Healthy tomatoes

tmtroots A strong, healthy root system that allows your tomato plants to absorb enough water and nutrients is essential for producing a good crop and allowing your plants to produce their own pest-deterrents. Tomatoes in their natural state, grow along the ground and will form auxiliary roots along their stems, but our method of growing tomatoes tied to stakes prevents this.
However, you can give them a helping hand to produce extra roots before planting out by lying potted seedlings on their side when they are 10-15 cm tall. Leave them like this for a week or so, depending on the growth rate, and remember to stand them upright for watering. As you can see in the photo, the main stem with make a 90-degree turn, and root buds will form on the horizontal part of the stem. Plant them out with the growth tip vertical and the horizontal stem just below the soil surface. Or, you can remove the seed leaves and plant them up to just below the next set of leaves, then hill soil around them slightly as they grow.

French beans

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Occasionally, garden gurus will say that “beans will grow on the smell of an empty fertiliser bag because they will fix nitrogen in the soil”. This is not true in Australia, where the soil bacteria that is necessary for these legumes to fix nitrogen does not occur naturally. Gardeners are often then disappointed to find that the lower leaves of their beans and peas have yellowed.
French or green beans (and peas) will benefit from the addition of some mature compost and a light application of complete fertiliser when preparing the planting area. Plants need more than nitrogen to be healthy and produce good crops, and compost in soil helps beans resist bean fly.
French beans do well in a sunny position with a soil pH not lower than 6. However, they may need some temporary shade during our heat wave conditions. Regular, deep watering and a 5 cm layer of mulch over the bed will help to keep them growing strongly. Bush varieties of French beans grow best when sown in a block rather than rows, and can be ready to harvest in eight to ten weeks after sowing.
For a continuous supply, sow a small quantity each month listed in the monthly planting guide for your climate.

Corn – improving pollination

All types of corn are pollinated by breezes that blow pollen from the male flowers onto the silk threads that emerge from the top of each ear of corn. This is why it is better for home gardeners to grow corn in a block rather than a long row. Each strand of silk is connected to a separate immature seed and is covered in tiny sticky hairs that collect the pollen. If some silk strands don’t receive pollen, kernels may not form along one side of a cob, or near the top of the cob. (Female part of corn plant in photo at left.)

Male flowers form at the top of the corn plant as an upright spike and lower branches that open out like umbrella spokes. Pollen forms in small yellow ovals (anthers) that release their pollen mid morning after dew has dried from the flowers (between about 9 and 11 am). The centre spike is the first part to release its pollen. Pollen release may only last from 3 to 5 days and the released pollen is only viable for up to 24 hours. (Male flower in photo at left.)
It can help when growing small quantities of sweet corn or popcorn to pollinate it by hand, to ensure that the cobs your plants produce are full of juicy kernels. In nature, silks are rarely pollinated by the same plant.

To ensure good pollination, you need a sheet of A4 paper and a clean, dry, soft paintbrush. Fold the paper in half lengthways and open it out, then fold it in half the opposite way and open it out. This helps the paper to form a shallow well. Or, you can use a small clean shallow tray – something easy to manoeuvre between the plants. Hold the paper under a male flower and gently tap the spike and lower branches of the male flower with the handle of the paint brush. When tassels are ready to be pollinated, plenty of bright yellow pollen will fall onto the paper. Collect some of the pollen on the hairs of the paintbrush and dab it onto all sides and the centre of silk strands of other corn plants. Repeat this process over several days. Once a tassel has been pollinated, the ends of the silk strands will start to turn brown. As the cobs mature, you may have to net your corn crop as birds know when corn is perfect for eating.
Corn anthers won’t release pollen when conditions are too wet or very dry, the plants will wait until conditions are favourable. In areas of Australia that experience long periods of rain, it is best to plan your corn crop to avoid the wet season.

Snake beans

Snake bean vine Snake beans are a good value crop for the vege patch where summers are hot, and French beans may struggle or be attacked by birds. They are prolific croppers over a long period and 4 plants are probably sufficient to supply a family of 4. Ours were still cropping at the beginning of June this year. A popular ingredient in Asian dishes, they can be substituted for French beans in many recipes, and blanched, young beans can be added to salads.

Snake bean pods Snake beans can grow up to half a metre or longer but tend to become a little tough if allowed to grow to this length (i.e. the beans at the bottom of the photo). They are best eaten when 30 cm or so in length while seeds are small, and they are young and tender. Pods grow fast and should be picked every day, or every second day at least, to ensure that they are harvested at their best, and to keep the vines forming new pods.
Snake beans take up very little space in the garden as they are grown on a trellis in soil that has plenty of compost and some organic complete fertiliser added, which should keep the soil pH at an ideal level (6.5–7). In late spring, when soil temperature is at least 15 degrees Celsius, sow seeds in damp soil 1 cm deep and 30 cm apart. Water to settle soil after sowing. Do not water the soil again until seed leaves appear, then water regularly to ensure healthy growth. In tropical areas where summer rainfall is heavy, sow seeds in hills to improve drainage. Seeds germinate quickly, and vines can produce pods in 60 days in very hot weather.
Snake bean ripening Greenpatch Organic Seeds has two varieties of snake bean; one with black seeds that produces pods up to 45 cm and one with brown seeds than produces thin pods to 60 cm.
Allow a couple of pods to mature until they have yellowed and lost their ‘puffiness’ (see photo). Then continue the drying process indoors. De-pod seeds when pods are crisp.

Time to plant spring bulbs

Just a reminder that April is a good time for planting spring-flowering bulbs in most areas. Gardeners in warmer climates can put bulbs into the vegetable crisper of the fridge for a month’s chilling before planting in May.
Add plenty of compost and some complete organic complete fertiliser to the planting area. Nutrients will be absorbed by the plants during the growing season and withdrawn into the bulbs as the foliage dies back to ensure good flowering the following season, so remember not to remove foliage before it becomes brown. Bulbs are normally planted at a depth twice the width of the bulb. In warm climates, plant suitable bulbs up to twice as deep as indicated on the packet. After planting, mulch the area in early morning when the soil is cooler and keep the planted area just damp until growth appears, then water regularly. For moon planters, Full Moon phase is the best time to plant bulbs. This year (2014) the Full Moon occurs on 15th of April and May.

Scallions or Spring onions

True scallions (Allium fistulosum) that originated in the Far East do not form a bulb. Also known in Australia as spring onions or green onions, these onions are a versatile herb that are used as raw or cooked vegetables In some areas they are sold as shallots, however, true shallots (Allium aggregatum) form a light brown bulb. Scallions are harvested as required as they cannot be stored for long periods. Their pencil-thick stems and hollow green leaves provide a mild flavour used raw in salads, or cooked in many Asian dishes. Chinese herbalists value them for various medicinal properties.
Scallions are easy to grow in all climate zones in Australia, and can be ready to harvest in 8 – 10 weeks. Young seedlings respond well in a compost-rich soil and an application of weak, fermented manure tea watered in several days after transplanting.
Seed of green onions does not keep for long and seed collected for sowing next season will produce a vigorous crop as this seed will have come from plants that have adapted to your local soil and climate conditions. Leave several of your green onion plants to produce seed from their globular flower heads (umbrels).
To save seeds from your spring onions, see Spring onions – saving seed

Strawberries – starting new plants

strawbrrs

Vigorous, young strawberry plants produce the best berries. As strawberry cropping slows, plants produce long horizontal stems (runners). Along each runner a small plantlet begins to form and tiny white roots will appear at the base – see photos below. Vigorous runners can produce two or three plantlets along each runner. If you remove mulch from the area under each new plantlet and anchor plantlets to the soil surface by placing a stone on the runner on the parent side of each plantlet, you can produce many new plants for your strawberry patch. Anchoring plantlets in this way allows the crown of the plantlet to sit on the soil surface. (Strawberry crowns will rot if buried.) If your strawberry bed contains plenty of organic matter, all you need to do is give the bed a drink of seaweed extract tea to stimulate root growth and build disease resistance, and keep the soil damp. Otherwise, add a handful of mature compost to the soil surface under each plantlet. Each parent plant will provide nourishment to the new plants until they develop enough roots to grow independently.

strawbrnr1 strawbrnr2

 

 

 

 

 

When plantlets are well established in autumn, the runners connecting them to the parent plant can be cut, and the new plants can be left where they are or transplanted to a new spot.
Tip: While strawberries are still cropping, place a marker beside the plants that produce the best berries and only use the runners from these plants to improve the quality of produce in your strawberry patch.

Seeds that need light

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost seeds germinate in dark, damp conditions and need to be covered with a suitable depth of topsoil. However, some seeds need light for successful germination.
In the vegetable patch, only varieties of lettuce, Cape Gooseberry, Tomatillo and the Asian greens Seakale and Shiso are ‘light responsive’, but a number of herb and flower species also require light for germination. These include: Angelica, Anise, Arnica, Ashwaganda, Caraway, Catnip, Chamomile, Chervil, Dill, Echinacea, Elecampagne, Evening primrose, Feverfew, Gazania, Lady’s Mantle, Lemon Balm, Mignonette, Rosemary, Summer and Winter Savory, Valerian, Watercress, Wormwood and Yarrow.
Sowing seed for these plants can cause difficulties as the seed is merely pressed into the soil surface and require close attention to prevent them drying, resulting in germination failure. Or, they are scattered on the surface of a punnet where they can be easily washed into clumps at the edge of the punnet despite careful watering.

A way to avoid problems with these seeds is to fill a punnet with damp seedling mix and then cover the surface of the punnet with a single layer of gravel or small pebbles. Then sprinkle the seeds sparingly over the gravel and water very gently, being careful not to flood the surface. The gravel provides crevices for the seed to settle while still allowing them to receive light, and also helps to keep the growing mix damp for germinating seeds.

Pumpkin problems

Karen has had disappointing results from her Queensland Blue pumpkin vine which produced pumpkins with very little flesh and she wants to know how to avoid problems in future.

Karen, if the seeds are soft and immature, you may have picked the pumpkins before the ‘fruit’ has fully developed, and pumpkins are fruits although we call them vegetables. However, if the seeds are mature, a common cause of this problem is hunger, and this can occur in several different ways even though you may have thought that the plant was well fertilised.

If soil is not damp, nutrients can’t be absorbed by the roots. If soil pH is too acidic or alkaline plants will go hungry because the soil pH controls which nutrients are available to plants, and pumpkins need a soil pH of 5.5-7 for good growth. Pumpkins vines can produce an enormous amount of foliage – and it is a huge task for the roots at the base of the vine to provide moisture and nutrients through the whole plant. When pumpkin vines are allowed to wander over soft earth, they will usually put down extra roots along the vines to assist with water and nutrient absorption.

You can encourage the formation of extra roots, see Assisting root growth.

Pumpkin flowers are pollinated by bees and occasionally a flower or flowers can be pollinated by pollen from a cattle pumpkin, which usually results in fruits that are tough and pretty tasteless. (If your neighbours are growing cattle pumpkins, you may have to hand-pollinate pumpkin flowers).

I’d advise you not to save any seeds from pumpkins that have little flesh or tough flesh as any vines grown from these seeds will probably produce poor quality crops. Only use seed from your best home produce or purchase seeds from a reputable supplier.

Pumpkins thrive on compost, so make compost through the winter ready for next season’s vines. Turning the heap a couple of times a week will keep you warm, keep the heap aerated, and speed up the composting process. If you live in a cool climate, put some black plastic over the top of the heap to help absorb heat. Use the compost to get your pumpkin vine off to a flying start in a different spot in your garden when soil warms in spring.

Growing potatoes update

A reader has asked if potatoes can be grown in the plastic tubs that are sold by Bunnings, Big W, etc., and I will answer it here as the links may be helpful to other readers.
Yes, Rebecca, they would be suitable if you add plenty of drainage holes and put several centimetres of gravel in the base of the tubs so that the potting mix does not block the drainage holes.
Opaque tubs provide similar conditions to small or medium drums (in that the young plants will be more shaded) and you should use those instructions for the tubs in this post. Basically the seed potatoes need at least 15-20 cm of potting mix underneath them and 15 cm of mix above them. Seed potatoes should be sown/planted 30 cm apart and, if they are the tubs I’m thinking of, you would probably only get one plant per tub as there is not really enough room for tubers of 2 plants to form.
The how and why of ‘hilling-up’ potato plants can be found in this post: Growing potatoes.

Advice on suitable soil conditions for the best results from potatoes can be found in Potato beds.
Also see: Other ways to grow potatoes.