Category Archives: Hints and tips

Best of friends – a quick guide to companion planting

My seedlings are all coming along nicely…they just need a bit more sunshine!

As well as my usual veg I have also planted loads of French marigold and sweet basil seeds to act as “companion plants”. I can’t remember where I first came across companion planting, but when I sat down to write this blog I checked my gardening books to see if I could pick up any interesting information or tips and was amazed at how little is actually written about this subject.

The internet is different, with everyone and their dog having an opinion about what is best. At the end of the day it all boils down to what you grow and where you live.

Companion planting is when you grow two or more types of plant closely together for mutual benefit.  There is a lot of talk about it being an organic method of pest control. I am not trying to be organic and would use chemicals as a last resort but as I am growing most of the “companions” anyway, why not just plant them where they will benefit another plant?

Most companion plants are strongly scented and confuse pests looking for their host plant. Others attract beneficial insects, such as ladybirds and lacewings, which prey on aphids. Some attract pollinators, like bees.

As I mentioned above, I grow marigolds and basil – these are my top 2 companion plants. I must admit I am not that keen on marigolds or their smell. I have flashbacks to the 1970s and tidy gardens edged with marigolds – the height of sophistication at the time! However, if you look at any list of suitable companions, marigolds appear the most.

Marigolds ready for action!

I keep loads in the greenhouse and also plant them among my veg. The smell repels many insects. They also attract aphid eating hoverflies and keep whitefly away from tomatoes.

As for the basil I plant this between all my tomato plants as it is supposed to keep whitefly away. It is also perfect for picking at the same time as tomatoes for that classic combination! I have also learned that the shade provided by the tomato plants helps to stop the basil going to seed.

Basil coming along nicely!

Other top companions to try:

  • Garlic chive – when planted alongside carrots, its strong scent confuses and deters the carrot root fly, which can normally smell carrots from up to a mile away.
  • Lavender – attracts a range of pollinators, including bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Its strong scent can also deter aphids. Plant with carrots and leeks to confuse pests.
  • Sage – is strongly scented and will confuse pests of brassicas if planted alongside them. Its blue flowers attract bees and hoverflies, which also pollinate crops.
  • Thyme – makes a good companion plant for roses, as its strong scent deters blackfly. A tea made from soaking thyme leaves and sprayed on cabbages can prevent whitefly.
  • Nasturtiums – when planted with French and runner beans, the nasturtium acts as a sacrificial crop, luring aphids away from the beans. Its attractive flowers help attract beneficial insects, which prey on aphids.
  • Fennel – if left to flower it produces attractive yellow blooms that attract hoverflies, which prey on aphids.
  • Mint – the strongly scented leaves of mint confuse pests of carrots, tomatoes, alliums and brassicas, and deter flea beetles.

The combinations are endless and it depends what you are growing and what works for you. Last year my friend simply planted garlic beside everything she grew. This year, as well as the marigolds and basil, I am going to plant lavender among my leeks and sage between my brassicas.  It may all be an old wives tale but what is the worst that can happen?

Chives and mint
Lavender

Fingers crossed for a pest-free season!

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Recession friendly plant supports

In these times of austerity, it is alarming how much a quick trip to the garden centre can cost. All the bits, bobs and gadgets you think you need soon add up.

There are lots of ways to save money:

  • Our local garden centre has a 10% off day every Wednesday. You may only save a couple of pounds but over a whole summer of weekly trips this soon adds up to a substantial saving.
  • Larger chains also have some great deals and 10% off weekends. Keep a note of what you need and wait until you can get a discount.
  • Try growing your own flowers and veg from seed rather than buying plugs or garden ready plants. I calculated I saved over £180 by buying a packet of livingstone daisy seeds for £1.99.
  • Make your own compost.
  • Rather than buying cell trays for plants, save up yoghurt pot and tins, small and large and make some holes in the bottom.
  • Use the inside of a toilet roll for starting long rooted plants such as sweet peas or beans. The cardboard can be planted into the ground without disturbing the roots.
  • Subscribe to gardening magazines to save money on the cover price and benefit from the free packets of seeds they all seem to be giving away with each issue.
  • We have a local “freecycle” website where people advertise anything they want rid of. The purpose is to try to stop items being sent to landfill but quite often people will advertise excess plants or garden equipment they are giving away. It’s worth a look. I got rid of over 100 jerusalem artichoke tubers this way.
  • Look at what you have lying around that would do the same job. Instead of spending £6 on a dibber and dobber use a pencil and a fork!

Anyway, I digress.

This year we promised to make more of an effort to stake up all of our plants that need support. This means supporting plants as they are growing rather than sticking a bit of wire in the ground and wrapping some string around the plant when it is already lying at a jaunty 45 degree angle!

We have a clump of beautiful blue delphiniums and every year they just flower, then it rains and they fall over. They are about 12 inches tall at the moment, so bearing in mind our resolution to do the right thing by our tall plants I started to look at websites and magazines to see what kind of plant supports were available.

Let me tell you there is very little for under £10…and we need quite a few! Mr Mac promptly advised me there was no way he was spending £10 on some bent wire and disappeared off to his shed.

He came back with some lengths of wood (2×2 I am reliably informed), some fence paint, some fence wire, a pair of pliers and 2 screws.

This is how he did it

 

The wood was cut to the required length then painted with fence paint.

Dennis helped

A stake was hammered into the ground either side of the delphiniums. They grow against a wall so no support was needed at the back. The fence wire was bent and each end looped with the pliers to allow the screws to fix the wire to the stake.

The finished article. As the plants grow they will cover the stakes and more wire can be attached to support them when they grow taller.

The plants will grow around the stakes so you will never see them. I was also impressed that Mr Mac has pre-prepared 2 more lengths of wire to attach to the stakes as the plants get higher. This is so he has no excuse for not adding support as the plants grow, defeating the purpose of have a support in the first place.

I asked Mr Mac what he thought his plant support cost. He worked it out and it cost less than £1!

Gardening jobs for April

I have a great book called “allotment month by month” by Alan Buckingham which tells you what to sow, what to grow and jobs to do each month of the year.

As yesterday was 1 April 2012 I dutifully pulled the book down from the shelf and set about seeing what needed to be done.

Apparently April and May are know as the “hungry gap” months when there is a shortage of fresh vegetables and salad. Over-wintered crops have been eaten and this season’s new crops are nowhere near ready.

However, April is a good month for sowing seeds  indoors, in cold frames, under cloches or, if you’re super organised and have already warmed your soil, directly outdoors.

Top tasks for April

  • Harvest the first asparagus of the year along with spring cabbages, cauliflowers, sprouting brocolli and any remaining leeks and kale.
  • Plant second early and maincrop potatoes and onion sets.
  • Earth up first early potatoes.
  • Prepare seed beds by weeding thoroughly and raking over the soil.
  • Prune cherries and plums once leaf buds have opened.

I don’t have anything to harvest, Mr Mac is in charge of potatoes and onions and our cherry and plum trees were only planted last year so are too young to prune. So all that leaves for me to do is prepare the seed beds which I started yesterday.

However, this time last week it was 23 degrees and I was wearing shorts. I have just popped down to the bottom of the garden to check the thermometer and it is 5 degrees! What’s more, snow is forecast for this evening and tomorrow morning.

So the way I look at it, there are still another 28 days in April so there is no rush. I think I’ll have a cup of tea and sit in front of the fire for a while!

Mr Mac’s cunning plan

Well what an amazing day. I have been in the garden all day with a t-shirt and sunnies on and actually felt the need to put sun cream on my face! At midday it was 17 degrees outside the greenhouse and 25 degrees inside – and it’s only 22 March. It was just me, woody woodpecker, two ladybirds and the pheasant who has set up home in the field next door while he looks for a girlfriend! Heaven.

The trellis and flower bed where I plan to grow a wall of blue flowers.

I have weeded the flower bed in front of the trellis, potted on the cosmos, osteospermums (all 2 of them!), the gazanias and the dahlia pom poms. I also planted some ladybird poppy seeds in pots. It is something I did last year and it was really effective.

The First Tulips

The best part of the day was seeing the first of the tulips open.

Until this year, all we had in the garden in the spring were snowdrops then daffodils. This year we introduced some crocus. A bag of 20 bulbs was purchased and planted but the 2 small circles of purple crocus was merely a drop in the ocean and hardly made an impact at all. I think we probably need 2,000 bulbs!

We also bought loads of tulip bulbs but never got round to planting them in the ground in time. So we decided to plant them all in pots and once they have flowered and died back, we’ll stick them in the ground for next spring.

An  issue we have had in the past is our pots always crack and break with the frost. We did not want to risk it this winter, especially as most of them had tulip bulbs inside them.

Mr Mac came up with a cunning plan! The reason the pots crack is because the soil gets waterlogged and then expands when it freezes and this cracks the pot. His theory was that if he could create a layer between the pot and the soil inside it that would allow expansion then the pots would not crack.

Can you guess what Mr Mac’s solution was? BUBBLE WRAP!

Bubble wrap between the pot and the soil

Yes, we lined each pot with a layer of bubble wrap then filled it up with soil and planted the bulbs.

This did the trick and all the tulip pots survived the winter intact.

The only pot that did crack is the one that I keep my blueberry bush in. It sits in a large saucer which retains water. Yes, you guessed it – the saucer filled with water, the water froze and cracked the pot! Typical.

Anyway, the bubble wrap design is patent pending and you can look forward to seeing Mr Mac on the next series of Dragon’s Den!