Ziggy & John on whether there is an up-side to a wet summer….

Here’s an article John and Ziggy wrote for the Vegan Organic Network’s next issue of ‘Growing Green International’ … (unedited)

Ziggy is one of the Art House directors & founders, a long time vegan organic gardener who with her husband, John, grow some of the veggies served at The Art House in their garden in Bitterne.

Ziggy also organises the annual Southampton Seed Swap event and is active in the Vegan Organic Network, their home featured in the recent Transition Southampton Open houses weekend as an example of sustainable living.

The weather in most the UK from mid-Spring to mid-Summer was very wet and cloudy. Pretty well every gardener we’ve spoken to has complained bitterly about it. If we were farmers, we’d have good reason to complain – as well as crop fail

ures, poor and late yields, farmers had great difficulty harvesting their crop – tractors and wet soil being the problem. Gardeners don’t have tractor problems, so let’s look at some of the good things about a wet summer, and how best to cope with the down-sides.

The obvious point – watering
Wow, what a relief, very little watering to do. We have lots of water butts and our two council-supplied waste bins (recycling and landfill) are also used as water butts in the summer, but even so, in an average summer we soon run out of water and have to use tap water. We’re on a water meter, so there’s the cost saving of not having to use tap water, as well as the environmental benefit, and we didn’t need to use any tap water this year. Large areas of the UK were short of water in the Spring, but there’s no more talk of that now, so water restrictions have been lifted. For us though, not having to spend so much time and effort watering was the best thing about it.
Crops that did better than usual
Some crops yielded quite a bit better than they usually do – onions (both Autum-sown and Spring-sown from sets) and early potatoes. We’ve always known that potatoes need a good amount of water, but it can be difficult watering them enough in late Spring and early Summer if the weather is hot and dry. When we harvested them last year (much drier than this year) we found that not much water had penetrated deep into the soil down to where it’s needed. It certainly drives home the message that you should water liberally and infrequently rather than lightly and often, since a light watering only moistens the soil near the surface. Onions were a bit of a surprise to us too – it’s taught us that in more normal Springs/Summers, we should water them more often. Our green leafy veg loved this sort of weather..and we found the best sorts to resist the mollusc-munching ones (which went hand-in-erm-foot) with the weather were the slightly ‘spicier’ ones – i.e. the oriental greens (pak choi, mizuna, mibuna etc) rocket, sorrel and endives. We’re still cropping chard, mizuna, rocket etc even now. 

Our rhubarb went bonkers – so much so that we have several drawers in the freezer full of the stuff to turn into crumbles.
Our herbs coped really well; the lemon balm, chives and mint and such like really lapped it up. In addition, our blueberries bore a very good crop indeed (but we gave the plant away in the end as neither of us particularly like blueberries!)

Crops that coped
Our garlic and courgettes did well. The sweetcorn got off to a slow start, but survived and when the weather improved in late July, it grew quickly and we have a reasonable if not spectacular crop. The runner beans and french beans also got off to a late start, but are now cropping well. We have no complaints about our raspberries and mint.
We grew our tomatoes in our greenhouse, but even so, they got off to a slow start due to a lack of sunshine and heat. When the weather picked up, we were having to water them every other day and sometimes more often. Even in early October,as we write, we were still picking fruits on a more or less daily basis. The varieties we grew were: Black cherry (from Southampton Seed Swap), Tigerella, (Suttons, a red tom with orange stripes) Gardener’s Delight (the definitive cherry tom) and Millefleur (a yellow centiflor type from Real Seeds).
Crops that faired badly, but didn’t fail

Maincrop potatoes ours got blight very early – around early July, and the foliage died off very quickly. It was a common problem for other gardeners this year, and often is in wet summers. If they hadn’t got blight, the yields would probably have been very good due to the heavy watering that they got from the skies. There are some blight-free varieties such as Sarpo Mira and Axona, and if we’d have grown these, we might have achieved a spectacular yield this year, so we really must grow these next year. From what we’ve read, the foliage doesn’t get blight, but the tubers might if there’s another potato variety next to them that isn’t a blight-free variety – the blight spores get washed off into the nearby resistant plot, and some will go rotten. So if you grow a blight-free variety, don’t grow a non blight-proof adjacent to it.
Winter squash unlike our courgettes, our winter squash sulked and grew very little until late July when the weather started to improve. They have grown reasonably since, but there are very few squash fruits, and they are generally fairly small. To get them to turn lovely and sweet, you need warm and sunny weather. We haven’t harvested them yet, but we suspect that they will be bland-tasting. We always grow the variety “Buttercup” since we’ve found that it gets sweet in relatively poor years, unlike many other varieties. The verdict is out for this year. We don’t think that there’s anything you can do to make them cope better in a poor summer.
Strawberries the foliage grew well and looked healthy, but we didn’t get much fruit, and the berries that we picked were smaller than usual. They also fruited a few weeks later then usual. Strawberry picking time was bang in the middle of the very wet times, so that is the most likely reason.
Crops that haven’t completed yet
Carrots we decided to sow some later than usual – in late July which is slightly later than the last recommended sowing time. We held off sowing earlier since we thought that they wouldn’t succeed in the very wet weather, but we may have been wrong. They are growing well so far, but bear In mind that from late July onwards there was less rain and more sun.
Crops that failed and what to do
Our parsnips failed to germinate. We planted them in April, when it was wet and cold. If we had been persistent and tried sowing again and again we might have been successful, so there’s another lesson learnt.
Aubergines. we started these in a propagator indoors and the initial growth was very promising, then transferred these to the greenhouse where the early dry spell meant we were having to water these every day. We had good leafy growth, but very few fruits, most of which rotted.
Herbs: those that appreciate drier conditions did not fare at all well. Not wholly the weather’s fault… both my rosemay and tarragon died slowly

Other plants 

It’s been an odd year for flowering plants as well. Now 8th Oct, we still have calendula, nasturtiums, evening primrose, roses, snapdragons, mexican marigolds, and even cowslips! 

Slugs and Snails

John writes… most gardeners that I know told me that they had big problems with slugs and snails this year, examples being runner beans failing to to get established because the speed of growth was slower than the speed of the mollucs eating the young plants. The thing that helped our crops a lot is that I took action against molluscs early on. To my mind, the only way to have a significant impact on numbers is to go out at night with a torch, collect them, and put them on some waste ground far away from any cultivated land. You can collect hundreds in a night, whereas if you collect during the day, you will collect far fewer. Doing this is fairly easy if you grow in your garden and it’s not too big, but not so easy if you have an allotment that’s far away.
Ziggy writes…: The other solution is to encourage the creatures that predate upon molluscs – namely, hedgehogs, thrushes, frogs etc into your garden. It’s worth finding the space for a pond to encourage wildlife, though if you have small children that is probably not a good idea, until they get older. Also its worth having scruffy spots with patches of long, scrubby foliage, log piles and so on.
The other trick is to start off slug-susceptible plants like squashes, runner beans and sweet corn indoors in pots or modules, and harden them off outside on warm-ish days. Put them somewhere high up, beyond the height that slugs and snailsare likely to climb. Ifyou have a shed of outbuilding with a flat or gently slopinig roof, that’s pretty out of reach of molluscs. If you don’t harden them off, the stems may be soft and slugs can eat right through the stems near the base, killing them. We learn this from bitter experience several years ago. They don’t tend to eat harder woody stems.

Why not ‘like’ the Southampton Seed Swap Facebook page for more tips, news & views throughout the year.

The Seed Swap will run from 9 – 10 February 2013 at The Art House.  

About arthousesouthampton

The Art House is a not-for-profit café, gallery and arts venue in the centre of Southampton. We are a place you can meet new people, meet up with friends or just come in by yourself. Our licensed café offers delicious organic lunches, Fairtrade tea and homemade cake. We also have a busy programme of events, workshops, and art exhibitions, a clothing and crafts boutique and lots more. Most of our crew are volunteers and you might even want to apply to join them. Come along and enjoy our unique, community run space.
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