Saturday, 7 September 2013

Harvest 2013 - what's grown and what hasn't

Slightly leaning tower of runner beans!
The weather this year has been unpredictable and the changes from one week to the next have sometimes been extreme. Cold, wet and windy at the start, then a warm spell, late frosts that knocked back anything that dared to poke it's head above ground, and then several weeks of very hot and dry weather. The weather has affected different crops in different ways and reinforces that it pays to grow a wide range of vegetables and persevere with successional sowing.

Pests, in general, have had minimal impact here with the exception of the turnip sawfly, which chomped its way through most of my sprouting broccoli seedlings ( Snails have been everywhere but controllable with eggshells, beer traps and by consigning them to the compost heap. There seem to have been fewer slugs this year and I put that down to having used Nemaslug ( last year. A couple of friends have said that its effect lasts into the the second year and sometimes longer.

So, here is the state of our harvest so far. 

Beetroot. Six beets from three sowings of different varieties. Dreadful :-(

Cabbages. The autumn/winter cabbages are doing well and it looks as though there'll be a good crop. There was minor slug and snail damage to some of the early leaves but the cabbage white butterflies seem to have left them alone. There were plenty of the blighters flitting around but I found only a couple of patches of eggs and those were easily rubbed off. I'm not sure what put them off. I had placed eggshells around the plants to deter the molluscs, but I have read that the white of the eggshells also discourages the cabbage whites. They're fooled into thinking that there's another butterfly already there and move on. I also used a garlic wash on all of the brassicas so that could have discouraged them as well. Spring cabbages have been sown in trays and will soon be ready for planting out.

Carrots. Not a good year. I think the first sowing was too early and the second was probably hit by the late frosts. The third sowing was partially successful but then we had the prolonged hot, dry spell. I had hoped to try out some new varieties such as Purple Haze but I'm not sure how many I'll finally harvest.

Cauliflowers. Nothing to report on these, yet, as I am going to try overwintering them this year.

Celeriac. A disaster. Plenty of leaves but no "bulb". The leaves are edible, but in small doses as they have a very strong flavour. The harlequin ladybirds seem to like them, though.

Chillis. I planted these out too early and about half were killed by the frosts. The ones that survived are doing well so I expect a reasonable harvest.

Courgettes (zucchini). Another good year for courgettes after a slow start.

Cucumbers. A good harvest after a slow start and there are still plenty maturing on the plants.

Dwarf french beans. It's been a mixed harvest with the later sowings faring better than the first.

Florence fennel. Like the celeriac, a disaster. Tall thin sticks and leaves and no bulb.

Garlic. The cloves that I planted last year in the spaces left by harvesting did well, but then garlic is very easy to grow.

Horseradish. I decided to try growing horseradish this year and judging by the number and size of the leaves it seems to have established itself well. I'll see later in the year how well the roots are doing. It is growing in a container as I do not want it invading the whole garden.

Jerusalem artichokes. I have been growing these for several years and it is another vegetable that never fails. Harvest time will be later this autumn. You may think you have dug up all of the roots but there are always a few left behind ready to start growing next year. Like the horseradish, I grow them in containers to stop them taking over.

Kohlrabi. I love this vegetable.The leaves can be eaten like cabbage and the bulb can be shredded and added to salads, steamed or stir fried. We have another good crop this year, having treated the plants in the same way as the cabbages to protect them from pests.

Lettuce. We have had plenty of lettuces this year and I'm going to try overwintering some Winter Density. The spell of very hot dry weather badly affected the germination of a couple of sowings but overall it has been a good year.

Mustard. This is the first time I have grown mustard since I was at primary school, where we grew it along with cress on wet blotting paper. I could never see the point of the exercise as grown this way they taste of nothing. Sow mustard in the garden, though, and you get an abundance of peppery leaves ideal for adding  to salads.

Onions. It has been at least 15 years since I tried growing onions and I'm pleased I decided to give them another go. I didn't plant many sets but they did very well indeed and were very tasty. I shall definitely try them again next year.

Parsnips. I didn't have much luck with these this year. I have a pathetic three plants from the third sowing, the first two sowings probably having been killed off by the early bad weather.

Peas. Three sowings and three plants emerged from the second only to succumb to who knows what. Never had such a terrible failure with peas before :-((

Potatoes. I tried four varieties in pots and containers, and was pleasantly surprised with the yield and taste. The trick, I was told, is to keep them well watered and it worked.

Ramsons (wild garlic). This is the first time I have grown ramsons. The flowers and leaves appear at a time when there isn't much in the garden and are a delicious addition to salads and my breakfast scrambled eggs!

Runner beans. Great crop this year from three varieties, and still going strong.

Spinach and swiss chard. Great crop, as always. I've never had a a failed crop of either of these.

Sprouting broccoli. Only two of my seedlings survived the onslaught of the turnip sawfly. This is the first time I have had problems with sawfly on brassicas and I initially thought it was slugs or snails stripping the leaves off the stems. It was when I saw an adult sawfly on a nearby herb fennel that I discovered the cause of the devastation. A quick check of the seedlings at night revealed the sawfly caterpillars munching their way through my plants.

Tomatoes. These got off to a slow start but are now producing a bumper harvest. Time to start making the chutney!

Overall, a good year and much better than last.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Harlequins take over

Most of the ladybirds in our garden this year are Harlequins, which probably explains why we haven't had any problems with aphids. Harlequins are not native to the UK and were introduced as a biological control for aphids. They breed more quickly than our native species and have a voracious appetite, making them ideal as a means of pest control. The downside is that they out-compete and now pose a serious threat to other ladybirds. When aphids are scarce harlequins will eat other ladybird eggs, larvae and pupae, butterfly and moth eggs and caterpillars.

Below is a photo I took of a Harlequin next to its pupal case on a celeriac leaf.

Harlequin ladybird next to its empty pupal case

This example seems to conform to the standard descriptions I have seen on various sites, but they are very variable in appearance. There is information on how to recognise the Harlequin on the Harlequin Survey site at, and there is also an identification guide for Harlequins and common British ladybirds. The larvae, on the other hand, are very distinctive and the Harlequin is particularly spiky. The Ladybird Survey has a good identification guide for larvae of UK ladybirds.

Harlequin ladybird larva
So, given that Harlequins have almost reached pest status in the UK, am I doing anything about it? I'm afraid that at the moment I am going to be selfish about this and leave them be. They are doing a good job of keeping the aphids at bay and I'm having a hard job finding non-Harlequin ladybirds in the garden. I may change my mind, though, should they decide to take up residence in the house for the winter.

Further information on Harlequins and other ladybirds can be found on the Harlequin Ladybird Survey and UK Ladybird Survey websites. There is also a good overview of the issues involved in an article on the Wellcome Collection blog Ladybirds: friends or foe?

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Die, sawfly, die!

So there I was, in the garden taking photos. An interesting orangy-brown insect sitting on the herb fennel caught my eye.

It flitted from one floret to another and I managed to capture a side view of it, reminiscent of Alien.

'Alien' it isn't but what it's offspring do to brassicas is devastating. I later identified from the photos that it is the turnip sawfly (Athalia rosae). Sawflies are very, very bad news. There are numerous species  - gooseberry sawfly, rose sawfly, apple sawfly, turnip sawfly - and their larvae can strip the leaves from a whole plant or bush in one overnight feeding frenzy.

This is what a single larva did to one of my broccoli seedlings.

 I squished the larva but too late to save that seedling :-(.

The garden shed

I repeated last year's experiment of growing runner beans up against the side of the garden shed, and it does seem as though the beans like it there. I attached some netting to the shed on either side of the door and planted the beans a couple of inches in front of it. They didn't need much encouragement to start winding their way in and out, and up through the netting. In front of the beans is a rampant rosemary bush that is now obscuring a comfrey plant (also rampant). The comfrey is regularly chopped back and the leaves are rotting down nicely in my improvised fertiliser bucket.

The rest of the ground is smothered in lemon balm, chives and oregano, and there is Greek basil, spring onions and Moroccan mint in the pots. Nettles keep popping up and are regularly picked for making tea and adding to our green vegetable mix for lunch. In spring there is also a patch of ramsons. Ramson flowers and leaves have a lovely, mild garlicky flavour and are wonderful in a salads or as an alternative to chives on scrambled eggs or in omelettes. Hairy bitter cress also likes this spot although it does better in the spring before the other herbs take over. I once regarded it as a weed but I now use it to add a peppery zing to salads. You can even make hairy bitter cress pesto! ( And, of course, there are the inevitable dandelions. Like the bitter cress, I treat the dandelion leaves and flowers as salad vegetables but don't let them run to seed. Plenty come in from adjacent gardens without our own plants self-sowing. There is no point trying to pull them up; a tiny piece of root always seems to remain in the ground ready to regenerate an even bigger and stronger specimen! My past experience is that weedkiller is not always effective - even if I were still in favour of using it - and not really an option in such a densely populated herb patch.

In the tiny patch of ground to the left of the shed door are runner beans at the back (again winding through netting), another comfrey plant going beserk, and herb fennel in front (about 3ft high). A foxglove struggled valiantly for a few weeks and managed to produce a few flowers, but in the end just couldn't handle the competition.
The shed itself was homemade in the late 1940s, or so we were told by our elderly neighbours when we moved here in 1982. The sides and roof are corrugated iron and the door is made from reused planks of wood. The cast iron framed windows finally came away from the main body of the shed about 10 years ago and now form part of a portable cold frame for spring sowings. Our neighbours hinted that they would be glad to see it come down and we did consider it for a while. Apart from the fact that it is a good size with plenty of room for storage of pots, garden tools etc., it is very solidly built (apart from the windows that fell out). It would require serious brute force, or a stick of dynamite, to demolish it. For much of the year vegetables hide it from view and, in any case, we have grown to love it.

Long live our garden shed!

Saturday, 24 August 2013


At last. The tomatoes are ripening and it looks as though we are going to have a bumper harvest this year. Today's salad was made with varieties Noire Charbonneuse, Gardeners Delight and Idyll, and a sprinkling of Greek basil. We also have Purple Russian, Rose de Berne and Cavendish Cordon in the garden. They are all ripening fast so it looks as though it will be a good year for chutney.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Keeping the slugs and snails at bay

The kohlrabi is doing well this year and it looks as though we'll have a good crop of  both leaves and roots. I am growing both Luna (the greenish white variety) and the purple skinned Azure.

I've not had much of a problem with cabbage whites this year, although I have seen them fluttering around the garden. There have been a few patches of eggs on the leaves but I check morning and evening and rub off any that appear. More of an issue are the tiny snails that seem to have taken a liking to the brassica leaves, more of which later.

Keeping them well watered during the recent hot weather was a challenge as the bed is on a slope. I'm slowing creating a raised bed that will level off the surface but for the time being the water flows towards the lower end of the bed. Also, in hot weather the water evaporates and doesn't really get down to the roots where it is needed.

The method I've used over the last few years is the old water wizard and plastic drinks bottle trick. I received the green plastic, conical water wizards many years ago free of charge along with some hanging flower pouches from Thompson and Morgan. You can purchase them separately if you wish ( They are marketed as a means of ensuring that hanging baskets and containers are thoroughly watered. They work just as well, though, in the main part of the garden. Simply cut the bottom off the plastic bottle and screw the top on to the water wizard. Then push the water wizard into the ground and fill the plastic bottle with water. The water then slowly flows through the holes in the wizard into the surrounding earth. A lot of people have found, though, that you don't need to use a water wizard. Just bury the neck of the bottle in the ground. 

A bonus of this technique is that there is far less surface water that could encourage slugs and snails onto the vegetables. There have been very few slugs this year and I put this down to having used Nemaslug last year. The main problem is that of snails. Crushed egg shells around the plants don't work and I try and use slug pellets as little as possible, even the iron phosphate ones. So I am currently trying out a combination of beer traps and garlic wash.

Garlic wash is supposed to deter slugs and snails and the recipe is very simple, if disgustingly smelly (and I like garlic!). Crush two bulbs of garlic and boil in two pints of water for about five minutes. Strain the mixture and top up to two pints. Leave to cool and bottle. Add one tablespoon of the concentrate to one gallon of water and apply to the plants you want to protect. I pour the mix into a hand spray so that I can easily cover both sides of the leaves. It is recommended that you reapply the wash every two weeks.

The trouble is that I'm not really going to learn which mollusc deterrent works best as I am deploying several at once. I will know, though, if none of them work!

Update: I'm beginning to think that the eggshells do deter the molluscs as I have one group of plants where I have not used any other method and there has been minimal damage to the leaves. It could be, though, that some of the local bird population have been treating the area as a restaurant!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Invasion of the mint moths

At least a dozen of these gorgeous little moths were on the oregano flowers by our garden shed. I didn't notice them at first as I was looking at the more obvious bees that were buzzing around the same plants, but once I had spotted one a lot more came into focus. These little beauties fly both at night and during the day.

The mint moth (Pyrausta aurata) has a wing span of just 10-15 millimetres and feeds off mint, lemon balm, marjoram and oregano. They really are gorgeous and worth looking out for.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Lunch from the garden

After a soggy start to the gardening year and a few weeks of very hot, dry weather the garden is now flourishing.

Yesterday's lunch was gathered mostly from our garden. Apart from the flour, eggs and cheese the only two vegetables that were not home grown were the red cabbage and the asparagus. (Both were heavily reduced in a local shop and I couldn't resist!).

Yesterday's menu was:
  • flan containing yellow and green courgettes, onions, asparagus, swiss chard, spinach, garlic, cheese, eggs, chives
  • potato and spring onion salad
  • cucumber and herb fennel
  • tomato, onion and basil salad
  • red cabbage and celeriac leaves
  • courgette, feta cheese, rocket, mustard leaves and mint

The potatoes in particular have been fantastic this year. All have been growing or are still growing in containers of one sort or another and taste infinitely better than shop bought ones. We are, though, suffering from a surfeit of courgettes so I shall have to get creative with the recipes this week.