My “stick it in the ground and see what happens” style of growing vegetables has been surprisingly successful. Since I started in late November, I’ve grown green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, chillies, beetroot, cucumbers and broccoli.
The cucumber and broccoli I’m particularly proud of because I had no idea what to expect. Thanks to a misleading picture in a gardening book, I thought cucumbers grew on small trees. Happily, I’m a little less ignorant now.
It hasn’t all been blissfully easy, though. I’ve had to admit defeat with a few of the things I planted. For months I watched my watermelon and butternut plants form tiny baby fruits that just shrivelled and died. I tried to fortify the plants with worm tea and seaweed fertiliser, and great dollops of compost, but eventually their leaves developed a patina of grey fungus and I had to pull them up. A Malawian former subsistence farmer I know said that I had planted them too late – I should have done it in early October, not late November.
I’m amazed that two months would make such a difference. It’s a lesson in that seasonal food thing and, I suppose, that’s the way of nature: it just wasn’t their time. I’ll try planting them again in October this year and see what happens.
I lost the battle with the aphids on my beans as well. At first I could keep them under control by spraying them with a hose pipe, but the infestation got progressively worse. Spraying them with a mixture of dishwashing liquid and water helped for a short while (thank you to the people who suggested this), but then I think the plant just got old and tired and the aphids took over. I decided euthanasia was the kindest option – and I didn’t want the aphids to spread to other parts of the garden. Once again, it’s the seasonal thing – plants seem to become more susceptible to pests at the end of their growing season.
Then there’s the weather. My tomato plants were doing fabulously until the weather turned unusually British for a while in the middle of summer. The leaves turned yellow and blotchy. I frantically thumbed through gardening books to see if I could identify what was wrong. Like a hypochondriac reading a medical text book, I worried that I had a dread disease like potato blight and that I’d have to dig up everything and burn it all. Then a colourful fly-type thing started to lay eggs in my nearly ripe tomatoes. One morning, I watched a tiny white larvae, which must have been the fly’s progeny, crawl out of a tomato and fling itself onto my beetroot. Then little, red insects flew in en masse and ate great holes in my tomatoes. That was when I conceded defeat.
Probably the most useful factoid I read in my books, though, is that tomatoes don’t like getting their leaves wet, it apparently encourages fungus, so you have to water them from below. I’m beginning to believe that maybe it was the fortnight or so of drizzle and sunlessness that did them in. Even the man at my local nursery blamed the weather. “The plants don’t know if they’re coming or going,” he said when I asked him for advice on a magic potion that could cure my tomatoes. There was nothing to be done but start again. And, interestingly, the new plants that have grown up since that bad patch of weather all seem to be fine. I’m already getting a new crop of cherry tomatoes. And, so far, there are no insects.
But I’m waiting to see how long these new plants will last now the weather is getting colder and drier. I know now that there’s only so much you can learn about growing vegetables from a book. The only way to learn is to stick it in the ground and see what happens. It’s all about trial and error and, most of all, patience.
So if anybody reads this and knows (from their own trials and errors) what you can plant in Joburg in April and May. Please let me know.