On a Chalk Hillside January 2023

Published: January 7, 2023

Posted on 07.01.2023 |
Added in Sheila May's Blog

Drought this summer – a giant winner, and how the vegetable garden coped

Happy New Year.  Let's start with a giant winner from the heat and drought of this summer.  You would expect to have coped well with that type of weather, and the ones growing in the gravel garden behaved as normal in terms of survival and flowering.  However, whilst they all come from bits of stalk and root from a chunk of yucca from my husband's Aunty Win's garden, two of the plants, in two very different parts of the garden have grown and grown and grown.  The “usual” size for the plants I have here are about 40cm high and round, but two plants are much much bigger.  A gigantic one as tall as me and at least 1.5m wide in the hospital bed in the vegetable garden, and a rogue that has sprung up at the very edge of one of the little beds by the house, slap up against the path, which has become huge, and a danger to anyone walking along the path – particularly as there is an overhanging rose on the other side of the path.  Neither of these huge plants has ever flowered.  Then I suddenly noticed this on 29 August:-

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Four days later:-

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Within a week of spotting the spike it was starting to put out flowerbuds:-

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In less than two weeks it had grown and branched thusly:-

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I expected that it would carry on developing flowers very quickly, but from here it seemed to slow down, opening flowers much more slowly, starting at the bottom of the flower spike – this one three weeks after I first saw the flower spike:-

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But by 13 October it had only opened this much more:-

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You can see that some flowers that had opened in early September were already beginning to go brown, so I expected that this would be as good as it got.  How wrong could I be?   By the end of October, with himself for scale here is the plant in splendour:-

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And this was the view of it from the house:-

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Stunning!  What is more, we suddenly realised on 29 October that the even bigger yucca in the hospital bed was also putting out a flower spike!  
Normally in January I review the vegetable growing side of our gardening, and determine what to grow in the coming year, what worked well, what to change.  This year the review is different, because as you know for us 2022 was not a normal growing year.  The drought, and the prolonged time away from the garden affected the vegetable and fruit production much more extensively than the pretty garden.  
It started at the beginning of the year with when exactly to sow various seeds, based on when we expected to be, or indeed were, occupied with health related matters.  This meant that some seeds were sown much later than normal, and were consequently less robust than they might have been when planted out, or were planted out at less than optimum times.  Though it didn't seem helpful at the time, having a consultants appointment cancelled the day before due at the beginning of May, and rebooked for early June fortuitously gave us our only connected period to prepare and plant the veg garden.  So on 12 May the veg beds looked like this one:-

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Which by 19 May had been dug over, prepared, and the Swiss Chard, Ruby Chard, Bright Lights Chard, and Perpeptual Spinach had been planted out (note how small the plants are!):-

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By 23rd May the winter veg tunnel had been weeded and dug over and planted up with the equally small kale plants (and 7 purple sprouting broccoli):-

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You may recall in my review last year that I said that one downside of having the new netting on the tunnel was that it was not only bird proof it was now frog proof, and the kale had been eaten by slugs, so I did put down slug pellets when I planted these.  But because we were then away almost immediately, they were left to their own devices, no further slug protection, no weeding, just watering by our great neighbours.  The chard bed too was not weeded only watered – and whilst you might expect that chard being in the beet family and having huge roots would be ok with drought, they do not like excessive heat, and all bolted very quickly, especially the ruby chard and the perpeptual spinach which had bolted by mid-July
Another first, was that himself had to operate differently – not taking one job and doing it end to end as was his wont, but doing a bit at several different jobs, to try and get them completed.  One example of this was his preparation of the beans beds.  He had to learn to dig over and create one bean trench as I cleared/weeded/dug part of a bed, fill that bean trench and put in sticks whilst waiting for me to clear/weed/dig the next bit, and most shockingly for him, to plant each set of sticks up as the beans got big enough to plant out.  Here on 17 May he has one set of sticks partially up whilst digging the next trench below it:-

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Tomatoes were late being sown, late being pricked out and therefore late going into their big pots in the greenhouse and polytunnel – by 2 June.  The courgettes were planted out on 6 June.  We then were hardly around for more than 2 months.  However, our fantastic neighbours did a sterling job of keeping the veg watered during heatwave and drought, and it was entirely down to them that we had any crops at all this year.   We were briefly back on 15 July to harvest the first courgettes, and some of the already bolted perpeptual spinach – as you can see here:-

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The courgette bed, and sweet peas looked like this on that day:-

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Promising you might think.  Well, that was all the flowers I got (and all the height and growth the sweetpeas made).  The sweet peas went to seed, and each of the courgette plants made one huge courgette and stopped flowering as the marrow-sized fruit set seed – the plants thought their job was done.   When we returned on 18 August and harvested all those marrows I was not expecting the plants to recover – they still looked ok, the leaves were all white with powdery mildew as you can see:-

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Most of the plants still had growing points, so I asked himself to start feeding them weekly – something we had not asked our neighbours to do as we really hadn't expected to be away for the length of time we were.  To my amazement, whilst we ploughed through the marrows eating lots of lovely stuffed marrow dishes, the courgettes started to flower, and then fruit in September, and I actually got courgettes from these bush courgettes til the end of September, and from the climbing tromboni courgettes til the end of October (it was a VERY mild autumn).  This meant I had some to put in the freezer for ratatouille over the winter as well as eating fresh, but not enough to store until the next courgette season as we usually had. 
The tomatoes you might have expected to be a success in the heat.  Well, again, they were not fed, weeded or sideshooted, and so looked like this after weeding on 18 August:-

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By this time in August they should be at the roof of the polytunnel, and considerably greener and chunkier than this with lots of set fruit and more flowers.  They had been watered lovingly by our neighbours, but it CLEARLY showed us how vital feeding was.  Even with starting immediately, and weeding the pots, the tomatoes never really picked up enough, and by the end of October had only reached the growth you might expect for August, not having many flowers and therefore not setting much fruit.  Interestingly, I had given tomato plants to our daughter, neighbours both here and at my Mum's in the northwest and ALL of their plants had thrived, (the ones in the northwest outside!!) and had produced lots of fruit that everyone was very pleased with.  So it really shows how important feeding, sideshooting and weeding the pots is for a good crop.  
Amazingly the winter green tunnel had survived the heat, and without any further feed (just having some of the high energy fertilizer I gave the cannas I mentioned in previous articles) they looked like this on 18 August:-

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With some careful weeding these are doing very well, they haven't bolted, and we were harvesting them from late October onward.  
I may have told you in previous years that one method I use to preserve this harvest is pickling?  To that end I usually grow a few gherkins to pickle.  This year they were planted on the end of a runner bean run and were watered by our neighbours when they watered the beans.  As with the courgettes that were not fed, they grew one big fruit that went to seed.  Unlike the courgettes, by 18 August the vines were dying back.  I have never seen “ripe” gherkins – here on the vine, and then in himself's hand to show the size (they are normally green and the size of my little finger when harvested:-

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The French beans are probably our surprise ‘success'.  Whilst the haulm's growth on all the beans was weedy, and the runners grew one crop of beans and that was that, the French beans kept on giving a little.  All the beans had been left on the plants too long by the time we got home, and I picked everything I could see, whether it might be edible or not (and quite a lot were not!), there were few flowers, but we sprayed the haulms with water – and then as you know we eventually got rain in September which helped.  I had planted out all the beans I grew, which if we had been here to tend them properly would have given us far too many beans, but each plant producing a few beans over a long period of time meant that we had a run of beans late August/early September, and then a few more early October, and even one or two as late as the end of October.  Enough to eat fresh, enough to pickle as caper-substitutes, but not enough to prepare and freeze for eating over the winter.  Here's an example of a harvest at the end of September:-

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The neighbours loved the beans, and we all want to grow these varieties next year, very little stringiness despite them being “lumpy” looking!  Lots of learning points this year!  Next month I shall look at how the HPS and RHS seed I sowed fared in the drought/heat/our absence. 
Sheila May

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