How to keep growing home-grown food

If you are growing your own food for the first time then take some advice from experienced gardener and grower Martyn Cox

Keep your veg patch free from weeds by hoeing around your plants Image: AdobeStock/c.Václav Mach

As a young horticulturist I was a little bit lofty about people buying vegetable plants. I considered it cheating or a sign that someone’s growing skills were somewhat lacking, if they didn’t bother to grow everything from scratch by sowing seeds. These days I’m much more laid back and buy plenty of ready grown edibles myself.

            An advantage of buying vegetable plants in summer is that you can still enjoy tender crops that are traditionally started from seed sown indoors in early spring. Cucumbers, tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are widely available, so snap some up and you can look forward to a tasty harvest within a few weeks.

Pinch out male cucumber flowers

Many varieties of cucumber produce both male and female flowers on the same plant – female flowers have a baby fruit growing behind them, while male flowers have a plain stalk. When growing cucumbers in the greenhouse it’s best to pinch off the male ones to prevent cross-pollination, which will lead to bitter tasting fruit. Restrain yourself if you are growing outdoor types, because plants need both male and female blooms to allow insects to pollinate. In my opinion, removing flowers is a bit of a chore – save yourself the effort in the future by growing a variety with all female flowers, such as ‘Carmen’, ‘Luxury’ and mini-cucumber ‘Diva’.

Learn to spot the female flowers on your cucumber plants. They have tiny cucumbers forming behind the flowers
Image: Jean Vernon

Cool down greenhouses

Temperatures can build up rapidly inside greenhouses on warm days leading to tomatoes, peppers and any other edible plants inside starting to flag. Opening doors, vents and windows will certainly help to keep things cool but it’s a good idea to carry out a clever technique called ‘damping down’. All you need to do is splash staging, paths and the floor with cold water during a spell of warm weather. Do this in the morning, and over the course of the day water will evaporate and raise humidity, reducing moisture loss from plants. As a bonus, damping down will deter glasshouse red spider mite, a sap-sucking pest that thrives in hot, dry conditions.

Curb rampant runners

Runner beans are aptly named for their speed of growth and it won’t be long before stems wind their to the top of their supports, whether that’s a traditional ‘A’ frame or wigwam set in a pot. If left to their own devices plants will continue to romp away forever, squandering all of their energy into making more leafy growth, rather than providing armfuls of good things to eat. However, it’s easy to fix the situation. Nip out growing tips with secateurs when they are at the highest point of their supports and it will encourage plants to produce pod-producing side shoots further down stems.

runner beans
Stop Runner beans by pinching out Image: Martin Mulchinock

 

Mulch fruit trees

It doesn’t matter whether they are apples or pears, peaches or nectarines, figs, plums or cherries; fruit trees growing in the ground will suffer over summer if their roots dry out. Stress caused by drought can manifest itself in many ways. For example, growth can be stunted, foliage wilt and fruit drop prematurely. Regular watering during hot, dry periods is essential but go the extra step and mulch plants. Spread a 2-inch layer of garden compost, leafmould or composted bark over the soil to lock in moisture and keep roots cool. Leave a gap around the trunk as the material can soften bark, leading to rotting.

Keep the area around the base of your fruit trees free from weeds and mulch generously
Image: AdobeStock/c.Александр Беспалый

 

Tackle weeds

Weeds aren’t just unsightly in the veg patch, they compete with edibles for moisture and fertiliser, and often grow at a rate of knots, smothering the plants we’ve been nurturing. Some even harbour pests and diseases, leading to problems further down the line. In order to prevent things from getting out of hand, spend a few minutes weeding each week. Hand weeding is fine when your quarry is large enough to handle, but hoeing is better if you’re faced with lots of annual weed seedlings. I use an onion hoe to drag weeds out by their roots, leaving them on the surface to die.  If you’ve got weeds in the paving have a look at Richard’s Double Action Weedkiller Ready-to-use. 

Keep your veg patch free from weeds by hoeing around your plants
Image: AdobeStock/c.Václav Mach

 

Martyn Cox

About Martyn Cox

Martyn Cox aims to maintain a small city garden on the south coast, while his two dogs (a Sprocker Spaniel and chocolate Labrador) try to thwart his best efforts. Gardening columnist with The Mail on Sunday, he’s the author of ten books and gardening guest for Richard Jackson at QVC. A trained horticulturist and black belt in karate, Martyn was formerly on the staff at BBC Gardeners’ World, Amateur Gardening, Horticulture Week and Gardenlife magazine.
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