WE sons and daughters of the soil become so used to seasonal changes and plant growth patterns in the garden, that when something out of the ordinary occurs it seems to stand out a mile.
For example, most summers I’m invited to inspect some plant or other that has produced a single flower of totally different colour to the rest or, view an oddity where the stem of a plant has become flat and distorted.
We call the former a sport (common in dahlias and chrysanthemums) and the latter is fasciation, which occasionally affects lupins and hyacinths.
Both are the result of genetic instability in the plant.
But most common by far are those incidents where plant behaviour is governed by an unusual weather pattern. Typical of this is a plant that is basically a spring flowering subject which, faced with a mild winter decides the time has come to bloom.
How often I’ve noticed apple trees produce their darling buds and flowers in May and secure a crop which is harvested in autumn.
Then just as we anticipate the next stage of leaf-fall there is the surprise of blossom appearing a second time.
Fruit trees are not alone in this, several shrubs and herbaceous perennials, not known for repeat flowering, are tricked by mild conditions into thinking spring has arrived.
Similarly, we plant polyanthus and wallflowers in the autumn with a spectacular spring display in mind, but know so well that weather permitting there’ll be a winter preview – as at present.
But it is spring bulbs that have been hitting the headlines in recent weeks.
Several national newspapers have picked up the fact that daffodils are breaking into bloom already, two months ahead of schedule.
In this garden we have six varieties of dwarf types planted in groups, and they are always first to flower, the earliest in February, followed in turn by several tall cultivars.
Newspaper reports with photographs confirm that the tall varieties are indeed flowering first and that for me is unusual.
So the daffodils are performing what in some circles is called a double whammy, but the best is yet to come.
A gardening acquaintance in Shilbottle reported that her group of established daffodils were in full bloom, and asked ‘Is this unusual?’ It appears that they opened on November 26 and have continued to entertain ever since.
Unusual? Absolutely Irene!
IF only the weather could be, well, normal for once, we’d all know where we stood with our plants.
But for me that’s the beauty of gardening – you never know what’s going to happen next.
One thing that rarely changes is the need to get organised early in the year for seed sowing activities.
It is so easy to fall behind once the days become longer and temperatures increase because that’s when the garden starts to demand our attention.
Make sure that any receptacles you use are clean to begin with.
Pests and diseases might disappear from view at the end of a gardening year but they do over-winter in some form or other.
Starting clean seed off in a dirty modular tray is inviting trouble.
I use a multipurpose compost to get them all under way, and it’s topped off with vermiculite which rests lightly over the seedlings at germination allowing them easy emergence towards daylight.
The tiniest seeds should not be covered over at all.
Sow them on the surface.
Indeed, begonia and petunia need daylight to promote their germination.
Having paid so much for a packet of F1 hybrid begonia seed, the heart sinks upon opening it to see what appear to be specs of dust.
Don’t sneeze at this moment or you’ll lose the lot.
The trick in handling is to add a teaspoonful of very fine sand to the packet, shake it up, and broadcast the contents all over the surface.
The method of watering seed trays is important anyway but more so in the case of such fine sowings.
Don’t offer them a rough spray from overhead after they’ve been broadcast on the surface – or goodness knows where they’d end up.
It begins for me by scooping slightly moist compost into a tray with the hands, levelling it off and making moderately firm.
Next comes the watering by can with rose attachment.
With a full tray on the ground, tip the can slightly away from it until the spray is even then direct it back and forth over the compost.
Let the surplus water drain off then sow the seeds.
It is at this stage that a little plastic hand spray is used to moisten the surface without moving those precious seeds.
The final touch is to cover your tray with cling-film to conserve moisture then stand it in a warm environment.
We all want seedlings to appear the very next day – and look expectantly for them – but between one to three weeks is more realistic, during which period there should be no further watering.
Most seeds will germinate within a temperature range 15 to 20 Celsius.
This is why, in the absence of a heated propagating unit, many people enjoy success by placing them near a domestic hot water cylinder.
This being the case, daily inspection is essential to intervene and move the tray when seedlings appear.
Leave them and the lack of daylight plus heat combination results in spindly growth.
To encourage sturdy growth, it is wise to get young seedlings into an environment that is slightly cooler and has more light than that in which they started life.
In gardening there are many routes to success.
Get any two fruit, flower or vegetable growers together, with their excellent produce, and enquire how it was grown.
The chances are that there will be differences in the cultivation techniques that led them both to the same goal.
This describes perfectly the mystical world of growing for exhibition, where half heard conversations whispered over a drink in the local reveal the range of secret feeds and composts in use.
The local shows bring this aspect of gardening at the sharp end alive for me, as I listen to and occasionally join in the conversation.
Look out for the television gardening programmes now that spring is in our minds, if not yet a reality.
Seed sowing will be demonstrated again as it should be, but not necessarily the same technique you use so successfully.
Take broadcasting seeds over the surface of a compost for example.
Some empty the whole packet contents into the palm of one hand then take a pinch between finger and thumb of the other, before using a sprinkling movement.
Others fill the palm with seed, turn it into a “v” shape and tap it with the other hand as it is moved over the compost.
Then there is the one-handed delivery where a corner of the packet is cut and opened up.
It is then held edge-upwards and the index finger used to tap out seed.
I’m sure there are more but this is the nature of gardening.
If something works for you – stick with it!