By Ziggy and John, reporting from their garden in Southampton, UK

In 2012, the weather in most of the UK from mid-Spring to mid-Summer was very wet and cloudy. Pretty well every gardener we’ve spoken to has complained bitterly about it. If we were farmers, we’d have good reason to complain because as well as crop failures and poor and late yields, farmers had great difficulty harvesting their crop – tractors and wet soil being the problem. Gardeners don’t have tractor problems, so let’s look at some of the good things about a wet and cloudy summer, and how best to cope with the downsides.

The obvious point – watering

Wow, what a relief, very little watering to do. We have lots of water butts and our two council-supplied waste bins (recycling and landfill) are also used as water butts in the summer, but even so, in an average summer we soon run out of water and have to use tap water. We’re on a water meter, so there’s the cost saving of not having to use tap water, as well as the environmental benefit, and we didn’t need to use any tap water this year. Large areas of the UK were short of water in the Spring, but there’s no more talk of that now, so water restrictions have been lifted. For us though, not having to spend so much time and effort watering was the best thing about it.

Crops that did better than usual

Courgettes did well. Photo: David Hicks

Some crops yielded quite a bit better than they usually do: onions (both autumn-sown and spring-sown from sets) and early potatoes. We’ve always known that potatoes need a good amount of water, but it can be difficult watering them enough in late Spring and early Summer if the weather is hot and dry. When we harvested them in 2011 (much drier than in 2012) we found that not much water had penetrated deep into the soil down to where it’s needed. It certainly drives home the message that you should water liberally and infrequently rather than lightly and often, since a light watering only moistens the soil near the surface. Onions were a bit of a surprise to us; it’s taught us that in more normal Springs/Summers we should water them more.

Our green leafy veg loved this sort of weather and we found the best sorts to resist the mollusc-munchers were the slightly ‘spicier’ ones: the oriental greens (pak choi, mizuna, mibuna etc.), rocket, sorrel and endives. We were still cropping chard, mizuna, rocket in October.

Our rhubarb went bonkers; so much so that we have several drawers in the freezer full of the stuff to turn into crumbles.

Many of our herbs coped really well; the lemon balm, chives and mint and such like really lapped it up.

In addition, our blueberries bore a very good crop indeed, but we gave the plant away in the end as neither of us particularly like blueberries!

Crops that coped

No complaints about our raspberries. Photo: David Hicks

Our garlic and courgettes did well. The sweetcorn got off to a slow start, but survived, and when the weather improved in late July it grew quickly and we have a reasonable, if not spectacular, yield. The runner beans and French beans also got off to a late start but cropped well. We have no complaints about our raspberries.

We grew our tomatoes in our greenhouse, but even so, they got off to a slow start due to a lack of sunshine and heat. When the weather picked up, we had to water them every other day and sometimes more often. Even in October we were still picking fruits on a more or less daily basis. The varieties we grew were: Black Cherry (from Southampton Seed Swap), Tigerella (Suttons, a red tom with orange stripes), Gardener’s Delight (the definitive cherry tom) and Millefleur (a yellow centiflor type from Real Seeds).

Crops that fared badly, but didn’t fail

Maincrop potatoes these got blight very early, around early July, and the foliage died off very quickly. It was a common problem for other gardeners this year, and often is in wet summers. If they hadn’t got blight, the yields would probably have been very good due to the heavy watering that they received from the skies. There are some blight-free varieties such as Sarpo Mira and Sarpo Axona, and if we’d grown these, we might have achieved a spectacular yield this year, so we really must grow these next year. From what we’ve read, the foliage doesn’t get blight, but the tubers might if there’s another potato variety next to them that isn’t a blight-free variety: the blight spores get washed off into the nearby blight-free plot, and some tubers go rotten. So, if you grow a blight-free variety, don’t grow a non-blight-proof variety next to it. The stockfree organic farmer Iain Tolhurst has a useful article on coping with potato blight.

Winter squash these sulked and grew very little until late July when the weather started to improve. They have grown reasonably since, but there are very few squash fruits, and they are generally fairly small. To get them to turn lovely and sweet you need lots of warm and sunny weather. We haven’t harvested them yet, but we suspect that they will be bland-tasting. We always grow the variety ‘Buttercup’ since we’ve found that it gets sweet in relatively poor years, unlike most other varieties. The verdict is out for this year. We don’t know of anything that you can do to make them cope better in a poor summer.

Strawberries the foliage grew well, but we didn’t get much fruit, and the berries that we picked were smaller than usual. They also fruited a few weeks later than usual. Strawberry picking time was bang in the middle of the very wet times, so that is the most likely reason.

Crops that haven’t completed yet

Carrots we decided to sow some later than usual in late July, which is slightly later than the last recommended sowing time. We held off sowing earlier since we thought that they wouldn’t succeed in the very wet weather, but we may have been wrong. They had good top growth, but the carrots were very small. Bear in mind that from late July onwards there was less rain and more sun.

Crops that failed

Parsnips these failed to germinate. We planted them in April when it was wet and cold. If we had been persistent and tried sowing again and again we might have been successful, so there’s another lesson learnt.

Aubergines we started these in a propagator indoors and the initial growth was very promising, then we transferred these to the greenhouse where the early dry spell meant we had to water them every day. In the dull weather we had good leafy growth, but very few fruits, and these rotted.

Herbs those that appreciate drier conditions did not fare at all well. Not wholly the weather’s fault – both our rosemary and tarragon died slowly.

Other plants

It’s been an odd year for flowering plants as well. As we write in October, we still have calendula, nasturtiums, evening primrose, roses, snapdragons, Mexican marigolds, and even cowslips!

Slugs and snails

The trick is to start off slug-susceptible plants like squashes, runner beans and sweetcorn indoors in pots or modules, and harden them off outside on warmish days. Put them somewhere high up, beyond the height that slugs and snails are likely to climb. A good spot is a flat or gently sloping roof on a shed or outbuilding. If you don’t harden them off, the stems may be soft and slugs can eat right through the stems near the base, killing them instantly. We learnt this from bitter experience several years ago. Slugs don’t tend to eat the harder woody stems of hardened off plants.

John writes most gardeners that I know told me that they had big problems with slugs and snails this year, examples being runner beans failing to get established because the speed of growth was slower than the speed of the molluscs eating the young plants. The thing that helped our crops is that I took action against molluscs early on. To my mind, the only way to have a significant impact on numbers is to go out at night with a torch, collect them, and put them on some waste ground far away from any cultivated land. You can collect hundreds in a night, whereas if you collect during the day, you will collect far fewer. Doing this is fairly easy if you grow in your garden and it’s not too big, but not so easy if you have an allotment that’s far away. Be philosophical about it – you spend a lot of time collecting molluscs at night, but you don’t spend any time watering.

Ziggy writes the other solution is to encourage the creatures that predate on molluscs – namely, hedgehogs, thrushes, frogs and so on – into your garden. It’s worth finding the space for a pond to encourage wildlife, although if you have small children then it is not a good idea until they get older, unless you put some protection on it to prevent them from falling in. Also it’s worth having scruffy spots with patches of long, scrubby foliage, log piles and so on to provide habitat for predators such as beetles.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 30 (Winter 2012), p32, but compared to the original article, it has been expanded slightly.