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This month in the garden - 2018


... always feels like a new beginning in the garden. The high maintenance, highly productive plants like tomatoes and aubergines are mostly out of the ground and we can say goodbye to the intensity of daily harvesting and processing. It feels good to take out all the tomato poles and clear away the old pumpkin vines. Things start to look neat again!! Now it's time to settle down to the gentle flow of the winter garden. We won't be watering so much, the weeds slow down, the days are shorter and everything just grows much more slowly. Now is a great time for salads. Lettuces, rocket, pak choi and mustards will all be happy in the cooler temperatures and give a spicy, warming winter mix. Coriander tends to do pretty well now too. Radishes, carrots, beetroots and parsnips can all be direct sown from seed.

Keep on planting all those brassicas you've been rearing; kale, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower. It's not too late to sow more in seed trays if you don't have enough plants. Broad beans, garlic and potatoes can be planted now too. So can onion and leek plantlets. Peas and mange tout planted now will be ready to harvest in spring. Asparagus can be planted now. It's a good time to give the strawberry patch a weed and tidy up. All the suckers should be removed. These can be planted up in pots to raise new plants. It's a good idea to gradually replace your old plants. They will remain productive for about 5 years but production will slow down after 3 years. Any spare plants can be given away or swapped.

Tip: Sow companion plants such as marigolds and nasturtiums near your brassica patch to deter cabbage pests.

Reader's question: Last year my brassica plants went all mushy and smelly in the middle. I ended up pulling them all out. What was it and how can I prevent it from happening again this year?
I too have experienced this. I believe it to be swede midge, coupled with bacterial soft rot. Bacterial soft rot is a “secondary invader” that gets into the plant tissue after the swede midge has created a wound. The swede midge is a tiny (1.5 - 2mm) tan coloured fly. To the naked eye it looks much like any other garden midge. The female lays clusters of eggs in the youngest, tenderest plant tissue it can find, preferring brassicas, and usually in the growing tip. The larvae are 0.3mm long when they hatch. They will feed in groups until they mature (in 7 – 21 days) when they will measure 3-4mm and be yellow in colour so by now you should be able to see them.

The larvae feed on newly emerging leaf bases and flower buds. They secrete a digestive fluid that breaks down the plant cuticle and causes twisting and curling of leaves and swollen leaf stems. This damage presents an opportunity for the bacteria that cause soft rot to enter the plant tissue and that is when you start to notice the putrefaction and the unpleasant smell. So what can you do? My brassica patch has suffered from this in the past. Even though the crowns get eaten, some plants will survive and go on to produce. Cauliflowers may produce four small heads rather than one big one. I covered my rows of young plants with agricultural fleece until they were well established last year and didn't have any trouble at all. A favourite remedy in my area is to sprinkle wood ash over the plants. This seems to be quite successful.The swede midge larvae will pupate in the soil and can carry over to the following year. For this reason, crop rotation is very important.

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