2009: Another summer of drought, but not all bad
I thought I would write an update on my original ‘blog’ when I bemoaned the effects of the exceptionally cold winter. Many things have recovered and much of the damage wasn’t as bad as first thought. Nature has a wonderful way of recovering.
After the experience of this summer’s drought and hot, sunny weather, in many ways it’s been a fabulous season and despite the lack of water most things have done well, especially in the vegetable garden. The deep mulch worked incredibly well in keeping moisture in the soil, and as our garden slopes from north to south, towards the pond and river, things lower down do much better.
In the vegetable garden I’m amazed the sprouts, red and savoy cabbages have not only survived, but are looking quite good and I’m also picking some calabrese. The kales are looking ok too. This is remarkable as I’ve only watered the brassicas a couple of times in August, and we’ve had hardly more than a shower all summer.
Even now, although we’ve had a few days of drizzle, we’ve had no real sustained heavy rain, yet places within ten miles have had heavy downpours. We seem to be in something of a rain shadow. The large lake near us which feeds the river is almost as low as I’ve ever seen it in six years. It is more like a river than a lake now with huge shorelines. If we don’t get a wet winter it won’t fill up in time for next summer, when it is needed for irrigation of the crops in the Loire Valley and valley of the Authion.
Bold text Vegetables
In the polytunnel this must have been one of our best years for aubergines and peppers. The plants keep cropping even now in mid October. What was weird was that some of the aubergine plants almost died back in July/early August and the leaves went a whitish brown. I was convinced it was a bad attack of red spider. But as the heat of summer died down, the plants have made new fresh green growth and they are really flowering and cropping like young plants again.
We have grown large yellow and red bell peppers with seed collected from supermarket fruit. These seem to have come true from seed. The long peppers, also from a supermarket pepper, are very variable, some being small and chunky and others long. We are going to keep seed from the best sized ones and see if we can stabilise a better variety from these.
Tomatoes in the polytunnel have also been an enigma. The leaves started going brown in August and I was sure they were blighted, but although much of the plants have died, the fruit hasn’t got the brown patches we associate with blight and are perfectly edible. The small pear tomatoes, a variety called ‘Lucciola’, an F1, has cropped wonderfully well. The fruit are small, sweet, and have a lot of dry matter so are excellent to sun dry. We have dried bagfuls of them in a little glass greenhouse facing south, laying them on greaseproof paper. They dry in about three days in sunny August. They are also delicious to eat straight off the plant. These have made a lot of new growth now in autumn and lots of fruit are still ripening and even setting now, even though the lower leaves have all died. Outside the tomatoes have done quite well though after the first showers of light rain, the skins have started splitting. It’s so long since they had any water. Apart from Lucciola, I’ve grown Gardeners’ Delight, ‘Merveilles des Marches’, Roma, and Saint Pierre. An orange pear tomato we bought looked great, but the fruit is insipid.
Melons have been a disappointment, as although I’ve grown half a dozen monsters, a green skinned rugby ball type, they haven’t ripened and still taste more like cucumber than melon. Can’t understand this as we’ve had such a hot summer. Even leaving them in the conservatory for weeks, they still haven’t ripened. The smaller round French melons have been much better, though not the outside ones which were very small. Next year I shall grow small melons!
The other success (or failure) have been the Cape gooseberries. I grew about eight plants from a fruit we had in a restaurant. I planted two in the polytunnel and a couple outside. Now they have taken over a good part of the greenhouse and are covered in fruit and the garden ones are beginning to ripen. So what’s the problem?
Every time I taste one, I think, ’that’s a nice flavour’ and then there is an after taste which I can’t stand. They really are an acquired taste! I can’t think of what to do with them, and you certainly can’t eat lots of them raw, which is what I like to do with fruit. I won’t bother with them again and will try something like blueberries next year, for which I will need some acid soil in boxes or special beds.
The dwarf French beans I sowed in the polytunnel are still producing the odd bean, though the plants look brown, bedraggled and completely worn out. I was interested to see how they produced a first flush of beans in May and then stopped producing completely. Then at least a month later they all started flowering and producing even more beans than the first flush. After that, they’ve been sulking and slowly dying down. In future I need to be brutal and yank them out to replant a later sowing for an autumn/early winter crop in the tunnel. The climbing French beans in the tunnel were also excellent though they take up so much space it’s not really worth it, as the outdoor ones started cropping no more than two weeks after the ones in the tunnel.
In the main vegetable garden, we grew potatoes under a straw mulch for the first time, and this worked very well. You just lay the tuber on the surface of the soil and cover it with some compost and as it grows, you ‘earth it up’ with straw or another thick mulch. You don’t need to dig them, just pull back the mulch. The main problem is that you must use far more mulch than you think you should, as otherwise the tubers get exposed to the light and turn green. A few of ours were affected in this way. But after you’ve collected the crop you have a lovely piece of garden with a lot of composted mulch ready to enrich the soil for the next crop. The later variety did better than the earlies with this method.
We planted far too many courgettes as usual. We grow a very small green patty pan type called ‘Patty Green’ (F1), a yellow courgette (Atena Polka F1) and green ones (San Pasquale.) I also always think that growing trailing green marrows is a good idea, to pick very small as courgettes, but these go everywhere and I always miss the fruit until they are the size of huge marrows, only good enough for the chickens. In the squash line we grew Early Butternut and Sweet Lightning, a very small pumpkin, which I think is better eating when fresh and underripe, when it is waxy rather than floury.
I managed to get a huge packet of sweetcorn seed (300 seeds!) of Challenger F1. (Much more generous than the 20 or 30 seeds you get in most UK packets!) I went mad and sowed a huge clump of about sixty plants. You can guess, they all ripened within two weeks and although we ate them twice a day we soon got sick of them and at least half stayed on the plants. This is an excellent variety of sweetcorn though, very sweet, and resistant to ‘smut’, the mould which can often ruin cobs. I should try several sowings next year with several weeks between each to get a staggered crop.
Garlic was a real success story this year. For the first time ever we harvested a crop that is indistinguishable in size and appearance from the garlic you buy in a supermarket. I think it was a combination of a good variety, getting it planted last October, and then a hot dry summer. I also planted the cloves more deeply than usual and gave a good six inches between plants.
Swiss chard is coming up everywhere again. This self sows all over the garden and all I have to do is pull it out where it’s not wanted. Having sown Rainbow Chard, several years ago, we still have a variety of colours coming up here and there. It is our most dependable green vegetable, and even when there is nothing else in the garden, we can always find some chard. Makes a good spinach soufle, and soup.
This year in our part of France has been a great year for fruit of all kinds. We were delighted to find all the seedling peach trees we sowed five or six years ago produced fruit, and several trees had beautiful white peaches which were delicious. A self-sown peach tree right next to the door of our old stable which is now a ‘gite’, had a wonderful crop. Plums, from an early crop of cherry plums to the main crop ones, like Mirabelles, were also great. We’ve even had apples on some of our ancient apple trees that this year are sweet and delicious on trees we always thought were cookers! Of the new trees we planted, a variety called Delbard Tardive, which is a large purple late apple, has produced a huge crop for such a small tree. On top of this, my wife is apple picking for a local grower and comes home laden with apples every day. Unfortunately all of these are heavily sprayed and have to be peeled before used. The French export all their (unripe) Golden Delicious to the UK and keep the best ones for local consumption.
The figs, which were terribly damaged in the very cold winter, have made a complete recovery. Although there was no early crop, the French variety has produced a couple of dozen large figs which are ripening now. The Brown Turkey from the UK has lots of figs but they won’t ripen before the frosts set in, so I’ll have to bite the bullet and pull off all the fruit before winter, so the tiny embryo figs have a chance for next summer.
In the conservatory, we had another excellent crop of edible passion fruit (passiflora edulis). I found one of the best ways of eating these now was to squeeze out the contents of two or three into natural yoghurt. Scrumptious!
I have planted a new fruit, a ‘Kiwai’, a cross between Actinidia polygama and Actinidia arguta, I’m told. It is supposed to be hardier than the normal kiwi and has smaller fruit with less skin. It is self fertile but not as rampant as the kiwi. I have planted it in a large concrete tub by the patio to train over a pergola if it ever grows enough.
My Feijoa Sellowiana tree, which is now called an Acca, I think (just to confuse people once they’ve learned a name) had loads of pretty fuschia like flowers, but despite hand pollinating them with great care, not a single fruit set. The label says it is self fertile, but I am beginning to wonder if it is. Perhaps the tree isn’t big enough yet to set fruit. It’s still worth it for the flowers, but I’m so looking forward to tasting the fruit.
The flower garden, apart from things in pots and tubs, has been very neglected this summer. We have been extremely busy with so many things, I didn’t have time to get in and weed. The thistles, horsetail, hops, dandelions and docks are everywhere. I intend to tidy up as much as I can in early winter and set to work dividing and cleaning up in early spring.
The trees we planted several years ago have mostly got through the drought ok though a couple have probably succumbed. We had a good display of wild flowers in spring, including orchids, between the trees, so I didn’t cut the grass. Then a mass of salsify came up with pretty purple flowers. So I left it. Then there were all kinds of wild flowers, including wild marjoram, cowslips, etc etc. So I still left the grass cutting. The bees were really doing well with all these flowers, and despite lots of swarms, which we managed to catch, we ended up with 100 pounds of honey.I finally got out the brushcutting lawnmower (power driven but not sit-on) a couple of weeks ago and it took days to get through all the undergrowth. What really took the time was cutting around all the trees, some of which are still quite small, with hand shears. Otherwise it is far too easy to mow down the trees.
We had the same problem in the other field where we planted 200 trees in the spring to replace the poplars that used to be there but which had been felled. Unfortunately these didn’t get through the drought half as well and at least 50% are dead or have lost all their leaves. Being an optimist, I’m hopeful some might revive next spring. The soil here is awful stuff, thin clay and stones, and digging a hole I have to use a crowbar or pickaxe to simply break the surface and get down around nine inches.I sowed some Paulownia seeds I’d collected last year from our single tree which flowered in 2008. Now I have almost a hundred Paulownias of various sizes in pots, ready to plant them out in late winter after the worst of the frosts. Apparently they are very vulnerable in their first year while they are still like herbaceous plants. I’ve planted out six of the best grown specimens already just to see how they cope with the winter. Although Paulownias are not everybody’s taste, they are enormously quick growing, can be cut down and will grow again from the roots, and within six years, you can get a reasonable amount of timber for firewood. Some people rave about them as a wonder crop on the Internet, so I thought it would be worth popping quite a few in to fill the empty spaces we have.
The large pond remains a problem. For the first time I really managed to cut back all the brambles and other weeds in spring and planted some cannas, gunnera, arums, hardy geraniums, epimediums, hostas and a few other things like ligularias. Ligularia przewalkii did especially well. I’d also established a lot of yellow flag iris in the margins of the pond. Then along came Mr Ragondin (Coypu) again and he has practically destroyed all the flag irises and is now working on the well established clump of bullrushes which took me such great pains to establish, after growing them from seed. At least he doesn’t touch the gunnera! (Yet)
My gardening time is always very short, as we are busy restoring an old cottage next to the house to make a second ‘gite’. At last, having rendered the walls during the summer, I am making real progress inside, with log stoves in place, bathroom and bedroom floors in place, and electrical wiring started. We are very soon putting some solar panels on the roof for water heating. I am optimistic that I can finish the work during the winter now I have some form of heating inside, so that I can devote myself much more to the garden next summer.
The major planting jobs to do this autumn are getting in the garlic, as I want another good crop, and buying and planting far more spring bulbs. When you’ve got such a large space, even a hundred bulbs go almost nowhere. We can’t seem to buy cheap daffodil bulbs by the sackful out here, although from time to time they used to be on sale in the UK. I’d love to naturalise bulbs everywhere amongst the trees and shrubs we’ve planted.
Writing this blog has cheered me up, as I’ve finally realised that this summer wasn’t at all bad in the garden! While our garden would certainly never win any prizes, with its wild simplicity and neglect, we get a constant display of flowers, wild and cultivated, we have masses of wildlife, from slow worms and red squirrels, to snakes and lizards, to nightingales and redstarts. And we have a constant harvest of fresh vegetables, and a freezer full of summer bounty to keep us going through the cold winter months.
And now the fun of planning ahead for next year’s harvest. Will I make all the same mistakes again? Order too many seeds and start too many plants? You bet I will!
- 11 Oct, 2009
- 3 likes
Previous post: Managing two hectares of wilderness
Recent posts by bertiefox
Members who like this blog
Gardening with friends since
9 Aug, 2009
Gardening with friends since
22 Oct, 2008