The weather turned colder at the very end of February, with a hard frost that made the lovely Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ flowers brown and soggy.
This was followed by falls of snow in the first week of March (the roar of the lion?), although it didn’t lie for long. The cold was followed by the sort of rainfall we hadn’t seen in the previous month, raining solidly, it seemed, through the second week of March.
The weather, however, couldn’t stop the march of spring, with each day a different Camellia opening its first flower. By the middle of the month a number of them were blooming, some strongly so, others with just one or two flowers: ‘St Ewe’, ‘J C Williams’, ‘Roger Hall’, Anticipation’, ‘Freedom Bell’, ‘Cornish Spring’, ‘Elegant Beauty’, ‘Donation, ‘Francie L’ and an unknown japonica with semi-double white flowers. In our climate in West Wales, I find the hybrids (mostly x williamsii) grow more strongly and are more floriferous than the japonica varieties. In all cases, it seems to take a while before they hit their stride and start flowering strongly once planted in the ground.
By the third week of the month, the furry casing was starting to fall from some of the Magnolia buds. The first Magnolia into flower is always what I bought as M. sargentiana var. robusta alba – although it patently isn’t ‘alba’, with magenta buds which open to large, floppy flowers of a palish, almost lilac pink; I think from the shape of the tree and flowers that it definitely has M. sargentiana var. robusta in its parentage.
As you can tell, I didn’t buy it in flower, and it must have been a seedling, which I hadn’t thought to check. I am fond of it because it is so early, but because of that it is liable to be frosted, and in any case the flowers only last about 10 days or so. The grey squirrels have a habit of tearing off some of the buds, including this one (as they also do with rhododendrons and camellias), which makes me very cross.
The milder weather in the second half of the month encouraged Rhododendron calophytum into tentatively bursting its buds, and Rh ‘Christmas Cheer’ resumed flowering.
I sometimes think that we went overboard when we planted as many bamboos as we have; however birds definitely seem to appreciate the shelter they provide. The pair of goldcrests which are back in the garden like them, and a song thrush is building a nest in Phyllostachys nigra.
The first chiff-chaff was heard in the garden on 21 March (hurrah!), and lambs are now bleating from the fields around – will the month finish on that note (‘in like a lion, out like a lamb’)?
February was a relatively mild month, and it was reported for at least part of the UK as the driest in 30 years. Certainly our unlined pond just had a puddle of water in the bottom and the ground was far drier than usual. By now you can really feel the difference in the amount of daylight, and the bird song is increasing, with song thrushes, blackbirds, great tits and robins particularly audible.
One of the more subtle delights of the month is Parrotia persica ‘Vanessa’, a relative of the witch hazels, and making up to a certain extent for my seeming inability to grow the latter here. I have had a number over the years, but have never managed to keep them more than about five or six years. P. ‘Vanessa’ has a very neat habit, and like all of its family has fabulous autumn colour, although the leaves do fall early.
By the second week of February the frogs were busy in the garden pond, and the first frogspawn appeared on the 10th. The early snowdrops were in full flower, and another sign of spring was the first of the daffodils on the 12th. Early perennial shoots poke through the soil, as do the leaves of the wild garlic.
Every year Betula ermanii is the first tree into leaf towards the end of the month – usually to its own detriment, as the leaves are very often frosted – so fingers crossed for this year. The relative mildness of the second half of the month has encouraged other plants, and some of the camellias in particular now have flower buds on the cusp of opening. It has also brought out honey bees and the odd buff-tailed bumble bee visiting the snowdrops, daphnes and camellias.
January this year opened on a decidedly dull and wet note, as indeed December had ended. This lasted until mid-January, when we had a second, for this winter, cold and frosty spell. The first had been in mid-December, when temperatures had dropped overnight to -10oC, and stayed below freezing all day for several consecutive days. The January temperatures were not as low or as extended, but still reached minus -6oC.
Those low temperatures, particularly in December, have been damaging for some plants. The jury is still out on ultimate survival, but very badly damaged plants include: Borinda papyrifera (pictured on the left, with very fine grey-green stems, the most impressive bamboo in the garden by far); Rhododendron sinogrande, Eucalyptus (probably globulus) and Drimys winteri. I’m keeping my fingers crossed – I would hate to lose any of them. Many of the other evergreens have dropped a lot of leaves – other large-leaves rhododendrons, some camellias, and the Daphne bholua.
Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ had indeed opened its first bud on 25 December, buds continued opening very slowly through January – but any open flowers were caught by the frosts in the middle of the month.
Camellia ‘St Ewe’ is always the first Camellia to have flowers here (this year its first flower opened on 13 January). It is such good value – it will continue flowering right through to April, although its peak is March, and of all the camellias that I have, its flowers are probably the least damaged by frost.
A pair of gold crests frequented the garden throughout January, but I haven’t seen them since. The early snowdrops and hellebores also lifted the spirits in one of the darkest months.