Has eelworm invaded the overwintering onions?

You know how it is when it seems something might be amiss with a crop but you hang on in the hope that it was just a silly mistake and it will all blow over as soon as the weather improves. Some hope! We try to celebrate life’s rich tapestry as best we can but when push comes to shove a bit of ruthlessness is called for. IMG_5328These onions, (Autumn Champion, grown from sets), looked fine until a few weeks ago and then, just when they should have taken off, they began to show signs that something was wrong.  We had been careful because we previously lost a crop of leeks to allium leaf miner, and so they were covered with fine insect mesh from winter onwards. However, facts are facts and these onions looked sick.  It’s sometimes difficult for a non expert to diagnose these pests and diseases, but the effect on the leaves was very like leaf miner.  So that gave three possibilities – allium leaf miner, onion fly and eelworm. According to the books it’s a bit early for leaf miner, the mesh should have seen off the onion fly as well and so that left eelworm as the prime suspect. Whatever it was, the remedy was much the same – dig them up and burn them and then don’t grow alliums on the plot for three years.  The RHS rather loftily suggest that the ground should be left fallow, but our allotment doesn’t stretch into the blue remembered hills, and we can’t afford to leave a whole bed empty so we’ll probably try to kill any remaining eggs, cysts or pupae with the flame gun and then observe the rotation carefully.

It’s always sad to lose a crop, but we have the spring planted onions which appear to be OK, and the leeks, garlic and shallots are all alright too, so in a break in the rain and for fear of going stir crazy we went up and did the deed.  As we were pulling them out I examined them carefully to see if any further light could be shed on the problem, and most of the post mortems showed no signs of maggots or pupae, supporting the eelworm hypothesis.  However I did find a couple of plants with 2mm brown pupae that looked very like allium leaf miner – so it was an open verdict. Much as I hate any green material going off the allotment, I’m afraid this lot went straight to the tip. Just for reference or any further ideas I’m including a photo of the pupa and another plant.  Please don’t take this as a sign I know that much about plant pathology, I’m only one page ahead in the textbook!

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Our first proper garden

Pickwick Lodge CottagesThis photo of our first real garden was taken in 1970.  We were students at Bath Academy of Art and we rented this cottage on a farm in Corsham, Wiltshire for two and a half years.  The art school was a twenty minute walk across the fields. You can just see through the doorway to the back garden where we kept a goat. We had an outside toilet, a very deep well which must once have been the water supply and a gigantic water cistern which we discovered by accident when we were ploughing there and the plough caught on a large metal ring which, when we levered the stone up led to a two chamber storage cistern big enough to swim around. The connection betwen the two chambers involved diving through a small hole – I was thin in those days!

There may be some small correlation between the garden and the fact that I was on probation for the whole of the second year for failing to attend! These were magical gardening days that all came to an end when a herd/drove/drift/sounder of pigs somehow got in and rooted it all up in an hour. It was a good training in philosophical patience! – and I resumed my studies in ceramics in the nick of time.

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A wet and windy day day today – the opportunity for searching through the albums this afternoon – but the temperature stayed in double figures so we managed a couple of hours on the allotment where we installed the insect mesh over the overwintering onion sets. It’s been so windy we haven’t worried too much about allium leaf miner, but this is the beginning of the season when the females lay their destructive eggs.  Storm Gareth has had a very long tail but the forecast is for improving weather after a last wet weekend and so we felt that regardless of the weather we needed to protect the alliums. The insect mesh is expensive but since we took to protecting all our vulnerable crops with it we’ve been mercifully spared the maggots that cost us our entire crop of leeks in the first season. It should be said that we’re also growing from seed now, meaning the young plants are not out in the open and exposed to the flies in garden centres. Madame checked the stakes on the tallest brassicas to protect them from the wind.

The biggest point of interest now is the possibility of a small crop of asparagus quite soon. Storm Gareth seems to have slowed things down but the Mondeo – the early variety is showing signs of producing its first spears.  We’ll harvest each variety for a month, enough for a few tasters we hope, and then let the plants continue to establish themselves. We’re hoping that the thick mulch of seaweed over the winter will help them to grow vigorously. Elsewhere we’re harvesting purple sprouting broccoli, savoy cabbages, kale, carrots Swiss chard and rhubarb.  Next week the weather looks fine and we’re hoping to get a good number of seeds in.

Every time we go to the supermarket now we buy any variety of pears we can find because we’re taste testing them before ordering some container grown cordons in the summer. At the moment the front runners are Doyenne du Comice and Conference but there’s a cross, bred from the two parents, called Concorde.  I’ve never seen it in the shops but it’s billed as a heavy yielding pear with the best qualities of flavour and texture from both its parents.  We’re looking to plant five more cordons and a damson, a plum and a greengage are the fruits I’d most like to grow.