were the only ones in the garden not to get blight but they still missed the sun and they didn't do very well despite regular feeds of "comfrey tea". That's the foul-smelling concoction made by cutting stems and leaves from your comfrey plant, putting them in a bucket with a brick on top to hold them down, covering with water, waiting until the smell is bad (a lid's a good idea), then diluting with anything between 4 parts to 10 parts of water (approx) and using as an excellent, free, plant food. Once it's "brewed" I keep it in old plastic bottles by the water butt.

Bees love comfrey too. And you can eat it, but I don't bother. I use it to make the comfrey tea and also as a slug-attracting protective barrier around plants and then I eat them instead (the veg, not the slugs)

Yellow tomatoes coming along well.

The chillies had to come indoors to finish off ripening

And the aubergines? I was hoping you'd forgotten them. Nothing doing. One died early on, the other took about 4 months to make a couple of flowers and then gave up, but I'd love to have even just one, tiddly home-grown aubergine, so maybe I'll try yet again.

So will I build a bigger and better tomato house this year? I think so, using the Build-a-balls and buying a bigger sheet of plastic. I know that a corrugated plastic roof would be better, but my carpentry skills are not up to building the frame.

No skill, no effort sounds too good to be true, but I'll give it a go and report back.

While looking at photos I've just remembered another problem - distorted growth on tomatoes and beans which looks as though they've been sprayed with herbicide by mistake. I don't use any herbicide and I didn't think it could have come from my neighbours, but I got suspicious of lawn mowings from a friend which I compost (wrongly, as it turned out).

I was puzzling about this until I read an article by Alys Fowler in October where she was urging us to collect leaves for leafmould and mentioned that farmyard manures "contain potential hazards (aminopyralid herbicide residue is still about and it is hard to find truly organic manures)". A quick google later and I'd turned up heart-breaking tales of market gardeners whose crops entirely failed because of this problem. Aminopyralid is a herbicide used to kill broad-leaved weeds (thistles, docks and similar). I regularly brought horse manure and straw back from a riding stables and I worked out that the problem could have come from straw or hay which had been treated. Passing through the digestive system of a horse doesn't affect the potency of the herbicide either. Worse still, it takes about 3 years to break down and become harmless - and to do that needs to be exposed to the air - so regularly turned over - not left in a heap or in sacks. Read more about it.

Now I see why advice for really truly organic gardeners is never to introduce anything into your garden unless you're really sure where it's from and whether it's been sprayed... so, as Alys says, leaves should be fine, but be wary of manure/straw. It's maddening because straw is so great in the compost heap - adds bulk, helps the rest to rot down. I'll see how I get on this season manure-free. Part of the solution will be to grow more green manure - but the only one which works well on my soil is Phacelia balo - and it's so pretty and bees love it so much that I never want to dig it in.

I did sow loads of forage peas back in the autumn but mice/birds/slugs were very interested and even with netting there are only about 4 plants in a large expanse of bare soil.

Time to think of something which worked well! Borlotti beans which I grew for the first time. Easy, attractive, cropped well, can be eaten fresh or dried. Next year I'll grow more. Except that I've just looked at my dried stored beans which obviously weren't dried enough as some have grown mould - or maybe I shouldn't have stored them in a plastic box.

And nasturtiums - they did so well. Okay, they always do - but I really want to include a photo of something orange

In a salad with other garden leaves, grilled halloumi and toasted seeds - made on 5th November to take to a friend's bonfire party

And globe artichokes

Finally, if you're thinking of ordering seeds soon, have a look at Stormy Hall Seeds which I wrote about last August


  1. A really nice recap of what was a difficult and challenging growing year. I'm sure we're at the start of another unusual year weather wise.

    Your borlotti beans looked beautiful - you had far more success with yours than I did with my heritage french beans. The variety dates back to 1848 and the slugs and the black fly thought they were a delicacy. Didn't get to eat many of them but managed to save a few for next year. My father's given me some seeds of a french bean he has found isn't such a delicacy to the blackfly and slugs!

    I had success with aubergines this year but only thanks to ingenuity! I managed to keep them warm. I wrote a blog about how I managed to get some beauties

    I'm sure it'll give you more ideas of interesting contraptions for your garden :)

    Looking forward to more of your blogs


    1. Hi Claire
      Have you tried climbing French beans? I've got spare seeds of a purple variety (purple flowers and pods) which I got from my great uncle Ernest in Sussex about 20years ago and which is grown by my cousins in Yks and me down here - very reliable bean.
      Envious of your aubergine growing - just about to read your blog post
      Thanks again for your v interesting reply

  2. I enjoyed your posting. It is hard to avoid blight on an allotment but under cover tomatoes do last a little longer. I am thinking of investing in some grafted plants from Marshalls this year. Expensive and probably cheating but I am interested to see how they do in comparison with my own seed gown plants. What do you think?

    PS After years using it I am beginning to almost like the smell of comfrey juice. They say that nasturtiums only grow on poor soil, probably true as I had loads self-seeding last year and competing with the poached egg plants.


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