August 2014

August 2014

Lots of work in August harvesting onions, collecting seeds and conducting tests, and a sudden bout of hail takes its toll.

Update: 15th August

With the benefit of hindsight, it looks that August 1st was a key climatic moment, changing dry warmth to unsettled and much cooler air. Autumn may be less warm and abundant than last year but at least there is plenty of moisture now! Annual weeds are making a comeback and germinating as though it were spring, so keep a hoe, trowel or your hands working when possible. Pinch out tomato tops! See below.

HAIL made an impact here on August 14th, scything through lettuce and other tender leaves in a midday thunderstorm when 19mm (3/4 inch) of rain fell. It was upsetting to grade out so many leaves when salad picking, but at least the plants survived. Green Batavian stood best.

Drying onions

Onions need to be dried as much as possible before winter storage. The warm spring brought harvest forward but if you still have green tops, keep them somewhere as light and airy as possible until the tops are brown. Then either trim them and store in shallow, open boxes or bunch and hang in the house, as they store so well in the dry of indoors.

Undercover cropping

Tomato plants need their growing points pinched out to prevent any new flowers forming. There is only just time for existing flowers and young fruit to develop and ripen before October. Keep all the upper leaves on, water carefully to avoid blight by keeping leaves dry.

Here I have had brilliant harvests of Black Pearl aubergine, especially from the plants grafted to tomato rootocks by Delfland Nurseries – plants cost £1.90 each in April and are well worth the price. By contrast I did not succeed with their grafted melons last year, am growing Sweetheart from seed this year and still waiting for first ripening, possibly the compost was rich (food waste enriched) and encouraged too much leaf. Even though I stopped watering them three weeks ago. The hotbed melon looks most promising for first fruit to eat.

Seed Saving

It has been a good year for seed saving, so far. There is still just time to save French beans if you have a favourite plant, leave it unpicked and then pull up the whole plant before frost to hang upside down in an airy shed or garage until dry, when you can shell out the pods. Lettuce plants for seed, if outdoors, should be flowering now and need staking, hopefully it will be dry enough for seed to form well and be of good quality, for harvest in September. Lettuce is easier undercover and most of mine is harvested. I have just rubbed out seed of spinach and endive which I allowed to flower in the polytunnel.

Pests, beans, squash

Pest problems continue and lettuce root aphid is the latest one to be worse than usual. Plants suddenly wilt and die, almost overnight but usually they have been less productive for a while as the aphids take hold. You see it worse in dry summers and watering helps but once they have a hold there is nothing to do. I have always suffered it on older plants as they near the end of a productive life but was worried to have a phone call from growers who are losing younger plantings. The only advice I could give was for coming years: grow more endive in late summer and autumn, as endives do not suffer it.

Cabbage butterflies and moths are doing their usual stuff and if you have not meshed or netted, some damage is inevitable. I am waiting for a less windy day to spray Bacillus Thurigensis on some unprotected plants, while covered ones look good.

Climbing Beans

The passage of ex-hurricane Bertha was unwelcome for tall plants and I hope your beans are still standing. I took the precaution, in this windy garden, of banging in some fence posts and then tied them to the main supports of canes. All are standing after the winds, which continued for several days with one gust of 40mph. The plants look slightly bedraggled on their windward side and have also slowed their growth in the cooler air. Squash also may run out of time this autumn unless well forward now, mostly formed by the end of August and then ripening in September.

One of the dig/no dig trials

Comparisons of vegetable growth on dug and undug soils have shown little difference this year. Early sowings of carrots came up better on dug soil and the onion harvest was slightly bigger, while current growth of many plants is slightly better on undug soil, especially endives, French beans and swedes. The small numbers of plants make it an indication more than proving anything, however the consistency of results over many seasons suggests that single digging offers little improvement to growth. See the two pictures below.


La Diva cucumber plants and their fruits are remarkably different, see photo.  A few peppers are just starting to ripen in the tunnel. Celeriac is looking superb after I watered it in dry weather. Stevia on two year old plants is growing well, so sweet!

August 1st, Summer jobs, being ready for autumn

What a summer it is. In fact, after so many warm months, plants are a bit ahead of themselves. I have heard some comments that “its autumn already”. But don’t worry, there is still lots of growing to happen and in August for example, you can be sowing many salads for autumn and winter.

Also it is good to continue being on top of new weed growth, either by hoeing the tiny seedlings of annual weeds, before they develop any root system,  or by tackling perennial weeds. This can be either using a trwel to extract couch grass, bindweed and marestail from areas with crops growing, or laying a light excluding mulch on areas with lots of perennial weeds, to weaken their roots until you need the space again.

Green manure is often mentioned elsewhere and it is another option for areas which you don’t want to replant again this year. They are less important if you have a reasonable supply of compost, and bring their own issues such as increasing slug populations, but one I recommend is mustard (Synapsis alba) for sowing late August to mid September. It has three advantages:

  • rapid growth means that after initial weeding, it prevents new growth of weeds and leaves soil clean
  • it can follow many crops such as onions, winter squash, late broad beans etc
  • it is killed by moderate frost of -6-7C or lower, leaving a debris of straw-like stems which you can either rake off or plant through. Last winter however I had to pull some out as it was not cold enough, though most mustard plants died by February.
  • If you have spare compost now, you could spread a little after sowing to feed soil even more and have it in a beautiful state for spring plantings.

Onion harvests

Its time to harvest onions, if you have not already. My own harvest is three weeks earlier than last year and almost all onions are now pulled, either having a first-dry on the beds where they grew, or already half dry and in crates in the greenhouse and tunnel, to finish drying before I take any leaves off. They continue swelling a little as the goodness moves from their green leaves at harvest time, to the bulbs when they are dry.

Here it has been ideal onion weather, right the way through. No problems with fly, white rot or mildew. The latter is helped by not growing overwintered, Japanese onions which seem to harbour mildew from one summer to the next. Try White Lisbon spring onions instead, which don’t do that and although sold as spring onion, you can let them make bulbs by June.

Tomatoes, keep them going and all to ripen

Tomatoes are in full flow, water perhaps a little less to encourage ripening, also pinch out all the growing points by August 10th, for undercover tomatoes. Outdoor ones should already be stopped, to concentrate all energy into existing fruits. Keep side-shooting cordon plants and remove only the lowest leaves up to the level of the bottom-most truss with fruit on.

Courgettes, melons

Courgette roots are now spreading sideways quite a distance, especially for moisture. Keeping them watered will reduce the amount they need to pinch from neighbouring plants, even in the next door bed.

Melons are tending to slow their leaf growth now as fruits swell and ripen. I got everything wrong with my tunnel melons this year, trying a few new things (more to come on this in the autumn) but a plant of Sweetheart on the (now-cool) hotbed is growing well.

After potato and other harvests

Potatoes have yielded well and the star this year has been Estima, a waxy, second early. I was trying it instead of Charlotte and now wish I had a few Charlotte because other gardeners are commenting on their flavour being less good and texture too crumbly after cooking. Do please post on the forum if you have views on this.

After potato harvest, I have been planting salads mostly while other options include kale, bulb fennel, spring onion for autumn, spinach and herbs such as coriander and chervil.

Carrots and winter squash

Carrots on this heavy soil do best in dry weather and also there has been no fly so far; I expect it by end September. But I have not sown carrots for winter, finding that winter squash, with similar high levels of beta carotene, makes a more reliable harvest and is so easy to store.

Trial of tomatoes in sacks

Early results of growth in my three soil sacks, comparing different additions, have been surprising in that the plant with Grochar is almost dead. The plant in soil with rockdust added is struggling for lack of macro-nutrients, which is what one would expect, but it looks healthy apart from having a pale colour. Best growth is from the plant whose sack had a top dressing of two inches (5cm) compost before planting.

These are the same sacks which grew tomatoes last summer, then early potatoes for october harvest, then lettuce all winter. So after this trial I shall empty them to start again, need to find some good soil!