A dodgy start.jpg

A dodgy start

By: PAUL McKAY

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Teacher, Paul McKay, left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income.

THERE ARE many influences over how successful your vegetables turn out to be. Of these, the one we have least control over is the weather. This is what makes gardening in general and vegetable growing in particular, something of a gamble.

This year saw a poor start to the summer growing season with the cool weather hanging around for longer than usual. There was also particularly heavy rainfall in May, which, although useful, played havoc with seedlings. This was immediately followed by a heat wave, promptly shrivelling up many seedlings that survived the rain. All is not lost though, and the vegetable patches around me that often begin to look a little tired in late July are still verdant, everything appears to be back to normal now, albeit a little out of synch.

Going for seconds

The benefit of an extended warm season in the Algarve is that the growing time for summer vegetables is more flexible. In colder climates, if you miss the usual time for planting out cucumbers, that’s it! All is lost until next year. Depending upon the weather prevailing at any particular time, we are able to be more choosy and even go for seconds. In some years I have been picking fresh tomatoes as early as May and still picking them as late as November.

Many of the gardening books suggest that if you look after plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and beans, keep them well watered, fed and pick the fruit regularly, they will go on producing for months.

My experience has been somewhat different. Even if I do everything perfectly, production still eventually fizzles out. I have had far more success by starting off a second crop later in the season, that peak in the autumn. The harvest in the autumn is often not as heavy as the summer, although on occasions has been better.

The aim, I would suggest, is to go for a second harvest, sometime in mid-late September, before any cold weather or cold winds occur. If the weather stays sunny, the plants may go on much later and will not suffer the fatigue that the summer heat sometimes brings.

What and when to plant?

The simple rule is to look at how long a plant usually takes from seed to harvest – in the case of Chinese cabbage, about 40 days. If you are aiming for a September 20 harvest, subtract 40, this takes you back to August 11, so that is the date for sowing Chinese cabbage. This rough rule of thumb tends to work well. Be careful of some seeds such as lettuce, which will not germinate in hot temperatures. Also ensure the seedbed is kept moist.

Tomatoes – it is a little late to think about starting tomatoes from seed now, although if you can get hold of young tomato plants, they are worth putting in and could still be giving fruit in November.

Cucumbers – now is the perfect time for starting off a second crop of cucumbers. Keep the seedbed moist and take care if moving them.

Beans – climbing beans or French beans started now should give a good harvest towards the end of September and into October. Any rainfall is a bonus, boosting production and cutting down your work.

Courgettes – with luck and hot weather courgettes started now, may give fruit in October. Try three or four seeds, it isn’t much work and will still give a few meals.

Lettuces – hold off sowing lettuces until cooler September weather. Icebergs tend to do well started in September and Chinese cabbage make a good substitute at almost any time of the year.