January may be the time for resolutions and planning but there’s a lot to be said for pausing between the gardening years to take stock and learn from the past year.
Thinking back over the year, the strawberries sprung the biggest surprise. Now in their second season, they started fruiting as expected in early June and didn’t seem to know when to stop. I was still picking fruit in late October and the plants had unripe fruit and even flowers in December. A helping of fertiliser in spring will be important after all that effort and I will start to gather runners to replace the plants at the end of this summer.
They weren’t the only fruit to do well: the raspberries – summer, autumn and a mystery yellow variety – all produced bumper crops. Our ancient apple tree decided 2016 would be a productive year (it takes some years off) and we managed to get the gooseberries netted before the garden’s resident pigeons spotted them.
Remembering to pinch out the tops of the broad beans helped with blackfly; the rhubarb moved with astonishing speed from pink mounds in the soil to enormous leaves atop thick red stems but was still harvested before turning fibrous; most of the beans – French and runner – were picked before getting too big, with those that escaped ‘podded’ to use as haricot.
It was also a good year for flowers – often those planned by nature rather than me. The foxgloves put on a spectacular show, having seeded themselves in a corner.
More plants have been appearing throughout the year – often in the veg beds – and these have been transplanted while the spent flowers from this year were left until the seed was dry and this was then sprinkled in the same corner. Hopefully this will ensure a good display this year and next.
Even better if only for the weeks of colour they provided, were the marigolds. The descendants of plants grown from seed nearly 15 years ago, they pop up all over the vegetable garden in a mass of yellow, orange and every shade in between. This year, they have flowered prolifically and were finally silenced in late November by our first hard frost.
The crab apple put on its usual ‘strawberries and cream’ show, there was a white cloud of cherry blossom for all too short a spell and the summer was followed by spectacular autumn colour.
Most pleasing was the passion flower, grown from a cutting by my dad, starting to cover its trellis and screen the leaf mould bays; fingers crossed it comes through the winter intact.
No gardener gets it all right and there have been more than a few plans that have gone astray in my plot.
Perhaps the most surprising disappointment was the courgettes. Normally we have so many I resort to ‘hiding’ them in soup, pasta sauces and even chocolate cake. This year, I put the plants out as usual and waited, and waited. The plants simply failed to grow and by the end of the summer many were little bigger than when they were put out.
Talking to other gardeners, it seems the cold nights that seemed to last all summer were to blame and the courgettes were simply sulking.
Cool temperatures also took their toll on the rest of the squash family with the slow start making the season too short to achieve much. I did harvest some butternut and ‘Crown Prince’ but not as many as in previous seasons.
There was a near disaster with the tomatoes. Again, the plants were slow to grow and even slower to set fruit and then blight took hold. Complete failure was averted only by picking all the fruit and ripening it indoors.
While the flavour is not as good as sun-ripened and yields were down, it did mean we were eating home-grown tomatoes right into December.
In the flower borders, a late frost badly damaged what had been a bud-laden wisteria. I resigned myself to a year without its lovely mauve blooms only for a few to appear some weeks later. It was nowhere near as good as it might have been but I was grateful for some colour.
It’s also been a year of inexplicable death – or near-death. First to succumb was Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, which almost overnight stopped growing. Then a large tree-like cotoneaster shrivelled, a Lonicera fragrantissima started to die back and large areas of dead wood appeared in Choisya ternata.
The viburnum has been removed – not without difficulty as it was underplanted with bulbs and hellebores – as has the cotoneaster, while the other two have been cut back to new growth that was shooting from the base. Meanwhile, I am anxiously watching a Viburnum opulus, which seems to be ailing.
Looking ahead, 2017 is going to be a year of overhaul. Some parts of the garden, now into their 20th year, are badly in need of rethinking.
Already, the removal of the viburnum and some solidago that had colonised the border has created a huge planting opportunity. The loss of the cotoneaster has removed an important screen and turned what was a shady area into one with more light. Some research will be required before the gap is filled.
As for the veg, new paving to replace the chipped bark paths that the badger and mole jointly destroyed should make life easier; at one point I was spending more time weeding the paths than the beds.
I’m also determined to plant more Cavolo Nero and chard next year – we had nowhere near enough of these family favourites – and I will persevere with the courgettes and tomatoes. After all, optimism is a gardener’s best friend.
• What have been the highs and lows of your gardening year?