Wind and Weather Flips, Spiral Conundrums and Imbolc Fibonacci Issues

A dramatic reversal of weather this week with the wind swinging to the East, 1/02/12

So the “Beast from the East” has swept in after all. The initial derision on Radio 4 of newspaper reports of a Siberian blast approaching at least alerted us to the risks of proper wintry weather, which has hit Gelli in a very localised way, well in advance of the rest of the UK which has had heavy snowfalls overnight (Saturday). The whole 8 days since my last post has seen  up to 5 inches of snow on the ground, and declining temperatures bottoming out at minus 12 degrees C 2 nights ago. But travel just 4 miles in either direction out of the natural amphitheatre of hills with Rhydcymerau at its centre, and the land has been largely snow free.

The wintry scene 4/02/12

The most severe frosts coincided of course with clear skies and an easterly wind and at these temperatures presents issues for plant life outside and inside our unheated greenhouse. Last year I’d researched polytunnels and eventually decided that it would be an unecessary additional indoor space for us, with just 2 adults to produce fruit and vegetables for. But an intriguing reference to a polytunnel within a polytunnel, heated by a Tealight candle to keep things frost free intrigued me. I’d rigged up an inner plastic skin over our pots of winter salads and a few overwintered more tender shrubs already this year. The forecast temperature drop was a chance to try out this simple concept of frost protection. The first few frosty nights worked well with a single larger candle. As the predicted overnight low fell further an additional candle was added. Then when minus 10 was forecast I rashly declined to follow Fiona’s advice of adding a third…… and perhaps predictably we did have slight frost damage in the morning.

Unknown at the time of this photo, the candlelit Gelli greenhouse echoed previous Carmarthenshire traditions for Candlemas or Imbolc. See later for more explanation. 2/2/12

The latest batch of Gelli candles. Needless to say I don’t bother with the candle adornment for greenhouse use, but one of these candles will burn continuously for well over 48 hours. Of course in today’s Health and Safety throttled world, the concept of making your own candles with a pan of hot wax on a woodburning stove, then filling old 1 litre tetrapak , i.e. paper/foil longlife milk containers (as above) before lighting them and leaving them unattended overnight beneath a sheet of plastic in a wooden framed greenhouse…… well, just don’t try this yourselves……. you have been warned. 3/02/12

So maybe one candle in our 14  by 8 foot greenhouse for every minus 5 degrees C predicted would be about right to keep things just frost free. or use bubblewrap rather than a re-used sheet of packaging plastic sheet. Or as more sane people would probably decide, install electricity or buy a gas or paraffin heater instead. But I like these simple challenges, and making candles on the stove in winter evenings is a fun pastime…

As the snow slowly began to melt in parts of the garden with the 4 days of wonderful wintry sunshine we’ve enjoyed, I managed to photograph the washing line spiral conundrum, and post it here on the blog for comment or contemplation… Laid down by ourselves to a pattern designed by Fiona, it uses leftover original C18th unglazed quarry tiles from our old cottage Gegin(kitchen) infilled with crushed slates. We had no idea when we constructed this that as snow melted, there would be a differential rate on these 2 substrates which resulted in the lovely pattern outline which I photographed in the snowy weather of 2009/10.

The best example of the spiral motif in normal ‘snowmelt mode’, where the snow melts from the crushed slate before the quarry tiles. 22/12/2009

However this year, and on another couple of occasions, the pattern of snow melt has reversed, i.e. the snow melts first from the quarry tiles, and later the slates. (Photo below from 2/2/12). The question is why? Does it reflect different temperatures of the slates and tiles before the snow fell on them? Or different types of snowflake? Or different temperatures or sun radiation after the snow has fallen? Or some mix of all these? Or something else entirely of magical, unknown influence??

The spiral motif flip - melting from the quarry tiles first 2/01/12

I mention the latter, since we have just passed the date of the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc, which was celebrated on February 1st/2nd by many Celtic nations as the beginning of spring. Amongst other celebrations in parts of the world with Celtic influence, there would have been bonfires, and this last week I witnessed our very own Imbolc like event on the far side of the valley at dusk on Friday evening amongst the still snow-covered ground and larch trees. A lone figure apparently dancing round the fire, whose flames regularly pulsed as fuel of some sort was cast onto the pyre from a can.

Look hard at the image centre to see the Imbolcic figure…3/02/12

The Imbolc like fire…23/02/12

What the purpose of the fire was is another matter of conjecture (such fires in the past have sometimes been followed by the smell of barbecued/burning flesh, but there was no wind on this occasion….) but it made an interesting photo opportunity for me crouched in the snow, to get a reasonable perspective. I subsequently discovered that in the Irish Celtic tradition Imbolc is the day that the ‘Cailleach’, an Irish hag, gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Thus a bright sunny day implies that winter will last a lot longer, since she can gather much more wood. A wet, grey day conversely indicates that winter is nearly over, since the Cailleach is sleeping, and not gathering wood. Observant readers may notice a similarity with the American traditions of Groundhog Day, immortalised in the eponymous ’90’s film where the appearance or otherwise of a groundhog’s shadow is taken to predict whether winter is shortly due to finish, or persist for a further 6 weeks. Finally this led me to the Welsh tradition of Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Mary’s Festival of the Candles). There is a very interesting link here on these traditions , but I will quote the following from Hilaire Wood’s fascinating piece about Imbolc on the Celtic Wheel site, in view of my recent candlemaking and burning images and discussion mentioned above(more synchronicity ?):

” In one ceremony in Carmarthenshire, all the panes in the small kitchen window were illuminated with candles. In another, the mistress of the farm ceremoniously gave y forwyn fawr, the head maid, a lighted candle for use in the outhouses sometime in the autumn. The name for this period when working by candlelight was allowed was amser gwylad, the time of keeping vigil. The candle was then handed back on February 2nd when the light had increased enough for candles to be dispensed with and the farm animals to be fed before dark. ”

The galanthophile community will know that there is a snowdrop called Imbolc, named after this Celtic springtime festival, and I guess because it tended to be in bloom by February 1st. It originated from the famous Oxfordshire ‘South Hayes’ garden of  galanthophile Primrose Warburg, although she had received it mixed with a batch of ‘Mighty Atom’ snowdrops. This information is gleaned from “Snowdrops” by Bishop, Davies and Grimshaw, currently the definitive guide to these plants, which we purchased last week.

Snowdrop G.’Imbolc today 5/02/12 after the snow has melted. Interestingly this has almost exactly bulked up as predicted by a Fibonacci sequence – see below with 8 bulbs/offshoots.

Quickly flicking through its scholarly 370 pages, 2 items caught my attention in particular. The first was the final full colour image on the page following “The End”, of ancient gravestones islanded by drifts of in-bloom snowdrops. How apt. The second was the statement in the section on snowdrop botany and growth which stated that snowdrops multiplied in number vegetatively according to a Fibonacci sequence of 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55 and THEREFORE should be divided every other year (A Fibonacci sequence is one where the next number in the sequence is formed by adding the previous 2 numbers together). I was unconvinced by the link between these 2 assertions, and looking for more information on the subject found a very clearly worked explanation of how such vegetative division would progress and lead from an initial single bulb to a total of 288 bulbs after 10 years, (this from a discussion on the Scottish Rock Garden Club).

However, the follow-on comments on this thread mentioned that this clear theoretical  logic of an offshoot one year producing a mature bulb the next; then the next year a mature bulb with offshoot; then the next year 2 mature bulbs and offshoot and so on, didn’t tie in with the actual observations of how many many snowdrop cultivars actually bulk up. Below I show a few of those which we currently grow to illustrate this point. Which brings me back to saying that perhaps for most gardeners, having snowdrops with pleasant flowers which flower over a long season of interest and multiply with vigour naturally, may be the priority.

One of the more vigorous snowdrops G.Augustus, in spite of being moved last year has produced 3 to 4 offshoots per bulb already. And lovely leaves. And all this in spite of the fact that all the bulbs of this cultivar are apparently infected with a snowdrop virus….. Not that many flowers though, and many galanthophiles suggest very frequent division is necessary to maintain good flowering 5/02/12

Galanthus Cedric’s Prolific. Lives up to its name being prolific and very impressive, and by a bit of detective work I discovered that this is one of the unnamed featured snowdrops in my last post.The faint green lines at the tips of the outer segments being a clue as to its identity. Interestingly it was sold to us by Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex who named it in memory of the painter, gardener and plantsman Cedric Morris, who lived near to her at Benton End. By chance this weekend’s paper had an in depth biographical feature on Cedric Morris. 5/02/12

The link to a biography of Cedric Morris from the Daily Telegraph of 5/02/12 can be found by clicking here

Of intermediate vigour, at least in our garden, a yellow snowdrop G.nivalis sandersii ‘Lowick’, seems to have made 5 bulbs  (2 flowering size and 3 offshoots) after 3 years. Some gardeners find these yellow G.nivalis tricky to grow. Perhaps the fact that they originate from Northumberland, an area of the UK with high rainfall like Gelli means that we have a better chance of them growing vigorously here, than in drier parts of the UK. 5/02/12

G.John Gray. After a year, 4 bulbs are between them showing just 1 offshoot so not, unless it settles down in subsequent years, a very vigorous snowdrop, at least in our garden. Yet this is one of the few snowdrops which has received the FCC ( First Class Certificate) from the RHS – better than an award of Garden Merit – for garden worthiness. So is there something about our Welsh conditions which doesn’t suit it? This variable performance is hinted at in the write up in Bishop et al’s description of the cultivar, but they note that it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with soil type. Interestingly it was found in John Gray’s garden in Suffolk, and it is a very early flowering cultivar. I might explore next week the concept of early flowering in populations of bulbs growing in dry environments. Perhaps the 70 plus inches of annual welsh rainfall at Gelli aren’t to its liking? It does mean that if you become hooked on snowdrops, some detailed research on cultivar origins may be worthwhile before shelling out for a new variety. 5/02/12

Finally the last week has seen the return of our Canada geese who visit the valleys’ several ponds around breeding time for a few months. It’s also the time of year when huge flocks of starlings use the valley as a flight path between overnight roost and feeding grounds. Having seen enormous (thousands plus) flocks recently I chose the morning after the lowest temperatures of the last week to go and stand in our lower field with Camcorder to try to film them on their way down the valley – there is something very special about the spectacle and sound created by this mass of beating wings passing just overhead. Conditions were great with no wind, lovely light and little traffic noise because of the treacherous road conditions. Unfortunately after an hour of waiting I concluded that the starlings had other plans and  decided it was just too cold to head our way. Perhaps they’d flown towards the coast instead. Still the image captures the wintry scene.

The frozen, probably minus 13 degrees C scene of our upper pond. After an hour in dressing gown and jeans waiting for the non compliant starlings, this is a screen capture from the camcorder. Interestingly the whole movie clip showed a fine tremor, never previously noticed. Was the camera on tripod shivering in sympathy? 3/02/12

Helleborus hybridus and Galanthus atkinsii flowers collapse from the icy blast 3/02/12

But the Crocus tomassinianus flowers seem to withstand the cold as well as anything 3/02/12

Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill and icicle – still packing a perfume punch after the cold 2/02/12

Yew sentinel blocks, Cornus sibirica ‘alba’ and Mopheaded Hydrangea…..gradually creating the desired effect for mid winter, 6 years down the line 3/02/12

Terrace slabs and snow…. 3/02/12 Another conundrum perhaps ?

PS. I forgot to say that the weather here on Imbolc this year was bright, sunny and cold……Oh dear.

Thanks for reading.

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