Supporting Pea Plants

Traditionally, Good Friday is the day when you sow peas in your garden. I don’t know for sure why this is but I imagine it is so that the soil is warm enough for the peas to germinate and the full Moon is an optimum time for sowing seeds. Indeed, many people make a point of sowing all their seeds (and harvesting their crop) according to the Moon. Some even go as far as sowing at nighttime to be under the Moon!

Anyway, back to peas. When you sow your peas, you should also be considering supporting the plants. There are a few varieties which are advertised as self-supporting. These still only work up to a point. They get very messy. So, generally, peas need support.

The way gardeners always supported pea plants was by using ‘pea sticks ‘which were twiggy cuttings, traditionally from hazel, although any wood would do. Nowadays, not all of us have this sort of material available and we have to use more manufactured supports.

Bamboo canes work very well, either on every group of plants or at the end of rows with netting hang between them so that the pea plants grow up the netting. However, for a really desorative look which is also very practical, Harold Horticulture produce Pea and Bean Hoops and Cross Supports.

These are the sturdiest supports you can buy. They are made of heavy duty galvanised steel and will last for many seasons, so although the investment may seem heavy initially, over the years you will actually save money by not having to replace your supoports.

You will still need to use pea and bean netting with your supports and this is also available through Harold Horticulture although you can buy netting at almost any garden shop. The frame stands 1 m (3 ft) high and there is 30 cm between the legs of each hoop, so it is just right for two rows of peas. You can get it in three lengths, so you buy the one to suit you.

Usually, I plant my pea plants over Easter, but with the weather being as cold as it has been, my seeds were planted late, so they are not even germinated yet, let alone ready to go out. However, to follow tradition, I shall sow a row of peas outside on Good Friday (assuming the weather is clement!).

Watering Plants with Sprinklers or Watering Cans

All plants require adequate amounts of water and there will be occasions when it is necessary to water artificially. However, watering your plants is not just a case of pouring water onto them.  In fact this can do more harm than good. There are a few rules you should bear in mind when applying water.

First, never add water in small amounts. It is essential to give enough water to get right down to the roots of the plant where they need it. Applying little water often, will make the plant roots come to the surface of the soil to search for water, making them even more vulnerable to the heat and lack of moisture.

Second, although large quantities of water are required, you must apply it carefully. Water applied in the form of large droplets or with great force will make the soil ‘crumbs’  break down and form a hard crust on the surface. This will prevent further water from entering the soil and also it will inhibit the free interchange of air and gases. On a seed bed, this crust will actually stop the young seedlings pushing through to the surface. To prevent this happening always apply water through a sprinkler with a fine head. When watering seed trays use a watering can fitted with a fine rose. Start pouring the water to one side of the tray or pot, then pass the watering can over the seedlings keeping the angle of the rose constant throughout. When you have finished, do not raise the can until you it is clear of the seed tray or pot.

The size of the droplets of water is not so important when you are watering grass, so lawn sprinklers are not generally made with much attention to the optimum droplet size. However, if you are going to be using your sprinkler on other parts of your garden, besides the lawn, then make sure you have a fine head to put on it. If you can only afford one head, chose a fine one.

It is not necessary to keep the soil moist all the time. Only water when the soil is dry but before the plants begin to suffer. Remember the surface of your soil may dry out long before the rest of it does. Provided you use a fine spray, you can water at any time of day. However, timing is important. Watering when fruits and vegetables are swelling will increase the overall weight. Once fruits, in particular, begin to colour you should not over-water. It could invite a fungal attack, particularly botrytis.

It is very easy to over-water especially plants in pots. Try to strike a balance between an aerated soil or compost and one with moisture. A cold, wet, airless soil will not do anything to encourage plant growth. If you are watering in the vegetable or flower garden, leave the sprinkler one for at least an hour each time.

When you have just planted a plant, water it immediately after planting, then leave it to its own devices for a while, almost allowing the soil to dry out before watering the plant again. This will encourage the plant to search for water, thus increasing its root system.

Watering is a bit of an art. Remember, in the garden water copiously, less often. Err on the side of dryness rather than giving to much water. Pot plants want to be damp but do not want to drown.

Digging your garden

Hand digging is the main method of cultivating the soil and although many gardeners dislike it, is is a necessary evil. It breaks up compacted soil and introduces air, allowing the water to drain away and roots to penetrate more easily. You can also add organic matter to the lower layers increasing the depth of the topsoil.Whilst cultivators are useful, they are no replacement for hand digging.

Different soils require different times for digging. If you have heavy soil then you should dig in the autumn before the winter rains make it too wet and sticky to dig. If necessary, cover your soil with polythene for a week or so before you dig to prevent it becoming too wet. Leaving the soil roughly dug over winter allows the frosts and rain to kill pests and weeds as well as leaving them open to the birds. In the spring the weather will have broken the surface down to a fine tilth and all you will need to do is rake it.

If you have light, sandy or chalky soil, then you should dig in the spring. The problem with light soils is that they drain very easily, leaching out nutrients. Also, the soil can be eroded by the winds. To avoid this happening, keep the ground covered during the winter by sowing a green crop manure in autumn and digging it in just before your spring sowing.

Whenever you dig, pick out any perrenial weed roots and put them to one side to burn them. Annual weeds can be dug back in but make sure they are at the bottom of your trench so that they add to the organic matter you are digging in and so that they will not regrow.

If not done correctly, digging can cause severe back strain. However, provided you use your common sense, it can also be a healthy, invigorating and enjoyable excercise. It is very rewarding to look at a patch of your garden which you have just dug and see it looking pristine and ready for sowing.

There are a few common sense rules which you should follow when digging. The first is the time for your digging. Never dig if your soil is wet enough to stick to your boots. It will spoil the structure of the soil.

Always use a fork and spade which are the right size for you. Using tools which are too large may seem like a good idea – you can move more soil at one time – but they will tire you quickly and you will consequently work slower. Never take spadefuls which are too heavy to comfortably lift. By taking smaller amounts you will not strain yourself and you will be able to work for longer.

Always take your time. Do not try to do too much to start with. By adopting a rhythmic and methodical approach to digging, being aware not to cause strain all the time you will find it much easier. As soon as you start to feel you have had enough or you start to find it difficult to stand up – stop! This is the stage when you start to hurt yourself. Take the time to do your digging in stages. It is better to take two or three days to dig over your patch than attempt to do it in one day and end up with three weeks of back-ache.

Last but not least, keep your tools in good, clean condition. Keep a scraper on hand when digging and use it regularly to clean your tools. When you finish, clean your tools thoroughly and rub them over with an oily cloth to prevent rust. Then stand back and admire your work.

Improve seed propagation with a soil warming cable

A soil warming cable is a cable which goes in the soil , or more often nowadays, under the soil in order to warm it.  We used to buy these warming tools as cables and spread them within the soil in a zigzag pattern. Now they are usually bought in the form of a mat, either made of alluminium or, as in the case of the one sold by Thompson and Morgan, as a net.

Warming the soil makes it much easier to germinate seeds even when the weather is not reliably warm as well as help cuttings to root.

The alternative to a soil warming cable is an electric propogator, this will give you a much smaller area of warmed soil.

propagation mat

The advantage of the T & M soil warming cable (they call it a heated propogation mat) is that it covers an area of 16 ins by 48 ins. This is generally the full length and width of one side of your greenhouse staging. This gives you great flexibility in the type and number of pots and trays you use both for seeds and cuttings.

Pruning Shrubs

All shrubs can be pruned to some degree, to shape them or to keep them smaller than they would naturally grow. However, some shrubs are pruned annually to produce flowering stems.

Some shrubs, like Buddleia Daviddii (The Butterfly Bush) flower in late summer on wood made during the same season. They make growths from buds that have been resting over winter, so you need to be careful when pruning that you do not damage these buds. These shrubs are cut back in early spring when the heavy frosts are over. You start by cutting out any wood damaged by frosts, then to increase the size of the flowers, all shoots are pruned back hard.

Shrubs such a Ribes (Flowering Current) and Forsythia, should be cut back immediately after flowering. This encourages the shrub to produce long shoots. The longer the shoots, the more flowers you get.

Others like heathers (Erica) and Lavenders (Lavendula) are pruned immediately after flowering by cutting the flowering heads off with a pair of shears. This is to stop them producing seed. It also keeps them tidy.

Shrubs like Rhododendrum do not really need pruning. They grow naturally in a good shape. These need dead-heading. This is simply removing the dead flower heads.This increases the flower yield the following year.

There’s no magic to pruning, don’t be afraid to do it. If you cut too much off one year, it will grow back the following year. If you prune at the wrong time, trhe shrub may not flower so well (or not at all) the following year but the year after that, it will be fine.

Growing Potatoes in Bags or Bins.

If your garden is small, or even if you have no garden, you can still grow potatoes. In fact if you grow them under cover you can harvest your first potatoes up to a month early (or even at Christmas).

You start off either with a bin (an old dustbin is great) or a large bag (I find the bags compost come in is great- turn them inside out so they are just black and look nice.) If you are using a bin, put crocks in the bottom for drainage. A hole or two wouldn’t go amiss. If you are using bags, make a few holes at the bottom for drainage.

Place 3 -4 ins of soil or compost in the bottom of your container. Spread out you seed potatoes on top of the soil. (5-6 is more then enough in both a dustbin or  compost bag. This will not give you huge potatoes but will give you a decent harvest of medium sized potatoes. Next put 3-4 ins of soil or compost on top of you seed potatoes.

When you see green shoots from your seeds, then cover then with another 6ins of soil or compost. Repeat this process 4 or 5 times or until the bag or bin is three quarters full. Always leave the top of the bag open to the elements.

If you are growing the potatoes under cover, then you will need to water them regularly. Otherwise only water in dry weather.Be careful not to overwater – your potatoes will rot and smell nasty.

Your potatoes will grow normally as though you are growing them in your garden. Just leave them to do their thing. For early potatoes, you harvest when the flowers form and use the potatoes immediately. This will be in June to July for first early potatoes and in July – September for Second Earlies. For Maincrop Potatoes You leave them until after the flowering period is finished. Then harvest. This will be in September to October. Really, though, this method is best used for Early Potatoes.

To Harvest your potatoes, you simply empty your bin or bag. It is as easy as that. You get good potatoes with very little problem from any pests or diseases.

How to make Compost

Ideally, really good compost is supposedly brown and crumbly with the sweetest of smells, like woods in the autumn. In fact, it very rarely is. If you have a very big compost heap with only the very best organic material to build it with, then you can achieve this in spring and summer. Most of us, however build our compost heaps with whatever organic material available and the compost is very variable with a lot of semi-rotted fibrous matterial. That doesn’t matter. It will still improve the soil and will certainly do no harm, it will just take longer for it to become  “humus”.

Getting good quality compost takes care. Each material needs different treatment. There are some materials which are especially useful.Straw is one of them, whilst others, such as grass clippings need to be mixed with other materials to achieve good results. If you make a heap of grass cuttings alone, it will just become slimy and smelly. Mix grass with larger weeds, shredded paper or straw. However, straw and paper is very dry and should be soaked in water before adding to the compost heap. Never use glossy paper in compost – it does not rot well and contains too much lead. Always shred paper, never put wads of it in your compost heap – it takes too long to rot.

There are some things you should be careful of putting on your heap. Some root systems will survive being put onto the compost heap and will grow again once spread over your garden. Never put roots from bindweed, stinging nettles or dandelions on your heap. Burn them, then you can either add the ash to your compost heap or spread it on your garden.

The ideal compost is made thus: start off with a 6 in layer of course material such as horse manure, straw or large weeds. This will give you a free flow of air. Then add materials such as grass cuttings, leaves and weeds from the garden until you have another 6 ins. Sprinkle some compost activator or nitrogen fertilizer 0ver this layer or add horse manure at this point (the nitrogen in it will act as a compost activator). Next add another 6 in layer of garden materal. Add a dusting of lime. Next add leaves and grass cuttings, then lime. When you have finished building your compost heap, cover it with carpet. This will keep the heat in and keep it dry. The compost heap will rot down and shrink in the first week, so you can add an extra layer at this time should you want to. The amount of compost you can make depends upon the amount of material you have, the way you build your heap and the weather. In a hot year, you should get two good binfuls in the summer, one in the autumn and if you are lucky, one in the spring.

PH- what it is and how to change it.

The acidity or Alkalinity of soil is determined by its lime content and PH is a measure off how acid or alkaline your soil is. It is measured in units from 1 to 14. Neutral soil has a PH of 7; anything above that is alkaline and anything below is acid. Testing the Ph is very simply done with soil testing kit you can buy from any garden centre. You should test your soil in various parts of your garden as it can vary depending upon the conditions.

Soil Testing Kit

You need to know the Ph of your soil as some plants will only thrive in acid conditions whilst others need lime to live. It is easier to make an acid soil more alkaline by adding lime than the other way round. Lime has other advantages too. Adding Lime to clay soils, for example, will help to bind the particles together and help water to drain. However adding too much lime can chemically ‘lock up’ nutrients so that they are not available for plants to feed on them. This will result in nutrient deficiencies, and plants prone to disease and pest damage..

In the vegetable garden, most plants thrive on a PH of about 6.5 so you need to know what it is and take steps to change it should it be necessary. In the ornamental garden you will find that there are many plants which will thrive best in acid (or alkaline) soil, so it is best to grow these, rather than try to alter your soil.

If your vegetable patch has too much lime, then try growing on a deep bed system. This is  beds raised above the level of your normal soil and filled with a neutral compost. This is then kept neutral by adding lots of organic matter when digging (at least once a year) and regular mulches whenever necessary.  This sound like hard work, and the first year it will be but after that it will be quite easy. If you work a deep bed system, then you never walk on it, it does not become compacted, so is easy to dig.

All this may seem like a lot of fuss and work but in the long term it will pay dividends. There is nothing worse than buying and planting an expensive tree, like Magnolia for instance only to watch it slowly die over three years or so because the soil is too alkaline. Much better to know your soil and if you want to grow Magnolias (or any other plant not suited to your soil conditions, then grow them in pots or raised beds.

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is a very useful and old method of growing vegetables to give the maximum use of nutrients in your soil and to prevent the build up of pests and diseases.

I use a three year scheme (pretty general) and this is how it works. First, all vegetables and divided into groups. The first group consists of Potatoes, carrots, beetroot, persnips, onions, leeks, garlic, tomatoes, courgettes, marrows, pumpkins, celery, Florence Fennel, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers, melons, celeriac, salsify and scorzonia. You can also include Hamberg parsley in this if you do not grow it among your herbs. With this bed you start by double digging incorporating manure in the upper and lower levels plus two handfuls of blood, fish and bonemeal. Then grow as many of this group in this patch  as you want.

Group two of vegetables are Peas, beans of all types, sweetcorn, spinach, swiss chard, lettuce, chicory, endive and globe articholes. I grow Runner beans on wigwams or in a double row in another part of the garden, leaving more room in this bed. To prepare this bed, single dig it and apply blood, fish and bonemeal three weeks before sowing the first crop of the season.

The third group of vegetables are brassicas – Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, calabrese, broccoli, kale, swedes, turnips, radishes and kohl-rabi. The bed is prepared with single digging but no extra nutrients. (This depends upon your soil – you may need to apply some lime to bring the PH level to 6.5 – 7.0. if your soil is acid)

At the beginning of the second year, you move all crops along one bed. So the Beetrot, parsnips etc get grown where the beans were and the beans are grown where the brassicas were, the brassicas being grown where the Beetroot etc were the previous year. The third year, move all crops along to the bed they have not yet been grown in and the fourth year you start again from the beginning.

There are some vegetables which are permanent crops and these require a bed of their own.  These are Globe Artichokes (Although these can equally be grown at the back of a flower bed), Jerusalem Artichokes (these could be grown as an annual hedge) seakale, asparagus (although most people grow this in its own bed) and herbs.

Even if you use a deep bed system, you should still try to use crop rotation. The digging will be much easier, in fact barely necessary in the third bed, but you will still need to add nutrients and move around to avoid pests and diseases in the soil.