June contents: A rather unusual polytunnel crop!..... What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?.... Hurrah - the Maskotka are ripe! Now we have 'Tomato Heaven' for the rest of the summer!... Dealing with aphids.... Heat Damage on Tomatoes.... Tomato feeding.... To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question?.... Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife to help you with pest control.
Roses surrounding rose petal syrup with kefir ice cream
A rather unusual polytunnel crop!
Most people think that polytunnels are purely for growing fruit and veg, but I grow quite a few rather more unusual crops in mine! Few people think of roses as being a crop - but they are actually a hugely important commercial crop in countries of the Middle East where they're used a lot in cooking. There they are used in all manner of sweet and savoury dishes. In English cookery they have also been used for millennia, and in medicines too. I have loved the scent of the old and hybrid perpetual roses since childhood, where I grew up in a garden full of them. Their scent instantly carries me back to those times. Summers then in the English shires, were invariably warm and dry, which suited them perfectly. Roses love the warm dry weather which they get in abundance in countries like Turkey - but sadly we don't get Middle Eastern weather here in Ireland. Also climate change is changing weather patterns, and at least 1 in 3 summers now seem to be predominantly wet. Rain ruins the flowers of all roses, turning the petals brown and mushy, and causing the flowers of many of the most beautiful ones into rotting brown balls. So - hence I grow some in the polytunnel, where they are never ruined by rain!
Of course - one of the most important reasons to grow your own organic roses for cooking either inside or out in the garden, is that they are totally safe to eat - whereas those bought from florists will have been sprayed with many toxic pesticides not approved for human consumption - even if you didn't mind eating then! And a recent study of children in flower growing areas showed that children's health is being seriously damaged by such pesticides - so growing your own isn't just better for your health - but better for others too!. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190522162713.htm
The most historic roses which have been traditionally grown in in the middle East for thousands of years are rosa Damascena, r. Centifolia and r. Gallica - but those only flower once in June and July. Probably my favourite of these is the old moss rose Henri Martin - which I call my Turkish Delight rose - for obvious reasons! Because these varieties only flower once though - for many years I've been experimenting with some of the most fragrant,more modern, repeat-flowering types. Grown in large tubs of peat-free compost mixed with some soil - to give the compost a bit more body - roses produce really well if they're regularly fed with a good, high-potash, organic tomato feed.. Even the most difficult and fussy of tender roses, like the exquisitely scented, almost black, hybrid tea rose Guinee, or the incredibly scented older roses Emporeur du Maroc and Souvenir du Dr. Jamain, all love polytunnel life. They repeat flower well, and their flowers are never ruined by rain. I tried for years to grow Guinee outside, but it struggled miserably and I almost gave up. But a couple of years ago I dug it up, planted it in a large tub, told it in no uncertain terms that this really was it's last chance - and since then it hasn't looked back! Some of the newer types of repeat-flowering 'English' roses, bred by the late David Austin, are also excellent. Among the darkest of those with a good scent are Falstaff, Munstead Wood, Othello and Shakespeare, and Young Lycidas is a very well-scented deep pink one.
I tend to favour the really darkest maroon, or deep crimson-coloured kinds because they seem to make the strongest tasting syrup with a really rich dark colour, but occasionally I include lighter ones too, if they have a really good scent. If you make rose water from all pink roses, it tends to be brownish in colour. Rose water syrup is delicious poured over meringues or kefir ice cream, and lifts raspberries which are marinated in it into another dimension altogether! O pick the blooms early to mid-morning, after any moisture has gone from the petals, but before the scent starts to evaporate in the warmth of the polytunnel. They can be stored for 2-3 days in a box in the fridge if you don't have enough at the time for a recipe.
When making any kind of rose syrup the one thing you must remember is to cut off the white base of the rose petals as this has a bitter taste. The easiest and quickest way to do this is just to gather the whole bloom tightly in your left hand, pull off the stalk and sepals, and then cut off the whole base of the rose with sharp scissors. Pick out any bits of stamens you see after the petals have fallen into the bowl, as these can also be bitter. This may seem fiddly - but believe me once you have tasted the results - it's well worth it!
It is said that scent is the first sense which we develop, and the last one that we lose. If that's so - then the last scent I would want to experience would be roses. They bring back so many memories for me. The hybrid perpetual rose Ophelia was the first flower that I remember noticing the scent of, in the lovely garden where I grew up. I grow it here to remind me of that beautiful garden now long since gone - but still there in my memory. And my father always called me Rosebud when I was young. That's the wonderful thing about gardens - we're never really alone while we still have such memories.
Polytunnel Potager last June 2018 - looking hugely productive, full of abundant life - food, scented flowers and biodiversity.
If like me you've been delayed by unforeseen circumstances - there's still time to catch up!
We're never truly alone in a garden
In summer, my favourite time of the day in the garden is late evenings, as dusk falls and every sense seems magnified. In the slowly decreasing crepuscular light there is a magical stillness where you can hear a leaf drop. Standing still you can almost feel and hear everything growing. There's a tangible atmosphere. One feels some sort of 'vibe' - a definite feeling that one is not quite alone and that the garden has a soul of it's own - or Genius Loci. That feeling is noticeable even in the polytunnels, where the plants are growing urgently. I'm not the only person who feels this - many sensitive gardeners do - and I think to be a good gardener you have to be a sensitive person. I remember the wonderful old Harry Dodson saying the same thing in that lovely TV series the Victorian Kitchen Garden many years ago. At the time he said that some people might think him fanciful - but I didn't - that feeling is definitely there. He said that he felt it most particularly when shutting up his greenhouses at night - and I know what he meant - I feel it too. It's a strange sensation that's impossible to put into words. I think poets were often better at expressing this intangible but very definite 'something'. Yeats's line from his beautiful poem The Lake Isle of Inisfree always springs to mind......."Where peace comes dropping slow......."... I'm certainly at peace in my polytunnels in the evening - surrounded by all the quietly growing plants and with the company of all the bees and birds - just as Nature meant us to be. One can forget for a while the many cares of this world when surrounded by all the wonderfully abundant biodiversity. But I never forget that I'm just a tiny part of this intricately beautiful picture - and that I exist purely thanks to all the rest of Nature....... It's a very humbling thought.
What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?
Science is beginning to discover so many amazing things about plants which we were not aware of before. Far from demystifying them - for me it makes them even more fascinating. It's now proving that plants can react to outside influences far more than we previously thought and that they can even communicate with each other - both above and below ground. They can talk to each other too - in a molecular language - by giving off chemical signals to warn each other of threats when another nearby plant is attacked by pests or damaged in some way. Science is even showing how plants may be aware of our presence too - but because we humans are conditioned to expect all other species to react to outside stimuli exactly as we do - we are incapable of recognising that they react in different ways to us. There is still so much more that we don't know about plants and how they live their lives, interacting with everything else in their environment. We need to listen more to them and learn their language - only then will we truly understand these miracles of Nature, that we totally depend upon for our healthy existence, within this interconnected web of life.
Scientists tend to reduce Nature and the food we eat to purely the sum of it's currently-known chemical constituents - but it is so much more than just that. They give all the various components of food names and values, placing them into the context within which they believe they belong given their still limited knowledge. Most of us trust that they are all-knowing......but they aren't - and never can be. Every new scientific discovery shows us very clearly that scientists don't know it all. They're often only guessing at how all the many and complex natural components of foods - some of which they still don't even know about - interact within our bodies. That is, until the next 'eureka moment' that reveals a little more of how Nature works. Even something as seemingly simple as water has properties that react in our bodies in ways that are still, as yet, little understood.
One of my most constantly inspirational heroes - the curious, incredibly brave and brilliant Nobel physicist Richard Feynman put it this way - "There is a difference between knowing the name of something and truly understanding it". How very true! The more we know - the more that the wiser among us realise that there is a huge amount that we still don't know! Those who try to convince us that GMOs are totally safe are only motivated by short-term commercial greed and by owning the patent on their particular method of genetic engineering. They cannot in all honesty assure us that they are safe - when they still don't even understand fully how organisms such as bacteria or viruses, for instance, can interact with each other within their natural environment! They didn't predict the development of Glyphosate-resistance in weeds did they, for instance?
Nature has a way of behaving in unpredictable ways and making fools of arrogant scientists! Remember that they are performing their experiments in laboratories. If you take bacteria or other organisms out of their natural environment, cultivate them in an agar or some other nutrient solution in a Petri dish and then study them under a microscope - they are most definitely NOT in their natural environment! As my scientist son says - Heisenberg's Principle - being that the very nature of laboratory experiments fundamentally changes the way things behave - particularly applies to natural organisms. This is one of the first things that all student scientists should learn. They are often limited by the ignorance of their tutors though. A bit more humility in many scientists wouldn't go astray - rather than arrogance and plain greed!
Our gut feeling is often far more reliable than the prevailing scientific opinion of the day - if we are prepared to listen to it. And that 'gut feeling is now an established fact! That's why I grow organically - because I've known in my gut for over 40 years now that it is the only way to grow the healthy real food which our bodies need. It's perfectly simple! Any scientist worth their salt should have the common sense to know that the way that nature evolved us to eat has to be the only healthy way for us to eat. It is a pity so few have the honesty to admit it!! Every time you Google anything about GMOs, pesticides or food these days, you are assaulted by a plethora of different articles by seemingly independent journalists - but in reality paid for by the vested interests of multinational chemical companies or huge food corporations. These first websites that come up are all trying to convince us that those of us who question if their products are safe are a lot of ignorant 'alternative' green idiots who know nothing - and that their 'true' science is all-knowing! They try to convince us that what they are doing is genuinely trying to feed the world - when actually they're only interested in profit - at any cost whatever to the planet!
The only way to sustainably feed a growing population is to restore the vital soil health which agricultural chemicals have been systematically destroying for the last many decades since the advent of agricultural chemicals! Chemicals don't feed the vital soil life which we depend on not just to produce healthy food but also to mitigate the current disastrously accelerating climate change.
I'd better stop now - but I could go on ranting about this forever! You can blame the current incumbent of the White House whose toxic name I can't even bring myself to utter! After selfishly dumping the Paris Accord on climate change, just to be popular with his American voters, I spent many sleepless night worrying about the future! Don't those voters who put him in The White House realise that what he is doing is destroying not just their children's future - but also that of everything else on this beautiful planet we call home? Are they really so brainwashed by all that stuff on Google - denying climate change and telling us that chemicals and GMOs are perfectly harmless - that they have lost all ability to reason, think for themselves and even use basic common sense? Or are they simply as selfish as he is and just don't want to face reality? He won't care - he's an old man and he'll be dead soon! He's just getting a final high right now on his enjoyment of all-powerful, ultimate control and doesn't give a toss about the future after he's gone! Even merely the fact that he is someone who would condone his children killing endangered African wildlife surely tells you all you need to know - doesn't it?
I know that like me you want hope - not gloom! And do you know what? There IS something every single one of us can do. We CAN fight for Nature in our own plots - whether those plots are just a window box or an acre! I started off here 35 years ago in a silent, barren field with no birds or bees anywhere. Now, despite being an island in the middle of otherwise intensively farmed land, I have a beautiful Nature- filled space that echoes with birdsong all day long - and that includes the polytunnel as you can see from the picture at the top which I took yesterday. Those growers with row upon row of sterile-looking crops (even some organic ones) who don't do everything they can to encourage Nature, are actually missing the point! They're only focusing selfishly on what they are getting out of it for themselves! Some never even mention Nature - but we CAN all make a difference to the future and to vital biodiversity....... and we CAN DO IT together!
Hurrah - the Maskotka are ripe! Now we have 'Tomato Heaven' - for the rest of the summer!!
First ripe Maskotka
Maskotka is such a reliable tomato that I would never be without it. It really is the earliest tomato I've ever grown - and I've tried lots! It's a bush variety though, and tends to spread out a bit over the summer, taking up a lot of ground space. I also grow many other plants of the Solanacae family (tomatoes, aubergines etc.) so I haven't got enough room to grow them all in the ground if I want to stick to a proper rotation plan, thereby cutting down on the risk of disease or nutrient deficiency problems. So for both those reasons, I'm growing 'Maskotka' in large pots again this year, which I've found very successful in the past. It's an excellent flavoured, heavy-cropping, large cherry type which is lovely in salads but also tastes really superb cooked in my 'roast ratatouille' that I tend to make in huge batches for freezing over the summer. Of course this year once again, I'm also growing more new varieties for The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at The National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin so that also puts more pressure on space. I don't mind the extra work though, as I can never resist trying some new varieties! I never have any problems at all with fruit setting - tomatoes are generally self-fertile anyway and again because I also grow mini-gardens at the ends of the tunnels either side of the doors, full of flowers and herbs that bring in the bees and other beneficial insects. (Most people seem to fill that space with junk!)
Tomato Heaven! Insalata Caprese - with (from bottom) John Baer, Green Cherokee, Ananas Noir & luscious buffalo mozzarella.
Dealing with aphids in polytunnels
The first thing many people do when they see aphids is panic and reach for a spray of something - even some who consider themselves organic! Doing that is often the worst thing you can do! The first thing to understand about aphids is that feeding with artificial fertilisers or overfeeding with nitrogenous manures encourages exactly the sort of soft growth that all aphids enjoy. It also reduces the plant's own ability to make it's own defences by depressing soil bacteria and fungi. Overfeeding - even with organic manure - can have the same effect due to the high nitrogen content. You may get very impressive-looking plants by lashing on tons of manure or compost the way that some 'experts' advise - but you won't have healthy plants. They'll make soft and sappy growth that is far more attractive to pests and also to diseases. I so often see these 'experts' being asked later on in the summer how to deal with aphids! That sort of proves my point really - I never actually see any here at all!!
Tomatoes in recycled 10lt buckets on grow-bag trays in the west/fruit tunnel - potted flowers between plants attract beneficial insects
Aphids on any plant are a sure sign that the plant is stressed in some way - with a reduced immune response - and that's often the first time we actually notice it. Some people are having problems with aphids at the moment as many plants have been stressed by the extremes of weather this spring. An attack by pests is almost always a sure sign of that or some other stress such as the wrong conditions perhaps on a house windowsill, maybe too hot or too crowded. So keep an eye on your plants. Look at them closely every day, particularly any young plants still in propagators. The very hot days occasionally over the last week will have encouraged greenfly and other pests to multiply rapidly, which could be a problem unless there are plenty of predators around. Because I grow so many flowers in my polytunnels to attract beneficial insects - which in turn attract all sorts of insect-feeding birds and other wildlife - I have a permanent army of pest-controllers such as sparrows, robins, wrens and frogs, who hunt in the tunnels all year round. It's fascinating to watch them assiduously searching in every crevice of the plants looking for insects to feed their hungry babies. And there's certainly plenty of those judging from the loud demanding shrieks from every corner of the garden!
If you don't have a feathered army of pest controllers and you have an infestation building up on soft young shoots - don't panic and spray with anything! If there seems to be quite a lot then try just brushing them off gently first with a soft household paint brush or a pastry brush - particularly on plants like tomatoes where you don't want to wet the foliage - as that might encourage disease. Gently brushing with a small soft paintbrush often works well and buys you a bit more time while predators like hoverflies, ladybirds and wasps build up enough to deal with aphids. The gentle brushing also stimulates the plants to develop their own insect defences. Allow small birds like sparrows and wrens into your tunnels - they will help to gobble them up. Just hang large pea and bean netting on the doors & vents to keep pigeons or pheasants out. Put a peanut feeder near the open door of your greenhouse or tunnel as this will attract birds, and while they're waiting for their turn on the feeder they'll be encouraged to look for a few aphids as well. I know it's often quite hard to be patient and just trust nature - we've been so conditioned to believe that everything needs to be sprayed with something - even if it's only something natural!. I don't use any sprays of any sort whatsoever and haven't done for 40 years!
Nature doesn't always give you instant results - particularly in difficult weather - but try it and if it doesn't work you can always order a biological control like aphidius Colemanii - or ladybirds. They're not cheap though at about 40 euros for even the smallest amount you can buy! Whereas birds come free - with an additional entertainment factor!
The other great pest controllers are the members of the beneficial insect army. If you've got lots of insect-attracting flowers in your veg. garden and tunnel then they should attract plenty of predatory insects to deal with your pests. Flowering at the moment in the tunnel are borage, calendula (pot marigold), French marigold, feverfew, salad burnet, limnanthes (poached egg flower), phacelia, perennial Bowles wallflower, pansies, nicotiana, nepeta, scabious, sweet rocket and the herbs parsley and coriander which are flowering really well as well as Sweet Rocket and Nicotiana Affinis which smell heavenly at night - attracting lots of moths for the bats. I've seen quite a few wasps about this year too - and although they're aggressive little devils, they are voracious hunters of things like greenfly and caterpillars to feed their growing broods.
There are plenty of predators more than willing and able to do a good job of pest control for you given the chance - but if you spray with poisonous insecticides or even just an organic insecticidal soap spray - you will break the natural food chain by killing the good insects as well as the bad - including bees. And we all know how vital it is to help bees at the moment as they're so under threat of extinction from pesticides. Throwing the baby out with the bath water so to speak! I even use the organic soap spray for is for scale insect on my citrus trees if I get a very bad infestation - I discovered some time ago that melted coconut oil brushed onto the scale insects with a soft children's paintbrush works just as well as organic soap sprays and doesn't affect anything else. It stops them breathing - then they die and drop off.
Keep an eye out for the start of any diseases now. I try to run my eye over everything in the veg garden each day if I can and I pick off any fading or diseased leaves etc. immediately - before any disease can start or spreads. In the humid conditions of the tunnel this can happen very rapidly. With all the different varieties of tomatoes making a sudden spurt of growth after the hot weather they also need looking over for side shoots every day - so I take a bucket round with me and pick off any dodgy looking leaves at the same time. Sometimes a purplish colour and browning at the tips or bleaching between the ribs of leaves is actually damage caused by a nutrient deficiency - usually magnesium - which can happen if planting is delayed and things are kept waiting in their pots - this happened with some of my tomatoes this year despite extra feeding. These bits can become diseased later in damp conditions - so I always pick them off if they start to brown.
Heat Damage on Tomatoes
Every year some people ask me why all their tomatoes are curling up very tightly at the top - some looking quite 'ferny' with some of the leaf tips browning - almost as if they'd been sprayed with weedkiller! This isn't caused by a disease - it happens because of stress from very intense heat. Tunnels are generally wonderful but they are a bit more difficult to manage than greenhouses in really hot weather unless you also have side ventilation to reduce the heat build up. It's impossible to shade large tunnels unless you're a millionaire and have automatic outside shading. Shading inside is no good as it doesn't stop the heat and also stops air circulation. Greenhouses are easier as you can paint them with some stuff called 'Cool Glass' - it's a sort of whitewash paint which stops the heat getting through the glass. It goes clear in wet weather so doesn't stop light. My tunnels have been well over 40 deg C/100 deg F for the last couple of weeks when it's been really sunny. The best thing to do in that situation is to 'damp down' all surfaces like paths really well with water three or four times a day while it's so hot. The evaporation cools the air and keeps it moving and buoyant. Only the paths though - NEVER THE PLANTS - despite what I've seen some so-called 'experts' recommending! This just encourages diseases - particularly potato blight - especially in tunnels because they're so warm and humid - and this can attack tomatoes too.
The tops of many tomato plants curling up is always most obvious during the hottest part of the day - but if you look at them last thing at night - you will see some of them almost visibly relaxing and uncurling again - poor things! It's their only way to avoid some of the damage. Since they obviously can't run away, they have had to develop other methods. Although tomatoes like sun and bright light - they can't stand it if it's too intense - so they curl up to try to avoid leaf exposure and damage. As long as you keep damping down paths this will minimise damage as far as possible and it will have less effect. If you don't do this the overheating can cause serious long term damage. Leaves may turn brown and die back altogether, and flowers may drop - affecting potential crops and often killing plants completely. Some don't uncurl again though because they are irreversibly damaged.
Heat-damaged main tomato shoot on left with healthy undamaged side-shoot on right to be trained up as replacment main shoot
If you do have permanent heat damage to the tops of some tomato plants - this will become evident very quickly - within a few days or a week at this time of year. The leading shoot on the main stem can be so burnt, deformed and dwarfed that it will never recovers - although the rest of the plant may still be completely healthy. Often a side-shoot below the top will be unaffected by it and can quickly be trained up as an alternative leader - so although you may lose one truss of tomatoes close to the heat damage on the main stem - the rest will grow on fine later on and you won't lose too much cropping time. This is why if I suspect there may be any heat damage because of excessively high temperatures, I always leave one or two side shoots near the top and don't pinch them out until I can choose the strongest which can take over as the new 'leading' shoot. On the plant in the picture here you can clearly see that the original main shoot has become twisted and deformed - and I have left the next healthy-looking side shoot to train up. Some varieties seem to be more sensitive than other - not all seem to suffer as badly every year. This is a delicious small olive green plum/cherry tomato called Green Envy - which seems to be particularly prone to heat damage but is one of my son's favourites. So that's why I grow it - I have top keep the mower happy!
Don't over water tomato plants either - that doesn't help with heat damage - it just rots the roots! Keep the soil just nicely damp - always watering the surrounding area - never directly onto the base of plants - and mulch with grass clippings or comfrey if you can, to keep the roots cool. As I'm always saying - a little extra TLC, observation and attention to detail and you will be richly rewarded by your very grateful plants!
Cucumber 'Burpless Tasty Green' with courgette 'Atena' in side bed late May
Just as in 2017 & 2018 - it's been such a difficult year for young tomato plants. Wild swings in tunnel temperature from 100degF/40degC during the day to freezing nights. On many recent nights here it was only 2 deg C - at least 6 degrees below the basic minimum required for tomato growth. Only just a couple of weeks ago it was -3 deg C in the tunnels! Even under three layers of fleece the tomatoes were quite literally blue with cold! Since then they've been heat stressed too! I'm amazed they've recovered so well, but they're growing on again now and the weather forecast for the end of this week is for warmer nights. Let's hope so!
Bumble bee pollinating beefsteak tomato, with carrots under fleece behind
My tomatoes are always smothered in small bumble bees as soon as they're flowering - so I think that attracting pollinators is also one of the secrets, and also mulching well to keep the roots just evenly moist and to avoid wild swings in the root temperature which might otherwise stress the plants. It helps to grow flowers close to the tunnel doors on the outside of the tunnels too - a bit like a floral 'runway' or welcome sign to encourage bees to land inside the tunnels! All the tomato varieties are setting nicely now, and I can't wait to show you some of the new ones - they look really exciting - especially the new black varieties which are high in healthy anthocyanin phytochemicals.
As soon as the first complete truss is set on any variety, I start giving them a weekly liquid feed with either a home made comfrey/nettle/borage stew which provides potassium, nitrogen and magnesium - or a proprietary brand like 'Osmo' liquid organic tomato food which I've used for the several years now and found really excellent. You'll find it in most garden centres now and you can also buy it in White's Agri, Ballough Lusk Co. Dublin if you're anywhere near North County Dublin. They are the main importers for Osmo products and have the whole range there. In addition they sell the brilliant Klassman certified organic peat-free compost cheaper than most other places. I think that Osmo certified organic tomato feed is available in the UK - but if it's not available near you - then ask your garden centre to stock it. I find it a really excellent feed for everything both in the ground or in containers. With tomatoes in containers I tend to feed about 3 times a week when they get bigger as they're more dependent. I would never use a non-organic tomato food.
I also make a liquid feed if I only have a small amount of tomatoes, but it's very difficult to make enough for 90 or more plants - if I'm growing for Tomato Festivals! You just can't make it quickly enough! I'm not very scientific about exact amounts as a recipe for a home made liquid feed. I just stuff a large barrel with comfrey, borage and young fresh nettles. The nettles provide the nitrogen that really kick starts the whole breakdown process going, the borage provides magnesium that it's particularly good at extracting from the soil, and the comfrey provides potash. It really smells horrendous when it's really stewing! If you get it on your hands or clothes it's very hard to wash off! The most important thing is to use the comfrey variety Bocking 14 - as that's the one that was selected by the late Lawrence Hills of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now re-named Garden Organic) as being the comfrey that's highest in potash. Other comfreys, including wild ones are far lower in potash. The one rule I use is to wait until it's really broken down and looks a bit like soup - and then dilute to about the colour of a weak herb tea. Don't use it too early as it may either be useless or possibly even burn roots. Wait until it looks like a green really smelly smoothie! I also give them a tonic of worm compost tea occasionally. It's all about keeping an eye on your crops, getting a feel for what they need, and feeding before they start to look hungry, otherwise it can take them a long time to pick up again. Don't overfeed them but let them become starved either - it's all about balance!
To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question! Especially with beefsteak tomatoes!
When it comes to removing side shoots, you obviously don't have to remove the side shoots of bush varieties, or you wouldn't get any fruit!. Most people know that you have to pinch out the little shoots growing in the leaf axils between the leaves and the stem on varieties of cordon or upright tomatoes, but I've never seen any of the 'experts' warning about how some of the continental beefsteaks behave though - which makes me wonder if they've ever actually grown them!! Those types can be a bit of a law unto themselves - or try to be. You have to be firm and impose your will! I never pinch out the one or two shoots near the top of the stems until I can see a very definite main one which will continue the upward growth. From bitter experience I've found that many of them would really much prefer to be bushes which is their natural habit in the wild, and they will often make two or even three shoots at the very top which all look like leading shoots (very confusing), in which case you have to choose one which looks to be the strongest and most likely to grow on further and flower. Or maybe sometimes none at all - they'll just suddenly produce a flower truss instead, going 'blind' with no growing point at the top, in which case you have to be patient and just wait for another side shoot to begin to grow in a top leaf axil, or somewhere else, as it will do in a week or so, and then train that one up.
Beefsteaks really much prefer hotter, sunnier and drier Mediterranean or continental climate summers, like USA summers generally are, where they can be the bushes they obviously long to be, and sprawl about happily about in the sun doing do their own thing! But in our often dull, damp Irish 'summers' - if you're not strict with them - you can end up with a thoroughly unproductive, disease-ridden, slug eaten mess! Particularly with grafted ones which can be far to vigorous judging from the ones I was sent to trial a few years ago. Those were also tasteless which was a bit pointless really! They should produce four decent trusses at least though, if carefully trained. They do tend to be a bit prima-donna-ish, they ripen a lot later than the smaller tomatoes, but their flavour makes it well worth the trouble once you get the hang of them.
Many articles on growing tomatoes are written by experts living in the South East of England where their summers are so much hotter and drier than ours here or in the South West of the UK, so they don't tend to recommend varieties that are suitable for a damper climate. I've tried lots over the years, but in our damp climate with often poor light, I've found 'Pantano Romanesco' really is always the most reliable. 'Costuloto Fiorentino' and Costuloto Genovese also have a great flavour - but are a bit more disease prone in damp summers, as is Super Marmande. Black Krim and Black Sea Man both have supreme flavour but get every known disease far quicker than anything else in a polytunnel. The newer varieties which are being bred seem to be better behaved and less disease prone - but as they don't have even half the flavour - what's the point?! All tomatoes tend to prefer the much drier atmosphere of a greenhouse. I used to grow them in one every year when we lived nearer to the coast, but then greenhouses have their own unique problems too, those encouraged by a drier atmosphere, and all things being equal polytunnels are far better value for money, as you get a far bigger growing space. If I had oodles of money - I'd have a glasshouse just for tomatoes and aubergines - and polytunnels for everything else!
Reminder - Some 'experts' also fail to tell you that some varieties of tomatoes are actually meant to be bushes - and should NOT have their side shoots removed at all or you won't get any fruit! Amazingly - I saw that particular important information being completely ignored on a recent TV programme! Check your seed packet description of any variety before you start to remove side shoots!
The small cucumber Restina - seed of which I get from Lidl - is already producing fruit this year, as I sowed it in late Feb - much earlier than normal. It's a delicious gherkin or half-sized cucumber usually grown for pickling - but also scrumptious for eating fresh, with a really good 'old-fashioned' proper flavour! I can never wait for that first cucumber sandwich of the season! Despite the difficult weather - we've been eating baby courgettes and mangetout peas Oregon Sugar Pod from the tunnel for a couple of weeks now, The courgette is a delicious yellow one called 'Atena' (which will crop until Nov.) and later in the month we'll have French beans. I grow a climbing French bean called 'Cobra' which is brilliant in the tunnel - far more reliable than outside. Just one packet of 'Cobra will give you more than enough to eat for weeks on end if you keep them well picked over and watered - and will fill your freezer for the winter as well. It's an incredibly delicious, reliable and productive variety, DIY chain B&Q actually have the seed at half the price of anywhere else.
I don't bother with dwarf beans any more in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same amount of ground space, but only give you a fraction of the crop of the climbing ones - which make use of what I call 'upstairs space' to give you an enormous 'high-rise' crop. I'm sowing another late batch this week which will crop late into the autumn. The great thing about tunnels though is that they mostly protect crops from the worst extremes of the weather and all crops are far more productive under cover. In the winter this is particularly noticeable with hardier crops like chards and kales which could of course be grown outside.
I always plant basil when the chard has been cleared. I freeze masses of it to make lots of our vital 'medicinal' pesto during the winter months! There is a rule in this house which states 'you can never have too much garlic, or basil'! That first whiff of summer basil is wonderfully uplifting, but I must say that years ago when I was growing it commercially, after picking the first sixty foot row of a tunnel full of it, one did begin to feel more than a little nauseous! The aroma from the essential oil can be quite overpowering after a while. I prefer to grow basil on it's own in rows - giving it as much light and air as possible as it can be a bit disease prone in a humid tunnel atmosphere. Grown this way it's much more productive than when grown between tomato plants, which seems to be the fashion, as I see it recommended everywhere. Maybe because they go together on the plate?
Weeds shouldn't be too much of a problem now as crops will be shading them out, and you should also be mulching well, which excludes light, preserves soil moisture, keeps roots cool and encourages worm activity. If you don't mulch at this time of year the ground in the tunnel gets too hot and dry and the worms will disappear down into the lower layers of the soil where they're cooler and more comfortable. You want to keep them in the upper layers, pulling down mulches into the soil and working for you helping to feed your plants! Go round every day if possible pulling out the odd weed before it gets too big and goes to seed, and at the same time see what needs watering. If you're growing a wide variety of crops some may need water every day and others won't. This is why I dislike automatic watering systems - I think they're a complete waste of money! An automatic system can't tell if a plants waterlogged or too dry! It also can't tell what the weather is going to be later that day! There's no substitute for the personal touch and being observant - that's all having so-called'green fingers' is all about - no mystery! I have a friend who spends far more time fiddling around fixing her automatic system than I ever do with hand watering! It's always getting blocked - and ten to one they invariably let you down when you go away! If you've got room, put a barrel of water in your tunnel or greenhouse, so that you've got ambient temperature water always ready to use rather than chilling things with water from a hose. Water between plants rather than directly onto the roots, and if possible try to water well in the mornings, so that the surface has a chance to dry off before the evening when the doors are closed and the air is still.
Keep ventilating as much as possible now to keep disease at bay. Diseases proliferate in a 'muggy' damp atmosphere. If you've got a tunnel full of cucumbers on the other hand they won't mind! They love to grow in a bathroom atmosphere! Keep the soil moist for them, as the one thing that promotes cucumber powdery mildew more than anything is a damp humid atmosphere combined with dryness at the roots. All the cucurbit family should be growing quickly now, although they're not enjoying the last couple of really cold nights. Keep tying them in to their supports as they can quickly get out of hand. There's also more on planting and training cucumbers and melons, and also my method of planting on mounds to avoid common root rots.in last month's diary.
Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife
Mini-gardens under peach trees with herbs & flowers attract beneficial insects & bees
You've still got time to sow lots of flowers in your tunnel. You could also leave some of last winters herbs like coriander and parsley to flower and go to seed, or you could buy some buy flowers in modules from garden centres as a last resort. If you even have radishes bolting you can leave those too - they have pretty scented flowers that insects love! Insects also love the flowers of coriander and parsley. They definitely help to bring in insects for pollination and pest control, some can brighten up your salads and they look beautiful too. I always leave one or two chicory or endive plants too if I have room on the ends of rows - the flowers are so beautiful and the bees adore them! I've got enough seed to last me ten lifetimes now! I also keep a shallow saucer or tray full of water in the mini gardens somewhere - for the frogs which like to live in the shady damp areas of the tunnel and who are very efficient at eating those nasty damaging little grey slugs!
It gives me so much pleasure to walk into my tunnels at this time of year and to anticipate the delights of all the wonderful crops to come - all the while knowing that I haven't poisoned or damaged anything else in order to do it! It's really so much more satisfying to grow your own food while at the same time encouraging and helping nature too. If you look after nature - it will look after you. We often tend to forget that we're only a small part of nature too. If we poison this lovely planet that we all call home - we will be leaving a terrible and painful legacy for our children.
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)