This section is from the book "The Gardener V2", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
At last, after much patient waiting, there has come a break in the weather, and the long-continued drought that almost without intermission had lasted from March till the middle of October, has come to an end. This - in so far as relates to the London district, and others similarly affected. A drought, almost unexampled in its intensity and duration, had settled down on the land like a spell, and fields became as dry and barren as if a fire had passed over their surface, robbing them of their verdure. It is seldom that anxious aspirations for rain have expression given to them as late in the year as October; but it has been so, and hedgerows have looked as parched as they usually do in the hottest July weather. On the morning of the 10th of October, the neighbourhood round London, and for many miles in every direction, was visited with a white frost; on the following morning this was continued with some severity; and then the wind changed to a southerly point, and the sky became overcast; then getting more westerly, the wind freshened into a severe gale, and for some eighteen hours a hurricane swept the face of the country, uprooting trees, or tearing limbs from their strong sturdy trunks, and wresting from them the leaves, already becoming sear and yellow; then, softening to a southerly breeze, the rain came - and now a glorious and much-needed fall is taking place.
And so there comes to a close a season of drought many grey-headed men have asserted to be unprecedented in their past experience.
Probably the unusual swarms of insect life that have prevailed during the past few weeks are simply one of the results of the drought. Many districts have suffered from a kind of plague of small flies, so numerous that the ground was literally covered with them, and the air filled with them also. When the sun was shining brightest, then did these visitants swarm in myriads: in some instances they settled on the fruit-trees and devoured the leaves; healthy young Peach-trees were so infested with them that the weight actually broke off the leaves; trees that were healthy and clean a few days previously became covered with green-fly in consequence of the visitation, and fell into a very bad condition; and the green crops suffered severely from their ravages. This unpleasant experience appears to have been spread over a considerable tract of country. Those who were partridge-shooting after the frosty nights of the 12th and 13th of September were struck with the failure of the young Turnips, and saw myriads of insects similar to American blight devastating the leaves.
In this instance it was supposed these insects were the production of the frosty nights; that the cold nights tended to put a stop to the rapid growth of vegetation; the hot sun, shining forth with an intensity more befitting June than September, had a putrefying action on the plants - and in consequence insect life burst forth instanter, and hence the swarms seen as described. Perhaps this theory of production is more ingenious than correct, but it is given as a theory. In relation to the plague of black flies, the Rev. John Fountaine, of Brandon, Suffolk, has supplied some very interesting information to the ' Gardeners' Chronicle.' Mr Fountaine states: "They had not been long upon the leaves before they were surrounded with a number of green lice: upon watching carefully, it was evident that these lice were produced (and, as I thought, alive) by the black flies. A further examination with a strong glass confirmed this supposition unmistakably. Not only did the young travel about as soon as deposited, but were alive and kicking during the process of parturition, which occupied some minutes. To confirm this fact still further, I held some of the black flies between the finger and thumb of the left hand, and squeezed them gently whilst watching with the glass held in the right hand.
The result was - first the green aphis quite alive; secondly, ditto in an imperfect state; and thirdly, a lump of green matter in the embryo state. I do not think each fly brought forth above a dozen young ones, but of this I will not speak positively. After they had, however, completed that quantity, they appeared to shrivel up and die." Mr Webster, of Gordon Castle Gardens, also furnished some information in regard to this matter. He states that a plague of flies is not uncommon there in the autumn, although by no means to the same numerical extent as this season. They are commonly known in that locality as the harvest-midge. " The Peach seems a favourite tree for reproducing the species. In a few days after settling upon the leaves an increased number of brown aphides will be seen, especially along the main rib of the leaf, which very soon exhausts its strength in its ripening stage, and causes it to droop while it is yet green, much corresponding to the effects of Physalea Pyrea, which we have more or less every season upon some of the wall Pear-trees." Mr Webster does not think it is the weight of the flies merely that causes the leaves to fall; and he goes on to state: "I have been on the look-out for it (the aphis) in dry autumns; and as soon as any are observed on the Peach-leaves, they are syringed over with Gishurst compound, at 2 oz. to the gallon, which helps to taint the leaves, and prevents these pests from having a resting-place. Several of the trees, having fruit upon them this season when the fly was first seen, could not be so easily washed over, and have in consequence lost a large portion of their leaves; but all those which were taken in time have suffered but little.
I deem it of the utmost importance to keep the leaves on until they drop by natural ripeness, which will generally insure a strong healthy blossom in spring".
There may be some connection between the ravages of the Pine-beetle and the drought; certain it is that this destructive little insect has left unmistakable evidences of his presence in some districts this season. His visitations have more interest for the arboriculturist than the gardener, but his presence is "worthy of note. A small shining black fellow, his very build is suggestive of capacities for working mischief; and settling on the Scotch Fir, he works his way into the young growth, and tunnelling along the centre of it towards the point, devours its pith, and the shoots shrivel speedily. A large plantation of Pinus sylvestris, growing in the neighbourhood of Bagshot, Surrey, looked as if the surface of the tree had been burned with fire. It would seem this beetle attacks all the true Pines, such as P. Austriaca, P. strobus, etc, but avoids Abies, Picea, and Wellingtonia. Though somewhat pigmy in appearance, this beetle is a formidable foe to planters if he works out his mischievous tendencies similarly as witnessed in this Surrey plantation of Scotch Fir.
It is very rarely indeed that well-known creeper Wistaria Sinensis produces seed-pods. The fact that in one instance it has done so during the past summer is perhaps also traceable to the drought. "When Mr Fortune returned home from his second journey to China, he brought with him five seeds of Wistaria Sinensis. A plant obtained from one of these seeds is now growing in Mr Charles Noble's Sun-ningdale Nursery, at Bagshot, and this plant has this season produced two pods of seed hanging on one stem. In appearance the seed-pods resemble those of a Scarlet-Runner Bean, but are gathered in, as it were, between each seed, so having an indented appearance. One pod contained three seeds, the other two. A plant of the white variety of Wistaria Sinensis, one of the original plants brought home by Mr Fortune, and growing on a cottage in the same nursery, had bloomed very freely this season - unusually so, probably because a dry season is apt to produce a more floriferous quality.
The fungologists had a grand field-day at South Kensington on the 5th of October last. "Such bad weather for the production of Fungi as that experienced for many weeks previous to the exhibition had not been known for years. The sun had continually shone with depressing brightness and warmth, the air had been free from delightful and exhilarating fogs, there had been no drenching rains, no slush, no mud, no nothing. Spores were down, and mycelium paralysed. The enemies of Fungus-eating prophesied a failure; they said 'vegetable beefsteaks' would be as rare at South Kensington as bovine steaks at Strasburg, and it would be no good seeking for Hydnums. But the prophets were altogether off the scent; Fungi in the woods and fields were certainly scarce enough, but the various species shown at South Kensington." So writes Mr Worthington G. Smith in the 'Gardeners' Chronicle.' Notwithstanding, some very good collections were staged; the edible species in one group, the poisonous in another, and the doubtful ones by themselves; and the leading mycologists and mycophagists were gathered together on the occasion.
The number of persons attracted to witness the exhibition was something extraordinary; all the afternoon the council chamber was thronged, and up till a late period of the afternoon the stream set in towards the tables on which the Fungi lay. Subsequently, a gathering of fun-gologists took place at Hereford - a large number of gentlemen met together, and the meeting appeared to have been successful in the highest degree. In the name of science, and in the interest of gastronomy, we thank these gentlemen for their work; the practical utility of it time alone will demonstrate.