This article covers a selection of frequently asked questions, usually but not exclusively from newcomers. Contact me if there are any particular topics that you would like to see addressed, or if you have any comments on the existing material.
Raspberries. By far the most frequently asked question from newcomers seems to be “how do I prune raspberries?” The answer is that it depends whether they are summer or autumn raspberries. Summer raspberries typically fruit in June. The canes have a two year cycle. They grow from the ground up in year 1 and they fruit in year 2. When they have finished fruiting these canes are then cut out at ground level. Autumn raspberries tend to fruit from August through to early October. They have a simple one year cycle. All the canes are cut down to ground level in late winter. New canes will grow and fruit in a single season. If you do not know which type you have then just wait and see before doing any pruning.
After raspberries come questions on compost making. This topic is covered here on the Approaches to Cultivation page.
Sources of manure is another frequent question. Many plot holders on our site get their manure from the farm which is just next door. However, wherever you get your manure it is important to ensure that it is not contaminated with aminopyralid, a herbicide found in some manure which led to stunted and distorted growth in many crops across the country back in 2008. There are some growers in various parts of the country who reckon that they are still suffering. Here is a link which will give you a comprehensive background on the subject. We have been quite fortunate at Sunningdale. To my knowledge only one plot holder has received contaminated manure.
Potato Blight is usually more of problem on tomatoes which is in the same family as potatoes. It varies from season to season. In 2015 it was not a problem, not appearing until the end of September when crops had already been harvested. It appeared at the beginning of July in 2016, which is very early.
The ideal conditions for blight are high humidity, plentiful rainfall and a dayround temperature of 10C or more. 48 hours with a minimum humidity of 90% and a minimum temperature of 10C is termed a “Smith’s Period”. The appearance of blight is more likely after a Smith’s period.
Blight spores are carried on the wind. The leaves are attacked first. The picture (below left) shows a diseased leaf. They are usually the size of a 10p piece. It is important that affected tomato leaves are removed immediately, taking them back to the main stem. If the blight spreads to the stem 9see picture below right) then there is little that you can do. It will eventually move to the fruit and ruin them. You can spray if you wish. Dithane and copper sulphate-based preparations like Bordeaux Mixture can be used. However, it is important to note that they only provide a protective layer on the leaves, i.e. they constitute a preemptive measure, they will not kill blight if you already have it.
There are periodic claims that certain (new) varieties of tomato are resistant to blight. The latest is Crimson Crush from Suttons.
General feedback on the blight resistant varieties, including my own, seems to be that some leaves can still show blight symptoms. If they are removed quickly then the plant appears to fight off the disease. The plants produce lots of foliage and large fruit which, I am afraid to say, would not win any prizes for flavour.
If potatoes become infected, cut the foliage down to ground level to prevent the blight from destroying the tubers. You will almost certainly have a reduced crop, but better a reduced crop than no crop at all.
Under no circumstances should diseased material be composted or left lying around. Burn or otherwise dispose of it.
Honey Fungus is usually thought of as a disease of decorative trees and shrubs. However, two plot holders, including myself, have lost their strawberry plants by using the free wood chip on the site to stop the fruit from lying on the soil and rotting. In our cases the wood chip obviously included a tree or shrub that contained honey fungus. It is recommended that our free (untreated) wood chip should not be used on a strawberry bed, or indeed any other bed. Plant any replacement strawberry plants as far away as possible from the infected site.
Mildew on Cucurbita. Courgettes and marrows are mainly affected, although other members of the Cucurbita family may also suffer. Damp weather and poor air circulation (often because plants are too close together) are frequently the cause. The mildew can usually appear from early August onwards. The remedy is to remove diseased leaves as soon as possible. On one occasion I practically denuded an entire plant. It took about three weeks to recover and produce more courgettes.
Storing Winter Squashes. It is recommended that you leave a couple of inches of stalk attached when you remove the squash from the parent plant. Wipe each squash with a cloth which has been soaked in a weak bleach solution, paying particular attention to the point where the stalk is attached to the squash and to the underside where the flower was originally, as these are the places where rot is most likely to set in. Ideally, place the squashes on a sunny window ledge, conservatory or greenhouse for two weeks, turning them 180 degrees every other day. This process will help to harden the skin and hopefully lengthen their keeping qualities. Store the squashes in a cool place, e.g. a shed or garage. Beware that they do not like sub-zero temperatures, and so you may need to bring them into the house during any particularly cold spells when the temperature is around zero or lower during the day. Butternut squashes can keep until January, possibly February. Other types of winter squash can keep longer. I have eaten some in May.
Cultivating asparagus requires patience in the early years. It can be grown from seed, but I am only aware of one plot holder who has chosen that route. The majority purchase one year old crowns in early spring. Thorough soil preparation is recommended, i.e. incorporating lots of manure or other organic material before planting the crowns. See this RHS article for general advice. Do not pick any asparagus in the first year. The plants need time to build up their strength. Cut the foliage down to ground level in late autumn when the plants have died down, Pick a modest amount of asparagus the next year for (say) three weeks. From the following year onwards you can gorge yourself on the crop for six weeks each spring. But no longer .. remember that the plants will still need time to recover for the next season. A mulch every winter or every other winter will be appreciated by the plants. If you look after your asparagus, the bed will last for twenty years.
Use of weed killers. The majority of weed killer sprays are applied to the leaf of the plant. The chemical(s) then travel down to the roots to kill them, and hence the entire weed. Such sprays will only work while the plant is actively growing, typically from late spring through to early autumn. Such sprays should only be applied to overgrown areas which will not be cultivated until the following season.
Blackfly can be a problem on beans (broad, french and runners). Autumn sown broad beans are likely to suffer less than spring sown broad beans. The usual recommendation is to pinch the tops out of broad bean plants as soon as any blackfly is spotted. Ants are often the villains on french and runner beans. They farm the blackfly – wanting their honey-like secretions. The first step is to deter the ants. One approach is to apply a little ant powder to the base of any bean plant that ants are seen on. Blackfly can be rubbed out (between finger and thumb) early in the season (June) before there are too many of them. Companion planting is another technique. Some plot holders plant marigolds around the beans. The smell can deter the blackfly. If all else fails, you can use an insecticide. Pay close attention to the instructions on the tin, e.g. how many days between spraying and picking beans. Ideally, try to use any insecticide well before any beans are ready to be picked and just live with any residual blackfly that may subsequently appear.
Pheasants and beans. Over the last three years or so, pheasants have taken to pulling up the seedlings of broad beans, runner beans and french beans. They are actually after the seed. Once the plants are 5 or 6 inches high they will leave them alone. So, either provide some physical protection initially or only put established plants out rather than sow seed directly in the ground.
Flowering Rhubarb has been a feature this spring (2017). The very dry conditions have obviously stressed the plants, encouraging them to reproduce. This is more likely to occur on young plants. It is important that the flowers are removed as soon as possible, otherwise the plants will simply throw their energy into reproducing rather than producing stalks.
Frost damage. A number of new plot holders have asked about the timing of sowing / planting, having experienced frost damage, most notably on early potatoes. Frosts can occur anytime up to the end of May. Having said that, there was one year when we had a frost in early June! Potatoes will recover from frost damage but they may lose some of their overall productivity. They should ideally be covered with earth when the foliage appears. This will protect the plant from getting frost damage. Continue this process as the plant grows until you reach the point where earthing up is no longer possible. If frost is still forecast then you can cover with fleece to provide a degree of protection.
Any other tender plants will equally be at risk until the end of May. They include: runner beans, french beans, tomatoes, peppers, courgettes / marrows, squashes and cucumbers. Unlike potatoes, they are extremely unlikely to recover. Coping mechanisms include protection using cloches, cold frames and fleece. Note, however, that they may be insufficient to keep severe frosts at bay. Another approach is to use successional sowing so that if you lose the first batch then you still have the second sowing to fall back on. For example, you may sow some runner beans in late April, followed by a second sowing at the end of May, and even a third at the end of June. Obviously, this approach is only possible if there is sufficient time left in the summer for the crop to grow. This would not be possible with aubergines for example.
Borlotti Beans are a useful crop to grow. There are both dwarf and climbing varieties. I think that the climbers ultimately offer better value for money. The picture below shows a range of pods. Pods are ready to pick when they turn a dark purple in colour (the ones in the centre and on the right in the picture) and they feel papery, i.e. they have lost most of their moisture. Beware that if you leave them on the plant for too long after they have reached this stage then the pods will burst open and scatter the seeds, the plant considering that it has done its work and now is the time to reproduce itself. Ensure that you dry the beans fully before you put them in jars for winter use. An alternative is to freeze them. You can find various methods of freezing them described on the Internet.
Wasps’ Nest. If the wasps are not particularly troublesome then leave the nest alone. The wasps will normally disappear at the end of the season.
If you are allergic to wasp stings then obviously leave the nest alone, or get somebody else to deal with them.
The majority of nests are likely to be found in compost heaps, although they might also be situated in sheds or storage containers such as keter boxes, particularly if they are seldom opened.
If you are unsure whether there are any wasps in the nest then prod it gently with the other end of a hoe, rake or long cane. Wasps detect vibration, and a bunch of defenders will quickly appear to confront the attacker. Hence using something long so that you keep your distance.
The best time to tackle wasps is in the early morning or late evening.
To get rid of the wasps you can use: ant powder .. puff a good wodge or two into the entrance to the nest and around it; an insect aerosol that can deal with wasps; water; or a mixture of these methods.
Check to see if there are any wasps on the following day. If there are, repeat the treatment.
If you are certain that the nest is empty then it would pay to remove it, just so that any living wasps are not tempted to return.
You can always get a professional exterminator to come and do the job, although this will cost you.
Article last updated on July 24th, 2019.