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Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of my favourite foods so I grow as many as I can fit in my garden and choose varieties for their flavour, use and season and I make sure of a good crop by really taking care of them. As with most plants if you give them a good start and the best growing conditions you will be rewarded with better crops and stronger plants that need less care in the long run.

Choosing Tomato varieties
My favourite eating tomato is still Noir de Crimee, a black Russian heirloom; odd shape, odd colour but fantastic taste. Cherry tomatoes are a must for me as they are great to graze on while pottering around the garden. Next I make sure I have plenty of tomatoes for preserving, some varieties being better than others, the best I’ve tried so far are San Marzano and Roma for paste and sauces see the page on best preserving tomatoes. The other thing to consider is the length of the season. Some tomatoes bear fruit more quickly than others and are normally described by the number of days from planting out to first fruit ripening i.e. Early 55-70 days, Mid-Season 70-85 days and Late beyond 85 days. Next is variety of flavour and colour which makes for wonderful mixed tomato salads so it is nice to grow a few mild white tomatoes, acidic green ones and puunchy orange ones.

The first thing about tomatoes is that they need plenty of nutrients to produce all those lovely fruits, but the nutrients need to be added as they grow, if you put too much in at the beginning they are more likely to have too much leaf growth at the expense of fruit.

Soil Preparation
Tomatoes need a constant medium level of moisture. Too dry, too wet or too much fluctuation often causes blossom end rot resulting in unusable tom

atoes. Prepare the soil where the tomatoes are to be grown either by preparing planting holes, troughs or the entire bed. I prefer to prepare troughs as this helps to direct the most nutrients and moisture to the roots and it makes it easier to water when needed. Dig a long ditch 2 spades deep and 1 spade wide. Put a layer of chopped comfrey leaves on the bottom and half fill with  a mixture of well rotten compost and manure 9 parts compost to one part manure and water heavily to fill the trough.

Tomato-Spacing 390.jpg

Planting depth
Plant the tomatoes in the bottom of the trough, as deep as you can, right up to the first set of true leaves, remove the remaining baby leaves. Roots will grow from th

e stalks giving the plant more stability and ability to draw more moisture and nutrients from the soil cover with dry soil but leave sides to the trough. This will help protect the young plants from wind and help direct water to the plants.

Spacing and Staking
Tomatoes need a fare bit of space as they don’t like to be crowded. It depends on how you plan to grow the tomatoes as to what distance apart they should by anything from 40-75cm apart works. I normally set out at around 50cm apart and grow them as cordons, that is straight up a pole with one main stem or sometimes two depending on how vigorous the variety. Cordon tomatoes need to be staked, I use 2 meter metal, chestnut, or cane poles with a cross brace on windy sites. Tie in the plants as they grow so that the tops are firmly but gently attached to the poles.

Top Dressing
Once the tomatoes are in place add a top dressing of organic soil enhancer such as seaweed meal or well rotted manure. The dressing will gradually be brought down into the soil by water and the soluble nutrients can then be drawn up by the plant as it grows.

Applying a mulch, a top cover, over the ground around the tomatoes will help protect the soil and plants and conserve the moisture level in the soil. For more details on mulching read Using Mulches

Pinching out
Intermediate tomatoes have a habit of growing into bushes which produce a lot of leaf and plant growth but less fruit. In order to concentrate the plants energy on the fruit it helps to pinch out the side shoots. That is the little sprouts that form between the main stems and a leaf branch. Pinch these out with your fingers when they are less than 12cm. If you have missed a few and they have got bigger cut them off with clippers or a knife so as not to tear the plant.

Liquid Feed
Tomatoes benefit from a liquid feed, applied every 2 weeks, once the fruit start to form. You can buy ready made preparations but why not make you own. For more details on liquid feeds read Making Organic Liquid Fertilisers

Gardener’s Tip

Russian Comfrey is one of the most versatile plants for the organic kitchen gardener as it is a fantastic natural source of potash-rich organic material and liquid feed. It’s many uses include; compost activator, liquid feed, potting mix, soil enhancer, mulch and bee attractant.

The real value of comfrey lies in its composition. The roots bring up potassium, phosphate and other minerals from deep in the ground to the leaves which are also high in nitrogen. Comfrey has 2-3 times more potassium than animal manure, which makes it especially good for the production of flowers, fruits and seeds.

Beware Russian Comfrey  (Symphytum x uplandicum) is quite a different plant from Wild Comfrey. (Symphytum asperum). Russian Comfrey is a hybrid and is sterile so does not freely seed. Wild Comfrey seeds madly and can be a real nuisance, we had some growing in our garden in England and I could not get rid of it.


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Planting Leeks

I thought I’d share my method of leek planting as I do find it fascinating. It is the classic technique that many of the old timers advocate but more modern gardeners seem to shun. I personally think it works a treat and is particularly good for dry conditions.

When I was a kid my dad used to grow whopping leeks for the show bench. As one of those mad exhibition vegetable growers, his process for growing leeks was finely tuned, if not obsessive. His leeks were planted on long raised beds stacked with manure and earthed up to blanch the stems. I can remember him out in the garden with a tape measuring the girth of his leeks. I just grow leeks for eating, so no fancy treatment here. Apart from planting out and watering no further attention is required until harvest.

The best time to plant winter leeks in my garden is late summer, depending on the weather. If it is too hot and dry I’ll leave it until later, even as late as the end of October.  Leeks are best started in a seed bed and planted out when about the thicknesss shown below. In France it is common place for gardeners to buy baby leeks at this stage rather than go to the trouble of raising the seedlings themselves.


Carefully dig up the young leeks and put straight into a bucket of water, keep them like this until you are ready ready to pant, which you need to do within a day or two. Take the seedling leeks and cut the roots back to 3 or 4cm, then I cut the tops off just above the smallest inside leaf. It may seem a bit harsh on the plant but it really does work for seedling alliums. The reason for doing this is to reduce any damaged or unnecessary plant material so that the roots are not supporting what they don’t need.  Reducing the roots is optional but I find that it does help the leeks to re-establish and it cuts back roots which may have been damaged when the seedlings were pulled up. It also makes the seedlings more manageable, getting huge long roots into the planting hole is difficult, roots can get congested or damaged. This method allows the roots room to start again and water to be taken up more readily on planting. It is an old technique used in the UK and more commonly in France when planting anything out in summer, even lettuces get this treatment, which I do find a bit barbaric and my observation is that they never quite recover from it. Lettuces are much better plug sown and planted out without too much disturbance. Anyway I digress. Leeks do seem to like this treatment so I carry on doing it.


  1. Clear any weeds from the planting area. In this case I am using land that had corn and pumpkins on previously so it was heavily manured earlier in the year.
  2. Hoe the top 6-10cm of soil to loosen and work in a little bonemeal and woodashes or not previously manured.
  3. Mark a line for the row of leeks and with a knife or trowel dig a planting hole about 10cm deep, at intervals of 20 to 30cm. Spacing will depend on the variety or how big you want the leeks to grow.
  4. Drop each baby leek into a hole and water well. In dry weather water the holes before putting the leeks in, as well as after.

Note There is no need to push the soil back in around the leek. The roots are safely at the bottom of the hole and the hole has been filled with water. Gradually the hole will fill with soil and or the leek expand to fill the hole. Either way you get a nice blanched stem and a leek with plenty of water directed to the roots.


Water well every few days making sure each hole gets filled for the first couple of weeks until the roots get a chance to establish then water as normal once a week or so.

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Spring Transition Undercover

As spring approaches it is time to clear the old crops and make way for the new, sowing starts undercover, in my case in the polytunnel, a 50ft double-height plastic tunnel built into a drystone wall on a south facing terrace below the potager.

The plant debris and weeds are first cleared and the earth lightly worked to lighten the top soil, incorporating seaweed manure and bonemeal.  For areas that are not to be planted now I cover the soil with leaves, grass cuttings and best of all chopped nettles. This protects the soil and keeps it in great condition ready for sowing later.
The first of the heat loving summer crops are planted directly in the tunnel in mid-March. For the beans I prepare long bean trenches filled with rotted garden compost. Tradition in these parts is to sow the first Haricot of the year on St. Josephs day undercover. This year I sowed a dwarf French bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) Tendergreen from Thomas Etty and behind that the exotic climbing Long Bean (Vigna unguiculata sesquipedalis) also known as snake bean, yard long or asparagus bean a wonderful bean that grows to 60cm or more in length. I’ve grown it every year since I got the tunnel and maintain the seeds.  Also sown direct into the tunnel in mid march are the cucurbits; courgettes, cucumbers and other gourds. I am careful to make sure only one variety from each sub family of the cucrbits and legumes are sown in the tunnel so that I will be able to collect seed without danger of crossing.

So this year in the tunnel I sowed Cucumber (Cucumis sativus) Burpless Tasty Green, an unusual Hairy Cucumber (Cucucmis Melo) Bari distinct from a regular cucumber in that it is botanically a melon. Achoca (Cyclanthera pedata) Fat Baby this is a small spiny cucumber like gourd that grows to form a hollow shell which is delicious stuffed. A courgette, (cucurbita pepo) Ronde de Nice a lovely round courgette with dense flesh and a gourd. Later in the year, when it is warm enough, the tomatoes, peppers, chillis and peanuts will be planted out that i’ve grown from seed in the house. Coriander gets sown all year round so another few short rows went in to keep us in supply.

Work in the tunnel this spring was made much easier with the help of Laura Beyney, who is here for a week helping out in the garden and learning about edible veg, plus the odd spot of fishing in the Ardeche.

Polytunnel Planting Plan 2011


Cutting Back Mint

By late summer mint is usually looking decidedly unappetising, long straggly flower stems and burnt out leaves. But mint, given a good haircut, will come back with flush of tasty fresh leaves.

It is a very simple job that does not need any finesse. Use a pair of secateurs or even shears and cut the long stems back to a  few buds above ground level or to a height you prefer.

Straggly mint in late summer

Mint stems cut back

Mint that has been cut back now has a new flush of growth




Mulching is a simple technique of covering bare soil to; protect it from erosion and compression and to suppress weeds and retain moisture. Soil can be mulched with hard materials such as plastics or stone but better still are materials that are degradable because they also add nutrients, humus and improve the condition of the soil over time.

Best materials to mulch with

  • Garden compost with a minimum depth of 2.5cm
  • Wilted comfrey leaves excellent around solanum family and soft fruit. Layer 2 -3 leaves deep
  • Dried grass clippings 5cm deep
  • Weed free straw 10-15cm (6”) which settles to less
  • Bracken chopped spread in layers 4-5 leaves deep
  • Half rotted compost this is bulkier and good around large plants and to cover larger areas.
  • Leaf mould, excellent soil enhancer brought down into the soil by worms
  • Well rotted manure nutrient rich apply to greedy plants such as fruiting crops and corn.

Specialist Mulches

Pine needles are not suitable for all crops but strawberries love a thick mulch of pine needles. Wild strawberries are forest plants and can often be found around pine forests so this is a good way to replicate their natural environment it also keeps the fruit clean and off the soil and deters slugs.

When to mulch
The golden rule of mulching is to mulch when the soil is in perfect condition, in most cases when the soil is warm and moist. Mulching will maintain the condition of the soil so do not mulch if the soil is too dry or cold and wet, mulch when the soil is warm after rains or the ground has been watered.

Mulch when planting out or soon afterwards. Mulches can also be applied:
Autumn mulch overwintering crops: celeriac, leeks, parsnip, kale, winter radishes to keep soil warm, preserve soil structure and reduce ground frost making it easier to lift roots in frosty weather.
Early spring mulch lightly with garden compost after digging unless the soil is very wet. It will keep the soil in good condition ready for sowing and planting later.
Late spring summer mulch between rows after seedlings have germinated and between growing crops such as peas, beans, onions and carrots.
Summer mulch summer fruiting crops with a thick layer of straw to keep moisture down in the soil suitable for tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, courgettes, also good for cucurbits and other sprawling plants to keep their fruit clean and of good quality.

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