Congenial it was; and complaisant, almost to a fault, winter 2018-’19 cut itself plenty of slack and although we’ll not venture so far as to say it was derelict in its duty, in its coming and going this past winter bequeathed us one of the mildest, driest winter seasons in many decades.
Temperatures were 2 degrees above average from mid January and all the way through February, with seasonal rainfall amounts along the east coast 50% down on long term comparisons. Temperature and rainfall only returning to normal expectancy with the arrival of many weathered March. Snowdrops and daffodils, hyacinths and squills have all put out fabulous displays; cherry blossoms are in full flower, and plum and apple blossom are on show well before equinox. The Kerria Japonica Plentiflora has certainly lived up to its name with masses of bright yellow bachelor buttons since mid February and the hydrangeas were in full open leaf a fortnight before St. Patrick’s Day. There has however, been a lot of rain the last two-three weeks, but with soil moisture levels quite tolerable for early March whatever spot flooding occurs dissipates rapidly and the open beds are trafficable a few short days later.
Our first full visit of the year to the monster’s measure saw us plant out the red and white onion sets and sow some trays of cosmos, zinnia and pheasant eye seed. We planted out some kale and Dutchman cabbage seedlings and we potted on the cayenne pepper and the Moneymaker tomatoes. We tidied border edging, scattered potash and phosphate granules around the fruit trees and bushes, and broadcast a good many handfuls of chicken manure pellets where we will be planting and sowing in the coming weeks. We have plum blossom and apple blossom, and the gooseberry bushes are leafing up. The blackcurrant buds are tight yet, but the redcurrant has burst bud, and there is bright new red growth on all the rose bushes. Close inspection of our raised beds has betrayed some remedial work we need to undertake in the short term; we will re-seal the shed exterior as soon as we get a dry and mild run of weather and there is still have a run of fencing that needs to be righted. As with every other allotmenteer and gardener we are about to move up and into top gear, and it is rewarding to be able to say that here, right at the beginning of the growing season we have already benefitted from the monster’s measure having enjoyed a couple of weekend pickings of Timperley Early rhubarb before March is out.
This afternoon’s temperature hit 16 degrees with moderate westerly wind which is more than pleasant for this time of year. There shall be cooler and colder days a while yet, and we’ll certainly have frost after dark for a good month still, but winter has set its sights northward. The new lambs are coming and the Brent geese are going, and the monster – just as with the Celtic spirit we celebrate this week– is greening up in style…
As expected, April’s arrival has put an end to things: The lingering sulk of the longest winter is finally docked, and spring is most definitely sprung. For four days last week we basked in pleasant sunshine with temperatures four to five degrees above average, but this week has seen a return to more familiar Atlantic troughs with pulsing thundery showers and periods of widening sunshine. Though the forecast hints at a cool night or two yet, by and large April is doing what April is expected to do in scattering showers and sunshine in equal measure. Suddenly there is a noticeable greening-up and perceptible growth across the monster’s measure, and everything that seemed to be standing still and simply marking time throughout February and March has begun to reach for the warming gold orb and widening blue above. Though at times it can be the cruellest month, this year April is the gardeners’ redeemer; nature has finally set its sight on new trim, and all at once there is pep in the step of everything. Although way too early to make hay, when the sun did shine we made up for the four week foreshortening of the season and tried to get back on track with our own general spring sowing and planting schedule. We like to think we’ve more or less achieved this. Most of what we intended to sow has been sown, and where and when we lost stock we’ve simply re-sown. The bare branches of the apple, gooseberry and blackberries are consigned to memory; the Dutch Master daffodils which provided welcome solace during the extended bleakness are now fading fast and are being crowded by the stretching globe alliums; the parsnips have germinated as has the dill, parsley and coriander; the kale seedlings are acclimatizing to life outdoors; the onions are green-shooting at last and the gourmet shallots which seemed to have given up the ghost completely have also sprung to life. We’ve bedded the tomato, pepper and aubergines in the polytunnel, and the Dirtdigging Mrs has planted out the zinnia and marigold seedlings along with some lupin and lavenders. The garlic (fingers crossed) seems to have thrived despite atrocious months on end with its feet in the worst of the weather, and the rhubarb also looks and tastes quite good. A four legged polytunnel squatter help him or herself to the first sowings of sunflower, sweet-pea and nasturtium seed, but, we’ve remedied his squatting rights and re-sown with some added cover. It is early days still, and yet spring is quite late. Bud burst is a good two to three weeks behind, but this is not always a bad thing. Although the stuttering spring and extreme winter weather events did quite a lot of damage to Soft Fruit Growers stock especially in the south and east of the country, a late spring can be the herald of a very good apple, pear and plum crop later in the year: the blossom burst being delayed often means a much greater rate of pollination success as all the trees in all the orchards blossom all at once, and all of the cultivars and variants benefit from the late explosion of compatibility pollinators. So, there is always an up. Some you win, some you lose. We’ve pottered away and we’re back on course. The worst of the weather is behind us for the moment, and as we dodge the heavier April showers Mrs Dirtdigger can be found, listening to the ever increasing chorus now emanating from the greening hawthorns and rowans as all those “smale fowles maken melodye”.
April, A cruel month?
Now with the darker days overtaken, spirits soar and senses awaken. There is much to do, and thankfully while we have today we have much time still in which to do it.
April, arriving brimful with showers, Sets the parks and gardens throbbing; Glancing patches of bright summer blue And cumulus blankets perpetually sobbing…JJK
The snowdrops are showing; reticulated irises have brightened in glorious patches the last week or so, but the daffodils? The daffodils, being totally narcissistic, seem to be taking their own sweet time, though with that said, yesterday one or two of the Tete-a-Tetes finally put their radiant trumpets on public display. It has been a thoroughly Irish winter, and one that lived up to the Irish gardener’s seasonal expectation. With the exception of two slightly milder days this past weekend, it has been a long, wet and chilly period of hibernated-vernilization since the last week of last November. Things however seem to be turning. There is a little more light to the end of each day, but with the constant cloud cover the benefit as yet is not fully appreciated. The temperatures are still a little below normal for this time of year, which means that taken together with the low light levels we have the classic combination that very often conspires to undo the early undertakings of eager seed sowers. Many a gardener’s desire to get ahead of the posse by sowing seeds as early as they can often proves a redundant exercise with the experience of dampening-off. This is what occurs when seeds that are sown too early in the season either refuse to germinate, or else having germinated – often sporadically so- decide conditions are not yet tolerable enough to make the effort for. Seeds that are left standing in cold damp compost too long end up with root rot, eventually laying themselves down en masse, adding their inchoate transparent leggy stems and cotyledons to the dank dark medium which gave rise to their brief green existence. But, there are signs that things are a turning. The rhubarb stools are putting out new petioles; the pruned rose bushes are displaying delicate bright orangey-red flags; the garlic which seemed to have stood still since mid December is stretching ever so slightly at last; the parsley pots are greening up more than yellowing down and allium snouts are poking through the heavy damp clay. Perhaps it is just wistful thinking but there also seems to be a noticeable increase in birdsong from the hedgerows. Despite the ancient Celtic Imbolc quarter day observance it is not quite spring. The milk may be flowing in the belly of the ewe, but there is a sting or two to the winter’s tale and tail yet. Mindful of all we have just said, we did nonetheless make some tentative progress this last weekend. Being a little more tolerant of cooler sowing conditions and not being quite as finicky as their allium cousins we put some red shallots into one of the raised beds. We also strew two small trays of zinnias and marigolds, while at home we popped some Rosa Blanca aubergine seed into a pot for a south facing windowsill. We filled some starter pots with compost and popped red baron onion sets into the polytunnel, and finished off by covering a few Nero di Toscana kale seeds, as they’re also cool weather tolerant. The trees have been pruned and where and when required they were washed. The monster’s bolt hole has been tidied; all pots and trays are clean and good to go; seeds and sets have been sourced and sorted and whatever could be done during the darker wetter days was done. Things are drying up, slowly. The badgers are on the move; with little or no ground cover left for camouflage at winter’s end the hares are more skittish than usual, and today crows could be seen making the most of seasonal casualties, gathering and relocating winter fallen twigs to the still naked canopies of the oaks and beeches.
We’re not there yet, but we are getting there.
Softly, softly still though, not too far ahead of the posse should you go. And in deciding whether to sow or not to sow, remember that the surest course to no carrots and beetroots for harvest is to sow them now.