Articles Posted in the Garden category

With veg, timing is everything

April 17, 2009
Posted in Garden

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.


Skin surprise: I grew two types of cucumber, both of which had spiky skins, completely unlike the kind you buy in supermarkets. The spikes washed off easily. I peeled them before eating and they tasted exactly like ... well, cucumbers.

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.


Infant mortality: My butternut plant grew many tiny baby butternuts like this one, but once the flower dropped off, the baby butternuts turned yellow and then shrivelled up

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.


Beautiful stranger: I watched this fly-thingy with fascination as it poked a little spike at the back of its abdomen into my tomatoes. I tried to shoo it away but it kept coming back. It must have been laying eggs, because later white larvae crawled out of the tomato.

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.

Aphids, ants and me

January 20, 2009
Posted in Garden

Aphids and an ant on a bean plant

A herd of aphids and an ant on a bean plant

Freshly picked beans taste different from those you buy in the supermarket, even organic ones. They’re sweet and have a less fibrous texture so they’re absolutely delicious raw.

Both my gardening books say that green beans are easy to grow, and until recently I would have agreed with them wholeheartedly. Once they start to produce, beans just seem to go on and on, every morning you can go out and pick a handful, it’s very gratifying. It’s also easy to tell when they’re ready to be picked (the same cannot be said for onions, potatoes and butternuts).

There is a catch, though: they attract aphids, tiny little black insects that accumulate along the stems, under the leaves, in fact, all over the place. They collect in clumps that look like crusty black scabs. I came back from holiday, took one look at my beans and panicked.

I immediately consulted the internet for organic aphid-control methods and found do-it-yourself recipes that involved things like crushed raw garlic and “soft soap” – which, according to the Soil Association, contains fatty acid potassium salt, which is derived from bone material and palm oil.

So off I went to the nursery to find some of this soft soap, but I ended up getting Ludwig’s Organic Insecticide (made by Kirchhoffs, R69,95) because the guy at the nursery said it’s much easier than trying to make my own spray, and it’s authorised for use in organic agriculture by Ecocert. It contains canola oil, which is said to “kill small bodied insects on contact by means of suffocation”, pyrethrum which can kill larger bodied insects (and aren’t mosquito coils made of it?) and garlic because this apparently puts insects off from landing on the plants. Boy, does it contain garlic, enough to make your eyes water.

Anyway, a word of advice to anyone who decides to spray aphids. Wear rubber gloves, wrap old tea towels around your wrists to stop the stuff from running down your arms; stand upwind when you spray; and start from the bottom of the plants and work upwards. You have to spray the insecticide directly onto the insects and, because the little buggers hide under the leaves and in hard to reach bits, it’s a messy business. If you have a lot of them like I did, it’s also not a quick job.

The stuff worked, though, the aphids seemed to shrivel up and some, but not all of them, dropped off. But a week later I noticed ants running up and down the bean plants, so I took a closer look and found that the aphids had returned.

Apparently ants “farm” aphids, moving them to “tender spots” on a plant and milking them for honeydew. As charming as this little ant ecosystem may seem in theory, beans with aphids on them aren’t very appetising.

I don’t really want to get into a situation where I have to spray insecticide once a week and I don’t want to put off  bees and ladybirds from visiting my plants. The books say that ladybirds eat aphids so they are a useful natural control method – alas I have seen only one ladybird on my beans so far.

For the past three days I have been following the advice of the organic gardening book I got for Christmas which says: “Use the jet from a garden hose to knock aphids and other pests off plants: some may return but many will not”. After all, it says, the aim of organic gardening is to control pests not eliminate them and the spraying of pesticides should be a last resort. (Organic Garden Basics, by Bob Flowerdew, Hamlyn, London, 2008)

A strong jet of water applied directly does seem to knock them off the plant, but the aphids and their little ant farmers recover quickly – you can knock them off in the evening and by the morning they’ll be back again – so you have to keep watch for them and not let them get the better of you.

I think I’m managing to keep one step ahead, but it’s been only three days, so I’m not ruling out the possibility of having to spray again.