Tatton and Tomatoes; Lammas Laments; Olympian Swallows; Urban Apiarists and Avian Intelligence

As I waited for the first home grown tomato and nectarine of the year, quite a lot more thoughts and ideas on tomatoes have gelled over the last couple of weeks. Before we’d headed off on holiday I’d installed reflective soil covers fashioned from some leftover foam backed but reflective faced carpet underlay. Firstly to reflect what little light we have had this year back up onto the foliage, secondly to minimise soil evaporation whilst we were away, and finally to suppress weed growth. Earlier in the year I’d added cut plastic drinks bottles to each pot as an aid to watering, and also to encourage roots to grow down, but had been surprised to find how roots quickly colonised the soil’s upper surface when a few other pots were temporarily placed on the upper soil surface whilst the tomato plants were still small.

(surface roots quickly developed underneath the circular outline of another plant pot on the soil surface)

All of these modifications seemed to help. With a couple of visits from willing friends whilst we were away, the plants continued to grow well in our absence.

Interestingly, the lack of tomato flower pollination by me with my trusty tomato vibrator for the 10 days we were away, meant that there were lots of open flowers on our return. I was surprised to find that very few of these flowers appeared to release pollen in obvious quantity when buzzed. Subsequently, a good week of sunny weather has meant I’ve revised my routine for pollination, since pollen seems to be released most obviously in sunny, or perhaps just warmer and drier conditions. And varieties like Maskotka rarely seem to release pollen in visible quantities. So I now buzz about every 3 days, ideally between 10am and 2pm, and ideally in bright or sunny conditions. If I’m looking to save seed I use a brush, otherwise I just buzz. For those lost by these comments, see my earlier post by clicking here. With this routine there are usually about 3 or 4 flowers open per truss, of which the last to open (the furthest from the main plant stem) rarely releases any pollen, so I now don’t even bother to buzz this one. Having refined this protocol, it’s actually quite quick to cover all the plants in the greenhouse. I did notice that in my absence, the percentage of tomatoes forming dropped from 100% to much less, confirming that it’s definitely worthwhile doing.

The lowest truss on a vine with 100% fruit set after vibrator aided pollination.

The next truss up. Notice the gap in flower set, of the 4 flowers which formed whilst I was away for 10 days none have produced fruit. It’s possible of course that other factors were at play here – perhaps lower night time temperatures since the greenhouse door was left very slightly ajar over the whole period. Had I been around it would have been closed in the late afternoon to retain heat overnight. Or perhaps daytime temperatures climbed too high, since I open the door wider to create a through and up draught in bright sunshine. But the greenhouse anyway has 4 roof auto-vents. I don’t think watering was an issue since it was regular in my absence and there was little sunshine whilst we were away. So my guess is that the lack of flower vibration was the real cause of the poor fruit set.

So perhaps if we’re away again my helpers need a short course in tomato flower buzzing.

Tomato growing issues were also discussed during a visit to Tatton flower show recently, when I had a really informative chat with a commercial tomato grower from Southport. Like most farmed tomatoes, his are grown hydroponically under glass in a completely artificial medium, and they use bought in Dutch bumblebee colonies to avoid the need for manual flower vibration. But he also uses reflective material (Mypex) over the growing medium. He hadn’t heard of the recent work in North America suggesting that, particularly in colder climates, red plastic mulches may be even more effective than silvery mulches and can supposedly boost yields by up to 20 % in some seasons. I might try this type of mulch next year, although currently in the UK this red plastic mulch doesn’t seem to be available – I’d have to buy disposable red party plastic tablecloths instead!

In addition, my chat revealed that they harvest their first tomatoes in March, and so command a premium price. How do they achieve this? By using supplementary heat, and sowing their seeds in early December at the latest. They don’t currently use any artificial light although apparently there are trials going on using LED lighting for low energy additional growing light in the gloom of a North West UK winter. This made me begin to think about using heat in our own small greenhouse to get the plants going early on. After all at this stage the plants are small, so the heat could be efficiently restricted to just a small part of the greenhouse, and would probably only be intermittently necessary for 6 to 8 weeks.

A downside to this would be having to manage much taller or longer tomato vines later in the season, so again a rethink of my vine training system would be needed, but that’s a challenge worth solving to be able to eat tomatoes before the terribly late date of August 1st which I managed this year. And home grown tomatoes really do taste better than bought ones. I must also complement Ben of Real Seeds from Newport in his trial selection of an early fruiting tomato. This selection of tomato has ripened at least two weeks before the Maskotka variety which I have again grown alongside it – no hint of any reddening yet in these Maskotka fruit as I write on August 6th.

August 1st is also the date of the ancient festival of Lammas Day, historically used in Anglo-Saxon cultures to celebrate the start of the year’s wheat, fruit or lamb harvests, depending upon which interpretation of the origin of the word you opt for. So I thought I’d include a few pictures of how poorly our own efforts to grow vegetables have fared this summer.

We thought last year was poor for Broad Beans, but this year has been worse. We shall eventually have a crop, but perhaps 4-5 weeks later than expected. Grown from saved seed (mainly Witkiem Manita with 5 beans per pod)  and planted at about 9 inch centres in dumpy bags after sowing in small pots in the greenhouse.

Leeks have eventually grown well, but slowly. Thank goodness we have grown the early French yellow-green leek, “Jaune de Poitou”, originating from western France from Real Seeds. They are now bulking up well, have a great flavour, and we’ve already used a few thinnings.

Still, one lesson learned from the cold, wet and lack of light this year has been the benefit of soil protection and warming. After the really poor growing conditions in April and early May I rigged up some simple protective covers for the dumpy bags with battening and stapled on enviromesh. They’re lightweight, allow rain through, provide significant wind protection and are easy to remove for weeding. Follow on crops are definitely germinating much faster underneath these lightweight duvets and squash planted out late in June have performed really well under these covers, compared with those planted in the open ground.

With the added heat store benefit of a wall behind, and woven willow in front, the carrot crop is now lifting the enviromesh and battening from the frame. Although initial germination was patchy and required a second sowing, the ‘duvets’ had by then been designed and added.

So far just a few potatoes have been harvested and some nice sugar peas (Oregon Sugar Pod) shown below with a Dahlia in the matrix tyre garden….

Later crops like the leeks, beetroot, pak choi, parsnips and winter cabbages may have sufficient time to recover. But the special challenges of wet, slugs, lack of light and low temperatures have all taken their toll. Of course come the crunch, we can buy in vegetables can’t we? Indeed this seems to have been the nation’s approach to farming and national food sufficiency in the recent past. Why worry growing our own in the UK when we can buy food more cheaply elsewhere on the global market?

Perhaps this year’s weather is a hint as to why this attitude may reflect a dangerous complacency. Much of Northern Europe has suffered very poor summer weather with major impacts on crop success and yields (peas, strawberries and potatoes being just 3 early UK examples where quantity and quality are down and prices up), North America in contrast has suffered blistering heat and drought, so that cereal yields are depressed and prices high. Anyone wondering where this could lead might be interested in reading one of the latest pieces “World On The Edge – How to prevent environmental and economic collapse” by American researcher and author Lester Brown which can be downloaded as a PDF file by clicking here. This year’s weather has certainly made me think more about the real tightrope that an ever increasing world population is walking between sufficiency and calamatous crop failures, food shortages, consequent food price inflation, and possible social and political fall out.

But enough of gloom!

Most of the UK, or Great Britain and Northern Ireland as ‘Team GB’ is billed in the Medals Tables, (by the way, when did Britain become ‘GREAT BRITAIN’) has rightly been preoccupied, for now, with the mega event of the London 2012 Olympics. We managed to snatch part of the opening ceremony as a jerky internet download and enjoyed its creativity and flair, even if some of the musical interludes were rightly aimed at a slightly younger audience, and of questionable melody and rhythm to our ageing ears.

By chance we had our own spectacular natural display of cloudscapes and light which bathed the valley’s amphitheatre on the late afternoon of the opening ceremony Friday as a frontal system fought its way into the UK to banish the brief glimpse of settled sunny weather we’d previously enjoyed. The rather small number of swallows who have made it through this poor year clearly thought it was time for some Olympian displays, and performed over the house to a backdrop of silvered mackerel patterns as the sun sank behind the Western hills.

Visitors to London 2012 may have been interested to read that perhaps too many of the city’s residents concerned by the global decline in honeybee numbers might have jumped into bee keeping as a hobby/interest. A recent report which I read in the wildlife gardening forum’s latest newsletter, suggested that there may now be just too many bee colonies in central London to be supported by the foraging material available.

A square kilometre of foraging habitat will support just 5 colonies apparently (although precisely what is meant by this ‘foraging habitat’ is not defined). There are now areas of central London with over 150 registered hives per square kilometre! So, it seems pretty certain that as with us humans, there just ain’t going to be enough food to go around. Back here at Gelli, regular readers will know that we still don’t have a beehive, but have flirted with attracting honeybees to take up residence in a hollowed-out tree trunk – so far with no success. In this desperately poor summer, one of the real bright spots has been noticing that for the first year ever, we now have honeybees visiting some of the garden’s flowers every day, when the rain abates.

This has never happened in previous years. And just before a visit from the grandchildren, a tidy of their room revealed half a dozen honeybees which had sadly perished inside the bedroom window, presumably after entering through a small gap at the top of the frame, exploring the old house as a potential new home.

So, perhaps in our long term aim of making the garden more insect friendly we are indeed making steady progress. Below is a sequence showing the different pollen colours (cream, blue, orange)  collected by honeybees from 3 different garden flowers in a  rare sunny hour. Native Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), Echium ‘Blue Bedder‘ and Francoa sonchifolia. All growing in single tyres and so presenting sufficient massed flowers to attract concentrated bee pollen harvesting which reveal these rich colour differences. Interestingly, our local National Botanic Garden of Wales is currently using its globally unique complete database of native plant species DNA codes, to establish from pollen collected from honeybee bodies, exactly which flowers they have been visiting. A different take on direct observation I guess.

Finally, another longish interval between posts has followed from our efforts in preparing for new arrivals at Gelli. The first influx, of near-to-lay Light Sussex chickens and Turkey poults arrived yesterday. We’re not giving them the run of the whole garden or smallholding since predatory foxes, birds and cats are real threats. Apart from their abilities as small scale rotovators.

Inevitably there’s been an initial period of settling in, for all of us. But what has impressed me most, as a newbie poultry keeper, is just how quickly the birds explored and assessed their new home and in particular our food and drink supply, which is different to what they were familiar with. Less than an hour and they’d mastered the water nipple drinkers, and rod shaped feed dispenser. Intelligence or Nous? Whichever, the turkeys seemed a bit quicker on the uptake than the chickens and the initial decision not to clip wing feathers may need reassessing after the turkey poults quickly checked out my simple low separating fenced gate as a suitable perch. As I write this with the Velux ajar, the unexpected bonus is of a low volume musical whistling from the small mixed breed group of traditional turkey poults – Slate, Bronze and Ronquiere. We hope that coming from a flock kept on the open top of a hill 1,000 feet above sea level and only 30 minutes drive from Gelli Uchaf, they should by now be used to what the Welsh weather will throw at them.

.Light Sussex and nipple water drinker – sussed in less than an hour.

Light Sussex and food dispenser. Sussed in less than an hour.

My basic gate construction is unlikely to survive many more days of multiple perching. A redesign is called for. Slate and Ronquiere turkey poults.

And a bit more colour from the garden.

Stachys and Bumblebee.

J and I’s fabulously coloured Opium Poppy collected as seed from a Llanarthne garden, and flowering for the first time with us.

Geranium procurrens, native to the Himalaya, just beginning to flower. Always a harbinger of autumn up here, and a Geranium flower that closes at dusk.

Sidalceas and Geraniums in the Magic Terrace garden.

Saved seed Sweet Peas, and some bought in pastels, in the matrix garden. Will I get any pastels next year from the largely maroon and blue/purple shades which predominated this year?

Normal rose/pink Stachys officinalis seedlings planted by chance with Stachys ‘Hummelo’ seedlings, creating an interesting mix.

‘It’s been a good year for the Astilbes, many blooms still linger here’.

A good year too for the Hydrangeas in the amphitheatre.

Coreopsis and Verbena rigida – magic terrace garden.

A fairly rare, but beautiful visitor to the garden. A Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Cordulegaster boltonii. (Edited about 3 weeks later. I’ve only ever seen this Dragonfly once before, and the above image was taken in our Magic Terrace Garden on the opening Friday afternoon of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Was this a sign of things to come? And why do we call this part of the garden “the magic terrace garden?

An enormous, but unknown fly, which Fiona spotted. Almost the size of a medium sized moth.

A rare sunny morning.


4 thoughts on “Tatton and Tomatoes; Lammas Laments; Olympian Swallows; Urban Apiarists and Avian Intelligence

  1. I think your large fly might be the Dark Giant Horsefly (Tabanus Sudeticus), the heaviest fly in Europe! I have a special interest in researching horseflies as my poor (black) horse and I are always besieged and bitten by the bastards (they have big mandibles which they use ‘for tearing at flesh’! I have found out that horseflies are attracted to certain smells(I must smell yummy!), CO2, and most interestingly, dark colours. (I have often wondered why grey, white and chestnut horses just don’t seem to be affected) Research has shown that the Zebra’s stripes neutralizes the attractive efffect, possibly accounting for why Zebras in utero change from black to striped before birth!

    • Hello Rinka,
      Great comment and information. Thank you so much. And I loved the link to the research on zebras being less likely to be bitten by horseflies, because of the light/dark stripes. Does anyone manufacture lightweight breathable striped coats/rugs for dark horses to wear. Or riders?? Could create a bit of a stir in the dressage arena?? It certainly looked like the largest fly I’d ever seen, but on researching a bit more it seems that as with midges, it’s just the female of the species which bites (needing extra protein from blood for egg laying). The male horsefly is a retiring soul which, well, wouldn’t hurt a fly…….

Comments are closed.