It’s been a funny old year. In many ways, it’s been an absolutely dreadful one. But through all the horribleness my garden has continued to keep me balanced, positive and relatively sane.
I’d like to begin by apologising for the lack of gardening features recently, but I’ve got a good excuse for being so remiss. Since my last article a long-standing medical issue became much worse, culminating in a fairly serious operation. I’m on the mend and healing well but the situation affected my ability to garden. Now I’m out the other side, so to speak, I’d like to share some of my achievements and failures from this gardening year.
Edgar and Freda were seen together several times after I initially spotted them in their pond-side tryst. Edgar is the most tame and confident so we saw far more of him, but I often noticed Freda hiding in the undergrowth nearby. Edgar spent an incredibly happy summer bobbing along in the pond and sleeping on sun-warmed rocks. But we haven’t spotted either of our froggy friends since autumn arrived and so I suspect they may be hibernating. Only time will tell if amphibian love has been long-lasting and ultimately fruitful. If everything goes to plan, I will be sharing pictures of frogspawn in the spring.
As per usual my veggie yield was a mixed bag. For the first time, I grew some decent sized carrots. The initial few were tiny, and my friend Kat quipped that I was growing veggies for The Borrowers. However, a few months on and we pulled up some beauties. My late sown green beans were excellent too, producing enough excess to fill a drawer in the freezer. The courgettes looked ever so promising, flowering and fruiting well. But it turns out that slugs have a voracious appetite for them and in the end only one made it to the table whole. I had to cut slug-nibbled bits off the rest.
My tomatoes grew well in the early good weather and flowered abundantly. Unfortunately, the weather began to fluctuate between cool, wet and then baking hot just as they fruited, so many never properly ripened. During a cold snap I picked them all and brought them indoors in an attempt to artificially ripen next to my bananas, but this only worked for about a third. Meanwhile, after some early corkers the rest of the beetroots were disappointing. They started so well and I thought I was due a wonderful crop this year but, with a few exceptions, large healthy leaves belied the puny vegetables beneath.
The brassicas had equally mixed fortunes. The red cabbage began with great promise – large, lush healthy plants resplendent among the bee flowers. At which point, the slugs got wind of them and, despite the frogs and my best efforts, the slugs won out and annihilated them. In the end there were more holes than cabbage. My cauliflowers are still growing so obviously the slugs don’t think much of them. I’ve noticed that one has a flower heart, so I might have a little success there. The potato basket did alright, but not nearly as well as we had hoped. As ever, the large plants above ground gave false promise and we only got a few pounds of spuds in the end, but they were absolutely delicious so still worth it.
My typically productive peas and sugar snaps were distinctly average this year. Perhaps the early heatwave was too much, or maybe I didn’t feed the soil properly? Whatever happened also blighted my traditionally bountiful sweet peas which just withered and died. Sadly, my pride and joy, the plum tree, was equally below par. Earlier in the year we discovered it had a canker so had to prune it back more harshly than we would normally. As a result we got about half our usual annual crop although it was quite enough to do three demijohns worth of plum and ginger wine, so not all bad.
The strawberries were wonderful. We’ve never had so many. I’d moved them to the top banks which are a sun trap and they loved it. I then managed to grow new plants from the late summer strawberry runners which I’ve also planted on the bank, so with any luck we’ll get a fair few next year. The tayberries were non-existent, but we had oodles of blackcurrants which more than made up for it. The raspberries weren’t much cop this year, though.
..and the Bee Hotel is buzzing
By contrast, the bee hotel appears to have been a great success and bee larvae with their tell-tale soil stoppers appeared in ten of the cane tubes. There’s a fairly abundant family of garden spiders living in there and a slug seems to have taken up residence in one of the empty snail shells. Oddly, another frog seemed to be living in it as well. Herbert gave me quite a shock when I first discovered him behind the meshing. As soon as the weather turned, I created two slightly overlapping plastic covers to protect the hotel over winter allowing plenty of space in case anything wanted to come and go and enabling air to circulate and keep everything dry.
We had loads of insects in the garden this summer, some welcome and some less so. Particularly unwelcome was the beautiful but destructive rosemary beetle which almost decimated the lavender bushes and the rosemary. My wildflowers did well again, attracting more wildlife into the garden although I suspect the pond had a large part to play, too. Even with my failures the garden did us proud this year. It was lush, full of life and felt like a haven from the world outside. The flowers I grew from seed flourished and I was able to share some of my excess plants. We still have swathes of flowering cosmos in the back garden even after a frost. After five years of hard slog this was the first year I had the chance to finally sit back and enjoy my labours.
Being ill has probably been a positive in some ways. Usually I can’t help but tidy the garden, putting it to bed for the long cold months. Often this means I can’t resist over-tidying, removing dying foliage, sometimes to the detriment of the wildlife that might shelter or even hibernate there. This autumn I’ve been forced to watch from a distance and allow it to look untidy and, well, completely natural.
For all the highs and lows of this year’s gardening, I still can’t wait to get back in the mud. Even in a fairly drug-addled state the morning after my operation, my first question to the doctor was: ‘When will I be able to garden?’
By Claire Fleetneedle, Gardening Correspondent
Top tips and tasks:
It’s not too late to plant bulbs, creating early nectar for pollinators. The trick with bulbs is to plant them at the correct depth. Here’s a guide to planting depths for the most popular springtime bulbs.
Daffodils – plant to at least 10cm depth
Crocus – 8cm deep
Hyacinths – 10-12cm deep
Fritillaries – 8-10cm deep and set at least 10cm apart
Iris – 8cm deep and at least 10cm apart
Muscari/Grape Hyacinths – 10cm deep
Scilla and Snowdrops – 5cm deep
Tulips – 10cm deep and 15cm apart
Winter Aconite 3-5 cm deep
For the best results, remember that bulbs don’t generally enjoy soggy bottoms so ensure the soil/pot has good drainage.
If you can afford it, do try to feed your local wild birds. Bird numbers are becoming worryingly low and we all need to do our bit to support native wildlife. There is a huge array of seeds, fat and nut combos available. A hungry bird will be happy with any of them.
If you have a pond, please remember to leave a small plastic ball in the water to stop it freezing. That way any wildlife in the pond can get out and the birds can drink safely. If your water source does freeze please ensure you gently break up the ice so that wildlife can use it.
Leave your garden to grow wild over the winter. Even if dead stems and seed heads look ugly to you, they are vital for a number of species.