To Hell with the Weather....Let’s get Gardening
Award winning Garden writer David Hurrion’s ruminations on the current weather.
Was it sunny where you were yesterday? What about last Tuesday? Or on New Year’s Day? Though we seem to bemoan it all the time, our memories are notoriously bad when it comes to the weather. Conditions need to be really extraordinary, or have a big impact on our day-to-day lives, if they are to register permanently in the little grey cells.
But this year’s winter will surely be etched in our minds for a couple of different, but not unrelated, reasons; firstly, the terrible flooding in the North of England and Scotland during December and secondly, the wealth of flowers in our gardens. Both occurred as a result of the unusually warm conditions brought to us courtesy of the Jet Stream. This air flow, high in the atmosphere, not only blocked the advance of cold from the north and east, but allowed mild, moisture-laden air from the Atlantic to flow over our islands and brought us into record-breaking territory: the wettest December in Scotland, since records began in 1910; and, with a mean temperature of 8C across the UK, the month was as warm as an average April.
Think back further, and such un-seasonal warmth was also a feature of October and November, so much so that many of our plants continued to grow and, in some cases, kept on blooming. The fuchsias, zonal pelargoniums and roses in my garden seemed to think that it was still summer. Flowering of these plants is not much influenced by day length, so the shortening winter days didn’t do anything to dampen their enthusiasm.
But as the mild weather continued ever closer to Christmas, it also duped many of our spring-flowering plants. I saw roadside daffodils out in early December. A few weeks later, at home, I had snowdrops, hellebores and even a lone hyacinth in bloom. To celebrate the New Year, they were joined by polyanthus, ornamental quince, winter sweet and sarcococca (winter box). Growth of all these spring plants is normally held back by the cool conditions that set in during late October, effectively creating a natural form of ‘cold storage’ that allows slow, steady development and delays flowering until spring. The mild weather this year allowed quicker growth, bringing forward the ‘normal’ flowering date by six, eight and even 12 weeks (in the case of my hyacinth).
Although I’ve said that our memories of the weather are bad, I think that mine are better than most as I’ve gardened since I was a child. The weather is crucial to every gardener, giving cues about when to do particular tasks – the best time to sow, plant or cut plants back, for example. So when I look back over more than 40 years of exercising my green fingers, I can’t remember an autumn and early winter period that has been milder or seeing outdoor daffs in flower three weeks before Christmas. However, it is not the ability of plants to flower at this time of year that is unusual. It is the weather.
In the longer term, increasing global temperatures have seen the UK’s overall average temperature rise by 1c in the past 100 years, with more than half of this change accounted for in my lifetime. This seemingly small increase in temperature makes our climate more volatile giving rise to greater extremes of temperature, rainfall, and even frost and snow. There is lots of debate about other factors that could have given rise to this season’s unusually mild weather, including melting of Arctic ice, solar activity and a particularly strong El Nino event thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean. What isn’t in doubt, however, is the weather’s unpredictability across the British Isles. In the first month of 2016, the mild weather gave way to freezing temperatures and snow, only to return after little more than a week.
So how do plants cope with these wide ranging temperatures? Well, the cold will have finally put paid to the last of the summer flowers – the fuchsias, roses and more tender plants – together with any soft, new shoots which they may have made. But don’t despair - any hardy plants will be able to shrug off the cold and will grow back when spring arrives ‘proper’. Many of the plants that continued growing till late into the autumn and early winter will benefit from having stored more energy in their tissues. This means that they should make stronger growth and better flowers during the coming season.
What about the spring species – the snowdrops, daffs and hellebores – that were wooed into early flowering? Thankfully they have evolved naturally to cope with wide fluctuations in temperature, from heat of a bright sunny day to the chill of a long dark night under clear skies. Their stems and flowers contain high levels of sugars and other organic compounds that act as anti-freeze, so that they are able to recover even if they wilt in the cold. The only downside is that, by blooming earlier, the flowers will fade earlier too, meaning that you won’t be able to enjoy their display at the normal time.
As many gardeners will tell you, nature has a way of balancing things out and in the short to medium term our plants should survive unscathed. But in the face of ever more extreme weather our favourite hobby will have to adapt and change. In the meantime who knows, perhaps next winter will stick in our minds and break the record books again as the mildest – or coldest – on record.