Where’s The Chill?

Winter in the UK has been very mild and very, very wet this year. According to the BBC and the Met Office:

Long-standing weather records have been smashed by a stormy, yet warm December, the Met Office’s early figures suggest.

Scotland, Wales and the north-west of England all had the wettest December in more than a century.

A UK mean temperature of 8C (46F) broke records too and would have felt more like a day in April or May.

This has caused a bit of consternation in the gardening world, with everyone remarking on how early the daffodils are coming up and wondering what will happen when the weather reverts to the miserable mean.

For growers of fruit, I think there are two possible issues:

  1. If the mild winter continues, will plants get enough chilling hours before Spring?
  2. Will plants make an early start on growing/flowering and be set back by a sudden cold snap?

To me, (1) is more interesting since sudden cold snaps are nothing new to British gardeners.

So what counts as a chilling hour, and how many do plants need? Many temperate fruiting plants expect a certain number of cold hours before spring in order to properly complete the cycle of dormancy then waking up when temperatures start to rise again. If they don’t get enough hours of cold temperatures then they wake up cranky and don’t do as well as they should do. The temperature they’re expecting? The boundary is a bit fuzzy, but is well below 10 celsius (Wikipedia suggests 7C).

The number of hours needed varies by species. Below I’ve sorted some common UK species from highest to lowest requirement:

[table “2” not found /]

These values come from the US supplier Raintree Nursery. The numbers are inexact and vary a lot by variety, so other sites may give sightly different values. But all sites should agree on a general ranking, with the ribes and apples perhaps needing more cold, and mediterranean fruit being less demanding.

The BBC actually hunted down a farmer growing blackcurrants for Ribena and mentioned this issue:

But it’s not good news for all crops. Herefordshire blackcurrant farmer Jo Hilditch, who sells to Ribena, says her fruit is missing out on vital time it needs to chill.

The crop has only had 192 hours of chill time – but one variety needs 1,400 hours and another 2,200.

So… if the mild winter continues and your blackcurrant yields are low in the coming year, chilling hours could well be why. If this is a sign of the future under climate change, could this be the end of UK produced Ribena? Or will ice melt shut down the gulf stream and give us Siberian winters to go with the hotter summers?

Dig Up Now, Regret Later

Yesterday afternoon was the first chance I’d had in a while to do some tidying up outside in the garden, and I had three major tasks on my list:

  1. Prepare the sites for the two new fruit trees arriving next week
  2. Feed and mulch our Concorde pear, which I think is suffering from stress due to the light, well-drained soil where it’s planted (I’ve now sworn off Quince as a rootstock for pears since it doesn’t cope well with adversity)
  3. Replace wooden posts supporting various with heavy duty metal

Unfortunately, two of them re-taught me that gardening requires patience, or at least to wait a day before deciding and acting.

The first lesson came while digging the hole for the new pear tree. The site is surrounded by the hawthorn hedge, a boundary fence with another neighbour, and a path, and I’ve been agonising for a while about the best placement. The tree needs to not overhang the boundaries, to not suffer from too much competition from the hawthorn, and to not block the path. So I picked a spot, started digging… and then adjusted my decision, widened the hole a bit more, changed my mind again,… and dug a trench right across the corner. At least the soil is now definitely not compacted around the new tree!

The second lesson came when I took out the wooden posts supporting one of the blackberries. This particular one, variety Cacanska Bestrna, had been in a few years but hadn’t yielded very much compared to the Triple Crown planted at the same time, although it did grow new vines vigorously last year. So on impulse I decided to just tear the thing out and replace it with something else, since I already have 4m of Triple Crown elsewhere.

Except… in the light of a new day I’m questioning whether I really gave the Cacanska Bestrna enough of a chance. The fact it grew lots of nice vines this year probably means it might have actually fruited well in 2016, I was just being unfair comparing it to the very precocious Triple Crown. And of course, now I’ve cut it to pieces and torn the heart out of it below ground, any chance to see what happens is gone. Even if I could save it, it’d be another few years before it got back to where it was, and I don’t think it’s worth starting again.

So… in the garden, it definitely is do at haste, repent at leisure. Especially when spades are involved.

An Apothecary Garden

People who know me know I’ve become quite a keen gardener over the last few years. I mostly plant perennial and self-seeding fruit, herbs and other multi-purpose plants because:

  1. I want to get as much out for as little effort as possible
  2. Replanting a load of annuals every year is too much work, especially with a 1 year old toddling around
  3. I think established perennials are much better for the soil,  the wildlife and the planet than digging over half the garden repeatedly
  4. I like the traditional cottage garden look, where plants are established and then allowed to get on with it

However, one purpose I’ve been sadly neglecting so far is medicinal plants. I already have a few such plants, like Meadowsweet and St John’s Wort, but they’re definitely in the minority. This is mostly because I’m a bit worried about poisoning myself if I try to use them, but I’ve decided that such plants add diversity and historical interest even if I don’t use them to medicate people.

My starting point was the following book, picked up cheaply at The Works earlier in the year:


I started by filtering out anything that isn’t herbaceous or low-growing, and perennial or self-seeding. I then checked which are available at my favourite seed sites, namely Chiltern Seeds and the Agroforestry Research Trust. After all that, my list consisted of the following:

Latin NameCommon NameStatusNotes
Viola odorataSweet VioletGrowingFinally! I've been sowing for years with no success, until now
Cephalotaxus fortuneiPlum YewSownEdible nuts
Chaenomeles japonicaOriental QuinceSownI used a lot to make wine, so I saved the seeds and sowed them..
Pachyphragma macrophylla?GrowingGroundcover for shady locations
Asclepias tuberosaMilkweedSownMay be edible. Good butterfly plant.
Asclepias incarnataMilkweedGrowingMay be edible. Good butterfly plant.
Linaria vulgarisToadflaxSownMedicinal, dye, wildlife
Centaurea scabiosaGreater KnapweedSownMedicinal, wildlife
Sium sisarumSkirretSownEdible root, related to parsnips and carrots. Tastes nice and I like the large white umbels.
Artemisia dracunculoidesRussian TarragonSownHerb
Primula VerisCowslipSownAnother wildflower. I've found it hard to grow from seed in the past.
Verbena bonariensisVerbenaSownAttractive tall flowers.
Galega officinalisGoat's RueGrowingHerb, medicinal. I sowed in autumn to break dormancy but it started growing in early January.
Alliaria petiolataGarlic MustardIn packetFor a common weed, this is hard to grow. I've sown seed several times and never got anywhere.
Allium neapolitanumDaffodil GarlicIn packetA lot alliums are attractive and edible. They're a no-brainer.
Allium canadenseMeadow GarlicIn packetSee above. Considered an invasive weed by some.
Cardamine pratensisCuckoo FlowerIn packetEdible, attractive
Fragaria x ananassaStrawberrySownI always sow strawberries. They make a great ground-cover and you get something even after the birds and slugs are done.
Fragaria vescaWild strawberryIn packetSee above
Fragaria moschataMusk StrawberryIn packetI try every year or two, it seems much harder to germinate than fragaria vesca.
Malva moschataMusk MallowIn packetAnother plant that's hard to go wrong with. Attractive pink flowers, edible and mild leaves and flowers.
Malva sylvestrisCommon MallowIn packetSee above
Solidago canadensisCanadian GoldenrodIn packetEdible, ornamental
Verbascum thapsusCommon MulleinIn packetTea, flowers
Scorzonera hispanicaScorzoneraIn packetEdible root
Allium tuberosumGarlic ChivesIn packetNicer than normal chives, but seem to die out easier in my garden
Marrubium vulgareHorehoundIn packetSeasoning, tea, medicinal. Looks a lot like a nettle.
Agastache rugosaAnise HyssopIn packetLovely flavour, especially in you like anise. A perennial, but tends to die out in my garden quickly.
Agrostemma githagoCorn CockleIn packetWildflower
Anchusa officinalisAlkanetIn packetNice blue flowers. Not as invasive as its weedy name cousin.
Inula heleniumElecampaneIn packetMedicinal, ornamental, wildflower
Stachys officinalisWood BetonyIn packetAnother one that never seems to work out for me.
Lythrum salicariaPurple LoosestrifeIn packetMedicinal, ornamental
Rheum rhabarbarumRhubarbIn packetPeople say you shouldn't grow rhubarb from seed, but I've found it works out OK
Lavandula angustifoliaLavender 'Dwarf Munstead'In packetHerb
Centaurea cyanusCornflowerIn packetWildflower
Papaver rhoeasPoppyIn packetWildflower
Althaea roseaHollyhock 'Black Knight'In packetOrnamental
Knautia arvensisField ScabiousIn packetLast year I had luck with Devil's Bit Scabious seed, but Field Scabious didn't grow
Achillea millefoliumYarrowIn packetAttractive wild-flower, edible. Spreading. Edible but bitter.
Dipsacus fullonumTeaselIn packetWild-flower, popular with birds in the winter
Cichorium intybusChicory 'Rossa di Treviso'In packetEdible bitter leaves, dandelion relative

I don’t expect everything will be a success, but hopefully enough will grow to kick the garden diversity up a notch. Fingers crossed and wish me luck!

First post

Welcome to the first post of this blog! I was unexpectedly given a Raspberry Pi 2 for Christmas, so I thought I’d give it a bit of a test drive by setting up a home server. It’s a very impressive bit of kit… not exactly a gaming machine, but more than good enough to act as a home server.

It only took a few hours to get it hooked up, Raspbian installed, Apache + PHP + WordPress configured, change the router settings to forward on the right ports, and set up a duckdns account to forward the traffic to my dynamic IP address. The NOOBS setup tool is very cool and takes a lot of the pain out of the process. The only real delay was nipping out on Boxing Day to get a wireless USB keyboard…