So far, April was indeed the cruellest month. A touch of frost had been forecast for the 2nd day of the month and I thought it wise to cover all rhododendron blossoms which, without exception are frost-tender. But when I headed for the garden, armed with a wad of tablecloths under my arm, it was too late already. Each and every flower was frozen to a crisp. My rhododendrons’ brief début was also their swan song.
This wasn’t the zero or minus one forecast, this was something far colder altogether. If only weather forecasts were more reliable.
I still remember my parents’ whispered conversations, concerned facial expression, and hasty activity, whenever a late frost threatened. Newly planted and not quite hardy vegetable transplants could be found easy protection with the above-mentioned table cloth, in later years replaced by sheets of clear polythene, but little if anything could be done to spare the precocious peach, plum, or cherry blossom. There would be a meagre harvest or no harvest at all that year.
The mild winter had lured many ornamentals into early growth and flower. Several plants of Meconopsis betonicifolia ‘Gote Skogholm’ were in bud at the end of March, their stems elongating rapidly. Drumstick primulas had been in flower a good fortnight prior to their usual slot, and one of my favourite spring plants, Heloniopsis orientalis, the Japanese swamp pink, had decided to put on a late March, rather than a late April show, and paying dearly for their precocious behaviour. The flowers of my swamp pink trail limply over the wooden edging of their raised bed, Meconopsis leaves are blackened, the flower stems bent, which gives some hope of recovery, or kinked, which means they’re doomed.
It’s the same with those white, mauve and lavender drumsticks, some lying spread-eagled above foliage that looks well cooked. Bone-hardy bergenia foliage has taken on a glassy, transparent look, the flowers, pert the day before, limp and sprawling. Pieris ‘Debutante’ has changed from cream to a pale, and not altogether unpleasant, orange-caramel shade.
The young leaves of Ourisia macrocarpa have taken on unhealthy olive and brown tones, and there’s where once there was delightful rhodo blossom in white, pink and amethyst we also have various, but less pleasant brown and fawn. Pieris ‘Debutante’, turned from white to pale brown still looks respectable – from a distance.
Dicentra spectabilis is often above ground as early as January and has, during its three decades, never suffered as a consequence, taking snow and ice, even the odd blizzard in its stride. It looks a sad mess now. Where there were juicy, upright shoots, there are sharp angles – those kinked flower stems again. Definitely a first in my garden.
Unless there are more such set-backs, all my frost-bitten plants should make a full recovery. An outside thermometer has been placed on my “essentials” shopping list, and I suppose in future I’ll have to follow my parents’ example: mutter, take on a concerned facial expression and indulge in some hasty activity – such as covering my entire garden with a frost-proof membrane.
It’s freezing out there; a sharp north-westerly has brought a wintery chill to the garden – and my bones.