Growing for Show – November 2018

After the Cookham village show in September, a number of people told us that they were inspired to have a go next year. To build on that enthusiasm, for the next few months we are going to focus our tips on growing for next year’s show. We’ll be aiming at people new to show growing and concentrating on the schedule for our local show, but there may still be the odd pearl for more experienced growers in other places.

The first thing to say is that growing for show is not just about size. In the Cookham show there are only three classes that are about the biggest you can grow. These are the heaviest onion, heaviest marrow and giant pumpkin. The other classes, the great majority, are looking for quality entries. In show terms quality means free from pest damage, blemishes and disease, and fresh and firm. In other words, everything that you would wish for in produce that you are going to eat or store.

In classes where you enter multiple examples (for example 3 carrots) uniformity is also important, so a well matched set of smaller vegetables is going to do better than larger ones that differ widely. You’ll be very lucky if the first three carrots you pull match each other, so at show time, you will end up with spare produce that you’ve harvested. Fortunately many good show vegetables are also good eaters, for example Carrot ‘Sweet Candle’, Beetroot ‘Pablo’ and Cherry Tomato ‘Strillo’. Many seed companies highlight cultivars that perform well in shows, for example the little rosette logo used by D. T. Brown

It is important to consider the show schedule. Our general advice is grow what you like to eat as a first priority, but as the lead time between seed sowing and exhibiting is generally counted in months not weeks, if you are going to have a bash at show growing it is worth making sure that you are growing stuff that will fit into one of the classes.  Here is the 2018 schedule for the Cookham show.

Cookham show schedule 2018

Cookham show schedule 2018

So our tip for November is to have a look at seed catalogues and start selecting your contenders.

Garden Tips – October 2018

There are days when October might feel like an extension of summer, with warm sunshine during the peak of the day, but temperature dropping as the sun descends is a clear indicator that the seasons are turning.

Misty morning

Misty morning

There is the danger of the first frosts at night, so it is as well to be prepared. October is the month for harvesting hard-skinned cucurbits such as squashes and pumpkins before they are damaged by frost.

Squashes curing

Squashes curing

It is also worth protecting the crowns of plants like Gunnera and tree ferns where next year’s growing tips can damaged by cold wet weather over the winter.

Now is the time for buying spring bulbs and for the vast majority the earlier you get the bulbs in the ground the better. The roots will start to develop quickly in the warm ground and the bulbs will establish quickly. It is best to hold off planting tulips in open ground until November to minimise the chances of bulbs being affected by the fungal disease tulip fire.

While you are thinking about spring bulbs, take a moment to look at your autumn beds. Are there gaps in your autumn garden that could be cheered up by the addition of autumn-flowering bulbs (autumn Crocuses, Cyclamens, Colchicums, Nerines etc) next year?

Nerines in October

Nerines in October

Continuing with the theme of brightening up the shorter days; October is also a good time to plant up containers with winter bedding, to put splashes of colour around spots like doorways, where you’ll be passing by on a regular basis. Really fill up the containers with planting, the plants won’t grow that much over the winter so you don’t need to leave much room for them to grow on. If you’re going to use perennials, for example ornamental grasses, these can be re-used in summer containers or planted out in the garden next year so that you maximise the value you get out of the plants. Putting spring bulbs in winter containers will give you an extra burst of interest next spring, to welcome the lengthening days.

As roses slow down and start to lose their foliage, if you had any blackspot, make sure that you clear away all infected leaves so that the spores cannot over-winter by the plants.

As plants like Cornus and Forsythia go dormant you can take hardwood cuttings to increase your stocks. With the topsy turvey weather it might be that later in the season is better; just wait until a few weeks after leaf fall.

In the kitchen garden you can get overwintering onion sets and garlic on the way. We tend to start onions in cells and then transplant the young plants once they have developed a good root system.

Onion sets

Onion sets

Looking forward to next year’s harvests, if you put grease or glue traps on fruit trees it should help to ensure that you get fewer maggoty apples.

Garden Tips – September 2018

As the weather starts to cool, and hopefully, at least in our neck of the woods, we start to get some rain, it is a good time to be thinking about lawn maintenance. Scarifying out dead moss and thatch will allow light, air and water to get to the roots of the grass and stimulate new growth. Using nematodes to control leather jackets and chafer grubs should reduce the populations and thus limit damage caused by crows and other birds searching for the insects.

Camellias and Rhododendrons are setting next year’s flower buds, so if the weather remains dry, keep them watered to make sure that the buds develop properly.

In late summer and early autumn honey fungus may produce toadstools around the bases of infected tree stumps or on the ground over dead roots. They can also appear from rhizomorphs in the soil, well away from any apparent source of infection. The RHS website gives excellent advice on how to identify whether this destructive disease is present.

Autumn is generally a good time for planting, the soil is warm enough to encourage root growth and there ought to be enough rain to help new plants settle in, this is particularly the case for hardy perennials and if you plant out members of the Asteraceae family like Rudbeckia, Echinacea and Gaillardia you’ll get a bonus splash of late season colour. It is also a good time to divide existing plants as once again the warm soil will help the roots of divided and re-sited plants establish.

Rudbeckia

Rudbeckia

Echinacea

Echinacea

Autumn colour

Autumn colour

Seed collection is an interesting autumn job, sticking with the Asteraceae family, sunflowers and Dahlias both produce viable and easily collectable seeds and with open pollination you can get some interesting hybrids.

Spring bulbs are on sale now and early shoppers will get the widest choice. On the whole the earlier in the autumn that spring bulbs are planted the better. The exception is tulips, which should not be planted until November.

In the kitchen garden you may well be picking apples and pears and lifting main crop potatoes. For all of these it is important not to put damaged fruit or tubers into storage as they will rot and this could infect sound fruit or tubers. Cooking and freezing damaged stuff is an alternative if you have too much stuff to eat immediately. Chips, potato dauphinoise and bubble and squeak all freeze well and a simple thing to do with apples is to lightly cook them and freeze them as a ready made pie/crumble mix.

As we’ve started looking ahead in the ornamental garden this month, you can be doing the same in the kitchen garden, planting spring cabbage and other over-wintering brassicas like kale and purple sprouting broccoli will give you welcome harvests next spring, before next year’s annual crops start to mature.

Garden Tips – August 2018

The weather over the past couple of months makes watering a hot topic. Last year when we addressed watering, our advice, coupled with the subsequent start of the school holidays triggered a couple of months of rainfall; maybe we can do the same this year.

The most important thing to remember is that water is required at the roots of plants. Dry soil surfaces do not necessarily mean that it is dry where it matters, probe deeper to see what the soil is like lower down. The condition of the plants themselves will indicate whether or not they have enough water. Indeed, a dry surface can be quite helpful, if there is moisture below as it will help to prevent evaporation from the lower soil levels. An added bonus is that a dry surface helps to stop annual and ephemeral weeds germinating.

When watering think about priorities. Trees and shrubs planted within the last year or so may well need additional water; if you didn’t have a watering tube put in at the time of planting, then try sinking a flower pot into the soil close to the plant. Filling this will direct water down and help to avoid evaporation losses.

Many vegetables are annuals and are generally grown quickly to produce a crop, so are thirsty. This is especially case for the cucurbit family, but again using a sunken flower pot as a watering mechanism can make watering easy and efficient. The squashes shown below are only being watered once a fortnight, albeit with a full 10 litre watering can per plant each time and they are healthy and setting fruit. The weed suppressant membrane is also acting as a mulch; helping to preserve the moisture levels below ground and this leads on to the next point.

Squashes 21 June

Squashes 21 June

Squashes 19 July

Squashes 19 July

Mulching is an excellent way to stop evaporation, but needs to be done when there is plenty of water already in the ground (early spring is a pretty good time to seal in winter rain). Using a bulky organic mulch such as well rotted manure or garden compost will also help to improve soil structure, so it gives a double benefit.

In the flower garden; taking semi-ripe cuttings from your favourite Osteospermums and Pelargoniums and over-wintering the young plants in a frost free space will give you summer bedding for next year.

With the warm soil it is now an excellent time to apply vine weevil nematodes to pots and borders if you suffer from this pest.

Another pest that is prevalent at this time of year is saw fly and stripped rose leaves are a clear indicator of the presence of this pest, use your preferred method of control if the plants are suffering.

Watering tends to help to leach out nutrients, so for summer flowers, a high potassium feed (e.g. tomato food) along with regular dead-heading, will help to keep flowering plants productive. Of course you can also use the same feed for tomatoes and while the dry weather may be making hard work for gardeners, the high levels of light over the past few months are really helping plants to grow and fruit like tomatoes to ripen. We’re now picking tomatoes every other day and the ripening conditions have meant that they are full of flavour.

Tomatoes 5 Aug 2018

Tomatoes 5 Aug 2018

While in the vegetable garden, you can be looking ahead and sowing spring cabbages for next year.

Garden Tips – July 2018

June tends to see a spurt in growth across the garden, so July is a month to maintain the progress that nature has kick-started.

Summer flowers like sweet peas and dahlias are now giving a profusion of colour, and scent if you’ve got the right sweet peas, keep dead-heading them to prolong the flowering. Equally cutting flowers for indoors will also stimulate more flower bud formation.  The sweet pea pyramids planted up in May are now looking good and producing some lovely cut flowers for the house

Sweet pea pyramids

Sweet pea pyramids

Sweet peas

Sweet peas

If you have maples in pots, especially the dissected leaf forms, keep them sheltered from hot sun and keep them well watered to avoid leaf scorch.

To prepare for the autumn, July is the perfect month to plant Colchicums and autumn flowering crocuses. They should be planted in well drained soil immediately after purchase to ensure that the bulbs do not become desiccated. They do best in a sheltered spot, but one that does get some sunshine, in deep shade the flower spikes can be quite spindly.

As most nestlings will have now fledged, it is a good time to tidy up hedges without any risk of disturbing nesting birds. While caring for birds, top up bird baths to make sure that there is water easily available. While you are thinking about tiding up hedges have a look at any variegated shrubs and prune out any stems that are reverting to the normal green leaf colour. These are much more robust than the variegated stems and will soon start to dominate if left untended.

July is a great month in the kitchen garden. Strawberries and raspberries are at their peak, early potatoes can be dug as and when you need them, fresh peas are lucky to make it as far as the kitchen and the first beans, courgettes and tomatoes should all be ready.

You’ll still need to monitor for pests, aphids are around all summer and if you grow brassicas, the cabbage white season is now upon us. If you can, the best way to protect your brassicas is to net them using a fine mesh to prevent the butterflies from laying their eggs on your plants in the first place. However, closely you watch your plants it is often the damage from the caterpillars that is the first sign that will be noticed rather than the eggs. The RHS advice page may put you off entirely, but hopefully this picture will show that it is possible to keep your cabbages healthy.

Kalibos Cabbages

Kalibos Cabbages

July is also the time to plant cold stored “second cropping” potatoes these can give you new potatoes for Christmas.

Garden Tips – June 2018

Many summer flowering plants are now in very active growth and it is a good time to propagate by taking softwood cuttings. Plants that will give good results at this time of year include Fuchsias, Pelargoniums, Buddleia, lavender and Hydrangea. Providing bottom heat using a heated propagator will increase your chances of success.

Early flowering shrubs can now be pruned as the new growth that comes this summer will give next year’s flowering wood. Deutzia, Kolkwitzia, Philadelphus and Weigela should all finish flowering in June, making later in the month an ideal time to prune them. Early June is also the traditional time for trimming box. While doing this, keep an eye out for damage caused by box tree caterpillars. This relatively newly arrived pest is spreading rapidly in Southern England and can cause serious defoliation. The RHS is running a survey to track its spread and you can record sightings here.

Keep on top of weeds, which are likely to be growing well in warmer conditions. If conditions are dry then hoeing annual and ephemeral weeds can be very effective at this time of year. Perennial weeds, especially those with long tap roots will still need to be dug out.

Another maintenance job that will be high on the agenda this month is mowing, the warm weather coupled with the plentiful rain we had earlier in the spring, means that grass is likely to be growing strongly. Don’t set mower blades too low as taking a lot of growth off in one pass can stress the plants. If you do need to take quite a lot of growth off, try to do it in a couple of stages.  A mown lawn really helps to make the whole garden look neater.

A mown lawn

A mown lawn

In the vegetable garden, all risks of frost should now have passed so it is time to plant out tender crops such as courgettes, squashes and outdoor tomatoes.  Squashes will grow really quickly in the warmer weather, but do keep them well watered. Recently we’ve taken to using the gro-pots often used with gro-bags to make sure that we can direct water to the roots of plants.

Squash bed in late June

Squash bed in late June

Elsewhere in the vegetable plot, everything should be growing strongly, so remember to feed the plants. For leafy crops a general feed will work well, but for fruiting crops (tomatoes etc.) now is the time to switch to a high potassium feed to foster flower and fruit formation. Keep an eye on your tomatoes and keep pinching out the additional shoots growing from the axils of the main stem to ensure that you have one solid stem transporting water and nutrients to the swelling fruit.

Early peas are starting to be ready for picking now and this is the perfect time to sow more peas to give an extra autumn crop.

Peas for picking

Peas for picking

If you have apple or pear trees you’ll notice that the trees are shedding small immature fruit at the moment. This “June drop” is perfectly normal and once it is done, then it is time to thin out the fruit even further. Thinning out will give you much better quality fruit and reduce the risk of diseases (such as brown rot) which can be spread by overcrowding.

June drop

June drop

Finally, one of the joys of gardening is looking forward and now is the time to sow wallflowers that you can plant out in the autumn ready for flowering next spring.