Looking Back; High Pressure and Maddening Julian Oscillations; NGS Snowdrop Festival 2019

Since creating this blog and website I occasionally look back, with interest, at how things have changed over the years. In this, the first written post of the New Year, I thought I’d begin with reflections on some of the notable events here during the past year.

Let’s get the weather data out of the way first – or at least the half complete information which I do manage to record, since this influences both garden, meadows and observations of nature enormously. The two things I always monitor are monthly and annual rainfall and the insight that readings from our PV inverter give us of the light levels throughout the year.

It was a little surprising that in spite of the longest, hot, dry summer since the 1940’s, according to some locals, the annual rainfall total was still 1851.9 mm. This isn’t exceptional, by our standards, but is certainly quite a high reading, and compares with a figure of “just” 1600 mm in 2016, which was the driest year since I’ve recorded rainfall here. Yet light levels overall in the year were the highest since the PV system was installed nearly 9 years ago.

Look at the annual PV output for 2018, and for almost the first time the graph shows a pretty even bell curve, peaking in the midsummer months, before falling away to almost nothing in December. Although May, June and July were exceptionally, and worryingly hot and dry, the 5 months since then have pushed the annual rainfall total way up, culminating in the 170 mm which fell in 3 days thanks to Storm Callum in October.

Not recording temperatures means I can only subjectively record how cold the weather became in March going into April. The much talked about “Beast From The East”, brought freeze drying winds to our hillside location, particularly exposed to winds from this direction. Minus 13 degrees C was recorded in March on a couple of occasions with my laser thermometer, and the added wind chill was cold enough to very nearly freeze our water supply.

All this weather affected our stream dramatically through the year – from freezing over almost completely in places, to drying up to a worrying trickle…… to bursting its banks and shifting huge amounts of bank turf, soil and river stone with the intensity of spate following Callum’s deluge.

What I can also confirm is that the prolonged freezing conditions conditions in February/March completely devastated our native slug populations both within the garden and in our meadows. For now my guess is that less than 5 % remain. Numbers had already crashed, before the long dry summer precluded any speedy recovery. How long before the population once more increases will be an interesting thing to watch out for in 2019. The 330 yard upper hay meadow mown path walk hasn’t yielded a count of more than a maximum of the low teens, yet bizarrely lots of juvenile frogs and toads were found on such nocturnal outings in the autumn … In optimum mild damp nights in previous years, well over 1 slug per yard would have been counted. With this in mind it seemed the perfect chance to try introducing some Fritillaria meleagris into this field in the autumn. How will they fare this year? Will they have a chance to set masses of seed and get young plants away before the slugs return?

What a different delight to record in 2018 the continued surge in annual orchid flower numbers in our upper hay meadow …1,1,4,14,82…

… Witness a swarming event of Garden Chafers…

… And manage to photograph, on our by then merely trickling stream, a pair of mating Beautiful Demoiselle Damselflies…

Two otters captured at the same time on our stream in sub zero freezing conditions in March…

More novel sightings included a Silver Washed Fritillary butterfly glimpsed in the garden briefly on a couple of occasions, as well as a Brimstone butterfly which was somewhat easier to photograph! In fact the year saw our largest ever count of butterfly species…

Hummingbird Hawk moths were seen in the garden on several occasions too, and there was a huge influx of Silver Y moths from Europe in early summer… Hundreds of Silver Y’s filled the garden and meadows before the birds whittled their numbers down. Dragonflies were frequent visitors in the garden too…Not to mention the first sighting of the enormous fly, Tachina grossa…

And a new and so far unidentified by me, ichneumon wasp ovipositing into the stems of the gradually increasing numbers of Greater Knapweed flowers in our upper hay meadow, tapping with antennae to locate, no doubt, some other larval structure within the stem …

Not to be outdone, bumblebees had a great year after a slow start and it was a thrill to have a visit from Clare Flynn of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to conduct a bumblebee survey on our land in July.Clare found a total of 7 species, including a new species for us here, a Cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus vestalis, which particularly excited her. South Wales remains a bastion for bumblebees in the UK, and we discovered late in the year, that Gelli Uchaf falls within one of the newly designated B-line 3 mile wide habitat corridors for invertebrate connectivity recently mapped out by the charity Buglife.

Clare’s visit and the increasing number of bumblebees here, thanks to both garden and meadow floral diversification over the years, prompted me to begin to conduct regular monitoring bee walks, on site, which will begin again in March. 

Finally, an ongoing interest in seeing what really locally foraged honey would taste like, moved a step closer when a couple of our springtime garden visitors floated the idea of trying a bee hive on site. This arrived mid year, and so far has survived, once again providing many days late in the year with the sound of busy foraging bees around the garden. The photo of the hive above was taken on December 22nd.  A bee suit also arrived from the autumnal sales, so yesterday I had a first peek into the hive as Tony and Elaine arrived to both install back up over wintering sustenance in the form of bee candy, as well as treating the hive with a dose of vaporised oxalic acid, to reduce any parasitic varroa mites. All fascinating stuff, and I’m hoping to catalogue more of the hive’s progress through 2019. Many thanks indeed to Tony and Elaine.

New species of fungi were found too – Earthtongues and Scarlet Caterpillar Clubs, both popping up in our mossy croquet lawn, along with a typically diverse crop of colourful Waxcap mushrooms, which followed the largest gathering of edible mushrooms, in early August, we can ever recall…

Native bird numbers were, subjectively, very reduced after the severe winter. Immigrant snipe had me stalking ditches in late winter, with questionable photographic prowess. After a late start, the swallows seemed to have a reasonable year, and the ever present Red Kites were a regular majestic presence. I had a rare chance to film robin chicks taking their first flight, captured on a video clip, from a nest far too exposed to escape predation, but reduced magpie numbers meant the robins made it…  A great year too for our small flock of Tor Ddu sheep – trouble free lambing, and we ended the year with 27 ewes/ewe lambs to help us manage our meadows which continue to develop greater floral diversity. For once the weather ensured a brilliant quality hay crop, after much hard, enjoyable work, which the sheep are now tucking into.

The construction of a shepherd’s hut occupied me, with William and Fiona’s help, for much of the summer, but is paying off now with opportunities to sit, chat and contemplate, mug of tea in hand as the scenes slowly change in front of us… 

And what of the garden???

A challenging year in many ways… Spring flowers arrived early, then were clobbered by the cold in late February and March. 

But snowdrops still thrived, and the display continues to improve annually both in the retyred matrix garden, and more informally in most areas of garden planting. Such is the reward from annual lifting and splitting…

Later in the year, I sensed that after the previous year’s dry April and May, daffodil displays were a little down on normal, but still lovely and several new forms flowered for the first time. 2019 should be better…

Our recent plantings of forms of Primula sieboldii in the lower meadow copse were delightful additions to the spring scene…

Rhododendrons, Camelias and Clematis montana  had a great year too…

Then before we knew it, the heat and drought impacted much of our efforts through midsummer – no water to spare for plants, since our supply reduced to a trickle for many weeks, but fortunately held out, (a minute’s worth of inflow below), though this meant bumper crops of apricots and apples later in the autumn …

Roses thrived, and set more hips than ever before, then as autumn moved on, Asters were better than ever, as were our terrace drifts and waves of Persicaria vaccinifolia…Then autumn colours, Cyclamen blooms and sadly a swift end to the year, as hard frosts in late October, brought most things including our favourite Saxigfrage fortunei, to an abrupt end…

I wondered when I started this website and blog how long I’d have the enthusiasm to keep going.

This review of 2018 illustrates that I simply don’t seem to tire of seeing new things, or assessing how the garden is evolving and maturing. 2019 will, I’m sure, bring new delights. My real challenge is creating the time, and having the mental clarity, to devote to recording it as accurately as I would like!

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For much of the last 2 weeks we have been under the weather. Or the cloud. A brief and glorious day on December 22nd saw a spell of warm sunshine which warmed the bee hive, and brought many of its occupants rushing outside for fresh air and to stretch wings and legs. Then the grey returned.

The weather men had accurately forecast this anticyclone, but whereas the forecasts showed dry days, in fact most days we’ve had a mm or so of drizzle. So high pressure perhaps, but the opposite of a depression? Not really.

I yearn for more properly wintry weather. Frosts, even snow. Sharp clear blue skies. Sun rising over the Carmarthenshire Fans. But in spite of hints of another ” Beast from the East” later this winter, much depends not only on the position of the jet stream, and the Polar Vortex, but also, and thanks to the Met Office blog for this, The Madden Julian Oscillation. Click here for more detailed explanation as to how rainfall over the Indian Ocean can impact on our wintry weather.  

With strange synchronicity this gloomy weather coincided with more than the usual run of bad news with annual Christmas card exchanges, and then a clutch of books given to me – a time poor, almost non reader most of the time. With the 2 days of Christmas clear before our son’s family with 5 grandchildren and Fiona’s mother arrived for stays with us, I picked up the one with the most appealing cover, and indeed shorter page count and began to read. “The Light In The Dark – A Winter Journal”

Through Christmas day evening I’d passed the halfway mark in Horatio Clare’s diary of last year’s winter. Written from his perspective as a sufferer from SAD ( Seasonal Affected Disorder), though I loved his style, the images and thoughts were quite gloomy fare. Boxing day saw him moving beyond gloomy into downright depressive writing. I persevered, before tackling “When Breath Becomes Air”, the very moving biographical book written by the young American neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, in which he charts his early life and path into medicine and then surgery, before the devastating news of a diagnosis of advanced aggressive lung cancer hits him and his young wife, in his mid thirties.

Both books are well worth reading, though my suggestion is both would be better tackled at sunnier times of the year. We still have a way to go before the curse of winter blues leaves us all for another year.

Yet was it the arrival of guests?

And colour.

And noise.

And frenetic activity, which cleared the air?

Or the mild weather allowing a trip to Penbryn beach and an outside lunch on New Year’s Eve at The Plwmp tart with Fiona’s mother?

Or indeed the discovery of a new piece of music courtesy of the excellent programme “Soul music”. In my closeted youth I was never a Pink Floyd fan, but how had I never heard the almost symphonic sweep of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”? If you’ve never heard it, or indeed enjoy it, have a look at this brilliant evocative, though lengthy You Tube, and lose yourself in its images and scenery from the North of Scotland…

…Or hear the background to how and why the song was composed – in memory of former band member Syd Barrett, who was lost from the band due to mental illness. Click here. Or indeed has the snowdrop emergence helped lift my spirits, which, whatever the weather throws at them, are programmed to force through the still cold, or even frozen earth and greet the skies above, whatever their hue.

At some point over this moody period, I discovered that after looking at my blog image screen and scrolling up and down, my eyes created oscillating, moving, broad, banded images. White on black, which shimmered up, then down, with decreasing amplitude over about 4 cycles.

Eventually I concluded that in part this was because since ” upgrading ” earlier in the year to a larger screen All in One computer, my head is moving constantly up and down whilst typing or working at the computer in a range perhaps larger than it was with the previous set up. Or maybe I’m just getting older. In any event the effect was very disconcerting, and possibly implicated in slight vertigo type symptoms of vague instability having surfaced again of late.

So what to do? A conscious decision to try to move just my eyes but not my head as much to avoid the nodding head syndrome. It seems my brain has probably been bobbing around like a back window toy dog in a car, and my organ’s of balance have been struggling to assimilate impulses from this repetitive movement with the images the eyes are taking in, heightened by the sharp contrast between black background and white text.

I’m also going to play around with a changed appearance for the blog – to experiment with different background colours, and text. So this will be the first post where I’ll try this out – it would be interesting to hear what any of my readers feel about this. Though so far I haven’t found how to change the actual main background colour, just that of the edge of the post.

If at first you don’t succeed, call in a WordPress Happiness engineer, who’s on the case, this evening…

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Finally after an all too long post, I’ll flag up that we’re again one of the very few private gardens in Wales which are opening this year for the National Garden Scheme Snowdrop Festival. (NGS). Do please look at our separate “Visiting the Garden” page for more information on coming to Gelli Uchaf to see the snowdrops (click here) – you need to book a visit, since we have very limited parking.

In some ways it’s a crazy thing to do – the weather can play havoc with such an event in late winter, yet it seems to me to be that the best way to appreciate the delights of snowdrops and other very early spring garden flowers is to actually see them in situ in an informal garden setting.

Which is what we’ve tried to do here. This year the season has begun early again so as I write there are over 110 snowdrop varieties with flowers “out”, using my definition of the flower emerged and horizontal, or below, its protective spathe. However the vast majority of flowers in the ground do still have to emerge, and there will be lots more flowering than last year. You can also look at my separate pages on snowdrops at Gelli Uchaf to see some of the varieties. Click here.

In previous years our visitors seem to have enjoyed our open days, even in the wet and cold!

We can revive visitors with hot drinks and cakes, and hope to have about 40 different snowdrops for sale, (none at silly prices since we don’t grow any of those), at our opening weekend.We’re only opening this year for one weekend on February 23rd and February 24th by fixed time appointments. So if you’d like to visit us, drop us an email, or phone.

We also plan to hold occasional pop up openings through the year, if the garden’s looking good and the weather forecast is benign, so look out for any posts advertising these.

Finally if you can muster a group of more than 10 visitors, you might be able to twist our arms to open the garden specially for you at other times of the year.

We love this place throughout the seasons, and there’s usually something of interest to see – for now it’s wonderful to be able to share the magic with guests and through these pages.

Here’s to what the New Year brings – locally, nationally, and around the globe. Maybe we’ll all feel like this ewe at sunset this evening.

Inspired by the colours.

In the pink.

Or simply jumping?

Prancing vertically, a silhouetted ovine Lipizzaner.

Not once, or twice, but 3 times…

For joy?

21 thoughts on “Looking Back; High Pressure and Maddening Julian Oscillations; NGS Snowdrop Festival 2019

  1. What a fantastic record of your year. I like the new colour scheme which I find easier to read but the comment box text is illegible so I apologise for any typos in this comment. I was interested in your light findings because I have felt that the last two years have been darker than previous years but maybe I am just plain wrong about that.

    • Hello TP,
      Thanks for that. Glad you like the new colour scheme – I now wish I’d done it years ago , and thanks for the advice re the comments box, which I hadn’t picked up on. I’ve spent the evening with different WP helpers probably from around the world gradually sorting out these glitches – hopefully it’ll get resolved soon!
      Re the light issue, the previous 2 years to 2018 here definitely were dimmer than usual – but our climate is so variable – even just round here, it’s quite probable your light levels have been as you surmise – and not like ours. But the PV readout is a fascinating insight into this.
      Best wishes
      Julian

  2. That is a lot of snowdrops! and crocus! and primula . . . . . and that is way to many pictures to process! Those cyclamen are something that I have not even tried yet; but I intend to. I grew the common cyclamen when I was a kid. It annoys me that they are grown as annuals, and then discarded when out of season.

    • Hello Tony,
      Happy New Year, and thanks for the comment. Winter flowering bulbs save my sanity in the short grey days – you can’t have too many in my opinion! But it takes time. And a bit of effort… lifting and splitting snowdrops, and with the Cyclamen coum, which are such gems – I only started with them about 8 years ago – the key here is for me to hand pollinate – we just don’t have any bumblebees out at that time of the year, and honeybees don’t visit them ( yet?), so its the only way to get seed set. Once that happens they begin to carpet the ground 🙂
      I agree though about chucking plants like this away when they could happily survive for years or decades even.
      Best wishes
      Julian

      • Oh my! So the Cyclamen spread by seed if pollinated?! I did not expect that. My common cyclamen survive as perennials, but do not spread. I like them, but would prefer if their colors were less flashily obtrusive. Cyclamen coum looks more wild. I do not know if they would like our mild winters. If they do, there are plenty of insect who are active in winter, and some might be interested in pollinating. I will not know until I try; and I do not intend to do that until I have the right situation for them.

      • Thanks Tony…well worth giving them a try I reckon. Here there’s only 1 sort of bumblebee which visits the C. hederifolium flowers in autumn – there are other bumbles, but none go to the flowers, Once the seed are formed, the ants seem to distribute them short distances.

      • Now I am wondering if they spread vegetatively as I thought they did. If they do not, and they do not develop seed, then they will not get far. Well, it will not stop me from trying them when I get a situation for them.

      • Well, like I said, I intend to try them someday anyway. If they do well, I could get more. They look like something that would fit in with the redwood forest, even though they are not native. We have a native wild ginger (which is not really a ginger) that provides nice foliage with those weird cyclamen leaves, but no prominent bloom.

      • The first time I ever saw Cyclamen en masse was decades ago, growing right at the foot of a huge cedar of Lebanon tree, against the trunk even. I was so impressed that any plant could grow in this sort of location – so I guess they’d cope well with Redwoods too?
        The “wild ginger” sounds interesting
        Julian

      • Actually, I know nothing about their natural habitat, so it is interesting to know that they are understory plants to cedar of Lebanon. Redwood forests are more damp than cedar forests (I believe), but the herbicidal effect of the foliar litter of the cedars is likely comparable to that of the redwoods.
        Wild ginger is not as interesting, and lacks the silvery foliar patterns of the cyclamen foliage, but happens to do so well under redwoods that is is difficult to argue with. For simple dark green, it works fabulously. However, in some spots, the silvery foliage would be appealing. I am no fan of variegation, but it is pretty in dark forested situations.

  3. Fantastic blog and stunning photographs, thank you for sharing. Hope to come to see those beautiful snowdrops again in February.

  4. Brilliant photos,as usual, and such a splendid idea to look back on such an interesting and fascinating year! Goodness knows what will happen in 2019 but your garden can ensure that we have some amazing photos to look forward to and some wonderful commentaries to read and enjoy. (The Post took some time to download and then crashed…but that’s our internet connection Ithink and not your post!) Happy New Year to you both.

    • Thanks Marianne – in the end I think I had 5 different WP chaps/lasses working on CSS code to change the appearance of the post all yesterday evening, and in the end they sorted it just before bed. They may even have been in different parts of the world, for all I know. I’ve never ventured into the CSS pages before, but it was all quite straightforward. Hopefully it’ll load a bit faster from now on??
      Best wishes
      Julian
      PS. Maybe see you at one of the NBGW talks?

      • I think you are very brave to change your post appearance! It’s been well worth it though. One day I’ll get to those talks they always seem to fall on an already busy day!

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