Garden Update I am making some progress in the garden this week with a few tips coming to mind which hopefully you will find helpful.
The first tip I have is get a tractor! Readers from last Autumn may remember I ended up buying an old tractor just for fun but it turns out to be the handiest thing I ever bought. Last weekend it again found service transporting topsoil into the polytunnel and filling some new raised beds, the operation still took some time but if I was using a wheelbarrow I would still be at it now.
Since we moved our nursery operations out of my garden I have been left with an enormous 30m long polytunnel where we used to grow our vegetable seedlings. So far it's been used as a store for various 'things' but this year I will be slowly filling it with beds and building an indoor garden.
The soil I had outside was of middling quality so I used it to half fill the beds before topping off with the good stuff. If soil comes from a weedy patch of ground (it did in my case) you are better off covering it, otherwise a load of weed seeds will germinate through your new crops.
Also, the feeding roots of most crops are close to the surface so it makes no sense to bury nutrients out of reach. In my case I layered some better quality soil over lower grade stuff before finishing with a layer of well rotted manure and envirogrind (fish and green waste compost). I them mixed the top layers with a fork to create a an even mix for sowing or planting.
As you can see I ended up with nice chocolatey colour soil in the end which was reasonably free of stones and roots and ready to sow or plant. It isn't quite warm enough to put in my tomatoes and I have only just sowed melons, cucumbers and courgettes so I am planting around the edges with salads and some baby beets (pictured above) while I wait for the big stuff to go in.
Planting distances are important and are one of the most common mistakes beginners make so it's worth looking it up and measuring it out. Remember that the size of the seedling plant bears no relation to the size of the mature vegetable so unless you know what you're doing, planting by eye doesn't cut it. A Brussel's sprout seedling is the same size as a beetroot yet the beet needs only 10cm between plants while the sprout needs 90!
Using a tape measure is a pain (and you end up ruining it) so I find it handy to cut a stick (in this case an old wooden kebab skewer) to the required size. Baby beets need 10cm between plants and 20cm between rows so I cut a 20cm stick for row space and put a mark in the middle for planting distance and away I went.
The spacing stick also comes in handy for helping to push seedling plug plants out of their trays so all in all, a worthwhile little tool.
The photo above must be from 6 or 7 years ago as that innocent looking little fella (Thomas) is now an accomplished drummer with a deep voice and load of attitude.
Here we see him here as a little sprout himself demonstrating the correct planting technique of pushing the soil in around the seedling as he's planting. This is important as it creates a good seal and allows the plant to take up moisture easily. As he well knew, loosely planted seedlings with large air pockets in the soil are more prone to drying out.
Planting French beans This photo shows some lettuce seedlings getting settled in and a pack of climbing French beans 'Cobra' looking very happy in their Rootrainer modules. As I think I mentioned before rootrainers are great for peas and beans as they can accommodate their deep, fast growing roots.
Unlike broad beans which are very hardy, French beans need a warm and sheltered site to grow well. My Northerly garden is not suitable so I am planting mine in my new polytunnel beds where I know they will do well. The seedlings in the photo were sown at the end of March for indoor planting. If you are lucky enough to have a warm garden you can sow indoors in mid May for planting out later or sow late May directly into the ground.
If you have a warm Southerly garden but don't have great shelter you may be better off with low growing dwarf varieties like 'Purple Teepee' or 'Safari' which still give very good yields.
Be aware that climbing beans form a dense wall of foliage so cast a lot of shade. A single row up the centre of the bed is best with groups 4-5 plants placed 30cm apart; you can still use the sides of the beds for planting but remember to put shade tolerant plants like lettuce or annual spinach on the North or more shaded side.
You can grow up canes or twine, in this case I am using twine fixed to the tunnel hoops above. The reason I am using the blue plastic twine, BTW, instead of a more eco friendly jute is that natural string tends to rot in the humid atmosphere of the tunnel and can easily snap.
To train beans up a length of twine, tie one end to your support above and then bury the other end under the plant. I'm putting in the first of 4 bean plants above which I am planting above the twine, as they grow they will coil around the support and each other to form a dense beanstalk.
As I said earlier, I have mixed in plenty of well rotted manure and compost into the soil, this will be needed as beans require a fertile soil to produce their characteristic heavy crop. If my soil wasn't pre-prepared I would work in 2 or 3 handfuls of our 'Seafeed' organic poultry manure and seaweed around the planting hole (naturally available from yours truly).
As regards looking after beans grown indoors, regular watering is important to ensure a good yield. You are also better of watering the soil rather than the foliage which helps avoid fungal disease. When the plants reach the top of their supports or at around 6ft you can pinch out the growing tips at the top of the plant which lets them put all their energy into producing delicious beans.
French beans grown indoors should be ready to pick from June onwards and will produce very high yields if picked regularly. Beans are best picked once or twice a week while still tender; the more you pick, the more the plant will produce. If beans are left to swell and ripen the bean plant will likely stop flowering (and therefore producing more beans) and your yield will be significantly reduced.
That's about it for this week, here's a slightly out of focus photo of tulip 'Mamma Mia' (I think) which is currently livening up the beds outside my kitchen.