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Heavy rains change our gardening plans

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 24, 2014

By Howard Drury

  • Potato 'sapro mira'

  • Grafted tomatoes

  • Cornus alba kesselringi

  • Fresh, crisp radishes

  • Cornus alba sibirica love being wet!

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I WAS recently invited to give a lecture at Ashwood Nurseries and went along with three topics in mind that might be of interest to their members.

Overwhelmingly they chose a subject I had entitled Hot, Cold, Windy and Wet – What next for the Gardener?

What I really wanted to convey to participants was how in the 1970s and '80s it was literally global warming and Britain was going to dry up. Just a few years ago, we had one of the coldest winters on record when even places like Penzance in Cornwall saw frosts, something that was never imagined and never even catered for. Just look what they have received in the last few weeks, with much of the seafront being destroyed by huge waves.

Meanwhile the whole of Britain has been battered by literally band after band of heavy rain sweeping in from the South West and everybody is talking about whose fault it is the rivers and drains weren't properly dredged and cleared.

In between preparing my lectures, I have been completing my seed orders. I have been looking back at some of the old varieties and wondering whether they have stood the test of time. Can these old varieties put up with the weather that we are now throwing at our gardens?

Some of our vegetable varieties are much older than you would think, with Champion Moss Curled Parsley going back as far as 1864 and still a good variety today. There is nothing to beat the flavour of radishes that are crispy and crunchy and eaten fresh from the garden. I still grow the variety French Breakfast and this was first introduced in 1865. I well remember growing it on the heavy clay in our Lincolnshire garden, which was not far from the river Witham. We lived opposite the Elner family of about the same age and I went to school with their middle son Fred in the local village of Long Bennington, while his dad was literally out dredging the river Witham between Grantham and Lincoln. This was literally a full-time job, and lasted Walter Elner a lifetime!

I used to fish many rivers and drains in Lincolnshire, often being dropped off from the local train services, which would run along the flood banks. These were topped up by Fred's dad Walter and his huge crane made in Lincoln at Ruston and Hornsby, that literally dragged out tons of silt every day. You can't help but wonder how much of the problem, not just here in the Midlands but up and down the country, of heavy rains flooding gardens and properties, could be avoided if we went back to the basic principles of making sure water from our land ran away properly. Even outside my own house in Kings Heath, I have had to go out and clear the vast amount of debris that was blocking the drain in the road in the hopes that it would not flood onto our front garden and drive. I have been round checking, just as my late father used to do, that the downpipes and drains are all clear and working properly.

I have however been keeping off my rather wet and heavy clay ground in Kings Heath. Those of you living on the lighter Kinver sands that border the west and south of Stourbridge will be able to work your soils literally weeks before I can get on my heavy clay. This is because the round particles that make up sand have quite large gaps between them, meaning the water can percolate down and drain away.

My heavy clay is made up of much finer particles that really stick together, stopping natural drainage occurring. The art of working a clay soil is to keep it open so that roots and air can exist in the soil. This means not walking or cultivating clay soils when wet because you will literally be achieving what a potter would be doing when making clay pots on his wheel.

On most Kinver Sands you will need a layer of organic matter deep down to hold water and encourage roots to grow towards that reservoir of moisture. However, the events surrounding the heavy rains of the last few weeks will dramatically change not only what we do in our gardens and when we carry out the tasks, but it will also affect the complete garden centre supply chain.

There's no sense in trying to sow early crops of broad beans or peas in wet sticky ground and more than one garden writer has commented on the fact his overwintering crop was so poor that he has dug them in and started again, this time growing the beans and peas in small pots in cold greenhouses.

There are some games for some manufacturers in the horticultural world such as fencing manufacturers and erectors who simply cannot keep up with repairing the vast number of fences that have been severely damaged. Maybe this is a turning point where we should think about going back to hedges which, while consuming more space and needing maintenance, can provide a whole microclimate, allowing us to grow perhaps more choice plants and at the same time providing a much better habitat for our wildlife.

I was stressing to people attending the lecture that we may need to look at our plants in a completely different light. In the 1970s and '80s we were told to choose plants that tolerate drought. Then we needed plants that would tolerate extremely cold conditions and many of the less hardy plants that have been introduced in the last 30 years or so, such as the tree ferns and pen stem, have proved not to be reliably hardy.

Now we have to top that with the fact that plants must also be able to withstand batterings from gales, reaching as much as 90 miles an hour or even more. And finally, any plants we choose must be able to survive long periods of waterlogging.

I am extremely worried as to the state of the whole ecosystem on the Somerset levels, and the repercussions will spread far wider, even as far as the Black Country, with wildlife being displaced and having to find new habitat to feed, live and hopefully breed. Perhaps more worryingly is what has happened – or is going to happen – to all the plants in the countryside and our gardens, that have been under water in some cases for many weeks.

While plant roots take up water and nutrients, they must have air to breathe otherwise they will rot. Some experts have bandied around the theory that plants will survive up to 21 days underwater. We know from the floods of 2006/7 that plants such as Robinia Frisia, whilst being beautiful, cannot tolerate waterlogging even for just a very few days. In some cases, we're not going to have to make massive changes to our gardens but I do think it would be wise to choose plants carefully, bearing in mind what nature has thrown at us in recent years.

I'm a great believer in keeping gardening simple and we often overlook cheap and cheerful shrubs such as the dogwoods. Cornus alba and its relatives from northern Europe through to Russia are the sort of plants that I think we should look at more closely. They will tolerate wet and dry, they can provide attractive stems in winter, good autumn colour, have white flowers followed by metallic blue or white berries, and in some cases beautiful variegated foliage during the summer months. What more can one ask for of a plant that only requires cutting down in late spring to encourage more new stems, and which can be bright red, yellow or orange in colour during the winter months?

I remarked in my lecture that Silver Birch are not long-lived but very attractive and useful plants in the garden. Having small leaves and not a dense canopy it is possible to cultivate many plants close to or under the canopy of Silver Birch. However the Common Birch does not like wet feet, but if you simply switched to the River Birch, which as the name implies can be found along the banks of rivers in the wild, you have the perfect solution.

Coming back to that vegetable seed list I was preparing I think you also need to choose seeds and plants wisely. I've noticed that the grafted tomatoes grow far better in my greenhouse, which is subject to a lot of flooding from neighbours' gardens above me rather than the traditional varieties grown from seed. The same was true of my cucumbers which I thought would probably rot off because of the wet soil but amazingly I've had the best crop of cucumbers last year I've ever grown.

For many years the lettuce 'Little Gem' was the favourite for cropping from May through to August or even September and thankfully our breeders have now introduced a much tougher form, which will grow throughout the winter months to provide us with fresh lettuce week after week. Some varieties of cabbage and cauliflower are much hardier than others and I still think the traditional Savoy cabbage and varieties like 'January King' cannot be beaten.

Bugle readers will know that I went in for raised beds for growing vegetables, and even this week we are still digging fresh potatoes that have not been attacked by slugs in spite of my heavy soil. I put this down to several reasons; firstly, the raised beds mean the ground is better drained. Secondly, I do not add manure the year I am growing potatoes as this increases the chances of slug numbers building up, and thirdly I use the variety 'Sarpo Mira' or 'Sarpo Axona' as both of these have rough skins and seem to be slug resistant.

Back out into the rest of my garden, and for several years I have been advocating high planting. This means digging over as large an area as possible, adding suitable organic matter, remembering for Kinver it needs to be dug in deeply while I use plenty of grit with homemade compost to create a mound. I plant into this some 2 to 3 inches higher than the surrounding area and I find that by not digging a hole which would simply fill with water if I practice the traditional method of planting, I can get away with a much wider range of subjects tolerating my clay than I could have imagined.

Finally, they say Trees for Life, and certainly driving into central Birmingham the other evening during one of the many gales I noticed just how many trees have blown down, not just in our streets but in front and rear gardens. I think we need to think carefully and choose wisely with making any plant purchases, but especially with regard to trees.

The Sorbus, commonly known as Mountain Ash or Rowan, are pioneer trees, as in the wild they would grow on poor soil. In recent years, there's been many new introductions in the Sorbus and its close relative the Crab Apple family, and these can make good garden plants.

Most have good autumn colour white flowers and attractive berries or small apple-like fruits, which provide food for our wildlife. Which reminds me – I will be doing a special lecture on August 10th entitled The Wildlife Garden. Watch this space or check out my website (thedrurys.com) as it's taking place here in the Midlands!

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