It has been cold the last week, with frost on some mornings. Cold slows living processes. We, ourselves, are warm blooded but have to swaddle up on cold days and warm our houses in order to function properly. Birds are warm blooded too but really suffer in the cold. Their feathers insulate them but they have little bulk to hold in body heat. The best we can do is to keep our feeders full, as starving birds are more likely to be culled in cold weather.
Plants virtually stop with the cold. It’s like being put in the fridge. Their metabolism depends on enzymes which can be looked at as catalysts in the chemistry of life. Cold halts their actions. Daffodils are still around because decay too has been slowed; ten degrees warmer and they’d all be faded. The forsythia flowers hang on in nature’s fridge, and the white cherry blossom too. But too cold, and chill may not simply halt but kill. This can happen in apple orchards, where a deep frost this time of year can wipe out all the blossom which means no fruit in autumn.
Those of us growing vegetables are grateful for a period of cold. Warm winters mean pests like aphids survive in large numbers, ready to infect beans, peas, and assorted vegetables. The cold, while holding back germination of seeds, could result in a better crop by culling such pests, providing we get warmth and rain.
The tadpoles in our pond are mostly out of the spawn, but the chill is not good for them. They are cold blooded invertebrates and require warmth, so they can feed to get the energy needed to undergo the multiplicity of changes that will make them frogs in three months’ time. The one advantage of the cold is that their predators are sluggish too.
I turn over a large stone by the side of the pond, just covered in water, and find damselfly nymphs and water lice. The latter are very like woodlice who they are closely related to. The woodlouse is one of the few land crustacea with no aquatic phase. Around 400 million years ago, the woodlouse ancestor, possibly like the water louse, came out of the water onto land.
The spiraea near the mid gate blossoms that bit longer this weather. And it needs to, as its insect pollinators are held back by the chill. It is as if flowers and pollinators have freeze framed. Warmth will turn off the pause button. In the meantime, let’s admire the spiraea’s cascade of tiny white florets. The cold is almost worth it. With luck, the flowers may still be around for our public opening in a week or two.
The willow hedge between the pond and back stage has been pruned back. It had lost its hedge appearance, being wild and disorderly, like our overgrown hair in lockdown. The prunings will make useful sticks as the garden awakes.
In the next few weeks, we will begin our Americana Project. The project involves growing food plants that originated in America, such as beans, maize, peanuts, sunflowers, butternut squash, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and sweet potatoes. They were grown by the native peoples and brought to Europe by Columbus and those that followed. Imagine our diet without these foods.
Another plant we’ll be growing is sugar cane. This didn’t originate in America but was brought there by the Portuguese from East Asia. It became the major crop in the British colonies in the West Indies. The desire for sugar propelled the slave trade, with this country, shamefully, to the fore, enriching Royalty, Prime Ministers and providing the cash to build many of our large country houses.