Courgettes always used to seem such a simple option: you planted them, they produced more fruit than your blanching-and-cooling patience could cope with and your freezer could hold, then the leaves went all mildewy and with a sigh of relief you gave up and hauled them out, to leave that space to something blissfully other.
Now all that seems to have changed. They’ve gone the way of pumpkins and squashes. I’ve always been hopeless at pumpkins and squashes. It’s partly because I’m too lazy? stingy? forgetful? to make sure they have the huge quantities of water and lashings of affection they require. So if I end the season with a tangle of unproductive pumpkin vines and a couple of butternut squash, I feel it has been a normal year on that front. But courgettes have always been more generous, and forgiving, coming forth endlessly until the white powdery stuff stopped them in their tracks.
Sick of the rampant mildew problem, and never having had any success at all with the milk-and-water concoctions that other people swear by, I planted my courgettes in a fairly shady spot this year: hot dry heat, and lots of it, seems to bring the horrible fungus on particularly fast, however much I water. But now it’s appearing in this corner of the orto shaded by the old oak in Mario’s field too. So perhaps that intuition of mine wasn’t all that bright.
More worryingly, the courgettes simply don’t seem to be able to fertilise themselves. Left to their own devices, the incipient fruits appear, go yellow swiftly and drop off in sad little twisted lumps. Why oh why are they not being pollinated? There are insects all over. Perhaps not so many bees up there in the top vegetable garden, come to think of it. (I have just realised: usually I have marigolds galore; this year hardly any reseeded themselves.) But there’s really no shortage of bee-attracting blooms: immediately below, the comfrey is full of them and not far away at all, the lavender is all a-buzz.
This year, I have developed an early morning routine. I stroll up there, hand-pollinate any new female flowers I find, and slice off all leaves with the slightest hint of mildew. (I’ve read that composting is sufficient to finish the fungus off, but my ‘proper’ compost is so close to the courgettes, that I take the precaution of dumping the infected greenery on the old makeshift compost heap behind the chicken house, slightly further away.)
This little ritual seems to be having results, and my courgettes are finally sticking and growing. My visit also allows me to cast an eye over pumpkins and squashes, but so far they’re being uncooperative in the extreme: fruits appear, but their flowers don’t open; and no male flowers appear at all. I shall just keep watching and waiting and hoping that when they do get around to thinking of blooming, it’s not for the one day when I happen to be away.
In the midst of all this, thank goodness for the cucumbers, quietly getting on with things with no human intervention and at their usual reckless rate: very soon we’ll be inundated, and I’ll be wondering what on earth possessed me to plant so many. There’s only so much tzatziki and gazpacho any one household can take.
The trend, though, is worrying. You couldn’t hope for a more wildlife-friendly patch than mine, with no chemicals at all and plenty (more than there should be, alas!) of areas that would be best described as wilderness. And some of the local fauna is very happy with the state of affairs: this firefly season has been most spectacular – there were even a few stragglers still flitting about last night which is impossibly late. Yet the butterfly population on the buddleia is definitely thinner this year, there are (so far) considerably fewer wasps and hornets, and the bees do seem to be limited to those old favourites. Have they all been washed away over our months of tropical downpours, the last of which was just last week, with almost 30mm falling in an hour or so? Or are poisons being used all around us trumping our little haven of non-toxicity?
Or is this strange, cool, wet summer simply confusing our particular varieties of insect, rendering them incapable of doing their jobs as they should? When we visited the rather wonderful Riecine winery in Gaiole in Chianti earlier in the summer, manager Sean O’Callaghan talked at length of the extraordinary upheaval of the last ten years or so during which the whole grape-growing and wine-making process has been turned upside down by changes in climate. If exquisite Sangiovese grapes are behaving oddly, why not my veg?
If the useful insects are confused, not so the fungi. Black spot has de-leafed most of my roses, which are just now struggling to re-clothe themselves after my copper-ministrations. Perhaps if I fed them and pampered them a little more they might be more obliging. But the R. Felicia outside the front door at least are springing back to life. As are the R. mutabilis which seem to be beating the dusting of mildew that suddenly appeared, even without my help. Phew.