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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 28 November 2010 by John Richards

November freeze-up. Entry 168.

November freeze

Its less than a week since I last wrote, but what a difference a week makes! Because I imagine we shall be talking about this most exceptional event for years to come, I thought it was worth documenting it now. Also, the rest of the world will know what we are presently experiencing. However, I don't think we are alone in our wintry wonderland. Today I have heard reports of severe snowfalls in northern France, and the north-western USA, while I know that Scandinavia has been very cold for weeks. Apparently, it is all down to the most severe El Nina in the south-eastern Pacific for many years, since 1973 they are saying, so that the sea temperature off Ecuador is already 2C below what is expected now. This cooling is having a massive effect on the climate in many parts of the world, bringing welcome rain to the English batsmen suffering in Brisbane, and a potentially damaging drought to the mid-west of the USA.

Any way, what of us? It all started on Tuesday night. We started that evening convivially with friends, and got back home under a clear moonlit sky. So it was a huge surprise to wake up eight hours later to this, particularly as no snow had been forecast.

November freeze

It is worth noting that whereas a major freeze in November is exceptional nowadays, there has been a distinct tendency in recent years for there to be snowfall in early December. Going much further back, I can recall being stranded in the small village in north Northumberland from which my wife originates for two days on about November 12th, until the snowplough was about to get the one bus through to the south and freedom! This was before we were married in the mid-1960's, perhaps 1964, but it only goes to show that, historically, a November 'storm' as they call a blizzard here, is not exceptional.

What is shown above was just a taste of things to come. The real snow arrived on Thursday and it has been snowing off and on ever since. We had about 18 cm of level snow yesterday, and another 5 cm last night. It is very cold: to -8C on Friday night, -10C on Saturday, and as I write on Sunday morning, it is nearly midday and still -5C. I managed to bring quite a large number of pots that were sheltering under covers into the alpine house before the really cold temperatures started. Primulas hate to be frozen solid in pots; they are much happier if they are in troughs or the open ground. For the last three nights I have run a thermostat-controlled heater so that it doesn't get below about -1C. Cross fingers!

Here are the troughs under snow, followed by two views of the back and side of the house.

Bare trees look wonderful in fresh snow of course, particularly against a blue sky. Here is our Magnolia x soulangeana. The leaves only dropped last week!

In a black and white world, at times it seems as if almost the only colour comes from tree boles. All the more reason to treasure our Prunus serrula, planted about 19 years ago, almost as soon as we arrived here.

Another source of colour are those leaves that are yet to drop. Typically, the last to do so are Physocarpus opulifolius and Salix lanata. The woolly willow makes a fine picture outside the kitchen window.

This reminds me to say that apart from bringing in frozen pots, the most important task after a heavy snowfall is to get out early on the first morning with boots, hat and waterproof coat, and a broom, to knock the new snow off evergreens before they succumb to the combination of frost and heavy snow and split or break, or just lose their shape.

A good example of an important target for this treatment here is Mahonia 'Winter Sun', here pictured under its first  load of snow.



Jack Frost has also made his presence felt. Here, on the first morning after the heavy snowfall on Thursday night, is the back porch, with the pelargoniums quite untouched. They can put up with a lot of cold if kept dry.

The Seed List

I am really glad that I decided to make an early contribution today as it alerted me to the fact that the AGS seed list is now published on-line. You don't need to know this, because if you are reading this you know and have probably put your order in already. However, tell your friends!

Although this is the second year the list has appeared on-line, I confess to having chickened out last year when I had problems with my username, and I filled in the conventional list instead. This year I have filled in the list on-line and found it an extremely user-friendly experience. With all the various choices and quriks of the list, it can't have been easy to make it so trouble-free, and Jim deserves every plaudit.

It has always been difficult to pick out the correct number of first and second choices from such a huge list, and I have sometimes felt that one's choice was skewed by the position of an item in the list. This is at least equally true on-line, particularly as, instead of having the whole printed list in front of you, you are limited at any one time to a capital letter, or a genus. It will be interesting to see if the seed-list team detect any different types of bias, compared to those inevitable from the use of the printed list.  For instance, I could imagine that certain popular genera might become yet more popular, as people might go to those first when making their choices. And will popular genera early in the alphabet do better than those later? Androsace compared to Saxifraga for instance? Will Trillium suffer in comparison to Erythronium? I always thought that the genera very late in the alphabet prospered, as people struggled to fill in the last few spaces. But maybe that bias will disappear? One thing I am certain of, real Cinderellas will be even less likely to go to the Ball!

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