Gardening in an English Summer - the Highs and Lows

Simon Watkins
Monday, 18th June 2012

Simon despairs for his heavy-feeding vegetables, but rejoices in the abundance of his strip meadow, created out of nothing more than the smashed up remains of his former driveway...

It's tempting to be despondent about my cucurbits this year.

That's not a sentence I often write (nor one which I want to hear myself say...). And it's not just the squash family: tomatoes, carrots, beans and alliums have pretty much sat still after germination. There's been too little light, too little warmth, and if I'm honest, too little care from me.

Struggling seedlings

Those plants I've grown from seed indoors have the appearance of squinting to get a better view of the window, though they're inches from the glass; some of them – particularly the courgettes – have paled to a ghostly yellow whilst putting out tentative grown-up leaves and the beginnings of flower heads even though no more than 4 inches tall. No hope of mature fruit from those. I should probably have fed or transplanted them sooner, though the plants I've put outdoors have been immediately slugged, barely lasting a single night.

The slugs are making life hard for the peas too, making a tracery of their lower leaves. I must get round to putting up some canes, as the cover of surrounding vegetation is a perfect hideaway for the ravenous creatures.

I shouldn't be too downhearted: there's a fine crop of lettuces (oddly – the slugs have maintained a commendably sustainable husbandry of the salad this year) two of the raised beds are creaking with potato plants and brassicas have done pretty well too. My first crop of sweet, perfect radishes went from seed to plate in less than 6 weeks - neat juicy spheres of red and yellow. So some things don't mind the grey damp air!

Growing a strip meadow on building waste

Last year was about biomass (principally compost); this year is really the first year to obtain a yield from the garden as well as the first chance to observe the strengths and challenges of the conditions created by my interaction. There were bound to be both surprises and disappointments along the way. One exciting succession story, however, is the strip meadow I sowed last August. On the bare canvas of sand and broken up mortar which had supported the concrete slabs I had taken up, nature has painted a vignette of red Field Poppies, saffron Pot Marigolds, orange Californian Poppies, Cornflowers in purple and blue, white Sweet Rocket, and something in deep pink I don't even recognise. In places the foliage is a metre high; elsewhere it tumbles onto the adjacent paving, the prone flowers forming Monet-like splashes of colour against the grey. And everywhere the garden is being serviced by a fizz of contented bumble bees.

This morning I pulled out some of the larger Poppy plants whose spent petals are by now decorating the remaining driveway slabs and laid them to rot down in the barer sections of the border – a redistribution of organic wealth built from next to nothing. Seen in cross section, the habitable region of the globe, from the deeps of sea and soil to the tips of the tallest trees, is no more than a planetary egg shell. These plants, however, have survived in something even thinner, thriving on nothing but the merest film of biomass. And from that tiny repository of nutrients laid down in the silts that washed between the paving slabs of my old driveway, within a year I'll have the beginnings of a soil that will go on to feed a crop of courgettes which I hope will be far healthier than this year's beleaguered specimens.

Simon is a chartered landscape architect and permaculturist. You can read more of Simon's writings here.

Pat Rayner |
Mon, 18/06/2012 - 11:48
I do understand as last summer in Blue Mountains outside Sydney my tomatoes did not ripen at all, zucchinis pathetic all due to large amount of heavy rain over many days - not a Sydney summer at all. Potatoes and raspberries were terrific with all the water. BMPermie
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