Our horticultural expert answers your queries and has jobs for the coming week – weather permitting.
Q: I sowed tomato seeds at the end of June so we would have fruits in autumn. I was amazed because I had lovely fruits until the first week in December. We had a severe frost and I went out into the greenhouse and picked 36 huge fruits. Any tips on how to ripen them? Sally, Horndean.
A: I did exactly the same and picked tomatoes right up to December 9. Wrap each fruit in a half-sheet of newspaper and put them in layers in a box in the warm. Once a week unwrap them and take out the red ones. I used to do this with my lovely grandma when I was little and still do it now!
Q: I was interested to read how to use wood ash in the garden. I would like to get some soot because I have found it prevents slug damage on my potato crop. Where can I get some? GL, Eastney.
A: I have put your letter on this page as a chimney sweep may write in. I will let you know. Another idea is to look online for chimney sweeps who often advertise their services as 'flueologist'. I agree, soot ensures a slug-free potato crop if you can get hold of it.
Q: We have a stone bird bath but a brown scum forms after a few days. Is there anything we can use to stop this? HD, Chichester.
A: Go to a fish and chip shop and ask them if they will keep the liquid they use to preserve eggs. Allow the bird bath to dry out and then paint the inside with the egg preservative and allow it to dry. Apply another coat a few days later. Allow a week to pass before refilling the bird bath with water because the egg preservative needs to go into the fissures in the natural stone.
Q: A lot of leaves have fallen into our pond. Is there an easy way to get them out? GS, Rowlands Castle.
A: Use a fishing net on a pleasant day. The leaves can go into the compost heap.
JOBS FOR THE COMING WEEK
• It is very important to check bags of potatoes which were dug last autumn. This is best undertaken once a month in case any tubers are rotting. Remove any that are. Don’t leave them around; put them straight into the dustbin.
• Check onions which are often hung up in bunches. Some might have become soft in the neck (top) of the bulb. Use these first. Simply cut out the soft parts until you find flesh which is firm.
• The children are on holiday and a nice indoor job would be to sow some mustard and cress. You don't need to have a greenhouse. Some prefer cress to mustard but if you would like both, sow the cress three days earlier than the mustard because it takes three days longer to reach the same stem-length as the mustard. A packet of seeds costs £2 for each . In a temperature of 15C (60F) the crop will be ready to eat in 10-12 days. Instructions are on the packets. I have just sown some cress. Children like things to happen quickly!
• Did you know nearly all seedsmen have a mail order catalogue? You will find the address on the back of the seed packets, all the catalogues have wonderful pictures and it's good to be able to choose what you want to order in the darker evenings.You see, we are already looking forward to summer.
• Have you ever seen the flowers on anemone blanda? They are daisy-like blue blooms, or pink which has the added name rosea. There are little tubers in fancy packs at garden centres. They can be planted in pots right now indoors and once the pots are filled with roots these gems can be planted outdoors in a sunny spot. If you do this, they are always a great success whereas if planted directly into the garden, the little tubers often rot or are eaten by all sorts of beasties.
• Now that we have had frosts, dig out the roots of chrysanthemums, called stools. Wash them off in cold water and put them into boxes of moist potting compost in a cold greenhouse. Cutttings can be taken in February and March.
• Dig out a huge clump of rhubarb. Leave it on top of the ground to allow frosts to penetrate the thick stem. Put the clump into a black polythene bag at the end of February and then into the airing cupboard, still in the black polythene bag so that the delicious red stems can be enjoyed in March. Rhubarb keeps you going!
• If you haven't moved rhubarb plants for ages, do this now and give each clump a generous amount of farmyard manure. If you need more plants, this is the time to split the clumps.
• This is a good time to plant or transplant strawberries. It is very important not to bury the crown (centre) of the plant.If you would like to grow some in pots in the greenhouse, pot the largest runners into five-inch diameter pots. Wash the roots first to remove all the soil. Pot each plant into any potting compost BUT you will need six, or even better, eight plants for each person you intend to eat the fruits. Leave the potted plants outdoors for not less than four weeks to allow them to be cold. This initiates the hormones to produce flowers in spring. The flowers will need pollinating with a fine art brush once the blooms appear about April, but you will be picking the fruit in early May for four weeks.
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