17 Sept 2014

Serendipity Summer

Autumn is the new summer, to borrow and misquote a piece of fashion nonsense.  Days like today and yesterday are my kind of weather: the sun is shining but it's warm, not hot, I've got washing drying in a warm breeze outside and there's a gentle buzzing of bees in the shrubbery and gardens. It's left me hopeful for an extension to summer, a boon after the chilly and wet end to August.

Having recently said that the veg patch was all leaf but little produce, I may have to eat my words - as well as lots of fresh garden veg.  It seems that the watering issue was at fault. A few days of torrential rain, some cooler weather and suddenly we have the right conditions for growing happy veg.  I brought home an armful of beans, courgettes, tomatoes and raspberries last night (just before it got dark at 7.30, a sure sign of the changing seasons).  A stroll round the garden at lunchtime today showed what I missed.

3 huge courgettes, 3 small finger courgettes, more beans, sungold and yellow pear tomatoes, a few more raspberries and lovely fresh leaves (spinach, rocket, chard and beetroot) and radishes for salad. Which reminds me, I'd better sow some more lettuce as only two of the Marvel of 4 Seasons has grown. I'm leaving those two to get a bit bigger before I start picking.

The seedpods of orach aka mountain spinach (Atriplex rubra) have turned golden with only one plant left with the lovely bright pink discs lighting up the veg patch. Spiders and their webs are everywhere, caution is needed when picking salad leaves so as not to disturb them.

Yesterday was made even better by discovering several crab apples trees.  I suspected what they were, took a photo and posted that to Twitter and Instagram asking for help with identification. Jules, the Suburban Veg Gardener (@embergate) confirmed in the affirmative. Slicing one of the fruits in half at home sealed the deal - yes, definitely crab apples and definitely going foraging soon for rosehips and crab apples to make jelly and, perhaps, also some rosehip syrup to ward off winter colds. 

The green apples were growing on the other side of the Heath path and are sweet apples of some sort.
That delight will have to wait until the end of next week as I'm driving up to Leeds this coming weekend, popping my son up to university where he'll be studying music production.  Before I hear the cry of #emptynester, although it will initially feel strange (on my own after nearly two decades) and I'll miss him (obviously), I'll be making the most of any free time to visit more gardens, knowing that he'll be having a great time.  I've heard that Leeds is Party Central for students so I'm sure my boy won't be missing home too much! (Although, possibly the washing, ironing and cooking services provided at home  … ) 

9 Sept 2014

My bio-diverse garden: Southern Shield Bugs

There's a bookshelf in the design studios at college where unwanted books can be left for others. It was there I found a small pocket sized paperback of Bob Flowerdew's Planting Companions earlier this year. As I garden organically, I do consider Bob one of my gardening heroes. He advises that tomatoes benefit considerably from being grown with asparagus*. After reading it, I thought I was being so clever when I set six of my tomato plants out into ring culture pots within the asparagus bed. As the bed designated for growing asparagus is just one metre square, the crowns are positioned like the dots on a five-dice. The tomato plant pots formed a circle around the central asparagus plant.

As mentioned in my August end of month post, with hindsight, this left them too close together for the fruit to ripen in a timely fashion, until I stripped the lower leaves off. (Although, in a sense, the method does work as I had enormous plants.) By mid-august I noticed that there was a colony of what appeared to be tiny living dots enjoying the warmth at the top of one of the lower trusses. I thought they might be just hatched spiderlings.

See the mottling on the top of the tomatoes? I assume that's bug damage.

I don't mind spiders and they don't do any harm so I left them alone.  As the insects got bigger though I could see that they were, in fact, beetles of some sort.  Time to investigate.

My old friend Google told me that the bugs are Nezara viridula, more commonly known as the Southern Green Shield bug.  These differ from the more alliteratively named Palomena prasina, bugs that do little harm to the garden.  Nezara viridula have arrived in London in the last decade, believed to have travelled over from Africa via Europe, and can be found on tomatoes, raspberries, beans, mallow (Lavatera), Verbena and Caryopteris.  No wonder they're happy in my garden. They also favour allotments; bean growers beware. If handled, however accidentally, they emit a pungent odour.

All shield bugs are sap suckers (not as bad as aphids though) but the Southern Shield bug can cause minor damage to beans, tomatoes, etc by causing the fruit to distort. They're not considered a pest by the RHS as they're most numerous at the end of the season when fruiting is coming to an end.

So what's to be done?  Nothing. (Except (note to future me … ) space your plants out a bit more so that there is more air circulating and less hiding places.) Shield bugs will not do sufficient damage to warrant pest control. The adults overwinter and lay eggs on the underside of leaves in the spring so if you don't want them on your plants, check and remove.  Although that would be a shame as, in my humble opinion, they are all part of the garden's rich tapestry. And rather fascinating to watch.

The science bit: Asparagus roots kill trichodorus, a nematode that attacks tomatoes and in return tomato leaf spray will keep asparagus beetle at bay. Tomatoes also enjoy the company of parsley, basil and nasturtiums and they may be protective of gooseberries.  Certainly my gooseberry bush, growing next door to the tomatoes, appears very healthy. Case closed (for now).

And if there's any doubt:

Southern Green Shield bug

UK native Common Green Shield bug

7 Sept 2014

Here we go September; Bye-bye August

I'm pleased August is over; it was too hot and too dry (unbelievably for the UK) and September is always so wonderfully lush - the penultimate hurrah of the season.  Without a tap in the veg garden here, the plants have had to struggle without water while we had nearly a month of no rain. My water butts ran dry in the first week; after that, the plants were on their own apart from a few daily cans of water going onto the tomatoes and asparagus beds. A friend on the top floor used to lower a hosepipe connected to the water supply in her flat. Since having new taps, the connector doesn't fit so I've been carrying water from my bathroom, two blocks and four flights of stairs away.

Shallow-rooted raspberry canes have really struggled with the lack of water and it shows in their leaves. Even the courgettes stopped fruiting and any courgettes that had formed simply yellowed on the plant. (They have slightly perked up since the rains came. The plants, that is, not the yellowing courgettes.) Not quite the bountiful harvest that I'd hoped for. I am thankful not to have to deal with gluts of beans and courgettes but a few more would have been nice - especially since the courgette chutney I made turned out to be delicious. I've a feeling those jars won't last long enough.

Just when I was completely despairing at the lack of water and I'd been out to buy a fourth hosepipe so that I could connect them up to reach the nearest tap (over 200 metres away), the wind picked up, the skies turned grey and it practically didn't stop raining for the last week of the month! Buckets left out to catch any rainfall filled overnight (or within an afternoon's rainfall).  I got caught out in a sudden shower a couple of weeks back and even my waterproof was soaked within minutes and my shoes waterlogged as the drains were unable to cope with the downpour causing huge lakes to form on the roads.  At least the garden was finally getting watered and seeds sowed between showers popped up within 48 hours!

Curly parsley and feverfew in the herb bed.

UK weather is notoriously variable but this past month has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous with  very little inbetween. At one point, I set out in sunshine and was being rained on by the time I reached the end of the road; as I turned around for home, hailstones of ice pounded down on me and I returned home as thunder and lightning rumbled across the skies. Just a normal British day? For a while, yes.

So how are things in the garden? Truthfully, only rosy-ish. It all looks very lush and green but there's very little to eat apart from masses of herbs and a handful of fruit. The greenery is supplied by giant rhubarb and courgette leaves, nasturtiums and herbs.

I've taken off all the lower leaves of the tomato plants so that the fruit can ripen. My mistake was to grow them grouped together in the asparagus bed. I'd read that toms and asparagus are ideal companion plants so thought it worth a try. In hindsight, I feel tomatoes are better grown in a row, spaced well apart where they see the sun. I'll still have a few tomatoes when they ripen but certainly haven't had plants dripping with trusses. Possibly the water thing again and I've lost a few branches to the strong winds we (also) had in August. The Indigo Rose black tomato, which I know many other bloggers have been growing, seems to have very late ripening fruit; heavy rains have split quite a few and the remaining trusses are only just turning now, at the beginning of September. I'll leave these as long as possible to see what flavour develops. Let's give them a fair trial.

Clockwise from left: Indigo Rose, Maskotka, Yellow Pear, Sungold.

The artichoke looks dead but I'm thrilled to see that there are new shoots coming up at the base. (I had been wondering whether it had suffered a premature death.) The bush beans are slowly starting to produce, a handful here and there, but nothing like the glut I was expecting - and the plants are still attracting black aphids. (I won't be sad to see the back of those come winter.) I haven't had any strawberries to speak of this year but ten raspberry canes have been producing a small bowlful about twice a week. Tall beans and cucamelons have been non-starters with the lack of water - or maybe I was tempting fate by installing an enormous 2 metre arch for them to scramble up.

By mid-August I noticed that every time I went to the garden, I found apples with one bite taken out of them before being tossed aside. Grrrrrr. To curb my frustration and thwart the miscreants, I decided to pick all the remaining fruit. The taste was okay (another 3 to 4 weeks would have been preferable)  and at least I have a few for purée, crumbles and chutney. They'll go nicely with my green tomatoes and courgette.

Kale 'Cavolo Nero'
Bush beans (delicious flat pods that will turn into red kidney beans if left)
Physalis (Cape Gooseberry/ground cherries)
Spring onions
Courgettes (the small newer leaves are delicious too, cooked and eaten as greens)
Nasturtium leaves and flowers
Herbs: parsley, rosemary, bay, oregano, thyme, lovage, lemon verbena

Looking forward - sown or planted out:
Plants of Romanesco cauliflower, broccoli and okra from seeds sown back in May and potted on.
I put wool slug pellets around them and cages over the top to deter pigeons. They've doubled in size in the past week.
Chilli plants, still ripening but turning the most amazing colours!

Spinach 'Nile' and Spinach 'Picasso',
Ruby Chard,
Cavolo Nero,
Celtuce (a cross between celery and lettuce)
French Breakfast radish
Rocket (aka Arugula)
Lettuce (Marvel of Four Seasons and Salad Bowl)
Shimonita spring onions
Carrots (fingers crossed for some baby carrots before winter)
Beetroot (for overwintering)

Jobs to do:
Be vigilant! I squished some grey aphids off the broccoli yesterday and have seen butterfly eggs on a neighbour's cabbage leaves so netting the beds is the next step.
Chop back the strawberry top growth and pot up a few of the runners from Mara des Bois plants. These will replace the plants I was donated several years ago.
Move plants. I planted the lovage and pineapple sage too close to each other so one will have to be moved.
Make more chutney and jam. The rhubarb that I'm growing is Glaskins Perpetual. It has a reputation for  having a much longer season that other varieties and is looking really healthy. I'll try taking a few more stems for the freezer and for preserves - I've found a nice sounding recipe for Rhubarb, Rose and Cardamom jam. Very exotic!
Sow more spinach. I can never have enough of the stuff and the seeds sown last month are now being harvested as baby leaves.
Weeding! The dry weather gave me a month off this chore, now it's back to reality.

This post was destined for the monthly Garden Share Collective but I missed the link-in deadline. The other posts can be read here on Lizzie's Strayed from the Table blog.

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