Winter Tasks and Signs of Hope

Back in the 1970s I lived for nine years in the Canadian city of Toronto. I spent most of summer excavating in England, but I used to return every autumn. When I returned, often in later October the first question I would ask was: ‘When is the weather going to turn?’ Even back then, before meteorological satellites had really made much of an impression, weather forecasters had become very good at predicting when the northerly air mass would swing south and winter would begin. And it was quite a dramatic process, leading to sharp drops in temperature which caused tree and shrub leaves to suddenly colour-up and then drop. I know of nowhere so spectacular as the maple and birch woodlands of Canada and New England in the Fall. They are a classic illustration of the predictability and sharpness of continental weather systems. Things are very different away from the great land-masses in places such as Britain, a medium-sized island, just off the European mainland, on the western edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. In these places, weather is much harder to predict with any certainty more than about five days in advance, even today, when satellite technology allows us to track the Jetstream and follow the weather systems below it.

British weather is very strange and no two seasons are ever quite the same. A year ago, the winter and early spring of 2019-20, was one of the wettest on record and gardening was very difficult. This year has been wet, too, but somehow it has felt even wetter. It has certainly been very much colder with snow lying for many days and frequent frosty nights. Last year there were a few ground frosts (caused by the radiation of heat out of the ground), but air frosts (where the actual air temperature drops below freezing) were very unusual. This year a succession of sharp air frosts will have had a very beneficial effect in the garden, because aphids and fungal diseases were starting to become a real problem, following a series of mild winters. For some reason, too, this winter and spring, water seems to have stayed longer on the surface. I don’t think I have ever seen so many mini-lakes and shallow ponds appear in fields of growing wheat and barley. When eventually they do drain they leave behind a great smear of mud. As an archaeologist I find such shallow surface water fascinating because it can reveal traces of much earlier ditches and hollows.

Our farm is located off a later medieval droveway which helped to mark and divide up the edge-of-parish grazing. Surface drainage of this land was aided by a series of parallel shallow ditches, which bounded strip fields known as dylings. Boundaries of these dylings lie beneath our house, garden and grazing fields. Many of them showed up in the recent wet weather, including this clear example which I photographed from upstairs.

The wet weather of late January revealed outlines of the ditches that bounded  medieval dylings, or strip fields, which still lie hidden beneath our house and farm. This example can be seen behind the small trees and shrubs in the foreground; it then runs across the paddock, towards the hawthorn bush near the large hedge that follows the line of the medieval droveway, at right-angles to the dyling.

Last winter we cut back half the rose hedge that runs alongside the driveway to the house and farmyard. This year the work was done by Jason  using a selection of power tools from his vast and comprehensive collection – I still don’t know how he manages to fit them all in his van, let alone how he keeps them in impeccable condition. He did the job rapidly and very well, but leaving the hawthorn, bramble and elder seedlings which I dug out the following day.

Jason cutting back the rose hedge that runs alongside the drive. Hawthorn seedlings have been left intact for me to remove the following day.

The main job I had for Jason and his assistant was much heavier work than strimming-off a rose hedge. On the other side of the drive on top of a low bank that skirts the garden pond on its western edge, we planted a row of white willows which we intended to pollard. We did this after about fifteen years of growth in, I think, 2010. I vaguely recall doing a second cutting-back in 2013 and I was planning to do another one in 2016 or ’17, but by then my hip was giving me trouble and climbing up a ladder with a chainsaw didn’t appeal – even slightly. So I tried to get a contractor, but was let down, twice. Then I had the hip-replacement operation and pollarding slipped even further down my list of top priorities. It wasn’t until large branches starting blowing down and blocking the drive – which happened twice in 2019 and 2020 – that I was reminded of the problem. But by then we’d discovered Jason – who arrived triumphantly to the rescue in late January, 2021. And here’s a view of him at work,

Jason pollarding grossly over-grown willows near the pond. Note the large shredder/chipper in the foreground and the huge heap it produced.

Before he arrived, Jason had told me about a new shredder/chipper he had just bought which was capable of munching-up very large side-branches. It produced about a ton of chippings, which we plan to spread along the bottom of the tall hornbeam hedges that bound most of the borders. This will act as a mulch in dry summers, but it will also suppress weeds and provide a firmer surface for Jason to stand on when he trims the hedges in later July. The next picture shows what the newly pollarded trees looked like from upstairs. I’m also pleased to report that just a week or so after they were pollarded, at least one of the trees is providing a nest site for a green woodpecker. Result!

The pollarded willows on a snowy morning in early February, 2021.

Every year has its surprises. After a cold and very wet start I honestly didn’t think that the snowdrop display would amount to much. I couldn’t see how any flower could be expected to thrive in such conditions, but I was wrong. Very wrong, as it turns out. I can’t recall a better show: they have been breath-taking. And they have flowered for so long. The first blooms appeared a little bit late, maybe three weeks after Christmas, but they were flowering vigorously by the end of January and have only just started to show signs of flagging as I write, in the last two days of February. And it hasn’t just been snowdrops; aconites have been in flower for about six weeks (far longer than normal) and just like the snowdrops, the hellebores have never looked better. Daffodils don’t normally like wet seasons, but this year there are flower buds on almost every clump and the early varieties were in bloom by mid-February. And to judge by the emerging shoots, the bluebells promise to be great, too. What a season!

So here are two views of the snowdrops in the wood. These are the unimproved ‘native’ species, Galanthus nivalis. I put ‘native’ in quotes, because I suspect they were probably introduced to Britain (along with daffodils??) in Roman times, or just before.

Two views of the snowdrop display in the wood. The willow logs from the newly-trimmed pollards mark-out the corners and junctions of paths. In a few weeks they will have weathered and will blend in better. Soon they will be covered in moss and will provide shelter and protection for wood mice and shrews.

And finally, the first signs of spring! I can hardly recall a year when hazel catkins emerged so slowly. In most years we have the very first ones appear around Christmas-time and they are usually finished by the end of January. This year they are still very evident and send up clouds of pollen when I shake them, in the last days of February. Everyone enjoys hazel catkins, but my personal favourites are the catkins of the common, native, alder, Alnus glutinosa. This season they were more-or-less on time in late February and they are looking great. I took this picture on the edge of the farmyard near the muckheap. I don’t apologise for the junk in the background. I sometimes think modern farmyards are far too neat and tidy, with concrete everywhere and no grotty corners where catkins can can be admired by sheltering rats, mice, hares and wrens.

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