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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 December 2010 by John Richards

December freeze-up and thaw, Northumberland Diary 169.

Its a fortnight since I wrote, amazingly, so I thought I would continue the record concerning this exceptional winter. At the time of the last contribution on November 28th, most of the snow had fallen and we were in the grips of a severe frost. The snow continued to fall for some days after that, although not perhaps in such vast quantities. I had to go out after breakfast for nine consecutive days to knock fresh snow off evergreen shrubs. In the end, the level snowfall amounted to about 30 cm here. In fact we got off lightly. Further north in the county they recorded more than a metre of level snow, and even more around Rothbury. Poor old Rothbury, what a year THEY have had! Not to mention west Cumberland, which has suffered disaster after disaster.

Knocking the snow off every day was hard work, but now we have had a thaw the benefits are plain to see. We have suffered no major structural damage, although the foliage appears to be dead on some evergreens that were too tall to be covered by snow, notably an Azara, Daphne bholua (which may just prove to be deciduous this year) and our biggest Pittosporum tenuifolium; possibly some of our Desfontainea too; we will see. It is interesting to see that most of a smaller pittosporum that was under the snow has survived; only the bit that was exposed is damaged. So, to knock snow off or not? Well, it depends how hardy and vulnerable. In general, anything that is above the snow-lie should have the snow knocked off if it is danger of breaking.

This came home to us strongly when we visited the Moorbank Botanic Garden in Newcastle last Friday for the first time for three weeks. In the absence of anyone there (it was badly snowed in), many evergreens had suffered serious damage, including a vast 60 y old Arbutus unedo 'Rubra'. Six of us spent a whole morning removing its remains. Interestingly, it was rotten at the core, so it might have died in the next few years anyway.

The next photo shows this garden at the height of the snowfall, last Tuesday (December 7th).


Yes, those are troughs under the humps in the foreground! It is interesting that most conifers seem immune to the effects of snow. I guess they are adapted to deal with it most winters in nature. The exception are (selected variants or genetic aberrants) columnar and spire-shaped conifers, which have a tendency to be 'opened up' by heavy snow. For those, it is important to knock snow off early.

Here is the yellow Pinus mugo under heavy snow. It has since emerged quite unscathed.

Well, since then of course, we have enjoyed a considerable thaw. This started on Thursday, December 9th, so the snow and freeze had lasted 17 days. By Friday, the temperature had risen to the dizzy heights of 8C, and so it continued on Saturday. Much of the snow has now disappeared, although as ever it lingers in this cold north-facing garden which receives no direct sunshine at this time of year. However, it did drop to zero last night,and it is only 3C as I write, mid-morning. I am delighted to report that the plunges have thawed in both the alpine houses, and most of the alpines in pots, plunged under glass, appear unscathed. And so they should be if they are proper alpines! However the plunge was frozen for only two weeks, not nine weeks as happened last year!

I was more concerned for about 30 pots, mostly asiatic primulas, which had been sat on the alpine house floor, unplunged, and were in danger of freezing solid. After a week they were taken intothe conservatory where they quickly thawed out. Although many are dormant, some are evergreen, and I have been careful to spray them in what is a relatively dry, if cold, atmosphere.

I am presently in a quandry as to whether these pots should now be moved back in the alpine house. It is forecast to get much colder towards the end of next week, possibly with more heavy snow. Whether we will get south to see our family at Christmas now seems a real question.

I expect the icicles will return! On this occasion our guttering has remained intact, which has by no means been true for everyone round here.

During the worst of the weather we had to do all our shopping on foot, as the lane down to our gate became a sheet of ice. This caused most people to park on the road at the top, reducing it to a single file and causing major hold-ups!

I thought you might enjoy a couple of photographs of Hexham in a proper winter. Here is the Sele, our public park in the centre of the town, in the reign of the Snow Queen and before Aslan came to loosen her icy grip!

It took two weeks for the river to freeze, probably because it was still quite warm when the snow arrived. Here it is last Tuesday, with just a few holes left in the ice.

Photovoltaic panels are not much use hidden under a impressive snow cornice!

'And what will the Robin do then, poor thing?'.  I don't know, but if you are a nuthatch, the obvious answer is, eat nuts!

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