Monday, January 13, 2020

Testing Soil Temperature

My multimeter says 11 degrees, still a bit chilly for seeds

Testing soil temperature for seed sowing wasn’t always scientific. It wasn’t too long ago that farmers would test the soil temperature by pulling down their pants and putting their bare bums on the soil (not all farmers I might add) If it felt cold on their cheeks then it was too cold for seed planting.
There were easier, less fun ways of testing the soil without baring all, you could simply place the back of your hand on the ground and again if it felt warm, the seeds could go in. People still check temperatures with their limbs but it’s usually to test the baby’s bathwater which so far as I know has always been the method of temperature gauging and no buttocks have ever been used.

Soil Temperature
Soil temperature is the factor that drives germination, transplanting, blooming and composting. It’s said that the ideal soil temperatures for planting most seeds and plants are 65 to 75 F. (18 to 24 C.). Most seeds will germinate over quite a wide range of soil temperatures but the speed of germination will vary. Too cold and they’ll be very slow to sprout and too hot will also reduce the speed of germination. Far too hot or cold also increases the risk on none of the seeds germinating which is what used to happen to me when I was in a rush to get seeds sown. 

If you have heated propagators and sow seeds under protection most of the guesswork is done. If you are sowing directly into the ground outside you might need to take more notice of the conditions.
I would think the best time to check the soil in the ground would be when the sun isn’t shining on it, the same for a compost bin – these like temperatures of over 60 F (16C) to work well. Soil readings for seeds are done in 1 to 2 inches of soil. Sample at least 4 to 6 inches deep for transplants. You can use your hands or invest in a soil thermometer (the same as on you use in the kitchen for probing meat) with a long metal rod. Insert the thermometer to the hilt, or maximum depth, and hold it for a minute. Do this for three consecutive days. 

The perfect temperature for planting varies dependent upon the variety of vegetable or fruit. Planting before it is time can reduce fruit set, stunt plant growth and prevent or reduce seed germination.

Simple methods
Apart from buttocks and back of the hands, there are other easy ways to check the soil.
If weeds are germinating and growing, it's time for us to get growing.
If spuds in the compost are growing, then you can put spuds in.
One suggestion (non-scientific I might add) is to wait until you can go out and garden without a cardigan on.

A few points to keep in mind:
The temperatures quoted are soil or compost temperature, not air temperature. A sunny day in April may be 20 C but the soil temperature is most likely stuck around 8 C.
 A soil thermometer can be bought very cheaply, typically less than £10.00, which will give you an accurate figure to work from. I use my multimeter which has a very accurate temperature guage.
Beware the sunny day when propagating in the greenhouse. Temperatures can soar, basically cooking your seeds or seedlings.

Higher Temperatures
The ideal temperature for germination is often far higher than we might expect and in some cases it is higher than is ideal for growing. Take carrots for example, their ideal germination temperature is 27 C, which is nearly an oven temperature. The optimum growing range for carrots is between 7 C and 29 C with far faster germination rates once the soil hits 10 C.

Tomato seeds are the same enjoying really high temperatures to kick start themselves into germinating. Like a lot of gardening pursuits it can become an obsession to get just the right conditions but seeds are tougher than we think and only need a few things to thrive. I for one err on the side of caution and leave my seed sowing until late spring which usually meets the seeds needs without us needing to fret or raid the kitchen drawer looking for the meat thermometer. 

You can get an early- weed free start by warming up the soil outside by a few degrees if you cover it with horticultural fleece or better still use a cloche which can make a surprising difference to germination rates and times.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020



I put a fence up a few years ago and wanted a climber to cover it. I was looking for something relatively maintenance free so decided on a Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) These plants climb by the use of tendrils, winding themselves around anything they can. I find the entwining method less damaging than other plants like ivy that cling onto surfaces by modifying their roots into dried hairs that burrow into a surface. You’ll see how this works when you pull ivy off a wall. It takes the plaster off too. The clinging method also works after the plant has dies too and can also regrow new plants. Ingenious ivy, but back to Virginia creepers.
My Virginia creeper was a small pencil sized cutting when I pushed it into the ground. It’s now spread about thirty feet along the fence with the help of the odd nail, cable ties, clips and bits of string. Unlike ivy a strong wind can detach the plant from the fence so regular checks are needed. I probably wouldn’t choose a deciduous climber the next time as it only covers the panels for half of the year, and is just a bunch of twigs the rest of the time. There are leaves to sweep up too.
I’ve another climber in the garden that just clings onto anything with its twining stems. These are evergreen and although it’s pretty I do have to chop it back a lot, especially as it appears to want to live next door more than in our garden. I know it’s following the sun but I still take it personally and it highlights that a bit of planning is needed to get the plants best location. You can buy climbers for shade and sun and with a bit of care they can be trained to cover anything from an oil tank to a shed or even a house if you use  the Mile a Minute plant (fallopia).

Pruning climbers
Although pruning depends on the individual needs of the plant, some tasks are very similar: Tie in new growth and side shoots, prune back long straggly shoots and take out dead ones.
There are three main groups when it comes to timing and type of pruning required:
Deciduous climbers and wall shrubs are usually renovated during the dormant season, between November and March.

Evergreen climbers are usually renovated in early spring

Tender plants are best renovated in mid- to late spring, once the risk of frost has passed, to prevent the risk of cold damaging the new growth.
If in doubt, look up individual plants as their needs vary.

Renovating overgrown climbers and wall shrubs
You can cut back climbers and wall shrubs quite drastically, and some will respond to this method. Others respond better to a gradually renovation. My Jasmine was cut back very hard last spring resulting in very few flowers. I’m expecting loads this year though before cutting back again when the flowers die off.

Some climbers such as Ceanothus respond well to hard pruning and are better replaced. 

Drastic pruning
Some climbers like clematis cotoneaster tolerate drastic pruning and can be cut down to approximately 30cm (12in) from ground level. This drastic pruning means that flowering will take several years to resume, but allows new green shoots arising from the base to be trained into a new and rejuvenated framework.
Vigorous climbers such as  honeysuckle (Lonicera) and my Parthenocissus don’t really need regular pruning. However trimming may be required to keep them in check, removing as much from the longer shoots as necessary.

Choosing a climber or wall shrub

When choosing a climber it is important to consider several factors:
  • Aspect: Sun-loving plants won’t thrive against a shady wall
  • Size: Match the vigour of the plant to the allotted space
  • Hardiness: Do not plant tender plants in an exposed situation
  • Climbing habit: Some climbers (such as Campsis) are self-clinging, but other climbers and all wall shrubs require supports and tying in.
Consider where the plant is growing too. If it’s a free standing trellis you might want to plant a wall shrub type of climber such as cotoneaster, pyracantha or garrya elliptica. These are plants would normally grow horizontal but you can train them up features to form an effective cover. If growing on a house wall you might want to steer clear of plants with tendrils like ivy. Although the main reason my mother wouldn’t grow ivy on a house wall is because lots of spiders and mice live in them and she was convinced they would make their way into the house through an open window at night.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Into the New Year 2020

 Saved succulent offsets

A ‘Gift Free’ Christmas has always been popular with me. I’ve been practising it since the 1970’s and have no intention of stopping. The problem is that most people have now caught on to my methods and I didn’t even find a pair of socks, jar of pickled onions or lump of coal in my stocking from anyone last week. Whatever happened to “It’s better to give than receive?” Still, what can you get for the man who has everything?

Now the Festive fuss and fun has died down we can look forward to ringing in the New Year. After that it’s time make and break our resolutions. Mine this year is to avoid any stress and unnecessary pressure. I’ll give myself a week. 

The first job of the New Year for a lot of us will be to take the tree to the recycling centres dotted around the peninsula. We have until the 5th or 6th of January to get the decorations down so there’s no rush. 

There are plenty of things produced over the holiday you can compost. A majority of leftover trimmings can go in the bin as well as non-plastic wrapping paper and uneaten food (as long as you have a lid and base to keep the mice out). You can even put old Quality St wrappers in the compost as these are apparently made from biodegradable cellulose. I generally find the best use for the wrappers is covering broken tail lights on cars. I was thinking of putting different colours on each glasses lens, casting some Kool & The Gang and pretending I’m at a disco. I’m easily entertained.

I’ve neglected a couple of things in the garden this year. My asparagus was coming along really well after growing it on from seed for three years. This year was supposed to be the harvesting year but I inadvertently covered the plants with a few barrow loads of soil. I managed to dig up the roots and transplant them in the polytunnel but these soft juicy treats proved to be too tempting for Chips the dog. She managed to dig the roots up and eat them in one of her bored spells.
The other is an annual neglect. I forgot to get most of my established succulents in before the frost came and now they are just mounds of slimy grey brown mush. I have a few large plants that survived and also saw this scenario coming so took loads of offsets and planted them up under protection in cell trays before the frost came so all is not lost. My cacti are all doing well as I put those in the house just at the end of summer.

It might be an idea to protect alpines if you have them in the garden. These plants are really sturdy and hardy to frost, coming from high up in the mountains. It’s the wet that kills them though so if you can cover the really vulnerable ones up with a bit of glass or Perspex this might help to keep them from rotting. Having a well-drained sandy soil is good too as well as having small gravel around the plant so they are not sitting on wet ground.

Bare root fruit trees and bushes are now available. Raspberries, gooseberries and blackcurrant bushes can go in as well as apple, pear and cherry trees. You might like to try putting in a plum tree too.
When planting trees it’s been well documented that we should backfill the planting hole with the original soil without any embellishments like manure or compost as this doesn’t give the tree roots any incentive to spread out into poorer soil away from the planting hole. This is called the ‘container effect’. 

It turns out that digging a round hole for the tree to be planted in also gives the roots a poor start. The roots have a tendency to get to the perimeter of the loosely filled soil in the hole and then spiral around the edge where it meets the regular un-dug soil instead of branching out.
There is a solution. Dig a square hole. 

Research has found that roots aren’t very good at going around 90 degree corners so when they hit the edge of the square they carry on in a straight line making inroads into the soil further away which helps support and feed the tree. I see an experiment coming on.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Tofurkey for Christmas Dinner - How did that happen?

 Tofurkey (wiki)

I’m not too sure how it’s happened but we seem to have gone vegan for our Christmas dinner. 

If I think about it this has been creeping up on us for years and with less and less young ones eating anything meat or dairy it’s just been a natural progression.  It was many years ago we offered a nut roast as a side dish and since then the meat has slowly made its way off the table.

We usually shy away from making vegetarian or vegan dishes to resemble meat. Not everyone likes the feel or taste of meat so why try and replicate it in a burger or sausage?  For the festive meal though we have decided to try something called a “Tofurkey” and made an exception to the non-meat flavoured dish. 

This actually does taste like turkey. We didn’t want to be bringing anything to the table which had been shop bought so looked up a tofu recipe and settled for this one.  The reason we know it tastes like turkey is because we have done a trial run. The loaf shaped tofurkey has an outside of spiced tofu and the inside is a stuffing flavoured with sage and thyme herbs from the garden which give it that festive smell and taste. Meat and tofu don’t generally taste of anything, it’s the flavourings, herbs and spices that enhance it and in our experiments this seems to be the case as we basted it with more flavours including soy sauce every fifteen minutes in its 2 hour oven cooking time which gave it a lovely rich colour. We offered out samples to the kids and they all loved it. We just have to recreate one for the big meal. 

It’s at times like this I really appreciate the pots and planted herbs in the garden. Fresh leaves really enhance any meal. They can even be used as table decorations for the Christmas meal.

Table Runner Weight
In the past we have used clip on tablecloth runners. Our regular ones are made from ceramic lemons but have you thought about making small posies out of fresh foliage?

Aromatic, shrubby evergreen herbs, such as rosemary, sage and bay, and winter foliage, such as Eucalyptus, Pittosporum and Sarcococca, are all suited to this mini-posy. They can either be pinned to the side cloth draping over the table or just put around the corners of the table.

Leave the rosemary and Eucalyptus sprigs to rest in water for 24 hours before arranging. Allow to dry then form into a small posy. Tie together with twine, leaving a long piece at each end to attach to the table linen.

Gather the table runner at the top end of the table and position your posy just short of the table top. Tie it to the linen with the twine.

To stop it moving, secure the posy to the table runner and tablecloth at the back with a safety pin.

Festive Wine Glass
Decorative winter foliage can be used in many ways. Create simple, thoughtful Christmas table decorations by adding scented foliage to glasses or napkins. To transform your wine or champagne glasses, use soft, small-leaved stems of Eucalyptus or choose sprigs of scented, winter-flowering shrubs such as Christmas box (Sarcococca).

Decorate Chairs
Add an extra touch to your Christmas table decorations by adding something extra your dining chairs too. Tie ribbons around them, adorn them with mini wreaths made from evergreens from the garden or just simply hang a few of fir branches off the back. It might not last long, but looks lovely for the big day and it can all be composted after the event.
One item I shy away from on the festive table are lit candles. They do tend to get in the way when you are passing around the bowls of vegetables and bread sauce.

Home Grown
The only home grown vegetables on our plates this week will be broccoli as my Brussels didn’t come on well enough. Root vegetables come into their own for the Christmas dinner but I don’t really grow any. Carrots, parsnips and potatoes all go well and for this you’ll need a bit of forward planning. Seeds of these are usually sown in March/April time so one job to do over the holidays is go through the seed catalogues and pick out what you want to grow in the veggie patch. It’s handy to have an idea of long term planning when you look through the list. 

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