Sunday, 4 November 2012

My review of the year - 2012:

It’s that time of year again when the first frosts have laid low your plants, the rain has set in yet again & it’s time for all gardeners to have a quick think about how the year went.

Everyone in the Northern Hemisphere seems to have had a fairly extreme spring and summer weather wise, I did a whistlestop tour of the US in the summer where sunshine & drought were the order of the day, but in the UK it poured and it poured and it poured. 

We had our wettest April and June since records began and none of the other months were much better.  I suspect that rain wasn’t that much of a problem in itself – and here I’m speaking for the plants rather than myself obviously – but the accompanying low temperatures & light levels - according to the Met Office we had an mean summer temperature of 13.9C (57F) and had the second dullest June on record with only 70% of the usual levels of sunshine – meant it was all a bit miserable for both plants & humans.

As a gardener after a difficult year, it’s very easy to focus on the negatives which I’m determined not to do.  At the end of the day, in spite of all of the frustrations, I still managed to achieve my aim of keeping fresh flowers in the house from the 18th of March (Mothers’ Day in the UK) until Halloween.  

So let’s look first at the stars of the show:

First up was a newcomer Dahlia “Blue Bayou”.  I bought 5 tubers from Parkers Wholesale for £5.40 and they really did me proud.  They survived repeated attacks from deer and were very highly productive across the entire season as they were one of the first Dahlias to bloom and were still going strong when the frosts arrived.   The blooms are unusual for a dahlia but I like them a lot and they’re great in medium or large late summer/autumn arrangements.  You may not be able to buy Dahlia “Blue Bayou” at your local nursery or need enough plants to include them in a bulk order but many online or more specialist retailers like Sarah Raven sell them singly so, in summary, if you have a cutting garden; get on Google and get this plant.

The second stars were the sunflowers.  I had collected some seeds last year from a couple of plants growing on neighbouring allotments that I liked the look of.  I choose parent plants that have the traits I’m looking for in that they’re about my height, have survived without staking and have multiple flowers about the size of my hand.   I plant the seed directly into the ground in spring and I got a couple of month’s worth of arrangements from the resulting seedlings.  Sunflowers always look great in informal arrangements on a table. 

The last star performer was the dark Scabiousa Crown.  I got the seeds from Ben Raynard at HiggledyGarden & they did very well for me throughout the second half of the year.   I grew them alongside Scabiosa caucasia perfecta ‘Alba’ that I had got from Sarah Raven.  If I’m totally honest the Alba did better overall with earlier flowers and a much greater productivity but more isn’t always better.  There’s something much nicer and more delicate about the purple Crown.

So what were the challenges:

First off was the weeds – OMG the weeds.   Weed control is the single most important activity for a gardener, not that you’d know that from reading the gardening press.  I suppose it’s ignored as photos of the horticultural equivalent of builder’s bum won’t sell books or magazines in the same way as close ups of flowers or dreamy photos of attractive ladies carrying trugs will.   The weather may have held back some of my chosen plants – especially any with a tropical or Mediterranean background – but the weeds had no such problems.  My main offenders were Anagallis arvensis – The Scarlet Pimpernel  various grasses & the slightly scary Atropa belladonna or Deadly Nightshade (Ok, I know, it’s actually very scary!!).  My main methods of weed control are hand weeding around small plants and hoeing open areas and paths and around larger plants but, occasionally when I've lost a bit of control because of prolonged bad weather or going on holiday, I’ll give problem areas a quick toot with glyphosate just to get things back on track.  The problems this year were that everything was so wet that hoeing was really just transplanting the weed seedlings, they weren't getting desiccated and dying, and it was so wet and windy that glyphosate wasn't an option either.  It all took a lot more effort and I've a lot more weeds at the end of the season than normal but, hopefully, I didn't allow too many to seed so it will only be a one year problem.

The plant I was most disappointed in was Craspedia  aka Billy Balls– This is an uber-trendy,  cut flower in the US at the moment that I've had my eye on for a while and I managed to track down some seeds in the UK at Chiltern Seeds.  They germinated really well and I planted out lots of plants.  Then it all got very wet, dark and cold and, in fairness, as a native of Australia and New Zealand, they’re probably not used to that at all.  I did manage to harvest a few flowers  not enough that the rewards were worth the effort.  As I really want to get on with this plant, I’ll persevere for another year.  I've left the plants in the ground as they are a perennial and, hopefully, they’ll survive the winter but, if not, I've also collected some seed.  “You have one more chance, Craspedia.”

My last big disappointment was Zinnias which are normally one of my stalwarts.  Each year, I buy a couple of packets of Zinnia seeds and plant them directly into the soil in May to fill any holes where I've lost a plant or where I've left too much of a gap.  I normally find them so reliable that I take their germination for granted and just expect them to work.  This year, as I had planned out my planting much better, I decided to dedicate an entire bed to zinnias.  I got 6 different varieties including a couple of trial varieties from a major seed supplier who will, to spare their blushes, remain anonymous.   The results were pretty much a total wipe-out  I got 5 plants from 6 packets of seeds which is a very, very poor return including absolutely none from either of the trial varieties.  The plants that germinated did well in the end but not a great year for zinnias.  I suspect that, as they hail from Mexico, it was the damp and cold that did for them this year although slugs are, I suppose, another potential culprit.  

Overall, in spite of the difficulties, I've really enjoyed this year in my Cutting Garden – I’m still viewed as slightly eccentric by my fellow allotmenteers for growing cut flowers rather than vegetables.  I managed to keep flowers in the house across the target time period and, for most of the time at least, I've managed to keep my wife happy which is, after all, the entire point of this endeavour and my major aim in life. 

Cheers all