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.

Can I eat these tomatoes or will they make me sick?

February 7, 2009
Posted in Garden


Hanging in there: Sick tomato plant with yellowing curled up leaves and soft stems

My baby Roma tomato plant was covered in clusters of green tomatoes when it succumbed to some or other lurgy. The leaves went all yellowy and curled up and the stems went all soft and droopy, like the plant just didn’t have the energy to hold itself up anymore.

My first thought was to find a way to save all those tomatoes? There were at least 24 of them. And after the resilience displayed by my near-dead lettuces, I decided to see if I could revitalise my tomato plant. I cut off all the diseased-looking leaves (which turned out to be all of them) and trimmed off the bits of stem that didn’t hold any tomatoes and then staked up the stems with tomatoes on them to keep them off the ground.

Then I mixed some kraal manure with a bit of bone meal (these are the only natural fertilisers I know of at this point) and put some generous dollops around the base of the plant. And then I watered it well and waited.

My intervention seemed to pay off because the stems firmed up, but no new shoots appeared. My friend from work, who has turned out to be a fantastic source of information about growing veg, told me I shouldn’t have cut off all the leaves. “How’s the poor plant going to photosynthesize?” she said. I didn’t think of that at the time.

Anyway, despite being leafless, the plant hung in there long enough for most of the tomatoes to turn a pale orangey-red, which I decided was ripe enough to pick and put on my kitchen windowsill to ripen further.

But my main concern was whether the tomatoes would be safe to eat. Would whatever killed the plant be in the fruit and give whoever ate them a stomach ache or worse? Once again, I turned to my friend, who also happens to be a trained nurse, for advice. She assured me that plant diseases do not cross over to humans. So I decided to throw caution to the wind and eat the tomatoes. I am happy to report that I have survived unscathed.

On Wednesday, I pulled the plant up. RIP Roma tomato plant.

How I love self-starters

January 14, 2009
Posted in Garden


Give some plants a chance and they’ll grow like weeds in your garden. Tomatoes are like that, they were my first crop of home-growns and I didn’t even plant them myself, birds did. I’d put some cherry tomatoes on my bird feeder at some point and the next thing I knew I had tomato plants sprawling all over my flowerbeds.

I didn’t know then that I was supposed to stake them up (I was totally clueless about gardening). But the tomatoes were delicious, despite my ignorance, and they made me realise that growing food wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined it would be.

Now every year at around this time (starting in December), I start to find tomato plants growing around my garden. This year I have found 10 plants and all but one have been transplanted into my vegetable patch. For the first day or so after I moved them they looked a bit droopy and out of sorts but I watered them well every evening and now they’re fine.

I’ve got a variety of different types: cherries, little baby Rosas and the standard slicing kind that are called English tomatoes in my local supermarket, plus a couple that I don’t know because they haven’t produced any tomatoes yet. Cherries are still my favourite because you get lots of tomatoes on one plant. I also planted a few Roma tomato seeds a fortnight ago because they make such delicious tomato sauce for pastas.

One thing I have learnt is that it is better to stake up tomato plants or the fruits will lie on the ground and get chewed by all kinds of creepy crawlies and they can get a bit grubby and deformed-looking.

Another thing I’ve learned is that even though they produce huge, heavy fruits, tomato vines are surprisingly fragile. If you let a plant grow too big and bushy before you try to stake it up you may find that the vines break easily when you try to bend them to your will. You have to be very gentle with them and they tend to give off a sharp, herby smell when you handle them.

Some of my plants had already started sprawling outwards before I decided to stake them up, so I put the dowl sticks where the branches could reach comfortably and I suppose it looks a bit untidy, but the tomatoes are off the ground, which is the main thing.

sprawling tomato staked according to where the branches would comfortably reach

I used plastic pull ties – which you can buy for about R15 in a bag of about 50 – to tie the plant to the stick. They’re really easy to use, but you just have to be careful not to pull them too tight, because you can’t loosen them again, you have to cut them off and start over.

With the really small plants I’m trying out using a kind of tepee shape made of three dowl sticks that I saw in a book and hopefully they’ll grow up the sticks and look all neat and tidy. I’ll see whether I can get it to work.

tomato in a dowl-stick tepee