Gardening Course: Week 2

Richard’s Day Job

This week started off with some shameless boasting about the size and growth of our mustard plants. Everyone has germination and tiny (and not so tiny) shoots are being watched and cherished like the most precious of infants. Richard tells us we can’t harvest them until each shoot has three or four leaves but we can, and should, plant a pot of them every week or two so we can enjoy mustard in our sandwiches and as a spicy addition to salads over the whole summer.

Vegetables and Fruit in Containers

Richard showed us how to grow salads, fruit and vegetables in a tiny container, using the compost mix from last week, a supermarket basket, three tall pots and a plastic bin bag (and some plants, of course).

If you want to decorate your basket, do that first by cleaning it off and spraying it with your colour choice(s).

In the basket Richard prepared for us, and which he very kindly donated to Brightsparks, he planted strawberries, scallions and carrots, but you can plant rows of lettuce, radishes, beetroots, pots of dwarf French beans…

Cut off the bottom seam of the plastic bag and slit it up the side and line the basket. Don’t cut off any spare bits yet. Fill the basket with compost.

Make space in the compost for three tall pots. Fill the pots with compost and plant a strawberry in each one by making a hole big enough to take the root ball of the plant, dropping the plant in and gently firming back the compost with your fingers.

Now plant in eight plugs of carrots and eight plugs of scallions by, again, making a hole big enough to take the root ball of the plant, dropping the plant in and gently firming back the compost with your fingers. You can plant in rows or drifts.

Once all your plants are in; take a sharp blade and cut drainage holes through the liner about two inches from the base of the basket and trim the excess liner. The basket can go out during the day for a week to acclimatise, then out full time.

You can also raise the basket on blocks or upturned plant pots to increase air circulation beneath it and make it harder for slugs and snails to reach it.

The planted basket

You’ll need to thin out the carrots and scallions after about four weeks. For the carrots, hold the strongest shoot steady and gently tug out the weaker ones. You can use the thinned roots in a salad. With the scallions, gently tug out the weaker ones until you have six to ten scallions left in each group. The more scallions you leave, the thinner they’ll be. You can use the thinnings in a salad or in a cheese sandwich.

Shallots in Pots

Shallots are a smaller, milder member of the onion family and are generally planted as a “set”. Fill a small pot with compost, push the set into the compost, leaving one third of the set showing. It might pop up completely while it grows: if it does, just press it down again. Put the pot out in a sunny, sheltered spot. When the set is three inches high, you can transplant it to its final growing space – either in prepared soil or a bigger pot. The day before you transplant, make sure to water the set well. Then you’ll be able to lift the set with a fork (to avoid too much damage to the feeding roots).

Ornamental Gourds

These are lots of fun, but NOT FOR EATING as they taste horrible!

Push three seeds into a two litre pot. Keep indoors until they start to sprout, then put them outside during the day for two weeks. Transplant the biggest one to a bigger pot, preferably against a wall or a fence and stand well back – the plants will grow to 3 metres long in a very short space of time. Leave the fruit to ripen for as long as possible in autumn or until just before the first frost, then cut them off, leaving a ‘handle’ of stem at the top. Dry them on a sunny windowsill.

You can grow courgettes the same way, but harvest the fruit as it reaches the size you want.

Radishes

Radishes grow quickly and have quite small seeds. The easiest way to manage them is to drop some seeds on to masking tape. Put the masking tape – sticky and seed side up – on top of a pot of compost, and sprinkle some more compost over the top. The masking tape will be rot and be pushed aside by the growing plant. If you’ve used too much seed, simply thin out the plants (use the thinnings in the salad bowl).

Pruning

Richard used a Rhapsody rose, a semi climber, to demonstrate pruning but the same general principles apply to fruit bushes, apple trees and other roses.

  • Take out unwanted branches
  • Take out cross over branches
  • Keep the centre clear to allow air into the plant by pruning to outward or upward facing shoots

Climbers and semi-climbers can be attached to bamboo canes with loose cable ties if they’re grown in large pots, rather than against a fence or wall.

Asides

  • You can make new strawberry plants in October/November because they make clones of themselves by sending out runners – long stems, with a miniature plant at the bottom. Snip off the runner, leaving some stem. Put the new plant on top of a 3 inch pot filled with compost and weight the stem down with a small stone or with a hair pin. The base of the plant will send out roots and in a very short time, you will have a new strawberry plant.
  • Apply sulphate of potash to your strawberry plants in spring as a post-winter booster.
  • When buying plants in pots, check to make sure the outermost roots are white as these are the live, food seeking roots and will help your plant find food in your garden.
  • If you think the holes in your plant pot are too big, and water just runs through, line them with a plastic bag, fill with compost and pierce holes through pot and liner about an inch or two from the base of the pot.
  • You can store herbs by chopping them finely, putting them in ice cube trays, gently topping up the tray with water and keeping them in the freezer. When you need them, just pop a cube out and add to whatever you’re cooking.
  • If you prefer to dry herbs, store them in muslin bags and hang them around your kitchen.
  • To get rid of moss, spray with water mixed with washing soda – one spoonful of washing soda to one gallon of water

New project

One of the group is starting a vegetable patch from scratch and asked if she should hand dig the space or have it turned over mechanically. The following are the general tips Richard gave:

  • Dig by hand, rather than mechanically, as mechanical digging will break up weed roots and scatter rootlets through the soil.
  • Dig a patch, then cover with black plastic for two weeks. Uncover and dig out any remaining dead weeds.
  • If you have areas that you have dug over but aren’t ready to plant into, cover them with carpet or coal sacks to limit weed growth.
  • The area in question was surrounded by trees so will probably lack nutrients. Feed it with manure, preferably from horses, goats or sheep. Cattle manure, which may be mixed with silage, can contain a lot of weed seeds. Horse manure should be mixed with garden compost as it can be a bit ‘heavy’.
  • The area is 55 x 26 feet. Rather than digging the whole area, it might be easier to build raised beds using three scaffolding planks (one sawn in half) to make roughly 8 x 4 foot beds – for potatoes, make the beds two boards deep – with enough space between beds to move a wheelbarrow around comfortably. You can then prepare the beds as you go along and increase the number you need as you need them.

Next week: Potatoes