Our garden is not designed for snow. In the fifteen years I’ve lived at The Watch House, I can only recall it snowing four times. The first occasion was during the build in 2008, when it snowed in April. This struck me as unusual. Perhaps it was a sign that I should choose my plants wisely? Like hell I would! The second time was some years later, before I’d been totally seduced by exotics. I recall trudging to the station to start a long journey to Birmingham, but nothing about the state of the garden. In 2018 The Beast from the East delivered a third ‘snow event’. Storm Emma was characterised by three weeks of biting winds and subzero temperatures, like nothing I’d experienced before. Freezing weather returned a few weeks later, seeing off any plant that might have been clinging on for dear life. Extensive damage was done, although most survivors recovered rapidly. Whilst I was devastated at the loss of treasured plants, my strongest recollection is the wind, battering the front of the house, finding ways through every door and window, coming down the chimney and up through the floorboards. Fast forward three years, and in February 2021, we are being subjected to a sequel – The Beast from the East II. Borne on the winds of Storm Darcy, freezing weather has continued throughout the week, getting progressively colder. As I write it’s -3ºC, and by midnight it will be -5ºC. In the majority of gardens this would be tolerable. In ours, it is not.
We are not alone in suffering the ill effects of cold weather this week. Indeed we may have come off rather lightly. On Wednesday in Braemar, Scotland, the UK’s coldest temperature since 1995 was recorded, the lowest February temperature since 1955: the temperature dipped to -23ºC. All across Northern Europe gardeners have been experiencing unusually cold, snowy weather coming from Russia and Scandinavia. It will only be good news for the nurserymen, who will enjoy a bumper spring once we start to replace our losses.
Our garden’s vulnerability is entirely my fault, since I have chosen to grow plants that are unaccustomed to cold and snow. Some tender plants shrug it off, many tolerate it, but a few absolutely can’t survive it. My signature plant, Geranium maderense, is in that last category. It will take a minuscule amount of freezing weather, provided it’s short and sharp. The leaves will go limp at the tips and the plant will never look lovely again, but it will go on to flower successfully. However, when the cold is prolonged and there’s snow freezing on to leaves and stems, the plant’s delicate tissue is damaged irreparably. In my experience, the plant will die slowly once temperatures rise, the rot setting in as the fragile cells defrost. There may be no Barbie-pink flowers this year, or next, but seedlings will appear in a matter of weeks and we’ll have fresh foliage by summer.
80% of our tender plants found shelter in the workshop, where they’ll huddle together in half-darkness until it’s safe to go outside again. A small oil-filled radiator keeps frost at bay, but that’s enough. Compared to almost every plant we left outside, those in the workshop remain in rude health. Of those that were literally frozen out, it will be educational to see what survives – at least that’s what I keep telling myself. Isoplexis sceptrum (sceptre foxglove), Correa ‘Marian’s Marvel’, Sparmannia africana ‘Flore Pleno’ (African hemp), Eriobotyra deflexa (bronze loquat), Lonicera hildebrandiana (giant Burmese honeysuckle) and Saurauria subspinosa (a Burmese tree without a common name that I am aware of) are all too large or too heavy to bring inside, so they had to take their chances. I don’t want to speak too soon, but they all appear to have survived thus far. Unfortunately Telanthophora grandiflora (giant groundsel) and Solanum laciniatum (kangaroo apple) look rather hopeless. New plants will be grown from seed if they die.
I was bereft following the first Beast from The East. I was convinced the garden would never be the same again ….. and it wasn’t: even now my troughs of Agapanthus africanus have not re-established themselves, and this current cold snap might spell the end for them. There were tough decisions made for me, ones I would never have made for myself. Spaces were opened up and new planting opportunities revealed. I learned what was hardy in my garden and what was not. I studied the subtle yet surprising difference in survival rates between plants in the Jungle Garden (facing east) and the Gin & Tonic Garden (facing west). The garden was horribly ugly for a couple of months, then spring bulbs emerged and the worst was forgotten. Nature abhors a vacuum: aided by my general enthusiasm for plant purchasing, her actions were only hastened.
The Beast may be back, but it will not prevail. Although I have not cared to look too closely at any plant, I am sanguine about the situation. When it’s cold and snowy for this long, nothing one does is going to make a whole heap of difference unless one has a heated greenhouse, which I do not. What’s more frustrating is not being able to get out. The condition of the roads and pavements means that even a walk to the allotment involves dicing with death. The very moment the thaw begins I will be out there, plotting and planning. The Beast from the East may have kept winter alive, but spring is waiting just around the corner. She will soon be strong enough to fill our gardens with new hope and bright flowers. TFG.