Oh, glorious July wherefore art thou? This is the cry of gardeners wherever I go as this strange summer continues to confuse both the gardener and the plants.
There is no settled period of genuine warmth for any length of time to keep those summer crops in a bountiful harvest mood. At this time of year, my runner beans are usually laden with lots of tender beans ready to harvest but so far this year there are plenty of flowers but as of yet no beans hanging on my vines. How about you?
Those dreams of balmy summer evenings, percolated with the aromas of barbeques, have not been realised and there is not a big demand for salad crops to be served in large dishes in al fresco mood. Mind you I would not have any large red tomatoes to fill this dish as yet as they are still hanging there in profusion of green awaiting that hot sunshine to 'burn' their skins.
But what can the ever-expectant gardener do but make the best of things and use what the plot provides and adapt to this rather strange season.
July to me is the time to plan ahead for winter crops of swede, parsnip and leek. This is the month to feed these plants well with whatever your preferred means is. As I am not a user of chemical fertilisers blood/fish/bone is my main source of long-term feeding, interspersed with liquid feeds provided by my wormery. Occasionally, as a treat, there may be a good dose of seaweed extract to boost their growth. This feeding is concentrated in July but must cease at the end of the month so that there's not too much tender, young growth as the days shorten and turn cooler. They must be toughened up to withstand the winter rigors of cold wind that sweeps down my valley. Those other bastions of the winter larder, the onions, are also fed plenty of potash-based feeds during this month to help those swelling bulbs put on weight and make fine onions for storing at the end of August. This spoiling must also cease at the end of July so that the greenery will die back into those bulbs and not make them too soft for storing.
There was an unexpected problem on my plot last week with my potato crop. My early potatoes had been dug so it was time to move onto my second earlies. I grow Kestrel, which has a lovely purple eye but, on starting to lift these, I was disappointed by their size. On closer examination I noticed these small potatoes had a lovely pink eye and it was obvious then to me these were my main crop variety of Cara. This meant that my Kestrel had been planted a fortnight later than required. It is strange in the potato world with the different varieties of potato that they have a growth cycle which is fairly rigidly adhere to despite when sown. So my current crop is a little smaller than hoped for and I will have to wait another two weeks for them to reach the full size. Still I love small potatoes with my dinner. Ah, the problems that we ageing gardeners sometimes bring on ourselves as our brain cells play tricks on us. Fortunately, gardening and fresh food has a healthy affect on our bodies.
A disappointing statistic was published last week, saying that our hedgehog population is still in decline. Back in the 1950s there were 30 million hedgehogs roaming the countryside in the UK. By the 1990s this population had dropped to 1.5 million and since then it has dropped further and it is estimated to below one million now. There are several theories on why this decline is still occurring, but hedgerow loss is one contributory factor and the death toll on our ever-expanding road system has a deadly affect on these roaming creatures. Many animals have found sanctuary in our gardens as a way of survival but some gardens have become too sterile as decking, gravel and paved areas became the modern fashion in low maintenance gardens. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has a campaign to get people to garden with hedgehogs in mind. This is not too difficult to achieve - leaving a few logs for shelter, stopping the use of harmful chemicals and letting a little of your garden run wild is a big step to making these gardeners' friends feel at home. Leave spaces in fences to let these creatures roam at will and maybe it is not too late to reverse this decline in their population. We, as gardeners, need all our useful friends in the 'war' against slugs!
My Life on a Hillside Allotment
Terry Walton is a regular contributor to The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and has written a book called, My Life on a Hillside Allotment, published by Bantam Press. Buy this book at a discount from the Saga Bookshop.