Grow veg

The allotment – growing veg in a challenging year

First there was a cold, dry April then a cold, wet, thundery and windy May. This year could hardly be more different from the last. If you’ve recently taken up growing veg, or you’ve got quite a short memory, you might be reeling from the difference in the two spring seasons and wondering whether anything will grow. And if it does grow, who will get to eat it – you or the molluscs?

The weather looks like it’s going to improve but in the meantime here are some tips to help you cope practically and to help you stay motivated at a time when it can seem like the fates are conspiring against you growing anything.

First of all, a confession and some sobering photos from my allotment. April was so dry that my soil was almost weed free. A little light hoeing was enough to keep the soil clear and, if I hadn’t been doing this for a long time, I would have been fooled into thinking I was really on top of things.

Then May came, and with it an initially welcome switch to rain. So as I mentioned in my previous blog, I finally got sowing my root veg, knowing that the soil should be kept moist and the seeds would germinate. I also planted some peas and potatoes. Then I went on holiday for a week and it rained quite a lot. By the time I got back and went down to the allotment the weeds had germinated and grown fast. My formerly clear soil was now covered in unwelcome growth. My strawberry bed, where I’ve been fighting a couch grass takeover for a while, looked like a lawn with a few strawberry flowers in it.

Hoe, Hoe Hoe

It can be dispiriting to see weeds germinate like this especially when it happens before you’ve even planted anything. So what can you do to stop it happening?

I often keep mypex on beds that I’m not planning to plant for a while. The downside is that the weeds will usually germinate as soon as you uncover it and plant into it. So sometimes its best to let the first flush of germination happen and just hoe off what comes up. You can also avoid it to some extent by covering your soil with a layer of mulch as you do if you’re using the no dig method. I mulched these beds between autumn and winter with compost and even put cardboard down under the mulch to try to stop the weeds coming up, but as you can see, while that kept the beds pretty clear during the winter it hasn’t prevented spring weeds germinating. If I’d mulched again in spring, its unlikely they would have been this bad.

Hoe often: The real trick is to get on top and stay on top of the weeding. Not easy if you go on holiday at just the wrong time, but it really would have made a difference if I’d got my hoe onto these weeds when they were still small. If you see an allotment plot that’s remarkably free of weeds, you can pretty much bet that person visits the allotment more often than you and runs a hoe over the soil more regularly, especially at this time of year when weeds are germinating and growing super fast.

Plant into the soil – in a better year I would have more things growing in May and with luck they’d be growing well and creating leaf cover that would help block out light to any unwanted seeds. Potatoes make the best ground cover. See below.

The good news is that it wasn’t just the weeds that had visibly grown when I got back. The potatoes, originally planted with the shoots completely under the soil, had shot up even faster the mare’s tail. The peas, not nibbled by pea weevils as I’d feared they might be, had filled out and grown several inches. My root veg is coming up, too. So there’s enough positive news to keep my spirits up. I hope you’ve been able to get your veg in the ground and it’s growing well.

A slow start and keeping the slugs at bay

The continuing chilly weather has put everything I’ve grown from seed two to three weeks behind where I’d normally expect to be at this time of year. It’s frustrating, but with many plants I’m just going to have to be patient and wait until they better root systems and more leafy growth before I put them out. If I plant before they’re ready I know the odds on them surviving and thriving will be much lower than if I wait and I know it won’t be much longer now.

However, some of my brassicas were ready to go out last week. All this rain is perfect for slugs and snails so when you plant you need to provide some protection. I have to confess I still use slug pellets very occasionally, though always the ones that contain ferric phosphate which is said to be much safer than metaldehyde, which is now banned. I’m not entirely convinced its safe, though so I prefer to use other things such as Strulch- a mineralised straw mulch which molluscs really don’t like, and wool pellets as you see here. Sprinkle them round the plants (not touching the stems) and water them if you aren’t expecting rain. When wet they fluff up and form a mat (you can see this in the second picture of the peas). They worked really well last year but it was dry through those crucial months when the plants grew large enough to be less vulnerable. I’ll be interested to see how well they do this year.

This might also be a good time to think about the many other substances that are often suggested as physical barriers to slugs and snails such as broken eggshells, coffee grounds etc. In my old job we used to test a lot of these ideas and once ran a very comprehensive test of physical slug deterrents. Without giving away any secret information I can tell you that almost none of them worked at all, apart from wool pellets that is!

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