So the “Beast from the East” has swept in after all. The initial derision on BBC 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. However, 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 most severe frosts coincided of course with clear skies and an easterly wind and these conditions present issues for plant life both outside and inside our unheated greenhouse. Last year I’d researched polytunnels and eventually decided that it would be an unnecessary 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 already rigged up an inner plastic skin in the greenhouse, over our pots of winter salads and a few overwintered more tender shrubs. 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.
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 melt rate on these 2 substrates which resulted in the lovely pattern outline which I photographed in the snowy weather of 2009/10.
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 on the crushed 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?
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.
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). It did though make for an interesting photo opportunity for me crouched in the snow, trying 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 candle making, burning images and my discussion mentioned above).
“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 could 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 – A monograph of cultivated Galanthus” by Bishop, Davies and Grimshaw, currently the definitive guide to these plants, a copy of which we purchased last week.
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.
I’ve since often reflected that even with neglect, the snowdrops we’ve planted here will probably persist long after we’ve left the scene.
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.
The link to a biography of Cedric Morris from the Daily Telegraph of 5/02/12 can be found by clicking here
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 must have made 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.
PS. I forgot to say that the weather here on Imbolc this year was bright, sunny and cold.