Last year’s wet weather scuppered the vegetable garden. Carrots didn’t germinate in the sodden soil and slugs ravaged the lettuces and anything else tender and young. However, courgettes, peas, beans and sweetcorn shrugged off the wet start and cropped heavily, so it wasn’t all bad news.
It’s nothing new though, vegetable gardeners are used to the vagaries of the British climate. Most years our harvesting is an unpredictable game of swings and roundabouts because different crops demand different conditions.
Here are some tips that might help you understand their individual needs so that you can deal with this summer, whether it's hot and dry or cool and wet. F1 varieties are worth paying for: they germinate well and have more vigour. Also look our for the AGM trophy logo given to RHS trial winners
The onion family
A diverse group containing leeks, onions, shallots and garlic.
The ideal conditions
The bulbous members (shallots, onions and garlic) generally prefer wet springs to swell the bulbs, followed by hot, dry summers which ripen them. This emulates the weather in the higher mountainous regions of Europe and Asia, where snow melts and a baking summer follows, something their ancestors are used to.
Leeks also need moisture in their early stages. However they do most of their growing in early autumn, so do not worry if they appear small in summer. Elephant garlic is a type of bulbous leek usually planted on October.
Be prepared to water these crops in dry springs as these bulbs are shallow rooted. If they become water stressed they can bolt, that is run to flower prematurely.
If August is wet, loosen the bulbs with a fork so that they are above the soil surface - to aid ripening.
Onion ‘Sturon’ AGM
A round, golden-skinned onion that stores well due to its high-shouldered rounded shape. Red varieties are more demanding. If you’re a novice stick to golden onions and shallots.
Shallot ‘Golden Gourmet’ AGM
High yielding golden round shallot - stores for months. Red varieties are more demanding.
Garlic ‘Solent White’ AGM
A late, soft-neck garlic producing many purple-skinned cloves. Keeps beyond Christmas.
Leek ‘Oarsman’ F1 AGM
High yielding and stands in the ground until March. Not too much cellulose in this variety, so easy to digest, and the F1 seeds germinate well.
Legumes (peas and beans)
Peas love cool summers with plenty of rain. The sweetest varieties are wrinkle-seeded and fairly tall, so they do need support. Sow plenty of seeds from March until mid-July. Late sowings often do well and escape the pea moth. Early smooth-seeded varieties are less tasty, with pale flowery seeds.
Water in dry springs and continue to water until damp weather arrives.
Maincrop Pea ‘Hurst Greenshaft’ AGM
A heavy yield of dark green, medium-length, pointed pods. Average of nine good-flavoured peas per pod.
Again maincrop varieties are best, not early or atumn-sown ones. Plant in modular trays in early March for April transplanting and keep watered. Pod set is better in sunny summers, but these are accommodating vegetables.
Mice can be a problem. Keep well them watered for the first four weeks and stake.
Broad Bean ‘Imperial Green Longpod’ AGM
Good green colour and flavour so this broad bean will freeze and eat well fresh. (‘Jubilee Hysor’ AGM is also good, with larger paler beans.)
Runner beans, French beans and hybrids
These are frost-tender varieties that should not be planted outside until late-May or early June. Red-flowered runner beans hate hot summers and can drop their flowers. White-flowered runner bean varieties are much better in hot summers as they are bred from a different species.
French beans love hot weather and they crop for a long time, until late-September. There are now hybrids between the two that crop more heavily in a variety of conditions. More importantly they are self-pollinating so do not need bees to visit.
In wet early summers slugs can be a problem and dwarf French beans are highly vulnerable. Climbing varieties will often escape attack. The best way of beating the weather is to plant a mixture of white red and hybrid beans as they perform differently according to the weather.
Red Runner Bean ‘Red Rum’ AGM
Early, straight, stringless pods, with another flourish in September.
White-flowered Runner Bean ‘White Lady’ AGM
Tends to be late, but reliable, tasty cropper.
Climbing French Bean ‘Cobra’ AGM
Very early, reliable and high yielding with long, fleshy, green beans.
Dwarf French Bean ‘Stanley’ AGM
very fast to crop, producing lots of beans all at the same time on short plants. An ideal filler in gaps.
Hybrid Runner x French ‘Moonlight’ AGM
The best bean I grew in the disastrous summer of 2012. Self-pollinating with fleshy plump beans about a foot long.
Wild brassicas tend to thrive on light, sandy soil close to the coast, so dry summers aren’t a problem for most cultivated varieties. Get them in the ground in May and water them in well. Sow in 6 x 4 modular trays, one or two seeds per module and once they reach three - four inches in height (10cm), get them straight in. Sitting in trays stunts them and they don’t recover. They willingly grow, but cauliflowers are the exception: they need cosseting.
Water in the early stages of planting, then leave them to get on with it. Net against Cabbage White caterpillars and feed with nitrogen until September. Chicken manure pellets are excellent.
Kale ‘Cavolo Nero’
Black Tuscan kale (first grown as an ornamental) produces long crinkled leaves that can be picked from October onwards.
Brussels Sprouts ‘Bosworth F1’ AGM
Dark-green, solid, closely spaced sprouts. Easy to pick and plants stand well into winter.
Cabbage ‘Marabel F1’ AGM
January King type, with hybrid; mid green leaves with good, deep red colour; round well filled heads with good standing ability. Reconfirmed after trial 2000 and 2007
Carrots and parsnips grow in warm, dry conditions on light soil so resist the urge to sow too early - whatever it says on the packet because they only germinate well in 12C/50F temperatures. They resent cold soil, so cloching for early sowings is well worth it. Carrots come up in 7 - 10 days, but a parsnip takes 30 so be prepared to cover with chicken wire and then wait patiently. Always grow F1 parsnips: then good germination is assured. Plant early carrots early in the season, then maincrops, and then revert back to early varieties in late-July. These will mature before winter arrives.
If the spring is dry, water the soil well before sowing. If it is raining day after day, cover the soil with polythene so that it dries out before sowing and keep it covered until the seedlings pop up.
Carrot ‘Amsterdam Forcing 3’ AGM
Smooth, colourful carrot which bulks up well early.
Parsnip ‘Gladiator’ F1 AGM
Smooth skinned and a good uniform shape.
Outdoor Cucurbits - squash and courgette
Frost tender plants that need warmth, sun and water. Do not plant outside until early June, as cold nights stunt them. Water well in dry spells in the morning, if possible. Slugs can be a problem.
If early summer is cool and damp try to cover your plants with thick plastic bell cloches overnight. This will boost their growth. The heavyweight cloches are from Two Wests -www.twowests.co.uk.
Winter Squash ‘Crown Prince’ AGM
Large round fruits with blue-grey skin and tasty orange flesh. Longest storing of all.
Courgette ‘Romanesco’ AGM
Heavily-ribbed fruits that hold their flowers. Popular in Italy where the flowers are used for stuffing. Semi-trailing plants with a good yield. Tolerant of poorer weather.
Potato yields were decimated by last year’s rain. Tubers rotted in the ground in some gardens and slug damage was high. The best advice is to stick to early and second early varieties which can be lifted by the end of July. In retrospect, a clear polythene sheet may have kept the tubers drier.
Very difficult to prevent slug damage under the ground. Blight, which begins as brown lesions on the foliage, can be kept under control by cutting off the tops quickly. However, early varieties should be out of the ground by August - when blight takes hold.
First Early Potato ‘Foremost ‘AGM
Ever-popular ‘new potato’ with slightly waxy, firm, white, good-flavoured flesh that does not discolour or disintegrate on cooking.
Second Early ‘Lady Christl’ AGM
Bulks up quickly and the tubers stay small. Shallow-eyed, pale yellow-skin and creamy flesh which remains firm on cooking. Eelworm resistant.
Beets, Spinach and Chard
Seaside plants that prefer light soil. However mildew and bolting, both caused by dry conditions, can be a problem. Select varieties wisely if your garden is dry.
Sow thinly, particularly with beetroot which is a multi-germ seed that can produce several plants. Thin carefully in damp weather if needed, although using a six inch wide drill works well as the seedlings have room to spread out. Try to avoid sowing in cold, dry conditions: this encourages bolting.
Beetroot ‘Alto’ F1 AGM
Cylindrical roots which push up through the ground so it’s easy to se the size of each root. Crops well and it’s early.
Spinach ‘Mikado’ F1 AGM
Resistant to some mildews and slow-bolting with glossy, mid-green, pointed leaves with long stems. Vigorous and high yielding with good flavour.
Spinach ‘Toscane’ AGM
Resistant to some mildews. Good yield of uniform, very dark green leaves which develop slowly, so it stands well. Useful for successional sowing from April to September.
These are all widely available varieties.
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