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Summer in the veg plot: Year of the Toad

Friday 22 August 2008

Whilst this wet, wet summer has made gardening a frustrating business, it has been particularly rewarding in some aspects, says our countryside commentator John Sheard. One of the beneficiaries has been the common toad

MY FIRST ever visit to a pick-yourself fruit farm, now so common in Britain, took place some 30 years ago in Massachusetts. It was this time of the year, with the harsh New England autumn coming on fast, and the picking season was almost over.

Having a lovely time
Having a lovely time

We did, however, help ourselves to a bushel of apples – they still sell them in bushels over there – pears, tomatoes and sweet corn but my attention was drawn to an overgrown patch of the farm that was due for ploughing in.

And there, amongst the weeds and yellowing grass, I came across the biggest, most succulent, most intensely purple aubergines I had ever seen. They were the size of rugby balls and such an insult to my efforts back home in the Pennines, where I tried to grow the things in a greenhouse heated at vast expense virtually all the year round. And I never got one bigger than a black pudding.

That taught me a lesson. That American farmer, a full-time professional of course, did not worry over much about weeds because, when I brought up the subject as we paid our bill, so long you give a plant a good, healthy start it will compete – and prosper – with most weeds, he said with total assurance.

In England, we gardeners tend to be too spick-and-span. We treat our plots as though they were our sitting rooms, and any intrusive weed must be treated as a serial killer, to be dug up, strimmed off, or poisoned with something so toxic that, if not applied with painful diligence, will kill off our welcome crops too.

Well, that hasn’t happened this summer, not in my allotment that is. Apart from the odd day here and there, it seems to have been raining non-stop since last November and, sadly, I am not one for sub-aqua cultivation. This has meant that although we managed to get most of our crops in, we have had little time for routine maintenance like weeding.

...my veg plot, unkempt as it might appear, is in good nick as a wildlife habitat.

This has meant that the weeds have had a cracking year. As we rarely use herbicides – except on some paths every year or so – the weeds have grown two feet high in some beds, a fact which makes me feel ashamed. But my wife and I did get into the plot last Saturday – and were amazed. Because our crops have prospered too.

We have had the best year ever for shallots and red onions. My brassicas, which were savaged by wood pigeons as seedlings, have fought back to magnificence. We have cabbages coming out of our ears and the broccoli has continued to produce side shoots the size of tennis balls for weeks.

Only our runner and French beans have fared badly, and I think that could be down to the lack of pollination: as I wrote last week, there is a worrying lack of insects. But that, this summer, could be down to the rain and the win which has stopped the bees flying to days on end.

There are swings and roundabouts here too. Because I refuse to use weed killers on my beds, I do cover some of them with black plastic in spring so that they will be relatively weed free for the autumn planting of crops like winter cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli and kale.

And when I rolled back one of those sheets last weekend, I revealed no fewer than five toads under one sheet. Now unlovely as a toad is, they are a boon for a gardener because they eat slugs, our sworn enemy, so this sight pleased me a great deal.

But that is not all: I have never seen so many amphibians – because we have had a good crop of frogs too this summer – since I was a child and that means that my veg plot, unkempt as it might appear, is in good nick as a wildlife habitat.

So this may well have been a terrible year for holiday makers and people who like their gardens all prim and proper, but it has been a great year for onions – and an absolute bonanza for our threatened amphibians. All in all, taken on balance, the Year of the Toad has a vintage feel about it.

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