Friday, 3 December 2010

Will greenhouses, polytunnels, fleece and bubblewrap save us?

Winter for me involves a lot of gambling with the lives of my tender and borderline hardy plants. This week at the pottery, we seem to be the only place in the UK which isn’t at least knee-deep in snow. 

Snowy Day at the Pottery
On Monday I was greeted by the ominous smell of mould and rotting leaves in the polytunnel, so I have a nasty feeling that when a thaw comes and I gingerly lift the fleece coverings I will find a lot of deads and nearly-deads. For the moment I have to leave it alone as going in and out of this unheated shelter and letting the giraffes in (as we say in our family) won’t help.

Still, I love my polytunnel. Two years ago the old ramshackle one that used to lean drunkenly against the greenhouse collapsed in the snow and I lost a lot of big plants. I campaigned hard for a new one and the fantastically versatile John and Dave (whose main task is transporting and packing our pots) put it up for me and it really does improve the odds. I’m hoping that at least my cordylines, and the three big Echium pininana which I grew from seed will survive.

My greenhouse is heated to a minimum of about 6C and on frozen days I can still be usefully employed in there. Winter hygiene is very important, so I try to pick over the greenhouse plants regularly, removing any dead leaves and odd flowers to reduce the number of mouldy bits lying around. At the same time I keep an eye out for pests.
Watering sheltered plants is kept to an absolute minimum in this weather and a plant will only receive a little water if it can prove to me that it is wilting because it is bone dry rather than because vine weevil or rot has attacked its roots. There is no point in watering plants that are frozen; the colder a plant is and the fewer leaves it has the less it is able to use the water that you give it and the more likely it is to rot.

Let’s face it - unprecedented weather is likely to kill some of our plants. Greenhouses, polytunnels, fleece and bubblewrap minimise the losses but there will still be a few corpses lying about when spring arrives. For gardening to be a pleasure and not a source of constant anxiety you need to be philosophical about the death toll: not many plants are irreplaceable and sometimes a lost plant is simply an opportunity for a little retail therapy.

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