This is proving a challenging year in the garden – and the greenhouse. April and May were cold and I just heard that the May was the coldest for 20 years and (Bank Holiday) Monday, the 1st of June, was the coldest June day for 30 years. But, at least, the wind has finally dropped (I hope) and there is the promise of some sun by the end of the week. There are some disasters looming I fear as the cold winds have slowed growth of some plants to a standstill. But I will start with the good news and the grapes have set fruit well with some decent bunches developing.
Outside the salsola (AKA liscari and agretto) is doing quite well. This Italian salad crop is said to prefer cool conditions and I sowed it early in cell trays in ambient greenhouse temperatures and it germinated well and has slowly been growing so that I can now harvest the young tips of the shoots. It is an ‘interesting’ addition to salads, having a slightly salty taste but otherwise just tastes ‘green’ and a bit like grass. Not that I regularly munch on grass but it reminds me of being a child chewing on the lower ends of long, flowering stems as I lay on the grass. Salsola is probably one of those foods that is calorie-neutral or calorie-negative because it takes a bit of masticating and you end up with a lot of fibre to struggle through unless you pick just the very youngest leaves. Even so I quite like it in small quantities.
The yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is ready for planting out and I planted the last yesterday. It seems much happier in the ground than in pots and those I planted out a few weeks ago are romping away. Not all ‘unusual’ veg are easy to prepare or integrate into a ‘normal’ diet but yacon is really good and I like the taste too. It is a sunflower relative from the Andes and is a robust, leafy plant reaching about 1.5m high. It forms rhizomes just below the soil and deeper, storage roots that are the parts eaten. They taste sweet but contain fructo-oligosaccharide which is not digested so they are low in calories. After cleaning and peeling the crisp flesh can be eaten raw and has a sweet taste that is very slightly apple-like. It is genuinely tasty and good enough to eat as crudites or can be added to stir-fries in place of water chestnut. Unlike Jerusalem artichokes, to which they are closely related, they are not very frost hardy and must be lifted in winter and the upper rhizomes kept free from frost for replanting the next spring. The edible roots are said to develop a sweeter taste when they are chilled by autumn weather.
The outdoor early spuds are holding up quite well and have been ‘earthed up’ once. The ‘Red Duke of York’ (back) and ‘Lady Christl’ (front) are all growing away happily.
But not everything is rosy in the garden. The brassica seedlings have all been attacked by flea beetle. These tiny beetles munch holes in the leaves of turnips, radish, pak choi and related veg. Although destructive, the damage they do is rarely that serious because the plants grow quickly and after the initial fright you soon forget what happened. But perhaps because of the slow growth due to the cold weather the plants look as though they have been attacked by a rabbit with a hole punch. Luckily these little monsters do not bother with cabbages – they leave those to the pigeons. There are two, simple (non-chemical) methods to reduce the impact of flea beetles. You can ‘dust’ them, by coating the leaves with dry soil. Presumably this makes the leaves dirty and less palatable. The other is to get a yellow ‘sticky strip’ that you use to hang up in the greenhouse to control whitefly and quickly run this over the top of the plants. The flea beetles, so named because they jump when disturbed, leap up and get stuck.
But there is worse news in the greenhouse. I noticed this week that the peach trees have been attacked by red spider mite. The irony of this is that red spider mite attacks when conditions are hot and dry – I wish! I have been keeping the leaves and stems dry because that will help prevent peach leaf curl disease but I have to change the regime immediately. I don’t want to use chemicals and the best way to stop red spider in their tracks is with water. So now I have to hose down the plants as often as possible, and that means keeping the undersides of the leaves wet for as long as possible for the next few weeks to try and make life as miserable as possible for the red spider mites. Of all pests this is the one I fear most because it is so difficult to control but, fingers crossed!
You can spot the damage of red spider mites because, in the early stages you see light speckling on the upper surface of the leaves, usually near the midrib. As the little blighters increase in number the speckling spreads. The mites suck the sap from individual cells and as they empty the contents the cells turn white. As things get worse the mites start to web on the underside of the leaves and then, especially at the top of the plants, they web over the shoot tips and they can kill the shoots as they suck out all the moisture from the plant.
There is a biological control but this must be applied immediately you see the pest or it will never be able to control the infestation. You can also not hose down the plants if you apply the predator. I have found that this is a step too far for me and water is the answer.