Confusion and Cloud Cover, Moss Mayhem, Water in and Water out and Snapping Hazels

A cacophony of climate confusion perplexes me as we head into a New Year. December 2010 saw the coldest UK December on record, whilst autumn and December 2011 were the warmest on record. In between, a record-breaking sunny, dry and early spring; extreme drought in Shropshire, Herefordshire and East Anglia; but abnormally heavy rain in Scotland and North West England. Is this anthropogenic global warming? Is it natural climatic variation in our maritime influenced temperate climate? Should we worry anyway with the next Ice Age overdue, and almost certain to hit within 1500 years? I can quite understand why most people’s eyes glaze over on this topic. If you have a view, which I tend to, that we should be more careful and efficient in our usage of resources since supplies of most ‘stuff ‘ is finite on our planet with a rising population, then a whole secondary line of conundrums presents itself. Practical issues such as transport, electricity production, food production, to list just a few. Heck, no wonder I’m confused. Finding a rational world or lifestyle view that isn’t riddled with hypocrisy seems pretty tough these days. These thoughts descend to trouble at this time of the year, when like the present Carmarthenshire cloud covering, few shafts of real illumination exist.

To try to quantify the extraordinary gloom since the beginning of December, I’m including the PV record for the Christmas week.

Week 52 of our PV output. I’m hoping that this will stay as a record low weekly output for years to come! For the observant, I didn’t photograph this at 3.00am, rather I haven’t got round to reprogramming the inverter after a Power switch off by Western Power Distribution. Interestingly having your own supply of electricity doesn’t spare you from power cuts – currently the whole system automatically has to switch off in such events.

Of course Solar PV systems do produce electricity in cloudy conditions, but most is generated with clear skies and as you can see even when the sun is at its lowest in the sky in week 52 it’s still capable of hitting 1230 Watts at its peak around noon if the sun does appear. However the weekly total of 4.46 KW Hours (only just over what is produced during an hour in midsummer) does accurately reflect just how dim things have been, and how little of the sun we’ve seen.

The graph for December shows that given sunny weather, the system can still hit a peak output (at 1999W) of over half its maximum output (3800W) whilst the sun is so low in the sky.

Another glimpse into how little light is around right now is the photo below which was taken at 8.00 am today January 10th, with ISO 200 setting and my maximum aperture of f2.8. The exposure time was 1/10 second such was the gloom.

I needed an exposure of 1/10 second at f2.8 and ISO200 at 8.00am on 9/01/12 to get this accurate picture of the current Carmarthenshire weather. It’s been that gloomy!

“The flip side to that coin” to quote Robert de Niro from a memorable scene with Al Pacino in “Heat” which we watched with friends a couple of days ago, is that the mild weather continues, frosts have been avoided and yesterday the birds seemed to spring into action, with robins beginning territorial song routines and red kites returning over the valley, whilst buzzards mewed.

The garden’s bulbs seem equally confused, but I guess that they’re dancing to a simpler in-built rhythm. No issues of light, or lack of it, more hitting a cumulative temperature target which kicks them into action. Many other plants are now flowering a couple of months early. Having started this blog last March and included a piece on blackbirds and moss I can also report that the blackbirds have created mayhem in the mossy copse already this year. Last year their peak activity after the hard winter was in mid March. I’ve had another look on-line for information on their auditory acuity, without much success although their auditory range is a little narrower than ours, but my guess that they may be searching for emerging moth pupae could explain the severe damage this year. After such mild conditions moths such as the Hebrew character are already emerging and feeding on the very first flowers of Daphne laureola philippi.

Almost 2 months earlier than last year the first flowers on the Daphne laureola philippi open and immediately an early Hebrew Character moth has found where they are 9/01/12

But why so much damage this year? Have more blackbirds survived the, thus far, mild winter? Have more invertebrates or moth pupae survived? Have we been outside less and so the birds haven’t been disturbed as often? One can only be impressed by the birds’ abilities at selectively tearing the moss up in particular areas, but of course if this sub-moss invertebrate food source is being tapped now, so much earlier than normal, what effect will it have on the bird’s ability to rear a brood when nesting takes place weeks later?  Also do formal Japanese moss-based gardens get similar issues with manicured moss devastation by birds? At this point I did an internet search and found a really good article on creating and maintaining a Japanese style moss garden by J.M.Glime (updated in 2017), click here.

Obviously I’d followed none of these suggestions in making our Welsh mossy copse, but the idea of using cheesecloth, or perhaps enviromesh, and securing the moss with wooden toothpicks through this layer to reduce bird damage is one I might try. As indeed is the suggestion of pulverising moss in a blender and spreading the moss-mush onto selected areas. I might use this approach to help re-establish bird damaged sections (if I can persuade Fiona to let me use the Magimix!)

I also rather liked the Japanese comment that only old men or children can look after a moss garden, since anyone else would over manicure it, and create an unnatural effect. I’m not sure I agree with this, but equally I feel that whilst my body is heading one way, the brain is heading in the opposite direction, so perhaps I’ve by accident hit on the perfect form of gardening for my declining years! Finally his comment about visiting a commercial moss nursery in Japan sowed the seeds of an idea. Perhaps we have the perfect environment here to take up commercial moss production in the UK. Does anyone do it already? Is there a demand?

This section of path has so far been left unscathed by our blackbird pair. Perhaps because it’s more compacted, and so less favourable for subsurface invertebrates 9/01/12

To the left pretty undamaged moss (Olive green). To the right it’s been ripped up almost entirely. More extensively than ever before 9/01/12

After reading about the Japanese moss gardens on the link above, I had another walk round and noticed that this particular emerald green moss, which grows in small areas throughout the copse has been carefully ignored by the blackbirds, so remains intact. Why? Perhaps it’s just tougher to scratch up, or maybe it dosen’t harbour insects beneath it in the same way as the lower growing olive coloured moss? I think I might try the pulverising technique on this species and water it around the paths to see if I can encourage it to flourish a bit more widely . In any case I prefer its vibrant green colour 9/01/12

The heavy rains of December are at least easing to soft Welsh drizzle over the last 3 days, but not before I had another ‘idea’. We maintain a drip tray with gravel in the redundant fireplace at the far end of our ‘Gegin’, or kitchen.

The ‘drip tray’ complete with assorted collection of pebbles after 6 weeks of daily rain, (and having been emptied twice already!)  Having tried everything possible to keep the rain out, I’m forced to conclude that an unused chimney is a liability in a climate with over 70 inches of annual rainfall.

The fireplace was clearly used in the early days of the cottage in the 1700’s when this large room was subdivided. Now the wood burning stove at the opposite end of the room is more than adequate to heat the whole space, and in any event we were told that the stone lined flue in what was the original external North gable wall, is too narrow to satisfy current regulations. Strangely it’s taken me years of living in a property like this, in an environment with such heavy annual rainfall, to work out that holes in the roof (chimneys) need regular drying out from a fire/heat source to avoid serious damp ingress.

It really doesn’t matter what you do to them outside, above the roof – without a  fire to dry them out there will always be issues with damp. (All the chimneys here have been completely rebuilt, with lead trays, etc./chimney cowls, sealants, etc and yet the rain STILL gets in). The other issue to consider is one of draughts, ventilation and associated heat loss. The new idea has been to cover the fireplace with a curtain to limit draughts, which has indeed proved very effective if doing nothing about the rain ingress.

Fiona’s handywork at least brightens the scene and reduces the draughts pending further action with the chimney 6/01/12

However I feel that the long term solution would be to remove the chimney stack and restore the roof at this point to a slated section, whilst ventilating the flue in the attic space – a project to be chewed over for a while, I think.

A few days after this issue was tackled we had one of those moments which you get used to up here “off the map”. Guests due in a couple of hours and suddenly the kitchen sink is blocked. Must be the trap. But it wasn’t.

I started to clear the recently laid gravel from around the first manhole outside the back door and immediately realised that water was seeping out from its periphery. And the next one down the line to the septic tank. All hands on deck for a big bail out, as the whole waste water system had backed up into the house. Once we got down to a level where we could see the main pipe, the chimney rods were laid out above ground only to discover that they reached barely half the distance to the septic tank.

It’s further than we thought to our septic tank……. 6/01/12

Mental note to buy another set soon, since this incident will no doubt recur in the future at an equally inconvenient time. Fingers were very firmly crossed as the brush and rods were fed in and after about 10 feet there was a satisfying squelchy glugg, and the remaining ‘effluent’ moved on. Lots of buckets of water later to try to ensure a completely clear run before closing up, and we’re hopeful that the mysterious unknown blockage has moved on. By a strange coincidence, the last drain episode also arose about a week after the grandchildren had visited us!

In the garden, an unexpected request for a garden visit on New Year’s Day which didn’t materialise in view of the extreme wet, has made us blitz the borders. When and what to tidy up is always an issue. Last year snow prevented any work in December. This year, the heavy rain and no frost to kill off foliage has had the same effect. It’s also been tempting to delay cutting back when foliage and flowers are still adding interest in the very mild weather. But the delay in doing so has meant that the snowdrops and crocuses are now coming through, so access to remove spent herbaceous foliage has become much more tricky.

A section of one of our long borders with lots of Geranium removed, or stripped out by hand. Laborious work, but necessary with the snowdrops, early Galanthus ‘Atkinsii,’ pushing through already. 4/01/12

In this so far frost-free winter, the worst culprits for removal are many of the hardy Geraniums, Crocosmia, Japanese Anemone and Golden Marjoram. Trying to do all areas in 4 or 5 days plays havoc with the back and knees, so no matter what the weather throws at us this autumn, the plan will be to stagger this work starting in late November. And to use a strimmer on some of the plants like Asters and Sedum. It worked well on the Epimediums this last week.

Finally, I’ve just collected a small number of Hamamelis seed. The seed pods always seem to mature around the time that this year’s flowers start to open. I’ve yet to have success with germination, but will have another go this year. Germination which requires initial cold stratification is listed as being erratic! The seed pods themselves are fascinating structures. Impenetrably hard, they gradually open to reveal the pair of shiny pointed seeds still firmly attached within them.

A naturally mature Hamamelis x intermedia ” Aphrodite” seed pod. The 2 shiny black seeds are still really tightly attached at this point, but eventually are released with such force that they can be flung over 30 feet. This year’s flower clusters are visible behind the seed pod. Strangely, the seeds are held upside down, or inside out, inside the pod. Perhaps there is some aerodynamic benefit in this, or maybe its just an evolutionary quirk? 6/01/12

Even at this stage the seeds are difficult to lever out, so I bring them inside and put them in a covered pot. As the pod dries out the seeds are suddenly flung out – over 10 metres is possible, hence the need to cover the pot (one American common name for the plant is snapping Hazel). Fascinated by these structures, I had a go at making a wooden form based on this dehiscence and dispersal 4 years ago. It was my last bit of woodturning since my chest now suffers if exposed to wood dust, but was interesting in that the upper split was painstakingly created by me with some satisfaction.

I’d  finished making it just in time to give to Fiona for Christmas 2007. But all the working with dust in a cold damp environment of our barn initiated a bout of pneumonia beginning on Boxing Day. When I recovered, and made it downstairs a few days later, I noticed the sculpture had been turned round. I picked it up and corrected the position, only to discover that the lower split had developed spontaneously in the warmth of the house. This was because the still too moist spalted hazel wood used for the pod had dried out further, once brought inside. With a bit of further finishing, it now looks as though it was always intended!

My Hamamelis inspired wood form. The main wood is spalted (fungally damaged) hazel, and the black ‘seeds’ are made from ancient unstained black bog oak which we  dug out from our bottom field. Made in 12/07. The lower large split wasn’t intended, but fits with the title ” Decay and Dispersal” .

Saxifrage x fritzchiana ‘St John’s’ growing, not too happily, in a pot produced this amazing colourful image in the depths of our grey weather. The leaf margins look as if they’ve been carefully hand painted with white dots. The rosettes are normally all green/silver 5/01/12

Early large Snowdrops like this variety Galanthus ‘Bess’, can really lift the spirits at this time of year 7/01/12

Sarcococca ruscifolia v. chinensis ‘Dragon Gate’. I normally find the scent of Sarcococca a little disappointing, but this year this cultivar’s honeyed scent CAN be smelled from feet away 8/01/12

A rare brief glimpse of sunlight at dusk reminds us that the weather will soon turn….4/01/12

PS-P: I shall record reading on 6/01/12 of the death of Colonel Peter Storie-Pugh. It’s strange that 10 days after reading of Francis Cabot’s death someone else who I’d known should feature in the National Press Obituary columns. I hope that obituaries don’t make their way into the blog again for a while but I should mention that he taught me sheep medicine at Cambridge, and I shall remember him most for his mischievous stories of diesel poisoning in ewes and “Pizzle Rot” in rams in the Australian outback. Although I knew a little of his background as a Colditz escaper, the full obituary which can be found by clicking here gives a good insight into a life lived with tremendous courage to its full, and indeed a lifetime filled with many notable achievements. It is worth reading – his life deserves more appreciation than this brief PS can give it.