Once again, dear friends, my attempts at posting more frequently have been thwarted: not this time by work, but by the sheer volume of watering we’ve had to do to keep the garden and allotment growing.
2022 has broken all records in terms of heat and low rainfall, bringing the harsh realities of climate change into sharp focus. Yes, this summer will be deemed exceptional – this time next year we’ll probably be back to moaning about the cold, wet and rampant blight – but it’s becoming ever clearer that UK gardens and gardeners are ill-equipped to cope with extended, hot summers. Planting and husbandry will have to change in order to make our gardens more resilient and sustainable. Gardening extensively in containers, as I do, just isn’t practical during a drought since plants have no means of fending for themselves. Although arguably nothing is wasted as very little excess water runs away, plants require less care and attention when growing in the ground. Here in Broadstairs, we don’t have a hosepipe ban, but it can only be a matter of time until we do.
Like most gardeners, we planned our garden and allotment anticipating a typically, cool, wet English summer. Hence, we have no option but to coax our precious plants through successive heatwaves or bravely make decisions to cut certain areas loose and see how they fare. We haven’t watered our herb patch once and everything from mint to sage is flourishing: many herbs are naturally drought-tolerant but it helps that they’re also established and happy in our free-draining chalk soil. We also decided not to water our raspberries, occupying a large space on the allotment. Our resolve lasted until the first fruits began to swell and we noticed how small and dehydrated they were. Now the ground beneath them is getting a thorough soaking once a week and that seems to be enough to produce plump fruit. What they lack in size they more than make up for in flavour.
There, alas, ends my list of plants that can do without. Everything else has to be attended to regularly or sacrificed to the sun.
By and large, our dahlia collection is loving every minute of this summer. It’s perhaps no surprise given the prevailing weather conditions in the South of England have had more in common with Cuernavaca (Mexico) than Canterbury. Unwatered, they’d be short, sulky little things, but fully quenched they’re tall, lush and magnificent. Flowering began early and will continue for another two, possibly three months, by which time every plant will have repaid us tenfold for the effort we’ve invested. A few cultivars have almost flowered themselves out, taking a short rest before producing a second flush of flowers. We’ve discovered some absolute beauties this year including ‘Cream Diane’, ‘Normandie Delight’, ‘Fashion Monger’, ‘Hallmark’, ‘Kenora Wow’, ‘Coral Jupiter’ and ‘Bonaventure’. Making a list of favourites will have to wait until the end of the season but so far no variety has disappointed. It’s not all nirvana – there are early signs of powdery mildew that suggest this will become a significant problem as the season progresses. Removing a dahlia’s lower leaves can help to alleviate powdery mildew by improving air circulation around the base of the plant. It’s a job I find quite therapeutic provided there’s a comfy kneeler to hand.
Last year we didn’t pick a single tomato thanks to the severe blight that swept the country. Along with our allotment neighbours, we ripped out almost 50 plants just as the fruit was starting to ripen. We’ve had no such calamity this year and harvesting began at the end of August. The Beau planted 8 plants of each of 5 different varieties including ‘San Marzano Plum’, ‘Black Russian’, ‘Zlatava’, ‘Banana Legs’ and, at my request, ‘Gardener’s Delight’. Despite a rigorous and regular watering regime, we’ve suffered a little bit of blossom end rot and the fruit of ‘Black Russian’ insists on splitting, which we have found it always does. ‘Banana Legs’ produces a weak plant for us despite a reputation for vigour and heavy cropping: maybe our soil is not to its liking. I don’t think we will grow this variety again despite its attractive yellow fruits – there are so many more to try.
I look back at photographs of previous years (my only method of keeping a record as I’ve never been good at making notes) and it’s clear that most flowering plants have come and gone at least a month earlier than usual. The gladioli usually see us through until September but barring a few late-comers they’re already gone. Cosmos, lantana and mirabilis (Marvel of Peru) have been planted in between so that there’s something to look at apart from serried ranks of dull, pointed leaves. As soon as the first-early potatoes were dug we planted zinnias – ‘Benary’s Giant Mix’ I think – and they’re in seventh heaven, producing huge flowers on well-branched plants. Another Mexican native, zinnias enjoy the same conditions as dahlias, perhaps tolerating slightly drier, hotter conditions. The Aztecs referred to zinnias as ‘plants that are hard on the eyes’ owing to their unashamedly bright blooms: I understand this sentiment, always feeling they’re just a bit too stiff and gaudy for the garden. However, on an allotment or in a cutting garden they’re glorious. I particularly like the coral and hot-pink shades for their sheer clarity and brazenness.
Back in the garden, it’s a pity that we pulled away from some of the more borderline-hardy plants that we dabbled with in 2020; they’d have adored the hot days and warm nights. The earliest gingers had flowered and gone over by the time we’d normally open the garden and now those that typically make an appearance in September and October are ready to bloom. Hedychium ‘Tara’ has already put out its curious flower spike and I can see Hedychium greenii building up to produce a fine display of perfumed coral butterflies.
On the subject of butterflies, I will end on a high and mention what an incredible year it’s been for pollinators. We always welcome a preponderance of bees to the garden and allotment but this year has been exceptional. Bees flock to dahlias of all shapes and sizes, not just the single ones. Daily I am amused by The Beau’s little welps of surprise as he cuts a deadhead and out flies a bee the size of damson, usually in the direction of his nostrils. Bumble bees appear to climb inside the cool petals and go to sleep, or perhaps they’re resting their wings or reorganising their pollen sacks. Whatever they’re up to, they’re welcome to lodge with us for as long as they’d like.
Gatekeeper butterflies are a welcome sight, as are the commas, peacocks and red admirals. We’ve let a few nettles grow on an area affectionately known as the ‘dump of doom’ (twinned with the ‘cupboard of doom’ in the kitchen – venture inside if you dare!) and trim these down every so often to encourage fresh growth. I should like to learn more about what conditions butterflies like as it’s been a real joy to see so many fluttering by as we water or deadhead. There are crickets and grasshoppers too, which in turn has encouraged a few foraging birds. A lack of feathered friends is a disappointment but no great surprise thanks to the allotment cat, Mr Findus, and a sparrowhawk, as yet unnamed. The latter hovers over the allotment most days, sometimes mobbed by jackdaws. When the green woodpecker takes a low course over our plot I am always thrilled to see and hear it – combined with the screech of ring-necked parakeets the allotment soundtrack is almost tropical.
For anyone reading this in an area where water restrictions are already in force, you have my sympathy. Although we all need to be less reliant on treated tap water, it’s hard to be prepared at the drop of a hat. Over at Dan Cooper Garden, I’ve pulled together a few of my top tips, although most will be second nature to experienced gardeners. One thing we can be sure of is that the hot weather will come to end, perhaps abruptly and violently. It’s extraordinary to think that most plants in our garden haven’t experienced more than a few reluctant drops of rain all season. They’ll be ill-prepared for a torrential downpour so if you can’t find me watering, I’ll be busy staking. Stay cool folks. TFG.