The hidden menace strikes again

From 19 plants, only two have survived unscathed. The rest have been decimated by some unknown, yet particularly hungry, pest. Bait blocks and slug pellets remain untouched, yet more cucurbits have been reduced to mere stalks. Once again, with a lack of slime trails, slugs or snails are looking increasingly unlikely suspects. The damage has all the hallmarks of a larger toothed menace. Two mouse traps baited with peanut butter have been added alongside the surviving melons, to see if some furry fiend is responsible. The strange thing is, the other side of the greenhouse has some nice ripe strawberries that I would imagine being the first thing to disappear.

It is sadly too late to sow replacements. Well, that is not strictly true. A fresh sowing would germinate quickly at this time of year, and grow away quite nicely, but I do not want to be delayed by another month after having a slow start to the year. A trip to the garden centre was needed. This offered a selection of three or four F1 hybrids, only one of which I had heard of before. I bought some, with considerable sadness at losing my much loved Telegraph. However, a minor impromptu detour via a local DIY store turned up a pleasant surprise – Telegraph Improved and Marketmore – both old open pollinated varieties, the latter being an outdoor ridge type. I already have plenty of Marketmore to plant out when I get time, but bought a handful of Telegraph for the glasshouse. If the melons manage to survive I will be back on track again.

On the subject of melons, the typical garden centre offerings are very disappointing. Most common is Sweetheart F1 – a modern hybrid sort of Charantais, and maybe I should have bought some in case my heirloom Charantais do not make it. For some reason I regularly see something not particularly illuminatingly labelled ‘Melon’ – always a dark green skinned sort, but what it actually is I have no idea – surely ‘Melon’ is not the name of this cultivar? That really would be stretching the lower limit of imagination.

Whilst at the DIY store I was saddened to see the sorry state of the vegetable offerings. What must have been many hundreds of pounds worth of stock was in such poor condition that I cannot imagine that it will be sold. It made such a sorry sight that I can envisage that customers might be put off looking through that section entirely. I had to sort through a couple of dozen plants to find a handful that were in reasonable condition. So many appeared to be lost through lack of water, some perhaps suffering from poor light on the racking, and others gone over, being well past the point at which they needed to be planted out. Much of this stock should not even be offered for sale, in my view, as it is grossly uneconomical for the customer and, if going to waste on such a scale, surely also for the retailer. Why pay a few pounds for a small tray of some sort of vegetable when you can just as easily sow your own? Some of these vegetables really do not like to be transplanted – beetroot, carrot, and parsnip, for example, which quickly send down a vital tap root deep into the soil – so really should not be sold in this way. In many cases, it would seem to be much more effort to plant out these offerings than to sow some seed directly in the soil or container in which these would be planted. The increased enthusiasm surrounding ‘grow-your-own’ does seem to have spawned a whole raft of products that might, to the inexperienced eye, seem like a good idea but are not, and sadly the poor utility or economy of a product does not mean that a retailer will not offer it for sale.

There is still plenty of scope to offer nicely grown plants for those fruit and vegetables that are most suited – tomatoes, peppers, chillies, aubergines, cucumbers, summer and winter squash, and so on. Although readily grown from seed, the casual gardener, or those with limited time or limited space for propagation are well served by these ready grown plants; or, indeed, those whose own sowings have been ravished by some hidden menace.

Now I am straining not to engage in a rant on the absurdity of grafted plants for the general home grower; offered for sale at silly prices, proclaiming vigour that I cannot see any need for, only for many to sit there growing ever more straggly and sad looking until eventually being skipped in a very sorry state indeed. Perhaps there is some merit in grafting the slower growing sorts of sweet pepper and aubergine, but tomatoes and cucumbers are more than vigorous enough: grown well, they will readily reach the end of their supports and manage to ripen most of their fruits. I would mind less if the stock was sold, but more often than not it is in poor condition. As they grow with great vigour, they need support and moving on quickly; they are simply not suited to hanging around garden centres for weeks. It does not take long before they start looking bad.

One way or another, consumers have to pay for all this scrapped stock.

Now I reflect on it, the garden centre was not much better. Whilst the fruit and vegetable plants were in much better condition, other displays were being reworked for summer, and I saw three trolleys full of various bulbs – dahlias and such – that were being removed, presumably to be discarded. What a shame. I am assuming these are not sent away to be planted up and sold later as potted plants, but, like everything else, I could be wrong on this point.