K's Garden

Building a large garden on a budget

Netting Vegetable Crops Friday 6 March 2015

Filed under: Vegetable growing — kgarden @ 12:00 am
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I’ve been using Scaffolder’s Debris Netting over my Brassicas for years (in the fact the netting has lasted for years, which is a bonus). It has a relatively fine mesh, which keeps the Cabbage White Butterfly off the plants, and is relatively cheap to buy (70gsm 3M wide is 74p/M). The alternative is something like Enviromesh which is relatively expensive (2.6M wide is £2.34 / M).

The number of pests that I need to keep off my crops seems to be, sadly, increasing. I’ve been using Enviromesh over my Carrots for many years. Folk law says that the Carrot Fly cannot fly very high, so just a barrier 2′ high is sufficient. Sadly that’s hogwash! although I’m sure it is partially true the problem is that just one or two Carrot flies can do enough damage to the crop to wreck it, so to my mind it is pointless to grow the crop with no or minimal protection, nor with a “deterrent” companion crop – and nor with a Resistafly or similar variety which is resistant to Carrot Fly (and a compromise on flavour). Far better to prevent the fly getting anywhere near the crop, so it needs a complete enclosure of enviromesh (Carrot fly is small enough to get through Scaffolder’s Debris Netting), and it needs to be carefully secured at ground level because the fly will crawl towards the lovely smell of sweet carrots!

Note that people who tell you they use a low barrier / companion planting and never have a problem may not actually have any fly either! I work on the basis that discovering that you have NOW got fly, because your crop is ruined, is too late and wastes a year’s effort growing the crop. If you harvest all your carrots early (in particular you don;t leave them in the ground to harvest into winter) then you might avoid damage by Carrot fly.

So that’s Carrots taken care of for the last umpteen years … or so I thought.

There is increasing prevalence of Allium Leaf Minor and Leak Moth which attacks Garlic, Onions and Leeks. I’d not heard of it until recently, but I’ve decided not to wait until my crop is decimated – that would be a terrible waste of time growing the crop for a known, avoidable, pest to then demolish it – so those crops too will be covered in Enviromesh this year.

The good news, such as it is!, is that Carrots, Leeks, Onions and Garlic don’t grow very tall, so I don’t need a significant width roll of enviromesh to cover them safely.

I wrote an article some years ago about how my, then, 9 year-old built a frame for protecting my Brassicas with Blue MDPE Water Pipe hoops and Sccaffolder’s debris netting [LINK]

And here’s a link to Enviromesh (actually they now seem to be selling Veggiemesh, same sort of thing)

Brassica Netting - Done

Brassica Netting


Bargain / Discount Fruit Trees from Aldi, Lidl, Poundland etc Thursday 12 February 2015

Filed under: Vegetable growing — kgarden @ 12:00 am

Each February the bargain basement stores sell fruit trees for £3 or so each. Clearly for anyone on a budget this is A Good Thing! but some caution is needed.

(Where I say “Apple”, in this article, I basically mean “Any fruit tree” whether it be Apple, Pear, Cherry, Peach and so on)

There are some basic steps to choosing a fruit tree:

1. They need to be on the right rootstock – the variety of Apple is grafted onto a specific rootstock. The rootstock controls the size and vigour of the plant – whereas the top, Scion, is what provides the expected apple variety.

Dwarfing rootstocks, whilst they may seem attractive in order to keep the tree small / smaller, are much harder to look after. They need more feeding, watering and produce generally “weaker” plants.

2. Variety is very important. I am guessing that a lot of people make an impulse purchase of a fruit tree in the discount stores because “The Price Is Right” – my advice is “Don’t”! It will be a few years before your Apple tree is fruiting; during that time you have got to give it space and look after it (either a lot, or not very much), and if you then don’t like the flavour what’s the point? You’ll probably then want to chop it down and start again, with years of production lost, or “live with it” which is worse really, isn’t it?

So first up: research what varieties you want. There are a number of factors here, but I would suggest that the Number One Criteria is “Flavour” – grow what you like to eat, and if you don’t like it (or have never tasted it) “Don’t Buy It”! The fact your best friend loves it is little consolation – taste and flavour is a very subjective, personal, thing.

You will be able to buy specifically named varieties of Apple in the supermarket, and you may already have favourites. However, lots and LOTS of apple (and other fruit) varieties are not sold in supermarkets; for example, if they don’t keep well, or don’t travel well, or bruise easily then the growers and supermarkets aren’t keen to grow them. Each autumn there are Apple Day events; usually held at specialist fruit nurseries their are experts on hand to advise on varieties that will suit your soil, size of garden, and what you want out of the plant (maybe you want to grow it “like a tree” or train it along some wires in a Fan or an Espalier – not all varieties are suitable for that), but better still they have hundreds of different varieties of apple that you can cut a piece off and have a taste.

3. Your fruit tree needs a Pollination Partner. This is another tree, which must be of a different variety, which basically flowers at the same time – so the bees will be able to visit both trees and share the pollen between them. Some varieties are marked as Self Fertile which means that, in principle, they will fruit on their own with no other varieties in the vicinity. In practice, unless you have room for only one plant, it is better to disregard that and to always provide a pollination partner. Self fertile fruit trees with have higher yields, and some say better tasting fruit, if cross-pollinated rather than self-pollinated. Self pollinated trees may be biennial – only fruiting (well) ever other year, and those will often fruit annually with a pollination partner.

Some varieties produce a lot of pollen, and are therefore good at pollinating other varieties, and some are poor at producing pollen. There are lots of website with good information, so it only takes a few minutes to see which of the varieties you like are suitable Mates for each other.

One thing to be aware of is “Triploid” varieties. These are varieties that will not pollinate anything else. So you need at least one other variety that will pollinate the Triploid, but then that other plant itself needs pollinating, so if you have one/several varieties that are Triploid you need two other, non-triploid, varieties which can pollinate each other (and the Triploid variety/s).

In the case of Apples, the fruiting varieties can also be pollinated by a Crab Apple. Crab Apples make lots of pollen, and flower for a relatively long time, so make excellent pollination partners. If there is a Crab Apple in a neighbour’s garden you are Job Done!

OK, so you now have a list of varieties that you would like. If you are going to wait for the Spring sales then ideally your list will have substitutes that you are happy with, because it is a bit Pot Luck what you will find in the store.

You may also find that the packaging in the store is silent on what rootstock is used. The other thing, which I read of all too frequently on the Forums, is that the cheap bargains are often? wrongly labelled, even to the extent where a plant bought as an Apple tree turned out to be a Pear. Such mixups can happen with any supplier of course, but I am inclined to think that reputable specialist nurseries are less likely to have that problem.

Personally I don’t allow my young fruit trees to bear any fruit, I want them to get on with getting established for a long and healthy productive harvesting life after that, but I recommend that you let one or two fruit develop in the early years just so you can check that the tree is actually what you thought it was going to be!

How tight is your budget? An apple tree from a specialist nursery is about £15. It will either be pot grown, or bare root (only sold / planted November to February) in which case it will have been lifted the day that it is shipped to you, whereas a bare root tree in a “bag” in a supermarket may have been a week, or several, out of the ground travelling to the store and waiting for you to buy it.

An apple tree, perhaps baring the smallest dwarfing rootstocks, will probably yield £15 worth of fruit a year, certainly half that value. So in terms of payback buying a tree for £3, or £15, is not much difference in the long term. Of course if you can reliably find a good quality plant for £3, rather than £15, then what’s not to like? … but “reliably” may be the problem, personally I don’t want to lavish care, attention, and garden space on a tree for 3 or 4 years to only then find out it isn’t what I thought it would be and I have to chop it down and start again or live with it


Buying Vegetable Seed and Is F1 Seed Worthwhile? Friday 5 September 2014

Filed under: Vegetable growing — kgarden @ 12:00 am

I read the debate from time to time. F1 seed is usually expensive, or comes in small packets, or both. The F1 All-Female Cucumber seeds I buy, “Bella”, were £4.99 for 4 seeds in 2013 – the most recent “stock” that I have!. But I buy the seed in the 50p-a-packet sale at my local The Garden Centre Group outlet, which has held this fire-sale for the last umpteen years, which makes F1 seed affordable (small packet size apart)

Most vegetable seed (with the exception of Parsnips, and perhaps a few others) has viability for several years; that can be maximised by keeping the seed in a sealed waterproof box, Tupperware or similar, in the fridge (but not in contact with the freezing part).

So what variety seed should I buy? Of course buying in the end of season sale the choice can be limited, so I buy enough seed for at least 2 seasons ahead when a variety I want is available. I guess I am getting old, but in general I avoid things that are being hyped by Marketing Departments as The Latest Brand New Thing … a few years later it is often hard to find that variety anymore, so either the newer ones really are better, or it was just bred as a fad.

Having said that, fellow gardeners argue with me that the Latest F1 Wonderplant is the result of careful breeding, and as such the blood-lines are true and carefully maintained; but in a few years the job will have been subcontracted out to a less conscientious supplier and the quality will fall; so on that basis one should only buy the Latest Brand New Thing as in the short term they will be excellent and consistent; I can see merit in that argument, but I prefer to grow a variety that I know we like to eat and it is relatively rare that a new variety that we trial, alongside a family favourite, is adopted long term. I’m very shy of experimenting where failure is a possible outcome, so I don’t gamble on growing to like what I have grown to eat. Many folk are quite happy to experiment even when the odds are long.

I grow for best flavour, that’s it.

Some people will no doubt grow for Yield, but if I can’t improve on supermarket taste I’m not interested in growing it; I do have a secondary consideration of wanting to know the provenance of my vegetables, but it is so long since I last put any chemical on a vegetable crop that I now kinda take that for granted, all it does is to turn me off buying vegetables in the supermarket as I have no idea what chemicals might have been used on them.

Because I aim to buy all / nearly all the seed I need in the end of season sales I don’t attempt to save my own seed, but if I did then I would have to avoid F1 varieties. F1 varieties don’t come true from seed that you save, so for anyone wanting to save seed then sticking to heirloom / so called “open pollinated” varieties is best. If that is for you then have a look at Real Seeds www.realseeds.co.uk, they provide advice on how to save, store and sow seed – its an interesting business model to plan to only ever sell you seed once!

Some F1 seed is bred for the benefit of commercial growers. They can be focused on things like the whole crop maturing all at once – so they can harvest it mechanically / cost effectively. That can be a downside to the home grower who wants to spread the harvest over several weeks.

So I am back to Flavour First; F1 varieties can give me bigger fruit, and more of it, starting cropping when the plants are younger (a good example would be F1 Sweet Peppers), compared to open-pollinated / heirloom varieties and maybe even better flavour. Other key benefits would be disease resistance but I personally don’t bother much with that, as a criteria, as it usually comes at a compromise on flavour – Blight resistant potatoes have been a disappointment taste-wise, although they are gradually improving [and taste is a personal and subjective thing, so my view and yours are likely to be different) – but for folk with plots infected with Clubroot then F1 varieties bred for the purpose can guarantee a crop where otherwise disease would mean it was pointless growing them at all.

So my suggestion would be to choose the varieties you want for flavour, suitable plants for the space and growing conditions you have. Establish a Base Line variety that you like, and then also grow some additional varieties, space permitting, of the “latest best thing” or “the one your mate said was amazing” and perhaps over time you will adopt a few of those. Of the trial varieties we grow each year very few ever replace the family’s favourites.


Growing Greenhouse Tomatoes using Hydroponics Wednesday 23 July 2014

Filed under: Vegetable growing — kgarden @ 12:00 am
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I was asked “I’m thinking about growing tomatoes peppers and chillies using hydroponics“, no doubt it crosses the mind of others too – either as a Project (I have no argument with that!) and perhaps in part to save labour.

Back in the 70’s I ran a project to build 2,500 sq.m. of greenhouses using Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponics to grow Tomatoes, Peppers and Lettuces, and nowadays lots of those products bought from supermarkets are grown by hydroponics. But I wonder how good an idea it is for an amateur project?

I have a 10′ x 30′ (30 sq.m.) “cropping” greenhouse, so somewhat bigger than a regular garden greenhouse, and any time saving would certainly be worthwhile, and whilst I have considered hydroponics for now I am sticking with my method.

I grow my greenhouse crops direct into the greenhouse border “soil” which I change annually. I have leaky hose along each plant rows down the greenhouse, gravity fed from a water butt with a timer. So the only labour I have is to feed via a watering can which I do when I remember, generally between once a week and once a fortnight.

My greenhouse “soil” is 50:50 well rotted manure (stacked for a year) and my homemade compost … well … I say “made”! I just pile up all the garden waste, I don’t turn it or add chemical activators, and after 12 months whatever is there is what I use. It is still pretty rough, but when it comes out of the greenhouse borders a year later it is beautifully friable, and I use that for various potting and mulching tasks. The compost / manure combination is much lighter than my regular clay soil and as such I don’t find it hard work to change each year, but changing it annually is overkill and every other year, or three, would do. I change it annually as much to have a steady supply of the nice fine friable compost that the process produces. An alternative would be to use grafted plants as they are much more tolerant of soils that have disease buildup / nutrient deficiency from mono-cropping.

Plants still need attention with hydroponics of course – picking fruit, training up strings, side-shoot removal, and those jobs still need doing if you go away from a prolonged time, or work long shifts, so the only labour saving is irrigation and feeding. You might get significantly higher yields with hydroponics, but some would say that hydroponics fruits taste watery. Many supermarket tomatoes are grown by hydroponics, and folk will base their experience on those – but supermarkets’ growers choose varieties that suit the commercial process – disease resistant, thick skins so they don’t bruise in transit, and so on – whereas home growers choose on flavour and tolerate lower yields and so on – so I doubt anyone has trialled best-flavour varieties in a side-by-side test of both soil grown & hydroponics to be able to say if they can taste the difference. However, gardeners “grow Tomatoes mean” for flavour, and you can’t do that with hydroponics because the plants will have everything they want “just so”, in particular water.

If you want a project then don’t let me stop you!! but if you want minimal maintenance cropping then soil-based (rather than container or bag) saves the fairly significant start-up cost of hydroponics, and negligable risk of crop-loss due to equipment failure / power outage


My Potatoes were Damaged by Frost Thursday 17 April 2014

Filed under: Vegetable growing — kgarden @ 12:00 am

How to protect Potatoes from frost

A common question this time of the year is how to protect Potatoes from frost.If young Potato plants are subjected to frost their foliage will be blackened. This will only kill the tops, and the plants will sprout again from underground, but that delays things and uses up energy reserves so is best avoided if possible.

Earthing-up the plants is best – draw soil over the leaves with a hoe (e.g. a Swan Neck hoe) making sure the leaves are completely covered with soil because then the frost won’t get to them. I only earth-up when frost is forecast, and then only “just enough” to cover the leaves, because it only takes a few days for the leaves to poke out again and there is only so much soil that can be piled over them, and thus only so-many-times that it can be done, to protect them. Alternatively cover with straw / grass clippings (but not if you have used selective weed killer or Weed & Feed on the lawn as the chemicals can persist in the grass clippings and then they will kill the Potatoes).

Fleece can be used for protection too, but it will only provide modest protection. Weigh the fleece down with stones / bricks etc. otherwise it will blow off the plants and leave them exposed to the frost. To my mind Fleece is second-best, compared to covering as above, because it will only protect against a modest frost; we can, and do, get -5C in May – albeit only once a decade or so – and even a double layer of fleece won’t keep that off. The roll of fleece I have is decent quality, and I’ve reused it again and again and it has lasted me for years. I’ve never tried the cheap material, but I read of a lot people saying how easily Fleece rips – so I presume they bought cheap and have a thin grade. Buy cheap = Pay twice!!

For years I went out at night to cover the Potatoes to protect them from frost. Not infrequently I would take the dogs out for their final pee before bedtime and only then realised how cold it was – resulting in me covering the Potatoes with fleece by torch light – quite a lot of cursing was involved!! Now I plant my Potatoes later (than I used to). I plant just a few at the early date, thus I only have a few to protect if we get a late frost, the rest go in later so the plants are later to emerge, and will be easier to protect if there is a really late frost. I try to plant just enough of the First Early varieties, really early, to provide for how many we will actually eat before the later ones are ready. For example, I bought just 4 seed tubers of Rocket (which I think is one of, if not “the”, quickest maturing variety), and I also planted 6 tubers of Arran Pilot, which is our preferred First Early. The rest are planted towards the end of April.

I use containers (kept in the greenhouse until risk of frost has passed) for the earliest of the earlies that I grow. I have some special Potato Growing Bags which work well (and have lasted many seasons). They fold-flat when not in use, the rest of the year. I also grow some in large containers. In total I grow 3 bags and 3 containers, one of Rocket, 3 of Arran Pilot and 2 of Charlotte (a Second Early, but our favourite for flavour); I put 3 seed tubers in the bags, and 4 in the (bigger) containers. They are all harvested before the outdoor ones are ready; the key benefit of containers is that its means that I don’t have to plant the outdoor ones “sill early” and thus have less effort keeping the frost off the outdoor ones during April and May. Note that usually the whole container has to be tipped out to harvest them, so if you use a really large container that will be a big harvest and I prefer to harvest just what we want to cook, rather than storing any for “later” – the sweetness of New Potatoes deteriorates in storage because the sugar starts turning to starch from the moment that they are picked – which is why home grown new potatoes, cooked the moment they are harvested, will always taste better than Supermarket ones – which have already been a couple of days travelling from the field to the shop.

Greenhouse Potatoes

Greenhouse Potatoes

One further thing I do is to plant some (half a dozen) Salad Potatoes at the same time as the first batch of First Earlies outdoors. Our preference is Pink Fir Apple (who thinks up these names?!) which tastes great, and we find it stores really well too. We like to have these for lunch at BBQ’s in the Summer, so we want to harvest them relatively early and the first few plants are sufficient to tide us over until the main planting is ready.

I plant the first batch in two separate double-rows – the First Early Arran Pilot at one end of Row 1, and then Pink Fir Apple at the same end of Row 2, and then the later planting completes both those rows. So when we come to harvest we start at the beginning of the row, depending on whether we want New Potatoes or Salad, and then we just keep harvesting along the row and, if I have done my sums right!!, by the time we start harvesting the later-planted ones they are ready.

A note on choosing a variety: it is very subjective – just because we like Arran Pilot, Charlotte and Pink Fir Apple its no indicator that anyone else will! Apart from personal preference a lot depends on soil type and growing conditions – my Arran Pilot may taste different to yours, or yours might fall to bits on cooking. My advice, on variety, is to buy a few seed tubers loose (e.g. at your local garden centre) of several varieties and carefully label them when you plant them, and then have a tasting-test when you harvest them to see which you prefer for future years. Taste will vary a bit from year-to-year depending on rainfall, how much manure you give them, and so on, but best you grow the varieties that you have found that you like.


I planted my Beans too early Saturday 15 March 2014

Filed under: Vegetable growing — kgarden @ 12:00 am
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I read on the forums at this time of year, mid-March say, of people who have planted their beans too early and wonder what they should now do.

Broad Beans are OK outside, but Runner Beans and French Beans need to be frost-free and, preferably, not chilly either – they don’t half sulk when they get cold, not to mention snuffing it if there is a frost

I think is will be a struggle to keep beans sown this early on tick-over until it is warm enough to plant them out, as they grow very fast. If any of them are Dwarf French growing them in pots is an option. 6-inch pots probably big enough.

Plan B would be to keep them in pots for as long as possible, then plant out, and cross-fingers that the Spring is frost free and warm weather comes early and then you will have the earliest Beans crop of anyone for miles around … but sow some more, as a backup, at the normal time just in case the early ones don’t pull through.

I have grown Dwarf French beans in the greenhouse for an early crop, with success, but I also tried climbing French beans with less success -they made an enormous amount of growth with very few flowers. The soil in my greenhouse is very rich (for the Summer crops I grow in there) so that might have been the problem.

Don’t grow Runner Beans in the greenhouse for an early crop – they need to be pollinated by Bees, and there probably won’t be any / many around early in the season. French Beans, by comparison, are self fertile so don’t need the help of the Bees