Reflections From The Smallholding

by Chris Dolley

Weatherwise, the last twelve months have been far from average. An exceptionally cold and snowy November/December was followed by the warmest and driest spring on record and then a cold and wet summer. It was a gardener’s nightmare.

The early warm spring encouraged the garden into life and then a day or so of late, sharp frosts killed off the unwary. As usual we spent thirty minutes or so each evening covering our potatoes with flowerpots and fleece and wrapping up our kiwis. We saved the potatoes but not the kiwi blossom. Last week we harvested 14 kiwis from a line of plants that two years ago had given us 55 kilos.

Back in May things looked dire for the gardener. It hadn’t rained for months and all the talk was of a 1976-style drought with crops wilting in the fields. We had a hosepipe ban and, by law, could only water the garden at night. Which we did – every night – hoping to keep things ticking over until the rains eventually came. Which they did – with a vengeance.

Like all canny gardeners, we’re used to the vagaries of the weather and plant accordingly. Always plant more than you need because you never know what will eat/wilt/blight your crop. And plant a wide variety of crops because, whatever the weather, something will do well.

And sometimes they do too well. This year it was apples. I don’t know if it was the sunny spring, the cool, wet summer, or our hive of bees, but this year’s crop was massive. So massive that by late June the branches of our trees were bending under the weight … then snapping. We cut props from the hedge to poke under the branches to support them. We thinned the apples we could reach. But still they continued to grow and bend. By August our orchard looked like rows of weeping willows. The props were snapping, the branches were snapping. I’ve never seen anything like it. Looking at the orchard now, the trees look terrible. Hopefully they’ll recover their shape with time. And the apple crop has been amazing.

As for pests, this was a good year for the gardener. The early dry spring kept blight at bay until August. It kept the slugs at bay. And it brought the wasps out early – too early as there just wasn’t the food to keep them alive.

It was also, for the same reason, a bad year for the bees. An ideal spring had brought them out in force then, in June, the drought dried the nectar up and food was scarce. Luckily for the bees they had pet humans to feed them sugar through June and July.

So, all in all, an interesting year in the garden. Kiwis have been the only disaster. Everything else has coped with the weird extremes of drought and flood, hot and cold. Well, maybe not our nerves.

The other item of note is seed quality. For the last couple of years I’ve noticed the occasional packet of seed where germination was extremely low to non-existent. It seems to be getting worse. I’m not sure if it’s cheap seed or someone mislabelling old seed as new, but it’s becoming a problem. I’ve talked to a few gardeners and have heard the same. Anyone else?


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .

Out Now!

An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?

Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.

What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth.
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Reflections From The Smallholding — 9 Comments

  1. My father raised sheep in West Texas before World War II, but after he got out of the service he turned to journalism. I once asked him if he regretted not going back to ranching. He told me, “When you’re ranching, you’re king of all you survey. But everybody I know who stayed with it went broke in the 50s.” Texas suffered through seven years of drought in the 50s. Now we’re in the worst one-year drought ever, and farmers and ranchers are going belly-up left and right. Making a living off the land is always chancy, but climate change makes it even harder.

    The one good thing I noticed about the drought here — the lack of mosquitoes — turned out to have its downside: the bats went hungry.

    As for the seeds, I have no idea. I’m a very casual gardener — right now just growing things in pots on the porch — so when things don’t come up or thrive, I tend to assume it’s something I did or didn’t do. But it sounds like something worthy of serious exploration.

  2. Yes, with the climate becoming more extreme it’s going to make gardening/farming even more unpredictable. Way back when I studied climatology at Uni (in the days before Global Warming) violent extremes of weather was seen as one of the precursors of Ice Ages.

    And it wouldn’t take much – a disruption of the Gulf Stream – to send Northern Europe back into one.

    Hmm, next week I’ll go back to kitten pictures:)

  3. Northern Europe could end up with something like an ice age. The Washington, DC, area is likely to have more extremes of weather — colder winters, harsher storms, more snow, hot and wet summers. Here in Central Texas we may end up part of the desert.

    All very overwhelming. There’s a reason we all like kitten pictures ;-).

  4. Over here on the left coast or the Pacific North Wet we blame it all on La Nina (cold water at the equator) or El Nino (warmer than usual water at the equator). This will be our second La Nina in a row, we’re looking for more snow and higher heating bills. Skiiers love it. Then we should have a neutral year followed by a long line of El Nino, also known as the brat. No skiing but a lot of pineapple express storms.

  5. Could the non-germinating seed have gotten mixed with seeds from genetically modified crops created by Monsanto and others to have non-germinating seeds, so you are forced to buy your seed every year instead of saving like the good farmers of old, your ‘seed corn?’

    I don’t know if this possible, exactly.

    Love, C.

  6. It’s La Nina causing our troubles here in Central Texas, too, Phyl, except that it means we get less moisture, instead of more. Drought is a regular part of our lives, but I fear this is the start of a pattern where the droughts are much worse and not offset by the wet years.

  7. Foxessa … my thoughts exactly.

    Unless you go to a seed bank and get what is called ‘heirloom’ seed stock, chances are that no matter what brand of seed you buy, they’ll be GMO … or find a gardner/farmer, who uses their own seed.

  8. What Foxessa and Widdershins say makes sense in the U.S., but Chris is in France. I thought Europe had strict laws about GMOs, which I assume would mean the seeds sold there couldn’t be, or at least shouldn’t be, GMO.