Undercover: August 2012
By: Sue Stickland
Sue Stickland brings you the essential tasks for the month in the polytunnel and greenhouse plus great advice on producing delicious fruit from your protected space.
Next summer’s soft fruit season can begin as early as May in a greenhouse or tunnel if you plan and plant now. Think of picking sweet juicy strawberries at the same time as the first lettuce and spears of asparagus – they have got to be worth a try!
However, it’s not just an earlier harvest that makes growing soft fruit under cover worthwhile. The protection from rain makes berries less prone to rots and picking much more pleasurable. You don’t necessarily have to use up valuable under cover space all year round. By growing plants in containers, they can be left outside until late winter, needing little care, and this also ensures they get the chilling they need to give a good crop.
Raspberries can similarly give an early crop of perfect berries if grown under cover – particularly in wet areas. The plants are taller and they take longer to fruit than strawberries, but the principles are the same.
Order plants of an early variety (e.g. ‘Malling Jewel’) now, or look for healthy suckers that appear between rows of crops in the garden. Pot these up individually in pots 25-30cm (10-12in) deep and wide. A 50:50 mix of soil-based and other multi-purpose compost is sometimes recommended, so that it drains well but has weight to make the pots more stable. Prune back the plants to 25cm (10in) after potting and leave them outside. Next year several canes will grow for fruiting the following season – support them with bamboo canes and keep the pots well fed and watered (use rainwater if possible in hard water areas). The following February take them inside for your first under cover crop.
Sow winter salads this month for welcome winter pickings. Chicories, endives, lamb’s lettuce and landcress are slower growing than oriental greens and will benefit from the earliest start, particularly in cooler areas.
Plant out leafy crops such as leaf beet, chard and fennel sown in modules last month. You can still try late sowings but they may only have time to make small plants, so compensate with close spacing. Growing them about 10cm (4in) apart can give equivalent yields of equally valuable small leaves and baby fennel bulbs.
The same trick doesn’t necessarily work with late sown root crops such as turnips and beetroot, as closely spaced plants may not give large enough roots. With these crops, giving plants more space than usual can sometimes make up for late sowing, as with less competition they make quicker growth.
❯ Sow: Spinach beet, chard, fennel, leaf lettuce, chicories, endives, landcress, oriental greens (e.g. mustards, mizuna, pak choi), annual spinach, turnips, radish, lamb’s lettuce, claytonia, rocket, coriander.
❯ Plant: Spinach beet, chard, dwarf French beans, beetroot, spring onions, parsley and fennel (all sown in modules last month); second cropping potatoes.
August is also the ideal time to plant second crop potatoes – under cover this can give you a delicious harvest of new spuds in mid-winter (See page 10 for more details). Seed tubers are available mail order – they are usually early varieties which have been kept in cold storage since spring and will romp away once planted. Give them a good soak if the soil is dry.
Extending the season
The danger of August gluts of cucumber, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines is that you not only stop picking but neglect the plants too. Only with regular harvesting and care will the plants continue to produce into the leaner times of autumn – and if you freeze and pickle the excess now you can appreciate the results of your efforts in mid-winter. Keep pinching out and tying in tomatoes and cucumbers, and support laden branches of peppers and aubergines with canes to prevent them snapping off.
Warm humid August conditions, when plants are mature and less vigorous, is often the time when diseases move in. The main culprits are powdery mildew (causing a white coating on leaves of cucurbits and vines), blight (causing brown blotches on tomato leaves and fruit) and botrytis (a furry mould especially likely on grapes). Help prevent all of these by:
❯ Leaving all doors and vents open in warm weather.
❯ Watering plants at their roots, avoiding splashing the leaves.
❯ Watering early in the day so surfaces dry quickly.
❯ Removing dead, dying and diseased leaves.
❯ Avoiding overcrowding by removing sideshoots on tomatoes and other unwanted growth.
• Read the full article in Kitchen Garden magazine, August 2012!
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