What did I do wrong in the vegetable garden!? Part 2 – Dave Hamilton

Part 2 Following on from part 1,What did I do wrong in the vegetable garden? Half the battle is finding out what we did wrong! This article should help all the problems you had with your vegetable seedling and hopefully you’ll get it right next time!!

Potting on

The next stage things can go wrong is when transferring seedlings to a larger pot.

The first reason plant may struggle is by leaving them far too long in a seed compost. Seedlings should be potted on well before they really start to compete with each other or exhaust the minimal nutrient supply in the potting media. This can be overcome by sowing directly into multi-purpose compost and thinning out all but the strongest plants. However multi-purpose may not have suitable drainage or water holding capabilities that the seeds need to germinate.

Seedlings should be transferred once they have formed their first true leaves. Each plant as it first pokes its head out of the soil will produce one or two leaves depending on the type of plant, these are known as the cotyledon or the seed leaf. The majority of crops are dicotyledons, that is they have two seed leafs but grasses, such as maize or sweetcorn are monocotyledons or single leaf plants. The seed leaves often have a very even shape which is in contrast to the first true leaves which are often more characteristic of the adult plant.

These seed leaves can be useful when potting on as they act as ‘handles’ in which to more the emerging plant. Plants can easily be damaged at this stage but the bonus with using the seed leaves rather than holding the stem or the pushing a plant up by the roots is that these leaves have already done their job and it doesn’t really matter if they come off. They act a bit like an umbilical cord for a human or an egg white a hen giving the seedling a start in life by photosynthesising just enough to produce the first true leaves. Once they have done their job they are surplus to requirements.

Step by step – Re-potting using the seed leaf.

  1. Hold the plant by the seed leaf
  2. Using a pencil tease the seedling out of its pot
  3. Replant into larger pot using a good quality peat free potting compost (not seed compost)

Dampening off

Dampening off refers to a number of fungal problems that can effect seeds and seedlings grown in pots. Sometime seedlings just won’t germinate and at other times they will seem to be doing fine but the plant mysteriously keels over and dies. Tell tale signs are a wet soil and/or a thinning of the stem at the soil line.

Like most fungal problems excess water, or more importantly persistent damp rather than wet, or bad circulation of air can exacerbate the problem.

Nutrient deficiencies

Inadequate nutrients can lead to all kinds of problems for young and established plants. If the soil or potting media is not adequate for the growing plant it will be more prone to pests and diseases and may struggle to become established. Yellowing of the leaves, spindly growth, burnt looking leaves can all be symptoms of inadequate nutrition and the first thing you have to ask if a plant is struggling is, ‘how healthy is the soil?’

You can top dress with compost and feed plants (see ‘Grow your food for free’) to deal with this imbalance of nutrients but if you have a problem soil you may have to count your losses for this year and spend time improving it for next year.

Lime soils

Overly lime or alkaline soils can lock up nutrients a plant would otherwise take up. This can often be seen as a failure for a plant to thrive or a yellowing of the leaves between the leaf veins (a condition known as interveinal chlorosis). Chosing the right plants will help as will balancing out the soil condition with plenty of organic mater

Some plants which do well in a lime soil but struggle in an acid soil

Cabbages (and all cabbage family)

Asparagus

Beetroot

Celery, carrots (and most carrot family)

Plants which may struggle in lime but do well in acid soil

Potatoes

Blueberries

Raspberries

Grapes

Acid soil

Acid soils have similar problems and again adding compost or similar bulky organic matter will help. Choosing the right plants will really help but if it is too acidic you should aim to improve the soil overtime.

Removing the top soil

First time allotment holders often remove the top layer of weeds and couch grass in order to remove competition and give their plants a fighting chance. In doing all too often they also remove the healthy top soil robbing their plants of nutrients. Whenever possible the soil should be worked when it is not too sticky or wet and as much of the top soil should be knocked from the weed roots as possible. If it is already too late for this then add plenty of compost or farm yard manure or add some pelleted chicken manure when you sow or plant out.

Lack of Time

At times even with the best of intentions life can have a habit of getting in the way of growing and we may simply not get the time to put the effort in needed for a productive plot. One year a broken wrist right at the wrong time of year meant my plot resembled the jungles of South America rather than the gardens at Wisley. There is little you can do in these cases other than try and get help, clear the weeds and plant or sow what time allows. Although it may go against the grain you can always buy in seedlings or even ask friends of family or on websites such as freecycle or justfortheloveofit.org if anyone has spare seedlings so you can catch up.  Cabbages can be planted out right up until late summer and onions and broad beans can be planted very late (October, early November) for an overwintering crop.

If you know time is going to be an issue you can always cover some of a plot for a year or plant perennials, such as fruit bushes, rhubarb or perennial salads (sweet cicely, Siberian purslane) that need less attention. Planting through mypex or similar mulches can also help with weeds as can growing ground cover plants such as squashes and nasturtiums or sowing a green manure. Heavy soils can benefit from having a deep rooted green manure such as Alfalfa in for a year or more so if you have a baby on the way this can be a way of keeping the plot alive whilst your attentions lay elsewhere.

Better luck next year!

I may not have covered all the problems you may encounter but hopefully this will give you some idea of some of the things that can go wrong. I always console myself in the fact that even some of the most established gardeners have ‘I will get it right next year’ as their motto.

Article written by Dave Hamilton. Dave has now left Selfsufficientish but you can catch up with him on davehamilton.me.uk or on twitter @davewildish

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