THE LAST few weeks could have been tailor-made for horticulturalists when it comes to the weather. An absolutely perfect start to the Algarve spring – warm sunny days and slightly cooler evenings, interspersed with occasional downpours. As long as young seedlings do not get too battered by heavy rain, these will result in rapid healthy growth.
Now is the time to be thinking of plants that need slightly hotter weather before they can really do well. May is the time to start off seeds for peppers, sweetcorn and melons – the sweet summer crops.
In Portugal, melons are split into many groups – melancia are water melons, melão are the oval shaped melons and meloa are small rounded musk melons. All taste far superior when grown at home and picked at the perfect time, rather than stored. Water melons are the easiest to grow, putting up with poorer soil and less attentive watering. Seeds of all varieties are better germinated in-situ and need to be spaced around a metre apart. The seeds take up to 12 days to germinate and most gardeners put three seeds in one spot. If all three germinate, remove the two weakest.
The soil needs to be fertile and moist, and they need lots of room to roam, especially water melons, which can travel several metres in each direction. One danger with melons, in the early days, is the risk of the young plants rotting if left in wet soil. To avoid this, they can be planted on small hills with a flattened indentation at the top (like mini volcanoes). This enables water to drain away quickly, but allows the roots to stay moist. All melons like their roots to be kept moist but not waterlogged, and prefer an open sunny site and to be kept weed free.
If you wish to be extra attentive, when the young melons appear (shortly after flowering), you can place them on straw to keep them dry. When they appear to stop growing, test them for readiness – all melon varieties begin to smell sweet and … well, ‘melony’ when ready. Water melons give off a deep sound when tapped. All melons are much tastier when eaten while still warm from the sun.
Once again, warm fertile soil, in an open sunny site, suits sweetcorn. Each corn seed (plant two and then thin to one) needs to be planted four centimetres deep and spaced around 45cm from its neighbour. They need to be planted in blocks (to aid wind pollination) in shallow trenches that can be flooded daily.
Until the corn germinates (four to 10 days), take care to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged, as the young seed can rot easily. When the plants are young, the bed will need regular weeding, but once they are tall they suppress most weeds. Once the corn emerges, it grows rapidly and, within a couple of months, produces the cobs. Keep up the watering to encourage healthy cobs.
When the cob looks normal sweetcorn size, peel back a little of the husk and push your thumbnail into one corn. If it breaks easily and produces a translucent liquid, the corn is ready to pick. Always pick them on time and, if possible, cook immediately – they only need a minute or so in boiling water. You will be eating sweeter sweetcorn than ever before!
Sweet peppers take some time to germinate (up to 14 days) and the seedlings remain quite small for a long period, leading to the possibility of weed swamping and subsequent invisibility and death! For this reason, I start seedlings off in trays and transplant when they are around six centimetres high. They should be transplanted carefully and the soil kept moist – once again, fertile soil and a sunny site are the order of the day.
After two to three months, the peppers produce tiny bell shaped flowers which become the peppers. If peppers are over-watered, the fruits can suffer, developing brown patches and even rotting. Water them every three days or so, allowing the soil to partially dry between watering. If you notice the brown patches, cut down on watering. You can harvest the peppers when they are green, or allow them to stay on the plant until turning red. Once mature, pepper plants become amazingly resilient and can keep going through the frosts and rains of the winter months.
As I write, we have a couple of survivors from last summer still offering tiny red peppers.
• If anyone can help with more information on organic supplies please send me details. If you have any gardening nightmares or successes to share, email me at [email protected]. Write Virtual Vegetables in the subject column, so that the message isn’t mistaken for spam and binned!
by Paul McKay