The Growing Season!

There’s no stopping us now: British summer, with its tempered light and heat, is bringing everything – especially seed sown veg plants and vitamin D-starved humans – out of their shells. Day by day the tomatoes and peppers are looking taller, stouter and tanning to a healthier deeper green hue. I had Lycopersicon nervosa (Tomato Worry – a common gardeners’ complaint) for a couple of weeks as greenfly caused significant leaf curl on them, especially the precious Kondine Reds. But Holly and I inspected on Thursday to find them virtually cleaned up : a combination of volunteer lacewing larvae and spiders; introduced ladybirds; soapy comfrey spray; and no shortage of emotional support from myself and Nicole, their Irrigator-In-Chief.

Much has been written and researched about the beneficial effects of singing and talking to plants, but recently I’ve taken to yelling at them. Encouragement, that is, as if they were my football team or a Tour cyclist ascending the Alpe. Ultimately, I believe it’s about giving attention and love, however you choose to do it.

The climbing french beans are now taller than me. Sure, when you’re as vertically challenged as I am, you get used to having to look up to things, only not things that just a few weeks ago got lost in the creases of my palm. It’s truly staggering, and makes you think perhaps Jack and the Beanstalk was an historical account after all.

The Entrance Field is taking shape. I’m really pleased with its appearance: it’s starting to actually look like what you might get if you cross-pollinated the attention-to-detail of the gardener with the broad strokes of the commercial grower. A bit more colour required, but we’ve only got ourselves to blame for that, as we insist on ripping the flowers off the strawberries as soon as they emerge.

As yet, the pioneer strawberry and beetroot show no signs of interest from pests known or unknown. We’re now planting leeks. Wireworm, which can be a problem for leeks (and indeed our potatoes) is resident in the field, as it often is in established grassland. But we thought we’d risk it on the basis that I laid out potato and carrot traps last year and didn’t catch a single wireworm. True, anything that can turn itself into a click beetle is possibly clever enough to spot a trap when it sees one. But there’s no way they’ll have anticipated such vociferous support for the newly promoted green and white team when they’re on The Field. Altogether now: COME ON YOU LEE-EEKS!

Lost to the Frost

Last week was the first time I felt confident enough to put the tender vegetables out to harden off, so Sod’s Law dictated that we experienced an unexpected late frost: I can only apologise to everyone in the South East for bringing it upon us.

We lost 50 or so plants, which only hours before were in prime condition for the Saturday plant stall at the Hornbeam Centre. The only survivors were a few of the “Golden Bantam” swetcorn,  noteworthily enough. The tomatoes, squash, courgettes, french beans and nasturtiums all bit the ice.

I feel hurt, careless, stupid and guilty; but if I can persuade myself to adopt a more philosophical stance, I concede that this is the kind of error that many competent gardeners, growers, humans, commit. I live nestled in the warm bosom of the East End, five miles from the draughty edge of Essex that hosts Hawkwood Plant Nursery. Even if I’d realised just how chilly things were getting out in the sticks, by ten in the evening it’s as much as I can do to send warm wishes to my shivering sub-tropicals, up the Lea Valley, against the north wind.

There are some advantages to the distance, mind: I’m still enjoying commuting against the flow, out of London in the morning, and that sense of arrival when I reach the gates of little Eden. At this point of the year, perhaps above any other, it really is a lush green paradise.

So what do growers do when the much longed for lush green growth and fragrant blossom burst forth upon the scene? why! dig, plough, mow and deflower of course. We’ve been making posies of strawberry flowers from the early and maincrop cultivars as we plant them out in the Entrance Field: they’re one year old runners and the received wisdom is that you should encourage them to put energy into establishing good roots and leaves , giving them a stronger foundation from which to fruit and flower better over the next three years.

This is tough love indeed, and I can’t quite bear to do it to the apple blossom, though the same principle applies to newly planted fruit trees. Instead, I’ve kept suggesting to Sean that we really should be cutting short the apples’ floral display if we cared for their long-term fruitfulness, then wincing inside the glasshouse when he eventually took the hint.

There’s a time to be soft and a time to be firm, though, as I found out to my cost, even the Met Office can’t tell you exactly when those times are. Some gardeners interpret Jesus’ cursing of  the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) as a reference to the need to restrict fig trees’ roots  in order to stimulate fruitfulness. Jesus also said , “He who brings forth the tomato plant into the northerly winds is surely a fool amongst men”. Sometimes I’m glad the Book of Horticultural Revelations didn’t make the final New Testament Editor’s cut.

When Plants Die

There is so much to sing about this week. the apple blossom is in full bloom, on the ornamental Maluses here, and on the newly planted row of cordons. When I go, I want to be buried under an apple tree – not just so I can “live on” in the fruit (“then we shall all have eaten thee” as the Yorkshire national anthem has it) but because the blossom is, I think, my favourite flower on this planet.

My thoughts aren’t far from death right now: in spite of all the fresh new life emanating from the fields and glasshouses, the distressing fact is that the cucumbers are being killed left right and centre. It really is a crying shame: Louise, Lucille and Brian planted them beautifully by their climbing strings, after Sean had pulled the stops out to get the beds ready in time. There they stood resplendent for a week, before being steadily executed at soil level.

What to about problems? You don’t want to panic or jump to rash conclusions, but patient observation can allow things to escalate unchecked. In this case, within days half the crop was gone.  However we at least managed to establish, through early morning inspection, that is was woodlice. Yes, woodlice. So often I’ve leapt to their defence when other gardeners have unfairly scapegoated them for chewing plants: They tend to dine on dead matter and when they are seen in the vicinity  of damage, they are almost always there as mere opportunists, taking a passing nibble on strawberry flesh slugs have bored in to, for instance, usually muttering “oh well, waste not want not” to each other.

Ant this is the thanks I get. A rare (but not unprecedented) case of them attacking unblemished, live, green material.I’m particuarly upset as, as usual,  amongst the cues I’ve sneaked in some melons.  Melons are tricky blighters that I keep failing with, but I’m nothing if not determined, and this year was going to be our year, melons and me. Ah, the best laid plans…

It’s not a good look, a grown man shaking his fists at two centimetre long crustaceans, but I’ll rage and grieve this week and then, I hope, get over it. Tony Benn, not most famous for his gardening advice, orated that, “there are no final victories and no final defeats”, in doing so explaining more about growing than any celebrity gardener (save perhaps Monty Don). We have back ups: there will be a, albeit slightly later, cucumber harvest at Hawkwood this year. And, after all, outside the apples are in blossom. No final victories, but right now we are winning. Happy May Days.