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10 problems caused by a very wet growing season
POT'S GROWING ON? 17/11/23
Up here in Yorkshire, and I’m told all around the country, the summer was a total washout. July, August and September received unusually high amounts of rainfall and this not only puts a dampener on our enjoyment of summer, it presents some particular challenges, especially for edible crops. The excessive wet has meant autumn too has been very muddy. I’d even go so far as to say this is one of the worst growing seasons for growing edible crops I can remember, and that’s up there against the longest heatwaves when at least, if you can keep crops watered, the plot is manageable. 2023 has been a right soggy sausage.
1) Wet soil is easily damaged by feet
One of the biggest issues this year is how hard it’s been to walk around the garden and allotment without squashing the wet soil. Lawn and grassed areas compact or turn to mud, exposed soil squashes when walked on. I have been using wooden planks on the allotment but it makes life harder to get to the plants and crops I want to look after. Squashing wet soil damages roots under your feet and can compact it in that spot, removing gaps in the soil for water and air to move through. Increasing the issue of water logging.
2) Soggy soil is very hard to weed
When soil is wet it becomes hard to hoe, the main way of keeping unwanted seedlings at bay around edible crops in the summer and autumn. This is because the soil clings to the hoe blade stopping it from gliding across the soil to slice plant roots. Instead what happens is a build up of mud on the hoe that simply squashes many plants rather than cutting them and doubles the effort needed. You can still do it but it’s easy to miss plants. I also find that in wet conditions, many seedlings that have been hoed simply regrow! Ideally, hoeing is done on dry sunny days when mud won’t cling to the blade and the cut plants wilt and die in the heat. I’m not exaggerating when I say I couldn’t hoe properly once after the dry spell in June and this severely impacted our allotment and the quality of produce as unwanted plants outcompeted the crops.
3) Too wet for some roots
Our beans and peas literally drowned in the wet this summer. I know we have the slightly unique situation of having water run off at our altitude, with underground springs surfacing occasionally in strong rains. But if the pea and bean seeds didn’t rot in the very wet soil in July, they struggled in the wet and eventually gave up the ghost. It’s unusual for soil to be that waterlogged but with the non-stop rains, some plants really didn’t like it. I noticed the peas and beans were the worst, but also the brassicas.
4) Increased chance of some root diseases
Our plot has some club root (a fungus-like organism that causes brassica roots to swell and not function properly) and in the first two years on the farm, this hasn’t been a problem as it doesn’t like dry summers, which we’ve had. This year however, our brassicas are noticeably impacted by clubroot. Kale and Brussels sprouts have all grown reasonably but are clearly stunted. Our purple sprouting broccoli are on the verge of death and I don’t think they’ll survive the next week or two. I believe their poor performance is a triple whammy of club root, competition from weeds that I couldn’t hoe and reduced light and warmth levels. Brassica stems can be quite woody too, and sitting in extremely damp soil can’t be good for them, increasing chance of rot and making them less stable, falling over in the wind more easily without the support of solid drier soil.
5) Reduced light and warmth levels
On average, the temperature for the UK this year was higher than normal due to global warming and the El Niño, where the jet stream is warmer. However, overall we didn’t have as many sunny hot days, so the plants didn’t get the weeks of strong sunlight and the increased warmth from its contact over the summer. Our vegetables in particular were noticeably slow growing this year and yields much lower, such as on tomatoes and squash. Given the other conditions were the same, the most likely culprit will be lower light levels across the summer, less warmth from direct sunlight and colder roots in the wet soil.
6) Rain can wash away nutrients
Continuous heavy rain will dilute or wash nutrients held in soils down hill or deeper into the soil away from the reach of plant roots. This can set back all of your hard work from mulching the soil with compost earlier in the year. Though the answer to making soil more resilient to this is still a mulch of organic matter and I can’t say I am massively worried about nutrients washing away, soils contain lots, it might just slow growth slightly. In a wet year, all you can do is add more mulch or use fertilisers. I only really use liquid fertiliser and compost these days for nutrients. Liquid fertilisers are easily washed away in rain, so it’s best to target them at the roots of the plants when you know it won’t rain for a couple of days. This gives plant roots the chance to absorb as much of the fertiliser as possible.
7) Increased mollusc activity
When it’s wet, slugs and snails go into overdrive, sliding across the ground and plants, eating more above ground plant parts than in dry weather. The water lubricates surfaces for them. I grow my more vulnerable crops such as lettuce and young seedlings of other vegetables in more open areas less appealing to slugs and snails in a normal summer, they prefer the more shaded and protected areas, out of site of predators like birds. This year however, they were more adventurous on the duller rainy days. We have a lot of birds, so they weren’t too much of a problem but I did notice more seedlings being eaten and crops affected by molluscs. Even in the polytunnel, because it was cooler and duller, slugs started eating our tomatoes and chillies when I’ve never had this happen before in what should be a hot and dry polytunnel, an environment molluscs are less keen on.
8) Cutting grass is often impossible
Lawn mowing is best done when the grass is dry. When it’s wet, grass just doesn’t cut very well, it clogs up lawnmower blades or can brush over, not cutting properly. When a lawn is very wet, the weight of our walking and a lawnmower can also squash the soil beneath, starting to compact it, leading to problems later on, particularly if this happens repeatedly. Compacted squashed lawn soil can be rectified by spiking it to create air pockets and encouraging healthy soil organisms like worms, but it’s better to avoid it in the first place. Obviously, if it’s raining it’s best not to use mechanical machinery either. This summer and autumn, it was pretty much raining every day for long spells with only a few dry periods for us. This made mowing the lawn paths very difficult, often we had to leave it. It’s not the end of the world but leaving lawn grass to grow too long (over 10cm) shades it out, creating dead patches and larger tufts. This will eventually rectify itself and I don’t really mind myself, however, regular mowing makes lawn grasses stronger, denser and more resilient to use. On a bigger scale, this also meant it wasn’t possible to cut our meadows because the ground was sodden and easily damaged by heavy tractors. On meadows, and it’s worth knowing for meadows you walk through, it is essential to remove the growth each year to keep nutrients low and light penetration to the surface high. In the end we had no choice but to graze it all off with sheep, which isn’t ideal, though better than nothing.
9) Increased chance of tomato and potato blight
Late-blight is another fungus-like organism that affects both tomatoes and potatoes because they are closely related in the Solanum genus. In dry years its spores struggle to survive but in wet summers, it’s the perfect warm and wet conditions for the spores to grow on the leaves, stems and fruit of the plants. turning them black and then killing them. Funnily enough, June was unusually dry, which meant our potato crop was great, much less affected by soil dwelling slugs. But come July and August, all of the tomato plants were showing signs of blight. Even those in the polytunnel because the humidity was so high from the incessant rain and warmth. The best way to prevent blight is to grow resistant cultivars or grow tomatoes undercover in a polytunnel or greenhouse to keep their leaves dry.
10) You can’t enjoy it as much
I know it’s fine being out in the rain with waterproofs on, and in warm summer rain, I don’t even need that. But when it rains all season long, it’s OK to admit to ourselves that it feels like we never had a proper summer or enough enjoyable time outside.
On the flip side there were some positives:
Perennial plants have faired better than the more vulnerable annual vegetable crops. Raspberry, blackberry and strawberry plants have thrived with bumper crops. Ornamental plants have really enjoyed it, increasing in size more rapidly than in drier years. Though there were fewer flowers due to lower sunlight levels.
No watering! It was nice to not have to worry about water butts running dry and lugging watering cans around daily in a heatwave.
That’s gardening I suppose, every year has its pros and cons, it’s about learning to adapt. Something we will have to much more of as the climate causes weather to become less predictable.
p.s. in November’s full Wild Way Magazine newsletter for paid subscribers, I’ve listed some of my favourite plants for autumn colour. You can access it below...