It is always a bit of a rush getting my greenhouses planted up. I aim to have it done by 1st June each year – when I can be pretty certain there aren’t going to be any more frosts (those oop North should leave it another fortnight, just to be on the safe side).
But inevitably there are trays of seedlings hanging around waiting to be pricked out, and the annual traffic jam building up between my waiting-to-be-planted area, the coldframe and the impatient youngsters still sweltering in the greenhouse. So once again, I’m running late.
It’s only the cucumbers-and-melons greenhouse I’m late with, though, as I’m refusing to plant anything until I’ve made myself install a path. The path I put into greenhouse no. 2 last autumn has proved a real godsend – somewhere flat to stand on and no weeds any more! – so I’m doing a matching one the other side. It’s rather held up the planting but I’m nearly there now and disasters permitting the plants will be in by the weekend.
In the other greenhouse, though, the overwintering lettuces have now been evicted to the compost heap – rather reluctantly, if truth be told, as they weren’t quite spent and amazingly I was still picking leaves right up to the end of last month. I’m sure they should have bolted by then: probably the lone good side to the cool spring we’ve had.
In their place have gone tomatoes: my usual eight plants, one every couple of feet. This year I’m growing two Gardeners’ Delight - still the cherry tom to beat in my book - two Principe Borghese plum tomatoes, two Costoluto Fiorentino, since I like a challenge and growing beefsteak tomatoes is the ultimate, and two The Amateur – a heritage type which I’ve only just discovered is a bush tomato. So it won’t be needing those supports I lovingly provided it with, then.
All I’m hoping for is to avoid the disaster of last year when I lost every last tomato to blight, the first time for me this has ever happened to plants inside the greenhouse. I’ve signed up for my Smith Period reports via Blightwatch – that’s a warning when conditions are precisely right for the blight fungus to go on the prowl – and I’m scanning their leaves anxiously every morning for the shadowy brown blotches of doom. So far – so safe.
You can’t do much to fend off blight, but I’m having a go at keeping off other nasties with an eye on my toms by trying out companion planting this year. It’s something I do in the plot all the time: the carrots are always planted between a double row of onions and I’ve never had a problem with carrot fly yet (touch wood). And thick rows of marigolds on either side of the onions seem to keep off any potential attackers there, too.
But I’ve never seriously given it a go in the greenhouse. This year however I sowed bedding from seed for the first time – mainly because I could following the arrival of my swanky new thermostatically-controlled propagator. And that means lots of tagetes – the French marigolds which smell a little funny but brighten up your day with their cheerful orange flowers.
That funny smell also makes whitefly turn up their noses (do whiteflies have noses, I wonder?) and steer clear – so if you plant French marigolds thickly at the feet of your toms you should, the theory goes, have a whitefly-free year. It puts blackfly off too, which makes me wonder if it would work under broad beans.
Basil is another popular companion plant for toms, so I’m trying some of that on the other side when they’ve got big enough to take the risk with the slugs. In this case it’s less about repelling pests – though it’s said to put off flies and thrips – but more about improving yield and flavour: studies have shown that planting basil alongside your toms increases harvests by up to 20%. Now this I’ve got to try out.
There’s a lot of guff talked about companion planting, and most people fail to mention the fact that it only works when the companion plant is used in large enough numbers. I’ve actually fallen at the first hurdle this year by planting my marigolds a sensible 15cm apart: at the moment I’m regretting this as there’s rather a lot of bare soil and I think I could easily have got away with 10cm or even less for that carpet effect I was after. We’ll see if they grow large enough to fill the gap, but I’m not hopeful.
But even if you suspend judgement about whether or not they work, covering the ground in your greenhouse makes sense. My holey carpet of marigolds is still holding moisture into the soil by shading it with their leaves, and they’ll also prevent (mostly) any weeds from taking hold. Plus they look really pretty. And that’s good enough reason for planting them in my book.