Polytunnel grown strawberries Albion, Gento & Christine in May
May, Chelsea Flower Show and the first strawberries and cream, are synonymous with the real start of summer aren't they? Sadly this year there is no Chelsea Flower Show due to the current Corona Virus Pandemic - which has affected all our lives, wherever we live. Luckily though, we can still enjoy growing our own fruit - especially our own strawberries, which are full of health nutrients and so good for us. Even if we don't have a garden but only a small outside space - strawberries are one of the crops which are more than happy in containers, as my Strawberry Stepladder garden showed a few years ago. What they need is lots of sun, good drainage and being raised off the ground where they aren't vulnerable to slugs! Recent research shows that strawberries are one of the most-sprayed fruit crops. But it couldn't be easier to grow your own perfect, chemical-free, healthy and delicious fruits - or to extend the summer season from May until November even in the tiniest garden or courtyard - using my space-saving, stepladder idea!
A new way to grow alpine strawberries? Success can be mixed.
Alpine strawberry Reugen initially cropping well early in my 'stepladder garden'
Not all of my experiments are successful - but experimenting is the way to learn new tricks - so I never stop! Alpine strawberries were the occupants of my stepladder garden last year. They're a wonderful variety called Reugen which I grew from seed I got from Chiltern Seeds many years ago. Every year they seemed to get a bit harder to pick due to my bad back. Last year it occurred to me that they'd be an awful lot easier to pick if they were growing on the rising tiers of my 'stepladder garden', instead of growing in a low raised bed. Even sitting on a stool to pick them still involved an awful lot of bending to pick a decent amount! So I took out the previous occupants - herbs - which made them parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme steps. I refreshed my usual soil and organic peat-free compost mix then transplanted some of the alpine strawberry plants growing on the edges of the beds in the other polytunnel. They settled down very nicely into the recycled mushroom boxes - so much so that they became very overcrowded about half way through the year and were drying out too quickly in the hot sun in the polytunnel.
Sadly, because of that - the Alpine strawberries weren't as successful as the Albion perpetual strawberries - which loved the bright sunny conditions and good drainage. With hindsight - alpine strawberries are really woodland/hedgerow plants, so if the stepladder had been in the shade they might have been far happier. Still - it was worth a try! The next time I shall plant them on another stepladder in the shade, as they would be a great crop for a shady small garden, courtyard, or even a balcony that doesn't get any hot sun. So that's another useful discovery for those who think they can't grow fruit because they don't get sun in their garden! Nothing venture - nothing gained! They're also such a fiddle to bend and pick being smallish and much harder to find than normal-sized strawberries, that a ladder garden or raised bed is a much easier way of growing them. They do need watering a bit more frequently in the heat of the tunnel - but the bumblebees loved them and did a great job of pollinating their beautiful tiny flowers and they ripened a huge crop at first and they were a veritable waterfall of deliciously aromatic small strawberries early in the season. Alpine strawberries are heaven to eat - but hell to pick! Growing them this way would be perfect for them - but not in a very hot sunny spot! This year my stepladder is bush tomatoes - again trialling different varieties - so it will be interesting to see how they do. They'll love the sun for sure!
My perpetual fruiting 'Strawberry Steps' a few days after planting
Strawberries are a very obliging fruit that can be planted at this time of year and will establish very quickly. Perpetual or 'ever-bearing' strawberries will even start to give you good crops in just a few weeks - and will crop continuously for the rest of the year. Some specialist online fruit nurseries in the UK sell 'cold-stored' plants at this time of year, until June. These take off like rockets as soon as they are planted - and all the perpetual varieties will fruit right up until November in a polytunnel, greenhouse or any sunny, sheltered spot. They will also fruit for much of the summer and autumn if just covered with cloches outside in the garden. If you love strawberries but simply don't have room for another soil bed in your garden, or perhaps don't even have any garden - only a courtyard, balcony or a path - then the stepladder growing method I invented many years ago could be the thing for you! It takes up so little space that you could grow a high-rise strawberry bed even in a well lit sunny porch. Imagine not even having to go outside on a wet day to pick fruit? Growing some inside as well as outside will spread the crop conveniently and also give you a longer season of fruit too.
Side view of the stepladder garden planted with strawberries. The alyssum plants attract pollinators
I've used this method to grow all sorts of crops over the last few years and they're very happy.
If you have a stepladder with nice wide steps - or can buy one cheaply - then that's an ideal start. To grow the plants in, those recycled plastic mushroom boxes from the local supermarket fit nicely onto the average step, they're deep enough to hold enough a good amount of compost, and are perfect for this. They don't have drainage holes in the bottom - only about half way down the sides, but that's not a problem - as you don't want water from one pouring down straight onto the next one down. There's generally about a couple of inches at the bottom with no drainage holes in those boxes - so that means there's always a small reserve of moisture at the bottom that will stop the boxes drying out completely on a hot day, as long as the compost is generally kept nice and moist most of the time. They're also nice and light even when filled with the compost mix.
If you can't get those - any sort of plastic box that would fit onto the steps would do, and if it has no drainage holes - then I would make some about a third of a way up the sides. If it does have holes on the bottom - then I would put a piece of polythene cut from a compost bag on the bottom, going about an inch or so up the sides - just to stop water and feed draining straight through if the compost gets very dry and is difficult to re-wet. Or you could use those rectangular cat litter trays as effective drip trays. You can put a box on each step, then on the ground in front of the last step you can put either a large pot or another box on a plant saucer or drip tray. Strawberries really seem to love growing this way - I think it's because they get more light, warmth and really good air circulation, so they don't get diseases caused by damp.
To fill the grow-boxes, I mix 1/3rd good garden soil and 2/3rds peat-free organic compost. (my favourite Klassman organic compost is ideal for this and not too heavy). The bit of soil is important to add as it gives the mix more moisture-holding capacity. I also add about a tablespoonful of seaweed meal to the mix for each box. This adds some potash and also alginates - which again helps with water retention and also encourages the good microbial activity which you want for healthy crops. I plant 2 strawberry plants into each box, this is plenty - as they'll be so happy if well looked-after that they grow into quite big plants. I plant them just 'proud' of the soil with the crown of the plant just at finished soil level. Strawberry plants should never be buried below crown level or they will quickly rot - they hate to be wet. When I've got the box nearly full I make a sort of pyramid shape in the compost with my hand on each side and then put one strawberry plant on top of each - fanning out the roots a bit like the spokes of an umbrella. I cover the roots with compost and then water gently in with the rose on the watering can. Two plants is plenty for each box or they'll be too crowded. I don't water them again until they're growing well and the compost is starting to dry out. A good 'Perpetual' or 'ever-bearing' variety like Albion will produce crops from mid May until November, given the warmth and shelter of a polytunnel. Being so productive - the plants will exhaust their food supply fairly quickly in their small boxes, so after they've been cropping for a month or so, I then feed about twice a week with a good tomato feed like Osmo organic which I find excellent. When the plants start to make runners - then you could hang some of those 'growing pockets' on the sides of the stepladder, so that you could root the runners into them to produce new plants. Or, alternatively, you could root them into small pots on top of each box - detaching each of the runners once they're well rooted. Never cut them off as some catalogues recommend - perpetual strawberries don't usually make runners after their first year - and if you don't root them - you'll have to buy more plants! Don't worry - they won't exhaust well-fed and well looked-after plants.
If you have a source of cheap stepladders - you could even have several and make a bank of them against a wall - giving you a lot more growing space! They're far cheaper than any of the specially designed and very expensive wooden structures you can buy for growing in - and also don't have any nasty wood preservatives! They may not look quite as beautiful but frankly - costing anything upwards of 200 euros they're too expensive! Once they're covered with plants - you can hardly see the structure anyway! My stepladder cost me 20 euros from Lidl about 8 years ago and the boxes cost nothing! Set that against the price of buying organic strawberries, if you can find them - or even non-organic, and the stepladder will be paid for in just a couple of weeks! One year I grew salads on it, with a tomato trained up one side, growing in a large 10 litre pot, and a cucumber in the same size pot up the other. Both pots were sitting on plant saucers, and they were tied to the frame and to canes as they grew. It worked really well. Basically anything that will grow in a window box will grow well this way if looked after well, and it really extends your growing space. OK - it does take a little bit of watering every couple of days depending on the weather - but it's very little trouble really. I grow my auriculas on a stepped staging of recycled planks resting on concrete block against a north wall and you could also grow other things in that way. If you don't have a stepladder - many people may have an old skip bag hanging around gathering dust - and these make another great raised growing space for many things! I'm now on the lookout for a couple more cheap ladders with nice wide steps!
Strawberry jobs outside
Put straw, strawberry mats, or ground cover material under developing fruit of strawberry plants, to keep them off the damp ground - or they may develop botrytis rot if resting on bare soil. Fruit of the early varieties is just starting to ripen now, so put netting over them to keep the birds away. Keep an eye out for slugs - look under straw and mats, pick them up and destroy - using your preferred method -don't use slug pellets! In containers, mulch strawberries with a thick layer of gravel or grit, this keeps them clean and deters vine weevil from laying it's grubs into the compost. If you're buying pot-grown plants from nurseries and garden centres - make sure they're firmly rooted in their pots, if they are loose they may already have vine weevil munching away the roots! They are also very likely to have nasty chemicals in the compost too - so I wouldn't want to eat them! The vine weevil nematode - a biological control - works well instead of chemicals if the soil temperature is warm enough. It needs to be above about 10 deg C, so you can use it safely in summer.
Other jobs in the fruit garden
I'm seeing a lot of people complaining about very dry soil conditions this year with the hot weather and very little rain - especially on allotments, where they can't always be there material they have. Mulching conserves moisture, keeps down weeds and keeps soil life happy. It really is a priority at the moment to mulch around any trees, bushes or canes, particularly around any which are newly planted. Letting the soil dry out or letting weeds get the upper hand will not just mean problems establishing roots, but also poor crops later. Constant watering and not mulching crops is basically a waste of water too - and we can't afford to do that with the erratic weather we're experiencing these day due to climate change! Always remember - the only place that Nature leaves soil bare is in a desert - and you know what grows in deserts!!
Hand weed between raspberry plants, don't hoe, or you may otherwise damage or even slice off the shoots of new canes as they emerge from the ground. If the spring is very dry it's important to keep apple trees well watered and mulched - if they are dry at the roots this will encourage powdery mildew to develop on the new shoots. Never mulch right up to the stem though - always keep any mulch about about 30cm/1ft away from the stem or trunk of fruit bushes or trees.
On blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries now, keep an eye out for gooseberry sawfly caterpillars - they eat the leaves and can reduce them to skeletons very quickly! If you find any squash them or pick them off and put them on the bird table! The birds are so hungry this year as there are so few insects about that they will be grateful! If you run a few hens in your fruit cage in winter and early spring - you won't have a problem with these as they hoover them up.
Tie in new growths of loganberries, Tayberries and blackberries, to stop them lashing around in wind and being damaged.
Blueberries are flowering now, so it's really important to make sure they don't dry out - particularly if they're in containers - or the flowers will just drop off instead of setting fruit. Don't forget to use rainwater for watering, as they are ericaceous plants (in other words they are plants that like an acid soil like rhododendrons - or like the wild bilberry you can find growing in the mountainous and boggy areas all around Ireland. They don't like hard, calcium-rich tap water. If you're planting new bushes, make sure you plant at least two varieties, so that you get good pollination and fruit set. My favourites are 'Brigitta Blue' and 'Darrow' - the latter is the best flavoured variety I've found so far - some varieties are pretty tasteless in my opinion! If you're planting blueberries purely for their health properties - tests a couple of years ago showed that black berries are just as high in healthy antioxidant phytochemical compounds - they just haven't had an expensive PR campaign like blueberries have! They're an awful lot easier to grow though, will thrive in any garden and be productive - even on a north facing wall (see previous diaries). There are thorn-free varieties that will thrive in small gardens or even in containers - and they tend to be less vigorous that the thorny kind, so won't take over your garden and they're available in most garden centres. There are even 'primocane' varieties now like 'Reuben' that will fruit in their first year!
An urgent job for grapevines
Side shoot or fruiting spur of grapevine - showing end of shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond prospective bunches
Grapevines are developing fast now. Pinch back the ends of all fruiting shoots now on the side-shoots or 'spurs' as they are known - two leaves beyond budding potential flowering trusses. These are easily recognisable and doing this concentrates all the vine's energy into developing the fruit rather than unproductive leafy growth. It also prevents it becoming the tangled, unproductive mess that I see in so many gardens! Occasionally if a vine is very vigorous - I may leave two bunches developing on every other side shoot to give me a bigger crop - but I wouldn't do this on newly planted or weak-growing vines. Don't pinch back the last two shoots on the main 'rod' or stem. The first will draw the sap along the stem and continue the leading shoot's growth. The second is insurance in case for some reason you happen to lose the first. That can then be pruned back in winter if the other remains undamaged then. You can have as many main 'rods' or stems carrying side shoots as you want or your space allows - but remember that air circulation is vital for preventing disease - especially when the fruit is ripening.
Time to plant tender fruit raised from seed this year
Cape gooseberries (Physalis Peruviana) in October
Plant Cape Gooseberries (golden or pichu berry) outside at the end of May, or earlier in polytunnels. These are a useful fruit as they don't need to be protected from any pests, which don't see the delicious orange fruit inside their little paper lanterns. They are a great crop to grow in containers against a sunny wall, where the extra protection helps the fruit to ripen in the autumn - you can also bring in the whole plant in its pot to a frost free place where they go on ripening over the winter. I grow mine in tubs in one of my tunnels. When they're picked in the autumn they keep for months in the fridge in their little packages.
Young Physalis (cape gooseberry) plants - ready for planting
My Cape gooseberry plants are just ready for planting into their tubs in the next few days, as you can see here. They're incredibly easy to grow, trouble free and delicious and very expensive to buy in shops - so do try them. They're unbelievably easy to grow.
You can plant melons out under cloches at the end of the month in milder areas, or in the tunnel now if you have space - where they really love the warmth and humidity. Plant on a mound of well prepared, fertile ground in a sunny spot and watch out for slugs! Water the soil and put slates down around the planting area to trap them prior to planting - then you should have less trouble with them. When melons have grown 4 or 5 leaves - pinch out the tip to encourage side shoots to form - then pinch these out at 5 leaves also. The fruit buds will then form on the sub-laterals from these, as I explained in last month's fruit diary.
Twinned or conjoined peach fruitlets won't develop
Peaches, nectarines and apricots outside should be about the size of a large pea and ready for their first thinning now. Polytunnel fruits are already having their second second thinning. Gently twist off any awkwardly placed. crowded, twinned (conjoined) or damaged fruitlets, leaving them about 2in/5cm apart, at the first thinning. At the next thinning, when they are the size of large walnuts, leave them spaced 4in/10 cm apart.
I missed thinning these crowded peach fruitlets - 6
here will be thinned to one.
Early peaches in tunnels should have already been thinned as they will be at least three weeks ahead of any outside. If you don't do this then the tree may dump all it's fruit later on as it can't cope with developing them all! Keep them well watered and fed from now on too. This is the only time I give mine a liquid feed. I use Osmo tomato food about once a week - giving the roots a good soak. It is very good for strawberries too.
Prune and train all stone fruits and figs where necessary now. If you need to make large pruning cuts on something like cherries or plums then do it on a sunny day when the cuts will have a good chance to dry out and promote healing so that disease has no chance to set in.
Feed, mulch and water rhubarb well - also tidy up any broken stems - we had a vicious wind one night last week, which smashed many people's rhubarb patches locally. Rhubarb leaves are so large that they behave just like sails in the wind! Don't worry though - they soon recover - it's hard to kill rhubarb! Break off any flowering shoots as soon as they start to emerge or they will drain energy from the plants.
Make your own fruit cage
Why not make your own fruit cage now? It's so much handier to be able to walk in and out - instead of grovelling on your hands and knees or bending double underneath netting! They are extremely expensive to buy ready made, with steel tubing etc. but I made one really cheaply a few years ago, which does exactly the same job for a fraction of the price, and looks just as good. I used 8ft.x 3in tree stakes, driven 18in into the ground about 8ft apart each way, tacking tying wire to the tops with staples, stretching the wire as tight as possible, and then hanging netting all around the sides, leaving a good overlap for getting in and out. I then used a separate piece of netting, draped over the top and down about a foot or so all around the sides, for the roof of the cage. I used clothes pegs to secure all the netting last year, but this year I shall use small wire ties - I think that will look neater!.
You will need to be able to take off the roof off the cage in the winter or it may be weighed down by snow and broken. You also want birds to be able to get in there for most of the winter, to clear up any pests which may be lurking. You can put the top back on again before the fruit starts ripening! The netting needs to be big enough to allow bumblebees in, but small enough to keep birds out. There were a lot of frustrated blackbirds in my garden for the last couple of years - they were cursing me all the time!! But I do plant a lot of fruit for them down in my little wood, seedlings I find around and any rooted pieces of my other bushes. If you're handy at carpentry, you could even make the cage structure look quite decorative, adding finials etc., and making a feature out of it - Oh for the time and energy!! I bought all my netting in the autumn a few years ago, when many of the garden centres and multiples had end of season clearance sales. Keep an eye out for cheap netting this autumn - it's often a third of the usual price!
The best time to buy fruit trees?
It's possible to plant most types of fruit all year round now from containers, but it really is the most expensive way to buy them, and the range available is actually very limited in most garden centres. While naturally it's much nicer to be able buy Irish-grown plants and trees, sadly enough choice of good flavoured, productive fruit that the average gardener needs simply isn't there at present. Many of the varieties I see for sale in garden centres - or even listed in 'so called' specialist fruit nurseries, are totally unsuitable for our climate, or for small back gardens. Either that or go to the other extreme of having a root stock so 'dwarfing' they are no more than the fruiting equivalent of garden gnomes, and will never produce more than one or two apples if you're lucky! The trees are generally not healthy in our damp climate here and are susceptible to scab, they are very difficult to grow well and also incredibly expensive. That's fine if you only want a bit of an ornament, but there are more suitable root stocks and plenty of tasty, productive varieties available out there which are far better - they're just not widely available here! You could actually get three good varieties by buying mail order bare root apple trees - for instance - for the price of just one of those potted, extra-dwarfing 'Coronet' varieties here! So if you want a really wide choice of fruit to give you a long season - you really have no option other than to buy from a specialist mail order supplier either in Ireland or the UK. I know the market isn't huge here - but there are times when I feel there's a 'that's good enough' attitude from some garden centres, who often know very little about fruit and have absolutely no interest in it. It's very short-sighted, as people won't come back and buy more if their first efforts are a waste of time. Usually the buyer thinks it's their fault - when often in fact it's a totally unsuitable varieties like Cox's Orange Pippin or Golden Delicious, both of which prefer a warmer drier climate - or it's on the wrong root stock for their soil and situation. Johnstown Garden Centre or Future Forests are two good nurseries here which will order specific varieties in for you if you give them plenty of notice - like now or soon! Both source excellent quality trees. Granted they are not as cheap as bare root trees, but are always well-grown and will carry a good crop the year after planting. So - as they say - "you pay your money and you make your choice" - it's up to you!
I'm not going to buy a bad variety just because it may be all that happens to be available here. Fruit trees are a major long-term investment! Imported mail order bare root trees and plants are usually much cheaper, and bare root trees will undoubtedly establish far better, so this is a good time of year to look online or send off for fruit catalogues - all are full of very useful information on taste, season of ripening, climate suitability, size and pruning techniques. In fact - all the information you don't get when you buy an apple or other fruit from a garden centre - and best of all - catalogues are free! It means you can really do your homework and choose the perfect variety for your garden or orchard. The next couple of months is a really good time to order trees etc. for autumn delivery from October. If you order over the summer - you will be first in line and get the best of what's available rather than if you leave it until the mood strikes you after Christmas - when all you will get is the tail end of what's left! If you plant fruit trees and bushes in the autumn, the soil is normally still warm and in a reasonable condition to work and prepare properly, so trees will have two or three months when the soil is still warm enough to encourage good root activity. That means they should establish well before they have to start supporting top growth. After December though, our Irish winters can become very wet, often making it impossible to touch the soil in many areas until well into early spring. Thinking ahead at least two or three months is just as important in the fruit garden as it is in the vegetable garden. The problem is that many people don't start to think about planting fruit until they see someone else's apple tree flowering or see them in garden centres - which is really nolt the best time to plant!
The other drawback of buying potted fruit from garden centres is that invariably the trees and bushes will have been potted using a peat compost - not a natural habitat for fruit trees! In fact not a natural growing medium for anything except bog plants! The chemical fertilisers which have to be added can promote a lot of soft, unhealthy growth, and the trees often aren't happy about establishing their roots outside into soil when planted, after getting used to the peat - particularly if they a bit pot-bound as they usually are! Before ordering any fruit - do your research well - plan the right varieties to will pollinate each other, order now for good bare root trees to plant in early autumn, and look forward to really good crops in years to come!
(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.)