by Keith Jordan
A huge area of low pressure sits over the UK as I write (25th Sept.) bringing flooding and strong winds to many parts of Britain, especially northern areas. Warm wet air from the tropics dumped up to 100mm of rain in some areas – a month’s worth in one go! Our rainfall in Cambridge the day before was more modest but saw the end to a month with little or no rain…the latest ‘block’ of weather.
2012 has been memorable for this alternate drought – heavy rain/flood regime, with serious affects on the human population (e.g. flooding), nature reserves and wildlife (e.g. nesting waders flooded out on the Ouse Washes) and even gardens (plants affected by extreme conditions and gardens flooded in some areas).
Several weeks of cool, dull weather in early summer decimated many insects, including bees, butterflies and pollinating insects, leading to poor pollination of many apple trees and other crops. Blight, rusts and other fungal diseases associated with damp conditions have brought problems for gardeners making it a very challenging year. Having said that, there always benefits from abundant rain – notably leafy crops (well, those that survive slug and snail predation), soft fruit crops and anyone trying to establish or renovate a lawn. Hedgehogs, blackbirds and song thrushes have enjoyed the periods of wet weather since their main food, worms, have prospered.
If periods of drought interspersed with sudden deluges are to become the norm, we need to adapt our gardening skills as well. Saving water, mulching plants and reducing evaporation from the soil will have to go hand in hand with trying to nurture plants through cold, wet periods and collecting rainwater when the ‘monsoons’ arrive.
An abundance of rain at times of year when parts of garden plots or allotments are plant free – such as in October after harvesting crops – can result in leaching of many soluble nutrients out of the reach of plants with shallow roots, leading to poor plant growth, lower yields and nutrient deficiencies. Vacant land can be sown with fast growing green manure seeds now – mustard, phacelia, winter tares, rye, horse beans – just like weed seeds (dandelions, grasses, etc.), that will be germinating quickly now after the soil is moist again. Green manures grown densely will suppress the growth of the weeds, absorb water and nutrients that might be otherwise washed down into ground water. The plants can then be dug in (before they flower) helping to build up the soil fertility and water-retaining properties of your soil.
Deeper rooting plants can tap into the ‘washed out’ nutrients …hence the use of comfrey, with long tap roots, to make a rich plant nutrient feed from their leaves. Some of these tips will be demonstrated at the forthcoming Skills Fest.
As leaves drop from deciduous plants it’s a signal that it’s the start of the period (Oct to March) to plant fruit bushes, trees and shrubs. With their deeper roots they’ll help to draw up nutrients that have been washed out of reach of shallower-rooting plants. It is time to make sure apples, potatoes, root crops, pumpkins and squashes are stored properly to see them through the winter. With the right varieties and some skill you can keep some well into April next year! Again more tips available at the ‘Grow Your Own’ stall at the Skills Fest.