Variety – our tomatoes and courgettes

We’ve been wondering about the behaviour of our tomatoes and our courgettes, both of which are now doing well in the sun, but have particular, intriguing characteristics which have puzzled us. I’ve checked up on the varieties we’re growing to see if we can solve the puzzles.


We have four tomatoes: two ‘Maskotka’ and a ‘Vilma’ in a grow bag, and a ‘Vilma’ in a 30cm pot. The Maskotka seeds we got free at the time of Big Dig Day, and the ‘Vilma’ I bought back in the dark days of February, and I have forgotten why.

All four plants are bushy, happy and producing lots of tomatoes, but most significantly not growing upwards. Do we need to do the usual pinching out of side shoots and staking? Looks unlikely: it turns out we’re growing special container varieties.


The Thompson & Morgan site gives this description: “Specially bred for growing in containers, Tomato ‘Vilma’ is a compact bush variety reaching 60cm (24″) tall. This compact plant produces a heavy crop of sweet and juicy, cherry tomatoes each weighing 20g (0.7oz) over a long picking period. Tomato ‘Vilma’ is easy to grow in the greenhouse or outdoors and will not require side shooting or training. Height and spread: 60cm (24″).”


“A dwarf bush variety that has been specially bred for growing in baskets and containers, with cascading stems that fall gently over the sides of their pots. Tomato ‘Maskotka’ produces a heavy crop of bite sized cherry tomatoes weighing 25-35g (1-1¼oz) each, with a delicious sweet flavour. The fruits of this compact variety have good resistance to cracking whether they are grown under glass or outdoors.”

Courgettes: ‘Gold Rush’ = gold leaves?

We’re growing two types of courgette: ‘Gold Rush’ and ‘Black Forest’. Both have quite idiosyncratic characteristics. Both seem to be growing well now and both are producing courgette-lets. ‘Gold Rush’ has yellow fruits … and all our plants, both in the station garden and in my garden, have some bright yellow leaves. Funnily enough, they look healthy. There’s new growth and no sign of wilting or browning. It’s curious that in my garden, the ‘Gold Rush’ are growing alongside green courgettes, which don’t seem to have the yellow leaf problem.

Hmm … is this a mineral deficiency (magnesium? potassium?) or is it a characteristic of the plant? A quick flick through various web forums suggests that many other gardeners have this same ‘problem’. In both cases, the beds were manured in the autumn, so mineral deficiency seems a little unlikely. It may be a problem of take-up: something is stopping the plants taking up the nutrients in the soil.

The solution seems to be: 1) try tomato feed to increase potassium (we’ve started, but this could in fact be the problem) and 2) try a foliar feed of Epsom salts. This is used to promote more balanced take-up of magnesium, which can be compromised when plants are given potassium-rich feeds.

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The art and science of watering

It’s suddenly got hot. Temperatures have now been going over 20C for about 10 days. The French beans and the courgettes have perked up. But we haven’t had much rain for about 10 days. On Tuesday, our four water butts ran dry.

We’ve had to fill them up from the mains with a hose pipe trailed from Madeleine’s house. We took advantage of this arrangement to try to give both gardens a good soak. The shady garden also needed a shower to rid leaves of the horrible sticky sap dripping from the overhanging sycamore trees. This led to much discussion about what ‘a good soak’ or ‘proper watering’ is, and where the water should be directed. Here’s the long and short of it.


We often give too little water to each plant. A useful rule of thumb says ‘slowly count to 10when watering any plant. A passing spray is no use at all, and can be positively risky for the plant (see below). Shallow watering encourages roots to grow only on the surface of the soil, which will weaken the plant’s ability to withstand wind and limit its ability to find moisture and nutrients. So a ‘good soak’ regularly, rather than little and often.  Use the finger test: if the soil feels dry at the end of your finger when you press it into the soil, then it needs watering thoroughly.

Can we be more scientific on how much water a garden needs? Some websites suggest 1 inch per week; 60 gallons (that’s around 30 watering cans) for a 100 square foot/11-12 square metre garden.

When?                  EARLY MORNING

Obviously, for watering to be most efficient, it needs to be done when evaporation is least:  early morning or late afternoon. It looks like early morning is the best time, for two reasons: 1) damp conditions at night attract slugs and snails, and 2) damp foliage can promote the development of fungal diseases, so leaves should have time to dry off before night fall.

Where?               ROOTS NOT LEAVES

It’s the roots that need the water, not the leaves. Water needs to go into the soil with as little splashing onto the leaves as possible. Splashing increases the risk of water-borne pathogens in the soil infecting the plants; and again, damp foliage can be susceptible to fungal disease.

How?                    GENTLY

A dripping hose – i.e. a hose pipe with small holes in it – is probably ideal: water gradually drips into the soil over an extended period of time. But for us, that’s not really possible. Things to bear in mind are: 1) over-energetic watering, for example with a high-pressure hose setting or strong stream from a watering can, can badly  damage plant roots. On the other hand, 2) spray can be ineffective and if it splashes up from the soil, can promote infection. So regular and gentle, not disturbing the roots.

What to do with very dry soil

When soil dries out, it loses its ability to absorb water, thus compounding the problem of drought. Organic matter absorbs water so is crucial to the water-holding capacity of the soil. That’s why we incorporate compost, manure etc. And of course, mulches on the surface of the soil prevent evaporation.

If soil does dry out, it becomes rather like concrete and dust, and plants won’t be able to access anything from it. The best thing to do is to gently water with a fine rose and then return about 30 minutes later to water more thoroughly. The initial watering helps the soil to absorb water. Pots need to be placed in a container of water until bubbles appear on the surface.

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Shady summer colours

shady triangle 11.6.13We’ve not paid the shady triangle a lot of attention so far this year. It’s coming into its own with lush green growth everwhere: the fatsia japonica is huge, the ferns are growing up high again, we had to cut back lamiums and green heuchera, and the clematis plants are growing strongly up our hazelwood pyramid.

It feels, though, like rather a lot of green. We’ve tried to encourage the bronzey-red heuchera, the purple aquilegia, but more recently, the foxglove, the antirrhinums from last year and the dusky pink ones we bought for this year have provided a bit of colour. Purples and dusky pinks seem to suit this area of almost full shade.

snap dragons 11.6.13

snap dragons 2 11.6.13

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Season’s successes so far

The successes so far have mainly been salads and other leaves. We’ve been harvesting rocket and lettuce regularly, and our cavalo nero is growing beautifully with edible bouquets being picked each Tuesday. The Unwins’ mixed lettuce leaves and rocket, seeds which we received free from Harvest, have given excellent crops.

Mad carrotsAs for our experimental carrot crop this season, hmm … I’m not sure. The carrots in planters put on magnificent green plumage, and though the resulting roots are quite fat and tasty, they are very mis-shapen and require a lot of cleaning. I added some to a Vietnamese-style soup today. Nice bright colour, but not sure they are the most worthwhile use of our limited space.

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Stanford Ave Community garden launch

Kids at Stanford Stanford 2 Stanford 3 Stanford 4 Stanford 5 Stanford 6 StanfordStanford Avenue Community garden had its official launch on Friday. Leeks, broccoli, a raspberry cane, strawberries and herbs from London Road Station will find a happy new home about half a mile up the road in this new community-run plot at the bottom of Stanford Avenue and Cleveland Terrace. Four of us went up to the launch, linked up with old friends and new, and wished the plot well!

Today, Sunday, the large raised bed was well-watered, and even more plants had been planted. It was great to see so many children on Friday really committed to helping the plants grow. I shall keep an eye on Aidan’s onion seeds when I pass by. All the very best to Stanford Avenue Community garden, and happy growing!


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The irony of neglect

Image2698It keeps happening: just as I am trying to nurture a new plant, nature laughs in my face and produces a fine specimen in a neglected area. It’s actually quite reassuring – it puts us in our place.

It happened yesterday. We have been trying to grow coriander as many of us love this herb. We succeeded in germinating seeds and our seedlings have slowly grown. I potted on the largest at the weekend, having carefully researched the required growing conditions for coriander: deep pot, rich soil, some shade, not too wet. The three seedlings still look rather weedy. The other seedlings in 8cm pots have stopped growing.

corianderAs we weeded the tree pits where we have planted pansies, we came across a thriving coriander seedling, far bigger than the ones carefully cossetted in the greenhouse. It’s hard to see in the photo, but it’s definitely there and wonderfully pungent.

How did it get there? Quite possibly in our compost. All kinds of things have appeared after we’ve mulched with last year’s compost: tomatoes, cucumbers, chard … Or perhaps we emptied old seed trays here when we planted the pansies? Or perhaps seeds blew in when we were planting seeds in April? Who knows? At all events, we marvelled …

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Stuff I’ve learned

As the growing season has suddenly come upon us, I’ve been doing a bit of reading up and reflecting on some gardening conundrums.


John Harrison, in his wonderful Essential Allotment Guide writes about soil thus:

‘Your soil is made up of rocks and rock dust mixed with organic matter that we call humus [which] holds everything together and at the same time stops the rock dust from setting into a solid, cement-like mass‘.

This makes so much sense, as I despair at my garden soil which looks like  rocks (bits of chalk and flint) and rock dust set into cement. Not enough hummus … The station garden has been blessed with hummus rich soil as we’ve built it up from scratch in raised beds. Very little of our underlying chalk rocks and rock dust have gone into it.

Top or bottom watering?

Why, I was wondering, are our seedlings showing slight signs of nutritional deficiency? The tiny seedlings were planted up in early May in 7cm pots in a mix of peat-free multipurpose compost and vermiculite. When we’ve been planting them out now, I’ve noticed how the roots only show as a tangle at the bottom of the pot. They have been getting pot bound.

Eureka moment: we’ve done so much watering from the bottom, i.e. having the pots sit in water, so the roots have gone straight to the bottom. This may be a good thing, as once the plant is planted out, the roots should run deep. But it does seem to have meant that they ‘exhaust’ the 8cm pot more quickly than if watering had been done consistently from the top. Now I’m not entirely sure this is a plausible hypothesis; will probably need to check with a real horticulturalist … perhaps via the RHS advisory service we so far haven’t used?

Growing coriander

Many of us at the garden love coriander, but all of us have failed to grow viable quantities in the past. I know that coriander likes rich soil, and that to avoid it going to seed, it is useful to place it in partial shade.

Here’s a good summary from a US site, which confirms coriander that is not easy to grow:

Cilantro [Coriander] is tricky because several factors can cause it to bolt. Avoid transplanting for this reason, and avoid hot conditions as well as too much moisture. It does best in light, well-drained soil in partial shade, in relatively dry conditions. Once it blooms, the seeds ripen suddenly, in only a couple of days, so care should be taken to prevent self sowing or simply losing those useful seeds.”

What I hadn’t realised is that, of course, it has a long tap root, so it needs to be grown in deep soil. I’ve always tried growing it in a pot so I suspect the pots weren’t deep enough.

So I’m out now to plant out our coriander seedlings in a ceramic glazed pot 35cm deep (is this enough?) with a mixture of general purpose peat-free compost and our recycled organic matter mulch (should be rich enough). I’ll place the pot by the wall so it gets some shade. And assuming it grows well, we then have to be careful to remove any flowers.

We’ll see what happens …

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