As we move towards the beginning of May, things really start to move in the vegetable garden. Up until this point there have been very few seeds we can sow outside or seedlings we can plant out but this is all about to change. Soil temperature and frosty nights have been holding us back but in most areas the last frost date has passed and the soil has begun to warm up.
Freshly sown seeds or seedlings which have just been planted are in their most vulnerable stage; this is where a bit of extra care and attention pays dividends and insures the majority of what you sow makes it all there way to your plate. Depending what you are growing we need to be on the lookout for a number of things, the most common being carrot and cabbage root fly, slugs and snails or unfavourable weather.
Before we get started on a few sowing and planting tips I just wanted to go on about how great tulips are. Above is a photo of my garden last weekend (after I'd spent the morning weeding the paths, more on that later) with one of my beds full of tulip 'White Triumphator'.
While I have plenty of tulips elsewhere in the garden, I must say I get the most pleasure from this little bed. It might sound odd but I find them great company when I am weeding and preparing the garden for sowing and planting; they look so vibrant, healthy and optimistic. Anyway, I'll remind you at tulip time in Autumn but it's well worth putting in a few bulbs; it takes only 10 minutes to plant them yet they provide weeks of joy the following Spring.
Planting out seedlings As I think I said a couple of weeks ago, I start most of my outdoor crops in modular trays (pictured above) for planting out later. There are some exceptions but in general this works much better than direct sowing because the seeds can germinate in relatively warm, slug free conditions so have a better chance of producing a good seedling. You can also take your pick of the strongest looking plants to grow on in your beds.
Hardening Off Plants grown in cosy indoor conditions that are destined to slug it out (excuse pun) in the great outdoors need to be introduced to colder conditions before planting out or they will suffer. This process is referred to as 'hardening off' and means leaving your seedlings outside in the daytime (if the weather is OK) and moving them back inside at night. The trays are left out for longer periods over the space of about a week until they are finally out for 24 hrs, at which point they can be planted out.
BTW, that grubby old polytunnel plastic in the photo is well past it's 'use buy' date and was whipped off on Sunday before the frame heads off to Niall's house for an exciting new life. It's not needed anymore as I am moving in to our old seedling growing tunnel.
Planting out seedlings As per my previous mail about planting distances, they are important. This is especially true of large brassica plants like Summer cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Unless you are used to planting or you have looked it up you will tend to plant them too close as the tiny seedlings spaced 60-90cm apart will just look plain wrong. Plants grown too close together will not reach their potential, they will be smaller, weaker and prone to pest and disease attack.
As regards planting depth, you are safest to plant seedlings to the same level as the top of the compost they are growing in. Cabbage family plants, beans and tomatoes can be planted a little deeper (up to the first set of leaves) while lettuce, cucumber or courgette should be planted slightly proud as their stems are prone to rot if covered. Again, as per previous mails, press the the soil in around the roots firmly to give a good seal with the surrounding soil.
Plant feed Your soil should be constantly improved by adding organic matter in the form of compost, manure, seaweed or whatever you can get your hands on; we will take it for granted that it is reasonably fertile.
I would also mix in a handful of slow release feed around the planting hole to give the new plants a boost. I use our own 'Seaweed' organic poultry manure and seaweed pellets as they are slow release and won't burn roots. I am no just saying it because it's one of our products but this stuff really is excellent.
When mixing in around a planting hole take into account the root size of the mature plant (you will know because you looked up the planting distances) and work the feed into this area to a depth of 2-3 inches. This will provide feed for the roots as they grow and encourage them to cover a wider area; feed placed only in the immediate vicinity of the seedling leads to a smaller root ball as the roots have no incentive to travel.
Protecting young seedlings Obviously it depends what you're planting or sowing but in in general I would only concern myself with a couple of things. The first one is slugs and snails as they will quickly demolish a row of hopeful seedlings in a single night. I don't know if the two are connected but since I starting adding large quantities of seaweed to the garden my slug problem has significantly reduced to the point that I don't bother with slug pellets any more.
If you do have a slug issue you are better using an organic pellet which is safe for pets and wildlife. There are a number of brand names but they all use the same active ingredient, Ferric phosphate. It is virtually harmless to higher animals while earthworms, bees, birds and other beneficial organisms are also not affected. When it biodegrades it releases iron and phosphorus into the soil which are essential plant nutrients so nothing to worry about there either.
Use slug pellets very sparingly, just a very light scattering over a wide area rather than dense coverings around each plant.
Cabbage Root Fly If you are growing any member of the brassica family you will definitely need to protect from cabbage root fly whose larvae feed on the roots. Healthy, mature plants can deal with some root loss and will survive but young plants usually don't. You can tell you have a root fly problem if the leaves show a blueish tinge and wilt, the plant will easily pull from the ground and you will see little white grubs on the roots. There are two prevention methods, one keeps the fly out altogether and the other prevents the larvae reaching the roots.
Enviromesh or micromesh (same thing) is a finely woven mesh that keeps the adult flies out. It is best supported above the crops with hoops, in the case above cleverly achieved by one of our customers (thank you for the photo Ann!) using a couple of bendy twigs. The mesh has the added advantage of keeping out the worst of the weather so a very good all round solution.
The other option, cabbage collars, are rings of felt that are placed around the seedling stem. The cabbage root fly lays her eggs at the base of a cabbage stem but if the resulting larvae can't burrow down to the roots we can take that as 'problem solved'.
I use homemade versions of these using some old roofing felt and they work very well. My tip would be to use a couple of stones to weigh them down as they have a tendency to blow around.
Carrot Root Fly The carrot root fly is similar to cabbage root fly in that the fly lays eggs at soil level which hatch to release root feeding grubs. The difference is the damage will be more apparent later when you find little tunnels in your mature carrots making them prone to rot in the ground or in storage.
Micromesh is the solution again here by keeping the adult flies off the crop. I don't like the look of mesh covering large parts of the vegetable garden but it really is worth it in the case of carrots as root fly is so common. In the photo above I am using our 'Mainframe' system which creates a nice neat looking cover.
Weeding revelation Myself and Niall always had differing opinions on our favourite 'Chillington' tool. The fork hoe is my constant companion in the garden while Niall favours the ridging hoe (pictured above) as his weapon of choice.
I will admit I always thought Niall was nuts until I found an old ridging hoe in the shed last weekend and started using it for weeding paths. It is designed for creating ridges in soil but it turns out it's pointed end is fantastic for 'hoiking' weed roots out of paths! Our oscillating hoe still wins hands down for weeding soil or loose gravel but for more compacted areas with stubborn roots the ridging hoe is definitely the thing.
Seed Stocks If anyone needs vegetable seeds we have a number of varieties back in stock with more to follow. It has been very difficult to source seed so we have had to substitute some of our own brand packs with seeds from the excellent 'Unwins' seed range. This is a temporary measure while we pack more Quickcrop brand seeds.
See you next week