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Emerging from a wet winter

The winter of 2024 felt like it was an unrelenting slug through mud. The rare days were there wasn’t rain were marked by grey days. Even the frosts were few and far between. It was a marked contrast to the winter of 2023 when we experienced sudden, deep penetrating frosts early in the winter.

What was the weather like?

According to the Met Office, we had the warmest February on record in England and Wales – with temperatures in the southern part of England more than 3ºC above the long-term average. It’s also been wetter and duller than average winter, with reservoirs refilling and ground level waters being high.

For each 1ºC of warming, our atmosphere can hold roughly 7% more moisture. Let’s not forget that we live on an island surrounded by water. As the winters warm, the skies above us can hold more water. So when we do get rain, there is likely to be more of it.

Now we are in May, and it’s time to assess how our gardens have responded to the weather.

How did our plants do?

As I always tell clients, plants don’t read labels: they respond to the weather cues around them whether that’s the vernalisation (a long word meaning being stimulated by frost), longer days or warmer ground temperatures.

Now, as we all know, each garden is different. And within our gardens there are any number of micro-climates, each with a different soil, aspect and drainage profile.

But there are some general themes I’ve noticed this winter, and comparing notes using my professional network of grubby handed green thumbed folk, I’ve concluded the following:

1.        The lack of bright clear skies reduced the speed of topgrowth on a lot of herbaceous plants. Lack of bright daylight equals a slower rate of photosynthesis. So some plants tended to be slow to get going and put on leafy growth. Rootgrowth, on the whole, seemed to be unaffected.

2.        It was a good winter to get bare rooted trees and shrubs planted, if you could avoid walking or using machinery on the soil.

3.        The winter wet has – in general terms – been good for those evergreen plants that have continued to grow throughout. Many geraniums have remained evergreen in the warm winter spell, and are bulking up considerably. In one of my gardens they are at risk of overwhelming a rose bed!

4.        Plants that formed flower buds in the relative cool and wet of last summer – like camellias – put on a spectacular display.

5.        Biennials again performed very well, with brilliant displays of lunaria annua (honesty) in hedgerows and gardens. Currently the foxgloves are looking superb. My pet theory is because biennials are so active in the shoulder months, they avoid the extremes of having to perform in the high summer months; and so are more resilient to the vagaries of the weather in high summer.

6.        Some absolute “stalwarts” of the drier, chalky cottage garden – like Achillea, Nepeta and Salvias – have suffered. As we know these plants like to be on very well drained soil. But even the most well-drained soil this year has had to cope with a large “throughput” of water from above. The groundwater table has also been higher, which has also contributed to additional moisture in the soil profile. These factors combined seem to have caused some salvias (particularly the nemarosa) and some nepetas to be more prone to failure through root rot. The slugs have also had a field day!

7.        Bulbs were a mixed bag, with tulips and daffodils suffering while Fritarillia and Camassia thriving. I know Camassia is supposed to like moisture, but I’ve also grown it with benign neglect in a pot for 3 years and it’s still going strong.

8.        Many winter garden stalwarts were spectacular. I’ve had nearly 6 months of continuous flowering from Hellebores. The Cornus seems to continue to cope with whatever amount of winter is flung at it. Ipheons have been flowering for months.

9. The warmer weather coaxed some plants to flower even earlier than usual. I spotted a Geum in full throttle on 18 March in Devon!

What does this tell us about our future gardening choices?

The long range predictions for the UK’s climate can be broadly summarised: as warmer and wetter winters; hotter and drier summers with sudden downpours in summer; and stronger wind events throughout.

It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun when put like that.

However, as ever, there are opportunities within the disappointments. I’m going to experiment with different cultivars of Nepeta (Walker’s Low seems to have outperformed 6 Hills Giant according to some) and the ptarmica forms of Achillea have done better than the straight genus. I’m going to double down on my use of Camassia as a joining plant between spring bulbs and the summer cottage palette. And maybe we can revive the skills of taking protective cuttings of plants that are particularly important to us.

It's also a great reminder that no garden year is ever the same. We are all constantly learning and responding alongside our plants.

If that all sounds like too much hard work, get in touch! I specialise in incorporating all this thinking about weather and climate into my design and advice work.

This is one of my designed borders this spring, looking in fine fettle.

How about you? What’s done well and what’s not done well in your garden?

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