In winter, we inhabit the allotment at a different pace to other seasons. It’s a good time to look at shape and structure, reflect on how the plot functions, repair and replace where necessary, and sort out any maintenance we’ve neglected during the summer months when our attention is focused elsewhere. The site will have regular supplies of wood chip between now and March, as trees and hedges are pruned and chipped, so the paths on our plot will have a good thick layer that should last through to autumn. Moving worm bins; a recycled wheelie bin with a tap fitted is one of our current tasks to replace the smaller bins that are scattered across the plot.
Between the rain and the gales, this winter feels like an extended autumn that will turn into spring before we’ve experienced cold. We’re at the beginning of February, and it’s definitely not been a cold enough winter. We need a cold winter; the apple trees need 1000-1400 hours at 7oC or lower to enable them to overcome bud dormancy; so with garlic, which needs at least 30 days at temperatures at 10oC or lower to persuade the cloves to split, then swell. The lack of cold has also made timing winter pruning difficult; apples need pruning while they’re dormant, but the higher temperatures have reduced the usual seasonal routines to emergency guesswork.
The allotment hasn’t reverted to its usual winter monochrome; the small red rambler by the shed has held tenaciously onto its leaves, refusing to revert to winter leaflessness; the strawberry plants have sat in a state of permanent anxiety, sickly blossom intermittently emerging in response to a rise in temperature or a dose of weak sunshine. The Kales are also looking sickly, due to mild temperatures that haven’t allowed them to rest, while their resident bugs have just continued bothering them. The white fly momentarily succumbed to the hard frosts that descended in mid January; we all breathed a momentary sigh of relief: real winter, the pests would at last be frozen out! No – this didn’t last long enough. The Irises we re-planted had their flags pruned against the wind and now new shoots are beginning to show. The elephant garlic is growing vigorously and there are signs of the other garlic beginning to sprout. We planted crocuses late, three weeks ago, and already they’re starting to push through. The poached egg plants are thriving, yet, being annuals, the cold should have killed them off.
With this intermingling of seasons, the plants we welcome for their flowers in winter: jasmine, cyclamens, hellebores, are reminders of what ‘should’ be happening, but also disturbing harbingers of a spring about to emerge from an interminable autumn restlessness. The seasonal rhythms are out of synch and everything feels discordant. This coming year is going to see exhausted perennials in need of extra care, feeding and vigilance.