Sunday, August 23, 2015

READY, STEADY, SOW! - Tomatoes, Capsicums & Egg Plants

Photo by Helen A. Howell

With winter almost over, my thoughts turn to spring and of those summer veg and fruits that I can grow. Now spring is the normal time for sowing tomatoes, capsicums and egg plants, but I like to get ahead so that by the time it's right to plant these babies out, I'll have advanced plants that are strong and healthy and get off to a really good start. Not to mention having early crops over a longer period.

I don't have a heated greenhouse, only a cold one, but I have devised a simple way of heating my seed trays to help provide the warmth those tiny seeds need to germinate.  But hey, I'm getting ahead of myself here. Before I tell you my method of sowing and germinating, I want to share with you which varieties I'm going to plant. Always a difficult decision for me, because I want to grow everything! ^_^

Let's start with the Egg Plants. Last year I grew Red skin, a delightful variety, bright red in colour and very small fruits. The skin was much thinner than the purple varieties and made the most delicious pasta sauce. Also I grew Slim Jim's a cocktail variety, very useful for slicing and grilling or chopping up to add to your favourite sauce etc. This year I decided on just the  Slim Jims. Why? Because they are a small compact plant and produce a heavy crop over the summer. Although I did like the Red Skins, it does grow into a very large plant taking up quite a lot of room.

Capsicums, what would summer be without some of these to throw on the bbq. toss into a salad or stuff with yummy mince and rice? I'm just going to grow two varieties this year: The Italian variety Romano, long and red and also the miniature Yellow. I bought a plant of this miniature variety last year and have saved the seeds, so let's hope they're true to their parent plant.

Photo by Helen A. Howell
Tomatoes, always difficult to choose as there are so many delicious varieties to try out. I do like to grow heritage varieties as these are open pollinated and so the seed remains true to the parent and they taste like good old fashion tomatoes should.

Last year I tried for the first time Black Russian, these had a dark almost black skin and a wonderful smokey flavour and are definitely on my list again this year. Money Maker is another favourite of mine and I have been growing this variety since the 1970's. Good medium sized tomatoes that crop well. For the cherry tomatoes I have chosen Lemon Drop, which have a zing  to them and a new one called Pink Bumble Bee and the last cherry variety I have chosen is Florida Basket. This plant is real miniature. It only reaches a height of 20cm (8") and produces bite sized fruit. My choice as a beefsteak variety is one called Granny's Throwing Tomato or alternative name, Boeuf or Beefheart in France. This produced wonderfully large beefy tomatoes for me last year with an excellent flavour. 

Time to tell you how I go about sowing and germinating these seeds.  First you need to get everything ready. Have a good quality seed raising mixture, nice clean punnets, a small garden sieve and your labels all marked up with each plant variety's name.
Photo by Helen A. Howell

Photo by Helen A. Howell
Photo by Helen A. Howell
Next fill the  punnet almost to the top, leave  maybe a quarter of an inch and place two seeds into each square, this way you cover your bases by planting more seeds than you require. Then if they don't all germinate, (but they usually all do, and I give away the spares) you'll at least have some. Then sieve more seed raising mix over the top to cover. I find sieving is the best way to go as it covers the seeds with a fine layer of soil, much easier for the seedlings to push through.

Photo by Helen A. Howell
Photo by Helen A.Howell
And of course give them a good water and pop them into a small propagator.

Photo by Helen A. Howell
Next I take the propagators indoors, because this is where I will create the heating source for my seedlings. How? I'm going to stand both of them over the heating vents (yes it's still winter and the heating is on). The vent looks like this and I place one propagator each side of it. I close the vents on the propagators when the heating is on to create the humidity I need and through the day when it's off, I  open the vents up to rid them of condensation.

Photo by Helen A. Howell

I actually did these a week and a bit ago and already have one set of seedlings up. As you can see it's easy to get ahead, so come on—Ready, Steady, Sow!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Come On - Bee Friendly!

Watercolour by Helen A. Howell

Bees play a very important role in the pollination of flowers and vegetables, and without them our survival would be questionable. The poor bee is suffering somewhat these days from the use of insecticides both by agricultural chemicals  and those that the home gardener reaches for. This coupled with the loss of wild flower meadows and their natural habitats is seriously impacting on the bee population.

Photographed by Helen A. Howell

What can we as gardeners do to help? The first step is to take on organic practices and cease using insecticides. Simple and safe solutions can be found to the common problems we all experience. 

First and foremost plant your garden with insect friendly plants, this will not only encourage the bees but also those good insects like lady bugs who will soon devour those pesky aphids that lurk on your plants.

Speaking of aphids/greenfly all I do to get rid of these little blighters is one of two things. I either put on a pair of disposable gloves and just run my fingers up and down the parts of the plant that they are infesting, they really don't like this. You may have to do this for a couple of days but they will go away. Or if you don't like the idea of doing that, just get your hose, or a spray bottle and give them a blast of water, this will knock them off. Again it may take a few repeats over a couple of days but it does work. No harm to the environment and no harm to the bees.
Photograph by Helen A. Howell

Powdery mildew – we all groan when we see this appearing on the leaves of our plants or veggies. A quick solution is to use one part full cream milk to two parts water and spray on the affected leaves. It won't cure it but it will go someway to controlling it.  Another thing you can do is cut off the offending leaves. If the plant is, say an annual and has really bad mildew, just throw it away and start again. I have heard Chamomile tea works a treat, and one should just spray it on, but having never tried this I can't say whether it does or doesn't work. 

Those pesky slugs and snails do like to come out and feast when the soil is nice and damp. You can go on a night patrol and collect them, then maybe the next morning put them somewhere the birds can see them. I like to put them out in the middle of my lawn. The birds will do a perfectly good job of getting rid of them for you, just as nature intended. If you must use a slug and snail bait then use the animal friendly one, it doesn't harm the birds etc and I believe, neither the soil. Don't salt slugs or snails this is very cruel and salting them causes them not to function on a cellular level and so they die of dehydration.

So there you have a couple of easy organic solutions to the pests/problems that commonly arise in one's garden.

Photograph by Helen A. Howell
Now to encourage the bees into your garden you need some bee friendly plants, and what plants do they like best? 

Bees don't see colour the same way as we do, they can see in the UV spectrum. Bees seem to be really attracted to blue plants. Of course bees love native and wild flowers but they also seem to love herbs when flowering. I noticed my marjoram was alive with bees when it went into flower. So why not plant yourself a herb patch with bee friendly herbs, like marjoram, thyme, rosemary etc. Good for the bees and good for your cooking!

Photograph by Richard Howell
Now, I did mention that bees love blue flowers and there are loads of blue flowers you can plant like bluebells, cornflowers, salvias, both blue and white, borage, bees love borage and of course lavender - what would a garden be without some lavender.

Photo by Helen A. Howell
I noticed that the bees also loved my Eryngium Blue Sea Holly. As it matures it seems to get a deeper blue. 

They do say that bees don't like red so much, but I have to tell you that my salvia 'Hot Lips'  whose flowers are red and white was alive with bees last summer.

The thing to remember when planting flowers for the bees is that the single headed variety is the best. They have nice open flowers and easy accessible pollen. Of course those hard working bees also like the flowers of your vegetable crops and I notice that they really did love my blackberry flowers too.

Photograph © Helen A. Howell

It's easy to create this environment within you garden, so come on - Bee Friendly! ^_^

Photograph © Helen A. Howell