Cabbage whites – the brassica massacre

Gazing out to the garden the other week I spotted the first Cabbage Whites of the year. These innocent-looking little butterfies gently fluttered in and around the vegetable plot, but I know from past experience how much utter carnage they can create in the blink of an eye.

As I clocked them, I made a mental note to be totally ahead of the game this year. Instead of watching my cabbage patch get munched by very hungry caterpillars, I decided to be one step in front, and destroy the eggs before they even had a chance to hatch. Cabbage Whites lay clusters of tiny yellow eggs, normally on the undersides of brassica leaves. Whizzing off down the garden to execute my plan, I eagerly began systematically turning each leaf over in my search.

Imagine my dismay to find that I’d been out-scuppered by the little blighters. They’d evidently sneaked in to the patch without me noticing, and the eggs I was looking for were now miniscule caterpillars. In their droves. All over the plants. And I had not got a chance of finding them all. I then decided that the next logical course of action would be to spray the brassica plants to kill the bugs. I’m not normally a fan of insecticide, knowing I’ll be eating the end produce at some point, but in this case I had little option. But before I’d even had a chance to nip out and get some, I noticed something else was amiss. A closer look at the broccoli plants revealed not only munch-holes in the leaves, but something else was going very wrong with the actual heads that were forming. I can only assume this has something to do with the freakishly hot weather we’ve been having, but the heads that had started to form beautifully were now looking decidedly sick and wizened. And certainly not fit for the table.

Brassica slug damage

Err… I don’t fancy that for my tea

There was nothing for it, so dejectedly I cut off the manky heads and the worst affected leaves, which became free food for the chicken run – complete with extra protein. In the joins between the leaves and the stem it looks like more little heads are forming, so I’ll leave them alone for now and see if they grow into anything half-edible.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. On the up side, the runner beans have caught up marvellously, and I have the first tiny beans beginning to form. The French beans have their first flowers, and the pumpkin plant I bought earlier in the year has begun snaking its way towards the bottom of the garden. A friend gave me some pea plants a week or so back, and these too are looking fine and dandy. So if nothing else, we should have plenty of beans and peas to eat.

The cabbage cull

It will soon be that time of the year when onion sets and garlic need to be planted. The onion sets are on order, and I’ll be splitting up a couple of the garlic bulbs grown this year, and planting their cloves. Onions and garlic can go in during autumn or spring, and after this year’s disaster, I was keen to get mine in as soon as possible, in the hope they’d get a good stronghold over winter.

I dug out the crop rotation plan, and discovered that they should be planted in the previous season’s brassica bed.

Slight problem there… the cabbages, broccoli and brussels are still whooping it up in there.

So this week I’ve had to make an important gardening decision. My dad used to say that if you’re umming and ahhing about something, write down the plusses and minuses on each side of a sheet of paper, and all should become clear. So off I went, and the list looked a bit like this:

The plus side:

  1. If we ignore the cauliflower disaster of a couple of weeks ago, brassicas are one of the few things that actually survive in my veg plot

The minus side:

  1. Yes, they grow, but it’s touch and go if we get a hearted-up cabbage or not, and only a handful of last year’s Brussels formed nutty balls: all the rest were like miniature baggy cabbages
  1. If there was a cabbage-only supermarket, my family would not be the first ones in the queue. Over the year, I’ve had to be pretty inventive with my culinary skills to get the stuff eaten
  1. The slugs in the garden may as well have their own bar tab, with the amount of beer that’s sloshing around in the slug pubs
  1. I could start off a caterpillar farm with the pickings from the patch

So there you have it. The cold, hard evidence. Brassicas have had their day, so I’ve decided to not grow as many next year. I’ll still plant a few, but not enough to be over-run with the stuff: just sufficient to eat now and again. With this new decisive air about me, I set about clearing some space in the brassica bed to make room for the onion sets that could arrive at any time. Anything that looked puny, holey, or had started forming flowers was swiftly whipped out, and only plants that actually looked edible were allowed to stay in.

The final nail in the cabbagy coffin happened in the week. A photo appeared on the OH’s Facebook page, depicting a slug on the grass, with an arrow behind him saying ‘cabbages’. “Hilarious!” I thought, “I wonder where he’s found that picture”. A closer look revealed the truth. The writing on the sign was his: he’d set the thing up. The message really could not be clearer…

 

Cauliflower

For me, there’s not much that can rival a good cauliflower cheese. A healthy vegetable, dripping with a sauce so calorific it could power your street lights: what’s not to like?

So this year, I decided to have a go at growing some. Back in March, a tray of ‘Organic Goodman’ was sowed, and the seedlings appeared in no time at all. Out into the big wide garden they went, and I had a little bit of a smug moment as I surveyed my brassica patch. Oh yes indeedy, Brussels, purple sprouting broccolli, not one but three types of cabbage, and the piece de resistance… a row of caulis. I chucked in some fish and bone meal whilst planting, and was careful to firm them all in well: apparently brassicas don’t like to be blown about too much. It makes them insecure and upset.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the patch on my regular slug and caterpillar hunt, when my attention was drawn to the cauliflowers. Blow me down… they were only producing white heads. Amazed that I had some vegetables actually behaving and doing what it said in the book, I investigated further to see how best to tend to them.

Out came the gardening book, and I read to keep the heads white, they shouldn’t be exposed to sunlight.  I dutifully pulled up all the leaves to the top of the crown and secured them with string. Quite excited now, I looked forward to the day when the family asked eagerly, “What’s for dinner?” and I could nod sagely towards the garden, answering, “Cauliflower. Not cabbage”.

Leaving the trussed up caulis to do their stuff, I left them well alone. Imagine my surprise when I gently peeled back a couple of the leaves for a sneak peek last week.

diseased cauliflower

Something’s definitely ‘up’ with my caulis

Either something was eating them, or they had some sort of disease. Either way, they weren’t the firm, white heads I was anticipating. They were moth-bitten and scrawny; some no more than wizened black stumps –  and no amount of cheese sauce was going to magic them into a tasty side dish. Disappointed, I rootled round on the t’interweb, but drew a blank. Plenty of guesswork going on, but no definitive answer – I’m still none the wiser as to what killed them. The Mystery of the Cadaverous Cauli: that’s one in the eye for the Famous Five!

There was nothing for it – the whole row had to go. Not wanting to risk putting something disease-ridden in the compost bin, I gave them a decent send off in the household rubbish. I can’t bring myself to tell the family just yet…

cauliflower

I love the headlines the people at The Hinckley Times make up

The dreaded cabbage white

During my day job, there are lots of opportunities to fraternise with learned Doctor types. One such chap was a keen gardener, and I recall having an in depth conversation with him about our shared hobby.

At the time we were digging out our pond, which, being 7 feet by 6 feet was no easy task. It soon became apparent that my colleague was also digging a pond… for which he would need to hire a digger. We then moved onto the topic of greenhouses, and what to grow in them. He announced that he didn’t use his much, due to the fact that he couldn’t get water down to it. Hmmm… a digger for the pond, and no water supply to the greenhouse… his garden was obviously a far larger, grander affair than mine.

It soon became evident that this large, grand garden went hand in hand with a house in a picturesque little village. I mentioned my vast collection of seeds: all obtained when our well known local hardware store sells them off at half price at the end of the season. He’d never heard of the shop, to which I replied, “you must have done… there’s one on every high street.”

“Not on mine there isn’t”, was the puzzled reply.

The subject then turned to garden pests – and in particular the dreaded cabbage white. This innocent-looking little butterfly has the potential to devastate an entire patch of vegetables. Brassicas are its particular favourite, and once it spots its target, eggs are laid in gay abandon all over them. Well, I say all over them – rather, all under them.  Regular checks are essential to play ‘hunt the eggs’, which appear on the underside of leaves, as clusters of yellow dots. Should you miss them, in no time at all, you’ll have a hungry hoard of caterpillars (who are handily the exact shade green as the vegetables), marauding through the bed, chomping anything and everything that crosses their path. Inevitably this means curtains for your cabbage patch.

We then entered a debate on whether putting netting over the veg actually did any good at all, as the cabbage white may simply lay her eggs on top of it, and any eggs will just drop through – making them doubly hard to find as they are now under the net. We agreed that spraying with pesticides was only done as a complete last resort, as you were liable to kill off friendly insects like ladybirds, along with the stuff that you’re trying to eradicate.

At the end of the conversation, I heard a phrase that I have never heard before in my life, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never hear again. Turning to leave, his parting comment, in his rather posh Dr’s voice was, “So, Lynnette, do you cover your brassicas?”.

With that, another work colleague who sat opposite me stifled a guffaw and disappeared behind the desk divider….

Slug pub

Opening the blinds at the weekend I was greeted with a rare sight indeedy. Not only did the sun well and truly have his hat on, but rumour had it he’d be wearing it for a good couple of days.

Dashing off down the garden to get on with some jobs that didn’t involve bailing water out of the beds, I was dismayed to see that we had some visitors who had been having a fine old time in the damp conditions. Slugs. One that I pulled out of the brassica bed was so big the chickens had a job swallowing it.

If you believe everything you hear, there is more than one way to skin a cat,  50 ways to leave your lover and 50 more ways to kill a slug. One of these involves sneaking down at night time and catching them in the act, whereas others involve killing the little blighters. With the ongoing debate about whether slug pellets are harmful to other birds and other creatures, I decided to try out making a slug pub. Basically it’s a sunken container with beer in the bottom. Evidently slugs can’t resist the heady pull of the beer, and once in, find it nigh on impossible to leave; much like many of us at our local watering hole.

Peering into the fridge, I spied lager, bitter, Guinness and cider. Purely in the name of research, I cracked open a can of bitter, took a mighty swig and wondered if the slugs would appreciate this fine brew as much as I. Now to make the traps…

I enlisted the help of the youngest son, and very soon we had four jam jars buried in the soil, dotted around the veg plot. We positioned them under the canopy of leaves where possible, to stop them being flooded out when it rained. Very soon, each of them had an inch or two of beer in them.

The next morning I could hardly contain my excitement as I inspected the traps. Result! Our first haul had produced two fair sized slugs that would otherwise have been happily chomping through our cabbages.

Apparently the beer needs to be replenished regularly as slugs have a fine palate and don’t like stale ale. I may try lager next and see what success rate we have with that.

I’m happy that the slug pubs seem to be working, and that I haven’t had to resort to pellets just yet. I can also empathise with the slugs. If I could choose my method of deployment, I’d pick drowning in a vat of beer over choking on a blue rock any day of the week.

Garden update

I was wandering around in the garden this afternoon, dodging the showers, and noted that although we are not overrun with produce at the moment (cabbage and lettuce are the definite exception), it won’t be long before we are spoilt for choice.

The new brassica bed was only created in April – look at it now!

Positively romping along…

One slight spanner in the works is that the purple sprouting broccoli seems to be, well… sprouting… surely this shouldn’t be happening…

Everything else is looking good though – the potatoes have started to form flowers, but I’ve dug one up and there are no spuds as yet. I quickly popped it back in the ground and it would seem no harm has been done.  I will just have to be patient…

I also have a couple of new additions to the garden. Wandering around the garden centre this morning, I couldn’t resist these little chaps, and at £3.99 each, they almost jumped into my trolley themselves!

The new additions are the little chickens… not the pots 🙂

All in all, it’s all coming together like a plan. Now if this rain would just stop for a bit, it would be perfect!

After the rain

After yesterday’s rain completely stopped play for lots of gardeners and Jubilee parties, I thought I’d take a few pics this morning. Everything is bouncing along, and hopefully before long I’ll be smugly spoilt for choice at what to pick for dinner.

The spuds are doing well – I’ve run into a slight hitch with the old earthing up business. My rows were a bit haphazard, so I think I may run out of earthing up soil very shortly. Not to worry though – the ones in the tyres seem to be OK. There are three varieties in this bed – International Kidney, Cara and some random ones I found sprouting in a bag in the pantry. It will be interesting to see what I end up with…

Three varieties and the tyre planter to the left

Three varieties and the tyre planter to the left

The rasberries at the back of the bed seem happy enough too – must remember to dig out the netting when the fruit starts appearing. Last year I was beaten to it by the birds.

The brassica bed is romping along, and for the first time ever I have cabbages that haven’t shot off into the sky, but have stayed low, and are actually forming… wait for it… hearts!

I’ve pinched the tops off the broad beans, as I read that it helps stop the blackfly. The runner beans have their first flowers, which I’m sure the tree bees will sniff out in no time at all… We actually ate our first crop of peas yesterday. Picked, podded and steamed, they were delicious. We did have to ration them out though, as a basket of pods produced about a spoonful of peas.

Broad, runner and borlotti beans… in that order

The plants in the greenhouse are also coming along. We have one sickly cucumber who seems to be the runt of the litter, but seems to be perking up a bit now. The tomatoes have flowers, and I’ve been busily picking out the bit that grows in the ‘v’ between the stems. Apparently it’s better for them – I normally start off well then lose interest and they all go a bit mad.

‘Curly’ the runty cucumber is third from the right…

Rain stopped play

I know the rain stopped a lot of gardeners’ play recently, but I for one was having a teeny bit of a smug moment about it all.

My lovely new water butt

My lovely new water butt

Only the week before, my birthday present had consisted of some new greenhouse guttering and a shiny new water butt – who said romance was dead… flowers are sooo last year!  After the other half had spent the entire weekend dodging the showers to get it all installed, I was hoping for a veritable downpour… and that’s exactly what we got.

Not only was the new water butt filling up at a grand pace, but the garden was getting a good old water too – If I strained my ears, I could almost hear the sound of slurping roots. And, after being told our area was on a drought warning, we certainly needed it – looking round the garden, some plants had fared slightly better than others.

After rescuing my brassicas from the beak of a hungry pigeon earlier in the year, the purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) has grown into fine specimens, and we’re getting a good crop from it. Alas, the same can’t be said for the savoys. Some look as though they have the potential to heart up, but some haven’t so much bolted, as scarpered and run for the hills. I think it was down to the warm spell we had. Not to worry though, some will make tasty treats for the chickens, and I’ll let a few of them flower so I can save the seeds for next year.

The PSB's in fine fettle

The PSB's in fine fettle

Meanwhile, back in the greenhouse, a load more brassicas I’d started off were about ready to be planted out. Fast running out of room in the garden, I set about preparing a new patch. After clearing the area, a few laps round with the rotovator soon dug it over, and before long the bed was ready to be planted.

Whilst preparing the area, I discovered ‘Chicken Olympics’: an entertaining game that anyone can play, providing you have 1) a couple of hens and 2) a worm. Simply place the worm on top of the wire in the coop. The birds will spot it, and the High Jump trials will begin. After said worm has dropped through, it’s time for the 20 metre sprint. I have to say that Winnie was the clear champion, due to her speed, eye to beak co-ordination and sheer dexterity. Oh, and I’m sure being a bit of a thug helped too.

Anyway, patch ready, in went three types of cabbage, next year’s PSB and Brussels, and some cauliflower plants. Slug pellets went down, netting went on, and we’ll have to see what grows and what doesn’t.

My family are cock-a-hoop – they thought they’d seen the last of cabbage…

Latest from The Hinckley Times – 26 April

Hinckley Times 26 April 2012