With record numbers of enquiries to the RHS gardening advisers about weedkiller damage to potatoes that often appear to be linked to manure contaminated with the pasture weedkiller aminopyralid, my heart has been in my mouth that I too might have bought dodgy muck. But so far so good – all looks well and the spuds in particular are bold strong plants that appear to have benefited from the manure far more than from the lavish fertiliser usually used. If you have had the misfortune to inadvertantly buy in contaminated manure, we would very much like to hear about it - when and where you bought it, what crops are affected and if you have been able to trace the contamination to the source - please email us at email@example.com and put 'dodgy muck' in the subject line.
Of the early potatoes, ‘Accent’, my long-standing favourite, is the most advanced and can be dug and is as ever delicious. ‘Vanessa’ is not far behind but ‘Premiere’ is still recovering from frost damage and won’t be ready until next week. It is amazing how things creep up on you – I went off to work at BBC Gardeners' World Live at Birmingham on Saturday after having to scratch round to find a few lettuces for my tea, and returned to find spuds ready to dig, broad beans in full crop, the first of the spring sown peas ready and the over-wintered peas nearly over. Baby turnips, spinach and hybrid summer cabbages are also ready to gather.
Lettuces are now abundant, and with reckless extravagance we just munch the crisp sweet hearts turning our noses up at the outer leaves and only the smallest, most tender radishes will do. Not only are salad onions at their best, but the over-wintered bulb onion crop is at the falling-over stage and even if the downy mildew gets a grip it won’t much matter.
In fact with drier weather diseases have largely dried up. Unfortunately the rains have not, as they sometimes do, knocked out the blackfly on the beans and, to avoid the pods being spoilt, repeated spraying with oil-based insecticides has been needed. On the other hand the plague of mealy cabbage aphids seen in 2007 has not returned – it is often like that, years of plenty are followed by population collapse – good riddance to them!
Courgettes, pumpkins and squashes have all been planted out. Mostly these have been planted though biodegradable paper mulch that will keep fruits clean and suppress weeds. Here carefully aligned grooves are drawn in the soil with a heavy mattock, the ground between the grooves levelled with the rake, incorporating chicken manure pellet fertiliser, slug pellets spread (slugs thrive beneath the mulch, but poisoned ones are inaccessible to wildlife) , and the paper laid with the edges buried in the grooves. The planting holes are made with a sharpened trowel that cuts through the paper and makes a hole, into which the plant is puddled. Puddling means that the plant, raised in a 5cm biodegradable pot, is placed in the planting hole, and then liquid fertiliser solution added until the hole is filled with soil and can take no more. The wet, fertile soil is then firmly but gently pressed around the roots so the plant can grow away vigorously. Peppers and water melons were also planted out in the same way and then covered with fleece. Sweet potato plants raised from softwood cuttings taken from a mother plant kept on the kitchen windowsill over the winter were also planted out this way. I was disconcerted to be told that the commercial firm growing these outdoors in Britain has given up the crop. It needs an especially, and unusually, warm summer for decent tubers – that would explain the disappointing results I have had with this crop. 2008 is make-or- break for outdoor sweet potatoes.
As the over-wintered bulb onions come out, squash and pumpkin plants are inserted through the black plastic mulching sheet that kept the onions weed-free. These 'follow-on crops' will benefit from the rich soil left over from the potatoes that preceded the onions and from the residues of the fertiliser given in February to swell the onions. This should meet my aim of raising at least three crops every two years from the same patch of soil.
An unfortunate consequence of very fertile soil are vigorous weeds; a bumper crop of annual weeds has been slowed down by running the Dutch hoe along the rows, hand weeding out weeds tight against crop plants and using a short-handled onion hoe to weed between plants and nick out surplus seedlings to thin emerging lettuces, radishes and swedes. However, another flush of weeds are already showing their ugly heads so all is to do again and again until the crop foliage meets over the rows and shade the weeds out.