The start of the growing season or false start as the case may be has been a strange one indeed with many flowers emerging well in advance of their normal flowering period. This of course is thanks to a particularly mild January and winter in general until of course the arrival of this cold snap which is currently blanketing parts of the country in fluffy white snow.
Not many people know that I have a background in climate change research more specifically a field called Phenology which is the study of the timing of recurring biological events such as budburst in trees and migration in birds. Think of Springwatch on the BBC or some of you may be familiar with Natures Calendar run by the Woodland Trust and that’s pretty much what we did in an Irish context. These all monitor the timing of the seasons and these data collected over a long period of time can be used to establish what influence climate change is having on the growing season.
Although the early onset of the growing season has been unusual in a normal time of year way it cannot be wholly attributed to climate change as it would have to repeat itself for a number of years before we could categorically say that was the cause. However, this January I have seen trees burst their buds and shrubs come into flower months in advance of their normal flowering period. In this past week alone I have seen cosmos, rosemary, fuchsia, kerria and Ipheion all in flower and even earlier in the year I met Zantadeschia the Calla Lily and lavender in full flower, both much more comfortable drenched in the heat of the summer months.
So a few flowers have come out early, what’s the big deal you may ask? The act of flowering is a very natural event in the lifetime of a plant with the main aim of attracting pollinators whether they be insects like bees and butterflies or higher up the food chain like birds and animals. As insects generally emerge at the same time each year and birds migrate when they get the right environmental cues the timing of budburst or flower emergence typically coincides with their activity and the natural synchronicity of these interdependent species runs smoothly. However, when we have a particularly mild winter like we have just experienced, the trees and shrubs burst into life before the birds and bees have emerged. When there are not enough pollinators present to share the pollen amongst the plants it can result in poor pollination of edible crops but for the most part the plants can survive as they can continue to derive their nutrition from the soil, they just won’t put on as much fruit.
However, it’s a difference case for those that feed on them. If the insects or other invertebrates like worms and caterpillars have not yet emerged the fresh young growth that has burst earlier than normal becomes a bit woody and less palatable resulting in their demise which in turn means the birds have less to feed on when they return and their young are sitting in the nest. This phenomenon is known as phenological mismatch and can be a serious threat to the wildlife population.
In a gardening sense, early flowering and harsh frosts can result in the blossoms being damaged which in turn results in distorted fruit. That in itself is not necessarily an issue as so-called ‘Ugly fruit’ is still as nutritious as its picture-perfect cousin but it may not store very well so its shelf life can be diminished. What can we do as gardeners to protect our plant collections from these challenging conditions? Fleece is great, particularly for fruit trees like plums which tend to flower that bit earlier than apples and pears for example. The fleece will help to create a micro-climate so the buds are not damaged. It’s like wrapping your tree in a warm blanket until it’s time to wake up. Another thing to be mindful of in the garden is the soil and how to protect it – not from the elements but from yourself! Don’t be tempted to work the soil or even walk on it when it’s frozen as it can intrinsically damage the structure therefore rendering it sub-par for plant growth.
All of these events are important to record so if you would like to get involved check out the National Biodiversity Data Centre www.biodiversityireland.ie if you would like to contribute to their body of knowledge.
Looking forward to the spring season and getting things growing again!
As Always, Happy Gardening Everyone!