This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", 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.
ACCORDING to the verdict of the Scottish Meteorological Society, the mean temperature of the first six months of this year has been lower by 5° than any corresponding period of any year since 1763. So that it is quite safe to say that no gardener living has had to contend with such clouded skies and low temperature. It is very remarkable that the highest temperature registered here (Nithsdale, Dumfriesshire) for last July was 71°, while the mean of the maximum daily temperatures for the month was a fraction over 60°, and June was slightly colder than July. On the morning of the 10th of August the temperature fell to 34° in a sparred case four feet from the ground, and on low-lying grounds the grass was actually crisp with frost.
The exceptional character of the season will, as a matter of course, leave horticulturists a legacy of exceptionally unfavourable circumstances as bearing on next year's crops to contend with and overcome. Perhaps there is no condition upon which satisfactory crops on all fruit-bearing plants depend so much as on the perfect ripening of the wood and buds, from which the future crop must come, and it is thus a condition which all experienced cultivators strive to attain. Last year being bright and warm, without any extremes that were calculated to injure vegetation, the result has been very manifest this year in the unusual crop of blossom on all flowering trees and shrubs. Unhappily, however, the fruit harvest - owing to the unfavourable character of this season - will rank amongst one of the most unsatisfactory on record. And unless the autumn be one of unusual brightness and warmth, it is hopeless to expect fruit-bearing plants to ripen their wood and buds, so that we can look to next season as one of promise.
Amidst the many failures of this year, the Grape crop is - so far as we have observed - about the most satisfactory of any, even under glass. As a rule, all the Vines and Grapes that we have seen are looking well as regards the extent and quality of the crops they are carrying. This may sound anomalous in the ears of the inexperienced. There can be no doubt that much of this success depends on the splendid weather of the latter part of last summer and autumn, which, as has already been referred to, resulted in the thorough maturation of the wood and fruit-buds. Indeed, we have been cognisant of cases where last year's Grapes shanked badly, and did not colour well, notwithstanding the warm sunshine. The year 1877 was not at all a favourable season for the Vine, in so far as the following year's crop was concerned, and in many cases the bunches were loose, the footstalks of the berries weak and long, and the heat of 1878 hurried the crops to maturity - and all these are calculated to precipitate shanking where there is a predisposition to that evil. The same Vines have this year brought heavy crops of large but compact bunches to maturity without any shanking, in spite of the want of sun and excessive rainfall.
The often reiterated lesson of well-ripened wood is, to our mind, not the only lesson which such an occurrence enforces. It points also to the fact that, as a rule, strong Vines in well-prepared borders do not get nearly enough of water in summers that are dry and hot. The better and more carefully borders are prepared - as to drainage, etc. - the more forcibly does this apply; and if this exceptional season teaches one lesson more emphatically than another, it is that Vines under other conditions the most favourable rarely get as much water as is good for them in dry, hot summers - of course, always provided there is no chance of stagnant water about the borders. These hints are thrown out by the way, and we think our experienced readers will endorse them.
The important task then for this autumn is for cultivators to do everything that lies in their power to ripen the wood of not only Vines but Peaches, Figs, and all fruit-bearing plants, as well as possible. Outdoor fruits are comparatively beyond the pale of artificial appliances to forward this end. Much, however, can be done to ripen the wood of Vines, Peaches, etc, that are under glass. As a rule, the greatest danger of immaturity is in the case of vigorous Vines and other trees from which the crops are all gathered this month. Earlier trees get a longer season, and usually ripen more completely. On the other hand, later Vines, on which Grapes hang through the winter months, have so much fire-heat applied for the preservation of the crop, that the wood also reaps the benefit of a circulation of dry, warm air. Strong Vines, from which the Grapes are cut this and next month, are more frequently left to take their chance of what ripening the season accomplishes without artificial aid. Experienced growers are not likely to neglect the use of the means at their command, but it may be necessary to urge on the inexperienced the absolute necessity that this year exists to apply fire-heat, and keep up a circulation of dry, warm air about the wood and foliage for the next month or six weeks, or in fact until the wood is solid and brown.
The character of next year's crops depends greatly on this: indeed it will give the foundation of the superstructure of next year's crop, which it is impossible to rear without it. Experienced men are alive to this necessity this autumn, if ever they were. In some cases indeed the fuel may be grudged, and gardeners would do well in such cases to point out to their employers the necessity for such means, and the consequences of withholding it.