As August’s days shrink, the first few trees begin to yellow and the cool evenings make us put warmer jumpers on, let’s not just throw up our hands and declare that the summer is almost over. For one thing we might still get a heatwave or two and enjoy a little more sunny weather with a cold drink in the hand, but our plants also still need us to keep our eye on the ball.
When we gardeners start the growing season, we’re full of enthusiasm and we give it our best. There’s new compost in raised beds, seedlings are green and healthy, with plenty of room to plant and hardly any pests around. By this time of the year the greenhouse and raised beds are packed with abundant foliage, soil has had some nutrients used up and the humid air invites unwanted pests and diseases. It’s time for a late summer tidy up and an energy boost towards this last leg of the growing race!
Keep the greenhouse in a summer mood
If your tomatoes are still green and producing flowers, now we tell them to stop. To enjoy the ripe crop before the weather turns cold for good, it’s time to tell the plants to focus on setting and ripening the fruit now. Start with the new flower sets at the top of the plant – these are best cut off as by the time they turn into fruit it may be too late for them to ripen. All the energy of the plant will now be sent to the fruit already growing. Your plants don’t need so many leaves at this stage of growth, so you can safely remove the majority of lower growing ones and allow more air circulation around the base of the plant. Do it with care; watch the leaves for any signs of friendly bugs, there might be a chrysalis (caterpillar turning into a butterfly or a moth) stuck between the leaves, so be gentle as you remove the foliage. Once the air can flow freely between the plants, it will help prevent powdery mildew which is common at this time of summer, whilst the top leaves of the plant will make sure they’re still processing the rays of sun.
It’s also a good time to inspect the leaves for signs of pest presence or any nutrient deficiencies. Any leaves that are yellowing or have an odd pattern indicating pest presence, should also be removed. Think of leaves as solar panels – their role is to absorb as much sunlight as possible. If they’re damaged or in the shade, they won’t perform as they’re supposed to, and the health of the plant as a whole will be compromised. If you notice any presence of powdery mildew, you need to act fast. This fungus spreads quickly in poorly ventilated and humid spaces, so remove the worst affected leaves and those with only small spots visible treat with a delicate spray of water with a little bicarbonate soda mixed in. This white powder most of us keep in the kitchen cupboard to bake with, is also a great eco way to keep our plants fungus-free.
Feed me Seymour
Just like humans during a fancy spa break, after their haircut we can treat our plants to a nourishing cocktail. A gentle mist of water with added Epsom salts, sprayed over the remaining leaves will add much needed magnesium for the plant to mature the fruit. A cocktail of fermented comfrey will be appreciated too due to its high potassium content, a macronutrient crucial in healthy fruit setting. And if you want to speed things up even more, grab a bunch of well ripened bananas and place them near your green fruit like an exotic garland. Nothing to do with the fashion sense here, it’s the ethene gas released by the bananas which converts starches to sugars and helps the green tomatoes turn red and sweet.
As your melons, cucumbers or bunches of tomatoes gain size, it will put a strain on the plant’s stems. Adding a few strings here and there to take some of the weight off, will prevent the fruit from premature snapping and wasting. A good ‘green’ method is to reuse the plastic orange or lemon nets, that we often acquire when buying fruit in the supermarket. My favourite one though is the use of old tights. Just slip the melon or a pumpkin in the thin sock or a tight and tie the top to the support structure. As they grow and expand (and they will do so very fast!) the stretch of the nylon will allow the fruit to expand without restricting its growth. When it’s ready to harvest simply pop it though the leg hole and keep the garment to reuse next year.
And when the cold strikes..
There’s nothing we can do about the autumn approaching fast, so if your tomatoes start to split and get mould, time to chop them all. Not all hope is lost when you have a glut of green tomatoes to deal with. Divide them into small packs and put in brown paper bags in a dark kitchen drawer. Many of them will ripen there and those that don’t should be made into a green tomato chutney. There’s nothing better than enjoying your own produce, and the summer days are not the only ones that allow us to do so.