Fair Weather Food

Spot the Potato plant!

Plenty of people have been complaining about the weather this year but in the Kitchen Garden here at Chartwell we have perhaps even more reason than most to feel a little miffed. The wet and cold months of April, May, June and some of July have really knocked our fruit and veg for six. The above picture shows our potato bed, but where are the actual plants you might ask! A nasty case of blight (Phytopthora infestans) a few weeks ago when the wet, mild weather was ideal for the blight spores to take hold, put paid to the whole crop. We dug up half a row to check the spuds themselves and luckily they seemed fine. We therefore cut down all of the haulms (ie the foliage) to ground level to prevent the disease from spreading to the tubers and then left the rest of the crop in the soil to store ‘au naturale’. Fingers crossed!

The poor weather has caused plenty more problems inside Churchill’s old walled Kitchen Garden however. Germination of the likes of salad crops has been slow, sporadic or in some cases non-existent. The hot March we had prompted us to sow some crops early, fearing a drought and the resultant hosepipe ban would prove prohibitive for later sowings. Unfortunately though, the cold soil temperatures during the following months caused these germination problems and we haven’t really recovered since. Later sowings have helped to fill the gaps but even these seedlings are not performing well due to the lack of sustained sun and heat.

Other issues we have encountered this year include crops like chard bolting. This happens because chard is a biennial plant. The hot March, followed by cooler weather and then some warmth finally again in July, made the crop think it had already reached its second Spring when it would normally bolt and try to set seed. Strange but true! Cabbages have also not been ‘hearting up’ well, while the broccoli heads are few and far between. The lack of sun in early Summer has reduced growth and ripening for these and many other plants in our gardens but it is in the Kitchen Garden where we feel the effects of this the most. The orchard has also suffered due to the elements this year too. There was less blossom on the apple trees due to the cold, wet and windy conditions which obviously means less fruit. Last year we harvested over 150 boxes of apples. This year we’ll be lucky to get 15! And to make matters worse, the mild, wet Spring and Summer has also encouraged the likes of rust on our quince trees!

Pesky Flea Beetle on broccoli

Pests have also been more prevalent this year. Our brassicas have been hit hard by Flea Beetle attack, as shown in the picture above. The crops themselves have not been big and strong enough to fend off these little blighters whereas in other years they might have been better equipped to do so. In hindsight we could have planted some companion plants such as thyme (Thymus sp.) or mint (Mentha sp.) to mask the scent of the brassica crops or even perhaps some radishes as a sacrificial offering to the beetles. Other increased pest problems this year have included the seemingly endless onslaught of slugs and snails that we have surely all been cursing as well as more incidence of mice and pigeons decimating crops also. Companion plants such as garlic to repel the slimy critters or marigolds to temp them away, together with our usual 6-weekly application of nematodes seems to have had no effect on the evil gastropods this year! To combat the mice and pigeon thievery we have had to construct many more barrier structures such as netting cages as the pictures below show…

Keeping our brassicas safe on one side of the Kitchen Garden…

…while volunteer Keith tries to give the legumes a helping hand on the other.

Donna Robinson, our Kitchen Garden Supervisor, says that this has been the worst year in terms of cropping and harvesting since she began working here at Chartwell 5 years ago. In fact she’s quite upset by the whole thing! She has still mulched and manured as usual, sown seeds both indoors and out as she normally would and of course would never resort to using chemicals such as pesticides or artificial fertilizers to try and get things back on track. She is hoping for better weather next year, particularly in Spring. And I’m sure our kitchen staff will be hoping for the same thing too! All of our produce is taken up to the restaurant for use in meals for our thousands of visitors and although we’ve been swamping the chefs with soft fruit recently, the pickings have not been as rich as they would usually expect. There are some other success stories here too however. The shallots and the parsnips have gone crazy in the wet weather as the picture below of the ‘Tender And True’ crop shows…

Every cloud has a silver lining!

Apologies if most of this blog post has been a little negative and ‘woe is me’! Donna is getting disheartened by visitors remarking upon the below par performance of some of our crops this Summer and really wanted to try and get across just why this has happened. So if you’ve been having a tough time on your allotment this year or in your back garden raised beds, fear not, we have been experiencing the same problems too! And the Kitchen Garden is by no means bare either so make sure you still pay it a visit the next time you’re at Chartwell. Misery loves company after all!

Jamie

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Fair Weather Food

  1. Shocking year all round isnt it! Making an even more compelling case for perennials…most have sailed on through while the annuals struggle…having said that, a friend has lost an 18 year old mulberry tree to slugs, depsoite doing everything, including greasing the trunk, to stop them.

    I think we’re all secretly looking forward to winter aren’t we…

  2. Helen Moulsley

    Rushing over to the allotment to check that blight hasn’t struck MY potatoes -wish me luck! Thanks for sharing your gardening miseries with us, it’s cheering to know we’re in the best of company.

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