Do tomato plants laugh when you tickle them?

Am I the only one that’s ever asked that question? If you’ve never tried growing tomato plants, you’re probably reaching for the phone right now – “help, someone’s going around actually tickling tomato plants!” But wait, please let me explain. It’s not a joke, it really is a thing!

I think that THE most rewarding plant to grow is the tomato. Once you have it safely ensconced in a pot of multi-purpose soil or a grow bag, it needs a little bit of support and pampering for it to fulfil its true calling in life. A really good drink of water in dry weather; a meal of high potassium feed once a week from the time it goes into flower; a few cosmetics, and by the end of August you’ll be plucking juicy red fruits from the vine -preferably on a sunny day when all the sugars have risen into the fruit. But there are two really important jobs to do before you get to enjoy the fruit of your labour.

 Vine tomatoes will produce side shoots known as ‘suckers’. Those suckers have got to go! The plant is putting energy into growing as big as it can but we want it to put all its energy into growing our delicious tomato. To identify the sucker; follow the main stem until you get to a leaf. If there is a growth emerging in between where the leaf meets the stem that is your sucker! Get rid of it by simply breaking it off the plant.

All tomato plants are self pollinating – meaning the pollen in a flower needs only to drop down into the female parts of the same flower for fertilisation to take place. They still need our lovely pollinating critters to visit to jiggle the flower around, causing the pollen to fall. But you’ll have noticed that the flowers aren’t exactly show stopping. They can easily be missed by insects. If you plant pots of marigolds and other flowers that insects like around them, you increase the chance of the flower being pollinated. BUT – if you gently rub your finger over the end of the flower you’re basically doing the job of the insect. This is genuinely known as ‘tickling’. Your plant is more likely to produce fruit by giving it a good tickle. So go ahead, give your tomatoes a good tickle and hear them squeal with delight!

Ponderings from the Polytunnel

I don’t know what to call this one!

It’s been hanging in the air for a while now. Sometimes you could smell it, sometimes you could hear and feel it but now we’re beginning to see it. The natural world is savvy and has been preparing for it, and now the change is finally here. It’s my favourite season but the change is a hard one. There’s much work to do. Ladybirds are building communes, finding shelter in seed heads and the hollow stems of spent plants. Garden spiders and daddy long legs are moving in with us much to the horror of some. Many birds have headed off south for their vacation flying thousands of miles, while those forced to ‘staycate’ are growing their own duvet to keep them warm throughout the impending winter months. Dormice, bats, hedgehogs, slow worms, frogs, toads, newts and snakes are each constructing their hibernation bed – hibernacula – to spend the winter sleeping in. Those who don’t hide away are eating their way through the season; feasting before the famine to put on some extra weight, giving them a better chance of surviving the leaner days ahead. Agile, arboreal acrobats are pillaging the trees for nuts and seeds to stash.   

I think the hardest part of Autumn for the critters out there, surely has to be an event that happens at the very beginning of it – more towards the end of summer. All those Mini Me’s that we met frolicking, playing and cavorting through Spring are now adolescents, and in true adolescent manner, they’re eager to break away and become independent. The Summer Dispersal involves teenage critters striking out , travelling far and wide to set up their own home. Foxes can travel up to 10 miles to find and establish their new territory while the water vole need only swim a few metres. I wonder what Mum thinks of it all. Children she has fought for, protected, and nurtured in every way she knows how are now rivals for food, shelter and partners. I know you can see the parallel.

red leaf trees near the road
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Change is hard. Where there is expectancy and a chance to prepare for it, as with Autumn, it’s a bit easier. But when it’s imposed without warning, it’s a shocker- even when it’s a change for the good. The plant that is repositioned so that it can grow bigger and stronger, inevitably becoming more productive, goes through a period of stress while it settles into its new environment. The adolescent critter striking out on their own so they can do the same, must surely experience some fear and loneliness. The hardest change of all is the loss of a relationship and right now relationships are changing throughout the animal kind. I hope they don’t feel it as keenly as we do. However, what might seem like a change for the worse now, will ultimately be a change for the good. All those seeds that will have been sitting in the cold and wet for a wee while will soon be bursting through the soil. They need that period of dormancy to bring forth so much productivity. All those adolescent beasties that might be feeling lonely and insecure now, will go on to perpetuate their kind, delighting us with their company on the way. In the meantime, for mankind; there are cold, crisp, sunny days to enjoy; bonfires and fireworks to delight in, and relationships to relish as we move towards the other side of change. Surely that’s what wintery walks and pub lunches are for after all?

plate with tasty asian food on terrace of cafe
Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

Summing up September – something different

Garden life in photographs – chickens, squirrels, wasps, a rogue rat, flowers, harvest, preserves, frogs, kindling, children, dogs and foxes – it’s been busy in my little haven! Figs, plums, greengages, apples, hazelnuts, melons, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, courgettes, giant mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, salad leaves, spring onions, cucumbers, eggs, herbs, and a few late strawberries have graced the dining table. Now it’s the turn of the parsnips and leeks to make their guest appearances.

See you in October!

I had the pleasure of hosting Monica from the Travel Hack last week.

And this is her lovely review. The link will take you to her website – which is well worth a look at.

Groceries from the garden: Learning more about self sufficiency with Isa Lamb – The Travel Hack


(photo – Monica Stott – The Travel Hack)

Ponderings from the Polytunnel

Daylight Robbery

He sat on the garden fence. Under the pretence of attending to his ablutions, the criminal mastermind formulated his cunning plan. He suddenly stopped what he was doing, and with a tweak and a twirl of his dastardly whiskers, he let out a maniacal laugh before parkouring his way to his shiny ruby target: fence to railing – railing to tree trunk – tree trunk to branch- branch to twig – twig to apple – to fence to shed roof to -oops….he dropped it! He folded his hairy arms, unfolded them again, and scratched his head while he considered his dilemma. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes and scoffed. Then with an ease that belongs only to his kind, he swiftly leapt back onto the fence – to railing- to tree – to apple number two! But he is wise. This time he returns to his criminal lair via a different route. Me and my apple tree – the helpless victims in this crime, can only stand aghast, as we watch our precious harvest being carried away. Actually; in reality, I stood somewhat in awe!! Firstly, by his audacity, secondly by his acrobatics and thirdly by his ingenuity.

In the long time that I’ve lived here I have never seen a squirrel in the garden until now. The funny thing is, I had literally just returned from delivering a newly composed talk on our subject (see Grow4it – Groceries from the Garden ), so to see him in action was the proverbial icing on the cake. His ankles are double jointed which earns him the much coveted title of being the only mammal that can run head first down a tree trunk! What really impressed me was his obvious intelligence. He appeared to understand straight away, that jumping across to an object 10 ft away in an upwardly direction, with an apple bigger than the size of your head in your mouth, apparently doesn’t end well! He only did it the once. He did not repeat his mistake.

The criminal mastermind – aka – the grey squirrel (photo- creative commons)

Albert Einstein once said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”.  Learning by making mistakes is a painful, sometimes embarrassing but inevitable part of life. It’s easier and definitely wiser, if you can learn from the mistakes others have made but if you’re trying out something no-one has ever done before, you’re going to have to bear the burden yourself. Thomas Edison didn’t view mistakes as failures but as opportunities to find out what doesn’t work. What patience!  Such tenacity led to his holding over 1000 patents for his inventions! He didn’t allow the prospect of getting it wrong, hold any fear over him.  Who else could use some of that courage? The more painful the result, the more swiftly the lesson is learned which makes me wonder if my little criminal hurt himself on his first attempt to journey home with his loot.  But his initial failure at this new activity, has led to his learning a new skill – how to rob me blind, and strip my apple tree of its deliciousness! So, now I’m limbering up in preparation for the inevitable forthcoming; ‘Operation: Keeping Squirrel Mitts Off My Plums, Greengages, Figs and Hazelnuts’.  I can see it’s not going to be a fair fight but I’ll put up a good one. Oh, and I’ve decided to call him ‘Albert’ –a name befitting such an amazing little squirrel genius, I think you’ll agree!

Limbering up for ‘operation squirrel mitts’

Congratulations – it’s a girl!

“My cucurbits aren’t producing fruit “, I hear you cry. I feel your pain, it’s happened to me. Cucumber, melon, courgette (marrow), squash, gourd and pumpkin, are all members of this delicious, watery, succulent family.

Back in the Spring, you took those curiously flat, oval seeds and started them off in pots. You even planted them on their side so that excess water could run off them, improving their chances of germination. You lovingly transplanted them into their growing position when weather and season permitted; a well- drained, fertile sunny spot. You tenderly cared for them, making sure they didn’t get thirsty. You removed caterpillars from them by hand, protected them from every mollusc in the neighbourhood – because word is out – they know there’s a party going on in your garden! In return for your kindness, they put out plenty of fleshy, verdant growth. And then, you could hardly contain your excitement, as you saw the first blousy yellow flower appear. Like a good veggie grower, you’ve planted plenty of insect attractant plants around them to give the flowers the best chance of being pollinated because you know the window of opportunity is small. You waited….and waited…waited some more ….and …nothing! More lush flowers; still nothing.  Ah, the curse of the cucurbits!

Cucurbits produce both male and female flowers. Boys come first. The more mature the plant is, the more likely it is to grow some girls. It’s the girls that need to be pollinated to grow your lovely fruit. For that you need the pollen to be transferred from the boy. So, yep! You guessed it. It takes two to cucurbit! So, how do you know which one is male and which one is female? Easy! Mrs C has a miniature fruitlet sitting just behind the flower.  Mr C doesn’t.

The female has a miniature, unfertilised fruitlet sitting behind the flower, clearly seen as a bulge on this melon plant. She needs to be pollinated for the fruit to grow.
The male flower simply grows on a stalk.  We need him to pollinate the girls.

A young plant will initially put out mostly male flowers. One way to encourage it to produce more girls is to -sorry about this, guys- remove some of the boys. The plant somehow gets the message and starts producing more girls. However, don’t go crazy, this is not a cull! Leave some boys because you need them to pollinate the girls when they grow and she will only be open for a couple of days. This is why you grew all those lovely insect attractant plants nearby! You can pollinate the flowers by hand by taking a male flower off the plant, removing the petals (from smaller flowers such as those produced by the melon), and rubbing the pollen bud around the inside of the female. It’s a bit fiddly but it can help increase your chances of fruit being formed.  One male flower can be used to pollinate 3-4 females. I’ve only ever needed to use this hand pollination method for my melon plants growing in the greenhouse.

This young lady wasn’t pollinated and her potential fruit is turning yellow. It will eventually drop off.
Whereas, this young lady has been busy,
The pollinated fruit will continue to swell into a hairy young melon baby
The fruit continues to grow and the flower end drops off

As the fruit swells and gets heavier it may need some kind of support. Large squashes, melons and pumpkins growing on the ground can be supported by purchasing cradles that allow the air to circulate around the plant and for it to grow evenly. For larger fruits growing vertically you may need to provide a ‘sling’ to prevent their weight breaking the stem of the plant. Old tights or netting is ideal for this. Be as creative as you like!

Once the fruit has started to swell, feed the plant every 10-14 days with a liquid feed high in potassium/potash; such as tomato feed, and continue to make sure the plant doesn’t experience drought. You can remove some of the larger leaves around the fruit to let the sun do its job of ripening. Harvest fruits by cutting them off the plant with stem attached and enjoy – throw your head back and laugh – delighting in the knowledge that you have overcome the curse of the cucurbits!

Ponderings from the Polytunnel

Going Where the Favour Lies

How do you know if a door is locked or unlocked? No, it’s not the start of a bad joke. It’s something I use as a bit of a life philosophy, and you know the answer. It’s simple. You turn the handle. Sometimes you have to give the door a slight push but clearly, if you run at it from 300 hundred paces, throw all your weight on it and it still won’t budge, then you can safely assume it’s locked! Opportunities come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some don dark glasses and other such disguises (couldn’t help it – it rhymed – but the sentiment is there). They are not always easy to recognise and just staring at the door handle won’t open the door. YOU have to engage with it, and exert your energy and influence on it.

This summer, at a garden where a group of us get our green exercise, high at the top of a pergola, a family of tree bees moved into a redundant bird box. They took the opportunity to lease hold the property for the season, make it their own, do what the birds and the bees do, and raise their resultant bee babies, teaching them how to bee. All in the space of a few weeks. Back in 2001, Bombus Hypnorum, as she likes to be called, took the opportunity to establish herself here in the UK. She’s settled in nicely, without causing detriment or harm to us or our native bees.  She’s now a fairly common site in the more northerly parts of the UK. Imagine if she hadn’t taken the opportunity? I wonder which intrepid soul was the first to recognise that the handle could be turned, that the door could be opened and that a new land could be conquered? Which bee was the first to engage, spend her energy, and subsequently influence the future of the entire species?  

Tree Bees in their summer house

One unlocked door will often lead to others. In turning various handles over the years, I have learned to only push a little. I’m not going to waste my limited time, resources and energy in taking a battering ram to them because we do have a problem here! We can’t see what’s on the other side of the door and when you’re a curious sort, you have to know. But you might be better off remaining in ignorance. You may not like what you see or not understand that what looks appealing might actually be harmful to you.

You see, our little bee friend has only done so well because the conditions are right for her here. The environment suits her and supports her needs and wishes; food, shelter, territory.  She saw an opportunity, realised conditions were favourable and set up home. Opportunities will not produce anything unless you follow through. Bombus gave it a try and has thrived.

In May and June the guys swarm the nest entrance waiting for her majesty to appear so they can mate with her.

We have experienced such a long time of literally being behind locked doors. Some of the doors that were once open remain locked up – possibly permanently. But opportunities are coming up again. Handles are beginning to turn and like our bee friend, we can advance into new and exciting lands. She’s moved on and her nest is empty now. She saw her bird box of opportunity and by taking it, she has secured her family line.  Bombus Hypnorum would tell you to go for it, you little risk taker you! When a door presents itself to you, turn the handle, go where the favour is and see what wonderous new world opens up before you. You never know, we might meet up on the other side of the door. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Lovely reviews of our Groceries from the Garden Experience – 5 star!

Lucy ” We thoroughly enjoyed our ‘groceries in the garden’ experience. Isa was extremely informative and gave us a lot of insight into growing fruit and vegetables in your own back garden. After taking a tour round her beautiful garden we also got to enjoy hands-on activities including feeding chickens, re-potting plants and cultivating potato’s. I would recommend this to anyone wanting to learn more about gardening food, or anyone who is looking for a therapeutic relaxing, educational experience. This best way to end our 3 day trip in Wales. Isa was a lovely host, she was honest, down to earth, had great energy and we left feeling grounded and inspired. Thank you Isa!! “

Maya “Amazing experience! Will go again and take my daughter. Lovely lady and AMAZING garden”.

Why not book your place now? https://www.airbnb.co.uk/experiences/2161722

“Keep your bird lips off my food”

That’s the often repeated mantra that echoes throughout my garden at the moment! The visiting blackbirds seem very tame; I can get ridiculously close to them. One clever couple have raised triplets and bring them to the redcurrant bush to feast on. I don’t mind; there are plenty. But when they move onto my blueberries it’s another story. It’s as if they know they can be difficult to grow. They won’t keep their bird lips off! The thing about a wildlife garden is that it attracts wildlife.  My brassica seedlings have been replaced three times because some critter keeps eating them. So rude! The critter tried to move into the hen pen but it was informed it had been eyeballed, and its’ plan for hen pen domination has been thwarted.

The blueberries are now covered in netting

Talking of the girls– all but one of my lovely rescue hens that I got last year have died, so I have 4 newbies. It’s a bit like the Montagues and Capulets down there; each group sticking to their own end and occasionally clashing over food in the middle. Their noisy protestations make them sound like they need oiling!

The garden has been quietly growing (when critters and birds allow), although it seems a bit behind everyone else’s. Even so, the dinner table has been graced with beans, peas, potatoes, leeks, cucumbers, salads, radishes, cauliflower, cabbages, spinach, spring onions, and carrots. And for desert; strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and rhubarb. Onions, shallots and garlic are curing in the wood store – yes, the wood store – where else would one cure one’s alliums? The tomatoey madness is yet to come but the plants are healthy with flowery promise and there’s much laughter to be heard as they’re given a good tickle. 

It took me a long time to figure out just how busy I should be in the garden in July, because it seems, in some respects, as if the growing season is starting to slow down. The long lazy days of summer make you feel long and lazy! July is sometimes known as our second spring, due to the fact that there are many seeds that can be sown now, many transplants to plant in situ, and it actually is a very busy month. Lots to do to prepare for the late autumn and spring harvests. The weather here is currently hair frizzing – 90 degrees in the greenhouse by 9:00am.  And yet in the cooler evenings you can almost smell the forthcoming transition of seasons in the air.

You can directly sow Autumn King carrots, Swiss Chard, Spinach, Purple Kale, and all manner of salad leaves; such as quick heading lettuces, winter purslane, endive, oriental leaves, mibuna and chicory. Why not multi sow beetroots such as Boltardy, turnips such as Snowball and start yet more radishes, peas, spring onions, French beans, spring cabbages, kohl rabi, and fennel? Leek transplants need to be in by the end of the month, together with Brussels sprouts, winter cabbages, autumn cauliflowers and sprouting broccoli seedlings.

There really isn’t such a thing as a lazy summer when it comes to growing your own. As well as all the above; there’s weeding, feeding, watering, harvesting, pruning, and training to keep on top of. There are wars to fight – soil borne diseases, airborne diseases, pests and critters. Cats sitting on your seedlings or using your raised beds as giant litter trays; birds to scare as you wrestle them for your blackcurrants; slugs and snails partying on your greens; black fly, green fly and variations on a theme. There’s food to harvest, cure, store and preserve and July is the month to do it all in!

Cherry and plum trees are pruned now – not in the winter. Apple and pears need to be thinned out to allow each fruit to grow to a reasonable size. Blackcurrants can be lightly pruned, and following your harvest of summer raspberries, cut the canes that had borne fruit down to the ground.

August will hopefully allow for some relaxation, be it a staycation or a vacation. See you then with cuppa in hand.

Another lovely endorsement for our ‘Grow4it’ hospital work

“I wanted to say a big thank you for your nature studies sessions. Patients have found them really interesting and a great escape from the hospital environment breaking up the day. We have noticed such a difference in patients that come to the session being engrossed and engaged with the fascinating topics that you present. They find them so interesting and as they have limited outside time it helps them to visualise their own gardens and favourite outside spaces. It also promotes chatter amongst the others on the ward”.

(Community hospital Dementia Support Worker)

If you are interested in receiving our lively interactive nature studies for your ward/hospital/hospice/social/community group, please contact Isa isa@groceriesfromthe.garden – for more information. Sessions can also be delivered online.

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