So it appears that pesky old jet stream is playing havoc with our weather again. Chilly nights, possible frosts and even the ‘s’ word has been mentioned for some parts of the country and yet it’s nearly the middle of May. I can empathise with the central character from the film Jean de Florette at the moment when he’s down on his knees looking up to the sky hoping that his prayers will be answered for the torrential, seemingly never-ending rain to stop. For me, and I’m sure all gardeners out there we’re hoping for some warmth to return.
My crab apple finally came into blossom last week, a whole five weeks later than last year. My dicentra, a plant that is normally one of the first herbaceous perennials to flower in late March is only just sending out its pendant-like blooms. But, more importantly, I have a serious blockage. Windowsills are now groaning under the volume of pots, the greenhouse is so full I can’t even stand in it and there’s no more space left in the cold frames. Plants should, at this point, be moving through – some going into the ground at the plot, some being hardened off and second batches being sown of others. The plants are growing at a pace in the more clement conditions of my greenhouse and home but knowing they will either sulk or die if planted out I’ve had to embark on some serious potting on. I would normally only pot on into 9cm pots and then once those had been filled it would be time to plant out. This year I’ve got plants in 1 litre pots and some in 2 litre pots. The logistics of it all are proving somewhat trying.
I’ve noticed recently on twitter the difference having a polytunnel seems to make. I read with envy the tweets about the crops that are already producing under cover and wonder whether climate change means that the only real way to grow in Britain in the future will be in polytunnels. I live in a part of the country where there has been quite considerable debate about the merits of covering vast swathes of land in plastic. There are parts of the Wye Valley and Herefordshire where field after field is under cover. Whether it’s to grow strawberries or asparagus, to produce early crops or simply to protect them from the weather, many argue they are a terrible blot on the landscape. The rolling hills and patchwork of fields are beautiful and it would be sad to see them swallowed up under polytunnels but the reality of what it must be like to earn your living from growing has really hit home since I took on my own allotment. For me it doesn’t matter if a crop fails. Don’t get me wrong it’s annoying, frustrating and disappointing but we won’t starve, I can simply pop along to the supermarket or farmers’ market and pick up something for dinner. But if your living depends on the crops you grow being a success then the British climate can be your downfall. And, how agriculture and horticulture deal with the weather should matter to us too if as consumers we want a ready supply of food. The idea that we could have another year like the last one makes me wonder how many businesses could cope and how many of us gardeners would lose the enthusiasm for growing our own.
Polytunnels, particularly when used on a large-scale bring their problems. Where does all that rainwater go that runs off the plastic? Some argue it causes flooding. Then there’s the glare created from sunlight, if we ever get any, bouncing off the plastic covering. There’s the manufacture of all that plastic, although a lot of it is now recycled once finished with. On the other hand growers say they use fewer fungicides and they have almost eliminated problems caused by wet weather on soft fruit crops. I know how many strawberries I lost last year to mould caused by too much rain. Whether you believe in man-made climate change or not it is hard to deny that our weather is becoming more unpredictable. In the nineties we were told a warmer climate would be of benefit to growers in the UK. We’d be basking in Mediterranean temperatures growing olives and all manner of exotics. It’s a complicated business predicting the weather let alone our future climate and so it seems those initial suggestions are fading away. Instead, the seasons are becoming quite muddled and when it rains it doesn’t seem to know when to stop. Parts of Wales had a month’s worth of rain yesterday. Growing under cover certainly seems to be one way of coping with whatever the weather may bring.
My small, unheated greenhouse even on a cold wet day feels quite warm, and protected from the wind and rain it’s no wonder my plants inside are growing quickly. The reality outside is somewhat different. Our growing season is short enough so at the moment I’m weighing up my options. Emigrating sounds appealing but for the time being unrealistic, putting up a walk-in polytunnel on my allotment is prohibited and getting a larger garden where I could erect said tunnel isn’t the cheapest of ideas. For the moment I think some cobbled together mini tunnels with the help of Wellyman this weekend is the only solution. Oh, and making an offering to the sun gods in the hope that Mother Nature will be kinder to us this year.