Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Preoccupations with ice and water

The days are getting longer, bulb shoots are popping up all over the place, but still I have been feeling uneasy.
Crocus 'Blue Pearl' emerging

Shadows on a Pearl Pot last week

What's wrong?
The sun has been shining, warming my back and casting crisp shadows on the pots but still I have cold shivers down my spine.

Spring has been galloping towards us, trailing flowers and green shoots, tempting honey bees to emerge and causing the birds to jostle for position and fly purposefully about with bits of twig in their beaks. The dunnocks have been chiming loudly and irritatingly in the hedge and the robin has been yelling above the noise of delivery vans going back and forth to the packing shed.

In spite of this something just was not right. Something was missing.
Our latest and loudest robin

Crunchy cure
Frost! Until last Thursday night we had not had a single hard frost, but then the skies cleared and cold air drifted over from Siberia. By Monday everything was frozen solid, the roads were slippery, there were chilblains on my toes, the end of my nose was as damp as a healthy dog's and I was wearing so many clothes it was hard to move at all. But I felt better.

Whichford looking cold but beautiful in the frost

My drive to work is always more picturesque than the average commute, but a sunny, frosty morning with a hint of mist is guaranteed to make me stop the car to take pictures. The photograph above shows the view as I come down into Whichford. You can see the distinctive pointed roof of the Octagon just below the two flying birds in the centre of the background.

Welcome to Whichford! Frost puts Puss-Puss in a good mood.
The cold seemed to make Puss-Puss extra friendly; it was impossible to focus my camera on him because he would not stop trotting towards me until he had had a really good stroking session. 

Clean cold
Winter isn't winter without a bit of frost; I think that as a gardener I feel soothed by it because the frost makes everything seem cleaner. In a way this is true, I have much less trouble from aphids and from fungal leaf spot on pansies if there have been a few good, hard frosts.

Monday morning: foliage and flowers slumped in despair

Pump up the volume
Hard frost makes plants seem to collapse, but on such a gorgeous, crisp day you can watch them pump up again as the sun gets round to them. As long as the frost isn't too sudden many hardy plants can survive it by pumping water out of their cells and into the spaces between the cells. Thus the cells are less turgid (leading to wilting of soft stems and leaves), their contents now have a higher concentration of sugars and solutes and are less susceptible to freezing and rupturing. When the temperatures rise again the water can re-enter the cells by osmosis.
I hope that is a satisfactory explanation - I am open to correction/clarification by people who really know their scientific onions... With all that delicate cellular hydraulic action it makes sense to keep your hands off the plants when temperatures are plunging.

Monday afternoon: all is perkiness again as the temperature rises a few degrees
Forget puritanical plainness!
I also love the way the frost shows off the decorative detail of the pots. For my own garden I always used to select quite plain pots, partly because if I'm honest I have the remnants of an instinctive mistrust of ornamentation (I think this is a rather English trait), and partly because plain pots are cheaper. Nowadays, however, I know that even a little ornament can be hugely valuable, especially in the dead of winter; I particularly like these vine pots, and the basket pots are a classic which combines well with anything.

Frosty Vine Pots and Basket Pots in the stockyard at Whichford Pottery

Even without plant-based visual entertainment the sparkle added by frost to the detail of an empty Sassanian Jar makes a proper bit of winter worth while.

Frost sparkles on the shoulder of a Whichford Sassanian Jar

Iris 'Halkis'
Stop Press! You may need to water your bulbs. For us this has been a very dry winter, and I have already had to water some of the pots  a couple of times, especially during windy weather and if the pots are close to buildings. If you have planted bulbs, particularly narcissi and tulips, in your pots please make sure that, when they are not frozen, you check to see that they are not too dry. Our bulb expert from Holland, RenĂ©, reminded me recently to remind everyone to water their bulbs. I have done this on Twitter and I'm saying it again here because lack of water in Jan/Feb can cause your bulbs to abort their flowers.
So when the compost has defrosted please stick a finger right into your pots and if it doesn't feel nice and damp then get your watering can out. If your pots are from Whichford the drainage will be good and you don't need to be afraid of giving the plants too much water.

I must admit that I am aching for flowers, and I was delighted to see a lone Iris 'Halkis', a brave little pioneer which opened over the weekend - there is so much more to come!

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