“You are so lucky to be a gardener!” is something I hear from guests year on year. It’s true indeed, forgetting the odd miserable day in January – July is a month that drives that sentiment home. The sun beams down on our kitchen gardens, showing off the brimming beds and borders, and the heady scents of summer flowers and fresh sweet grass fills the air.
As the long days hot up, watering can become a very time-consuming chore. Rain water collection is a must; it should be one of the first things to be installed in the development of any smallholding. We use collected rain water not only for irrigation in the poly-tunnels but for drinking troughs in the fields. Adding lots of organic matter to your beds in the summer months will help with water retention, relieving some of the pressure of regular watering. Pots and raised beds will require more water, as you have taken the roots away from ground level water. The trick is consistency. Plants tend to react badly to inconsistent moisture and are likely to bolt if watering is irregular. If your soil is in good condition then I would urge you to leave ground level beds alone, making the plants work for it.
We are harvesting every morning – the list is endless and our menus are packed with produce from the veg garden. The beauty for me, being nearly as keen on food as I am on growing, is the variety of not only different cultivars, but the way we grow, harvest and eventually eat. Courgette flowers, broad bean tops and blackcurrant leaves, to name a few, are as important in the kitchen as their mature counterparts. Little treats like these can only be obtained by growing your own, as they don’t store or travel. Blackcurrant leaf lemonade is a firm favourite with customers and gardeners alike.
Careful harvesting is as important as diligent growing. Picking the lower leaves on salads is not only a method of “cut and come again” harvesting to increase yield, it also removes cover for slugs and snails. Harvesting a whole row of carrots will decrease the attraction of carrot fly – avoid harvesting sections of a row as the smell will only lure the fly to your crop. If you harvest courgette flowers, take time to know the difference between male and female flowers, harvesting male flowers only and leaving the female to produce fruit. I grow some varieties, like Bianca, for flowers only, as they produce in abundance. They are best stuffed with goats’ cheese, deep-fried and drizzled with honey.
As beans climb for the sky, help them along by winding anti-clockwise up supports. Check regularly for black fly that often migrate from the remains of the broad beans, and pick regularly to encourage more flower growth. Like tomatoes, pinch out the growing tip of the plant once it has reached the top of the support, which prevents bunching. Dwarf beans will require staking in windy areas to help avoid the risk of delicate stems snapping. I like to pick beans as small as I can get away with, giving them more versatility in the kitchen – they are wonderful eaten raw in salads or lightly cooked for a delicious sweet crunch. If you were late on putting your beans in, you can direct sow Dwarf French beans at this time of year, giving you an autumn harvest. In recent years, there has been a resurgence in drying beans. At River Cottage, our sourcing policy is strict and means we cannot buy imported lentils and chickpeas. Instead we use a selection of dried legumes instead. Yellow split and Carlin peas top the bill. Drying peas and beans like these are easy to grow at home and I would urge you all to try them. Simply let the legume dry out on the plant as if you were saving the seeds, then harvest into an air tight container for storage in a cool dry place. The stored peas can be soaked overnight and used in place of conventional pulses.
July means abundance in the fruit garden. Strawberries take centre stage, producing scads of delicious fruit for the kitchen. I usually replace strawberry plants every four years, as yield will drop off at that stage. I remove the strawberry runners in spring or autumn and pot them on for the next year’s plants. We grow three types of strawberries at River Cottage - an early-, mid- and late-summer variety, meaning we get a good succession of fruit throughout the season. We have autumn raspberries only, they start fruiting as the strawberries tail off and give us soft fruit until the end of September. Unlike summer raspberries which are usually tied in to wires, maintaining a succession of canes throughout the whole year, the autumn raspberries are cut down to the ground then mulched at the end of each season harvesting from new canes each season. If you are having problems with birds, try opting for a golden variety – the birds seem to have trouble working out if the berries are ripe or not. It’s certainly worth trying some of the more unusual varieties of berry too. Logan, tay and boysen berries are very easy to grow and offer a different flavour to raspberries.
At the end of July/early August it is time to summer prune trained fruit trees to allow light to reach the swelling crop. To reduce the possibility of secondary growth, prune towards the end of August. If secondary growth does appear, prune in September. We grow cordon pears and espalier apples - a great way to grow top fruit in restricted space. Make sure your secateurs are sharp to guarantee a nice clean cut. Remove any upright, vigorous growth completely and be sure to remove any dead or diseased wood. Prune sub-laterals over 8 inches long back to three leaves above the basal cluster. Leave shoots less than 8 inches, as they usually terminate with a fruit bud.
Successional sowing of turnips, radish, kohl rabi and carrots can continue in July, giving you a staggered crop through to the end of autumn. Sow these as a catch crop between leeks and parsnips, making good use of the space between rows of plants.
Now is the time to sow chicory and endive for autumn harvest. The bitter salads have become more popular in recent years and are definitely worth growing. The sweet but bitter taste of blanched chicory or radicchio is something that becomes addictive, and fills the garden with plants right through to winter. Winter brassicas are sown now using the latent heat of the summer to get off to a really good start before the weather turns cold. Kale, winter cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli will see you through the darker month’s right through to the hungry gap.
It’s sometimes easy to get bogged down with the seemingly endless list of garden tasks, just remember you can only do one job at once and it is now that the winter planning really pays off. Knowing what will succeed your summer crops will give you a head start on winter.