The good and the bad from the warm weather

The warm, dry weather during May has been both a help and a hindrance, says Sue Bradley, who has been busy with her watering can.

Gardening is a funny thing: the longer you do it the more you realise how every year is different and brings its own set of challenges.

I’ve known many years when wet and often cold weather in May has caused seedlings to rot and encouraged slugs and snails to thrive.

This year, on the other hand, a long, warm and dry spell has resulted in a seemingly endless quest to keep young plants watered. There was also an annoying cold snap towards the middle of the month when a late dose of frost caught me out, leaving emerging potato plants looking black and frazzled.

Beware the ‘Ice Saints’

In parts of Europe, the period between May 11 and 13 is referred to as the ‘The Ice Saints’, with gardeners taking steps to protect more tender plants until after the feasts of St Mamertus, St Pancras and St Servatius, when it’s safer to assume that the risk of plummeting temperatures has passed.

Fortunately, potatoes are tough cookies and their green foliage quickly returned to the allotment as the days went on.

In a ‘normal year’, when rainfall levels are close to the annual average, watering this underground crop isn’t necessary, especially if they’ve been planted with plenty of moisture-retaining vegetable waste or homemade compost.

Over the last few weeks, however, there have been one or two days when I’ve given my tubers a helping hand, covering areas of freshly-watered soil with a good layer of grass cuttings or homemade compost to reduce the risk of surface evaporation. This mulch also helps to stop any light from reaching the young potatoes, preventing them from turning green.

Sue's June blog

Mind the Gap

With many of my crops well underway, I’ve been looking for any gaps that I have left, and any spaces at home that can be used for quick and easy salad crops and herbs.

One of the best ideas I’ve come across this year is the milk bottle seed tray, inspired by a short video made by BBC Gardeners’ World viewer. They’re made by cutting a square panel from a four pint plastic milk bottle and punching a few drainage holes in the bottom to create a reasonably-sized container with a handle. This can be filled with compost and used for sowing a few seeds for salad leaves such as lettuce or mizuma, or herbs like basil and coriander, both of which provide fresh and tasty additions to meals.

These seed trays can be positioned in the smallest spaces, including window sills, and even joined together with string to make a larger surface area if desired.

Salad and herbs can also be grown in pots or any other types of containers and look especially good in old tins, such as the olive oil cans often seen lining the walls of homes in Mediterranean countries.

A Load of Old Rot

As well as sowing seeds, June is a good time to develop a sound composting habit to ensure a ready supply of valuable organic matter to dig into the soil to improve its structure and fertility. I’ll be looking to have plenty of this magic matter to hand in a few weeks’ time when I harvest potatoes planted on previously undug areas of ground earlier in the year.

Compost is easy to make and doesn’t require expensive equipment: I use the plastic compost bins that remind me of daleks, but it’s possible to get the same results from a simple box made from wooden pallets, or even a hole in the ground.

The most important to remember when making compost is to ensure a good mix of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials.

Grass cuttings and uncooked kitchen waste are good examples of nitrogen-rich ‘greens’, with shredded cardboard and paper constituting the all-important high-carbon ‘browns. Too much of the former can result in a slimy and smelly mess, while overdoing the latter causes dryness and impedes the decomposition process. Avoid adding meat, bread or other cooked items, which can attract vermin.

I usually start new heaps with a shallow layer of twigs and other woody waste to create a few air pockets and follow this with plenty of grass cuttings to provide plenty of heat. After that it’s a simple process of adding vegetable and fruit waste, used tea bags and coffee grounds, spent bunches of flowers, loo roll tubes, torn up cardboard boxes, scrunched newspaper pages and other bits and pieces as they become available. I keep a bowl in our kitchen into which I place green and brown materials as they come to hand, which means they’re already mixed when they reach the heap. The only other things to add are a little water from time to time to keep everything moist and some form of insulation over the surface of the decaying materials, such as an old woollen jumper or rug, or a thick layer of cardboard, to prevent heat and moisture from escaping.

That’s about it really, with chemical processes and little red worms known as ‘brandlings’ doing the rest. These hard-working invertebrates magically appear from nowhere and usually get on with their business unseen, although on occasions they congregate around the tops of compost heaps when the temperature of the rotting matter gets too high, or they come across citrus skins or some other substance that’s not to their liking. Don’t be surprised to find the odd slow worm enjoying the warmth too.

Compost is ready to ‘harvest’ when it’s brown and crumbly. Either dig it into the soil or spread a layer over the surface of the ground for earthworms to distribute beneath.

New potatoes1

The Birds and the Bees

At this time of year there’s likely to be plenty of wildlife around the garden, including hedgehogs, birds, bees and butterflies. Over the past week I’ve seed clusters of tortoiseshells, many of which have taken a liking to the sweet rocket in my flower patch, and striking red and black cinnabar moths, the food plants for which include ragwort and groundsel – good news for those who haven’t managed to keep on top of their weeds.

Along with the salad leaves, I’ve been busy picking the first of my strawberries; another crop that’s easy to grow, whether planted in the ground or sunk into a growbag.

Look out for them in garden centres or supermarkets, or wait until the winter and send away for some runners, which will have time to sink their roots deep into the soil before they start fruiting.

The lockdown caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has led many more people to have a go at growing their own this year, hopefully with some tasty results that will inspire them to try out even more types of crops next year.

Gardening has its challenges, but the promise of tasty fruit and vegetables and opportunity to spend time close to nature cause these to pale into insignificance.

Cinnabar moth