Surviving The Long, Hot Summer

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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.

Dahlias ‘Bonaventure’, ‘Bryn Terfel’ and ‘Coral Jupiter’ – all produce blooms the size of a football.

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.

Tomato ‘Zlatava’ produces orange fruits with bright red flesh when fully ripe.

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.

Glass gem sweet corn reaching for the skies. The cobs are not edible but they’re highly decorative.

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.

Looking across our allotment towards the neighbouring plot and its sinister scarecrow.

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.

These sunflowers were hybridised by bees, scattered by parakeets and nurtured by humans which only makes them more wondrous.

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.

Categories: Dahlias, Flowers, fragrance, Fruit and Veg, herbs, Weather

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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11 comments On "Surviving The Long, Hot Summer"

  1. Lovely post Dan, thank you. Somerset is looking like the Sahara – we had 4 hours gentle drizzle ten days or so ago and that’s been it. I cut back geraniums etc before the gran’ caldo but the new foliage is very sad. Unbelievably we have superb runner beans, watered twice a week, and the cucumbers are what one might call rampant and the roses ebullient, though it’s been so hot the petals are literally singed after a couple of days. Never seen that before.. Clouds gathering this evening so fingers crossed…..

    1. Please send some our way before they’re completely wrung out – what tends to happen is that they’re exhausted before they reach East Kent!

      I wish I could say the same for our cucumbers – they’ve just shrivelled up and died despite lots of attention.

      I am hearing a lot of positive comments about the resilience of roses which is enlightening. Perhaps it will increase their popularity even more in future.

      Doing a little rain dance for you. Dan x

  2. The conditions have been a huge struggle. We have watered potted plants and recently planted things in the garden but we have had huge losses, mainly large-leaved plants like rodgersias, darmera, podophyllums. They will probably reappear next year but they are crisps for this year.

    1. I really hope they’ll reappear for you Paddy. Over here people are just giving up on their gardens and allotments as they’re beyond salvation. It’s quite pitiful to see but also fascinating to see what’s bullet proof. Our ancient old rosemary has never looked happier!

  3. That hovering bird is most probably a kestrel or windhover as they are known in some parts. Sparrowhawks hunt by ambushing their prey which I have witnessed several times in our garden which overlooks the allotments.

    1. I let The Beau, a former zoo keeper with an encyclopaedic knowledge of birds, do the bird identification. I can show him a picture of the most obscure tropical bird and he’ll know exactly what it is, including the Latin name more often than not. I can manage sparrows, robins and pigeons 😆

  4. Following your lead Dan, we planted dahlias this year and Thankyou as they are an eye catching delight. Some have just sent up new foliage bearing shoots from the base of the stem – should I prune these off or is there a chance they might bear flowers?

    1. Hello Tony. There’s no real need to prune them off but if they are thin and flimsy I’d remove them for neatness and to improve air circulation around the base of the plant. I tend to find they just flop about rather than growing into floriferous new stems. When they are useful is if a main stem snaps and then they can be supported to replace it. Dan

  5. Until last year I also had an allotment in Broadstairs, a bit further down from you on the east end and every year I struggled to provide enough water even though there was unlimited amounts on tap; it is such a dry area and the chalky soil doesn’t hold water well. I ended up after some experimentation with the no dig method and this helped a lot even though prodigious amounts of compost were required. We moved to Somerset last year and the soil here is a dream, a sandy loam that holds water well. There is no water provided on the allotment here apart from a few water butts but it didn’t matter, everything apart from lettuce thrived even in the very dry conditions we had this year. I take my hat off to you for the wonderful results you both achieve, given that East Kent soil you have to endure.

    1. Ahh, yes, the West Country is a different kettle of fish altogether. I grew up near Bath, so I know the climate but not the soil – ours was heavy clay in Saltford.

      How you manage with no water on your allotment, I don’t know. We are fortunate to have a supply, even if the pressure is sometimes a little lacking! Many allotment owners don’t help themselves by failing to add manure and compost annually. Some plots are so devoid of organic matter that you can see the soil being blown away in the wind. Whatever we put in disappears very quickly, but it works.

      Thank you for your comment and encouragement Alan. Dan

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