Here's to a golden autumn . . . forget the dull summer
DULL and cool, with below average rainfall in parts was Met Eireann’s summary of the weather during the month of July, with Dublin having its coolest July (an average of 13.8C) in 46 years, and the rest of the country faring not much better.
This followed a June that in many areas was the coldest in 39 years. At the time of writing, the summary for August hasn’t yet been published but my gloomy guess is that the words “dull” and “cool” will again feature.
All of which adds up to a gardening season that, at best, could be described as “challenging” , but which certain gardeners I know would prefer to describe in more forthright terms – “ghastly”, “terrible” and “bloody awful” being their preferred adjectives.
Yet despite it all, the OPW’s walled Victorian kitchen garden is now awash with tasty fruit, vegetables and herbs: juicy carrots, lettuce, leafy cabbages, milky-white cauliflower curds, courgettes, floury potatoes, Florence fennel, parsnips, plump broad beans, beetroot, tomatoes, turnips, French beans (both dwarf and climbing), runner beans, sweet corn, onions, rhubarb, blackberries and autumn-fruiting raspberries. There’s even a second flush of peas on the way, while for the last few weeks OPW gardeners Meeda Downey, Brian Quinn and Madeleine Phelan, and visiting Polish student gardeners, Joanna Niederleig and Adam Krainski have all been savouring the succulently sweet fruits of a young ‘Victoria’ plum tree (“There’s nothing like a fresh plum to start the day,” says Brian appreciatively). All of which, when you think about it, is not bad for what’s been one of the worst summers in almost half a century.
“Considering the summer we’ve had, the garden has done well,” confirms Meeda, adding that it’s been a particularly good year for most brassicas. “Potatoes have been good too,” says Brian, “particularly the early varieties ‘Orla’ and ‘Colleen’.”
“But the maincrop Records have been a bit disappointing in terms of yield,” Meeda continues. “We haven’t lifted any of the Arran Victory or Sarpo potatoes yet, so it’ll be interesting to see what they’re like in comparison.”
What about fruit? “Because of the fine early spring, we had our best crop of strawberries ever, while we’ve been harvesting rhubarb regularly since early summer – the ‘Red Champagne’ variety is still producing even now. Both the summer and autumn-fruiting raspberries have also done well as have most of the other soft fruits.”
So what have been the OPW gardeners’ biggest gardening disappointments this summer? “The sweet corn,” say Meeda and Brian in chorus. “They’re half, even a third of the size of other years, with just one or maybe two cobs per plant – normally you’d get three, four, even five.”
“And the pumpkins,” adds Brian glumly. “This year’s will be the smallest yet, even though Im now giving them a regular liquid feed that’s really rich in potash. I’m almost giving up on the ‘Atlantic Giant’ now – they just didn’t get enough heat or light to swell.”
Brian blames the sweetcorn’s underperformance both on the unseasonable June frosts and the nocturnal visits of a hungry badger earlier this summer.
“There was quite a bit of damage done to the leaves and the growing tips,” he explains, adding that he also suspects the choice of variety (a super-sweet, early-
maturing type called ‘Fiesta’, which the gardeners haven’t grown before) may have contributed to this year’s poor crop.
Meeda is less convinced this is the cause, and puts the crop’s part-failure down to the fact that the young glasshouse-raised plants were transplanted outdoors too early and hadn’t been adequately hardened-off.
But whatever the exact cause (and perhaps there is more than just one), the walled garden’s sweet corn plants looked so feeble this summer that they provoked an Italian tourist (much to Brian’s annoyance) to inquire whether the OPW gardeners were carrying out some sort of experiment.
Worse, Meeda has been gently goading him with the fact that the sweet corn plants growing on her family farm in Meath are at least twice the size. “Up to here,” she says, smiling mischievously, gesturing to her shoulder-height.
At least Brian and Meeda can take pride in the Black Russian tomatoes they’ve grown outdoors in the walled garden for the first time this year, and whose heavy, fleshy fruits are slowly but surely ripening.
The garden’s wonderful onion crop is another success, given the fact that it was raised from seed rather than sets and that previous year’s crops have been decimated by the horribly persistent fungal disease onion white rot.
The new, colourful and scent-filled beds of sweet william, nasturtiums, marigolds, dahlias, helichrysums, cosmos and verbena (all raised from seed by Brian and Meeda) are another triumph, as is the relocated herb garden. And if it wasn’t for the fact that the fine art of scrumping is obviously still alive and well, the OPW gardeners could also have taken some justifiable pride in the young orchard planted earlier this year just outside the garden walls, now filled with espalier pears and native apple trees.
Instead, however, the apples are mysteriously disappearing from the branches as soon as (or even before) they approach ripeness. “We’ll just have to wait until next year to see what the different varieties taste like,” says Meeda with a patient shrug.
Meanwhile, if the tiny field mouse that was recently spotted nibbling the walled garden’s ripe marigold seeds is anything to go by, the “challenging” summer of 2011 is slowly but surely coming to an end. Let’s look forward instead to a golden, sun-soaked autumn.
* The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden, in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle, is open daily from 10am to 4pm
WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now
Sow:outdoors in pots or modules, for later planting in the tunnel or greenhouse when summer crops are cleared and space is available – or direct sow in there now if not too hot: cabbages (‘Greyhound’ leafy non-hearting spring types), carrots (‘Nantes’ and other early finger types, in long modules), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack for baby leaves, lettuces (non-hearting leafy types, winter ’Gem and winter butterheads), lambs lettuce, endives, Swiss chards leaf beets, beetroot Bulls Blood McGregors favourite (for salad leaves), peas (for pea shoots), Claytonia*, American landcress, leaf chicories, rocket, brocoletto Cima di Rapa, oriental greens such as mizuna, pak choi, mustards, Komatsuna, Tatsoi, summer turnips, summer spinach, salad onions, leafy salad mixes, coriander, chervil, plain leaved and curly parsley* and broad leaved sorrel. Covering while outdoors with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche will give young seedlings protection from pests, strong winds or heavy rain. Be careful with watering and ventilation of seedlings now, in the damp autumn air. You could also plant a few potato tubers in pots before mid-Sept. to bring inside later for a Christmas crop, autumn planting ready types are available now in garden centres..
Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop, possibly to cover with cloches or frames later in autumn: early summer cauliflowers for next year, brocoletto Cima di Rapa, early Nantes type carrots for a late autumn crop, cabbages (red ball head, Greyhound and leafy non-hearting spring types), leaf chicories, endives, salad onions, Claytonia (winter purslane), lambs lettuce, American landcress, winter lettuces, kales, rocket, summer spinach, Swiss chard* and leaf beets, oriental greens such as Choy Sum, Pak choi, mustards Red Green Frills, Chinese kale (Kailaan), Komatsuna, and fast-maturing salad leaf mixes. Sow green manures such as alfalfa, red clover, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) winter tares, field beans, fenugreek, phacelia and Hungarian grazing rye, to improve soil, lock-up carbon and feed worms (dig them in later after the first frosts, then covering to protect soil, preventing nutrient loss and possible pollution), on any empty patches of ground cleared of crops that wont be used over winter.
Do:Continue weeding, watering young module/container plants. Plant out well-established, module-raised plants, spray late maincrop potatoes against blight, keep glasshouse/polytunnel well-ventilated, continue to feed tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers with a liquid-feed high in potash, check that protective netting (Bionet) against carrot fly, cabbage root fly, cabbage white butterfly is firmly in place (inspect for eggs caterpillars also), check supports for tall plants (beans, peas, tomatoes) and continue to nip out side shoots, protect vulnerable crops against slug/snail damage, continue harvesting produce, prune out old, fruited canes of summer raspberries and tie in foliage to supports.
Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer