Mosquitos danced at dusk in our backyard, pink peony stems burst out of the ground looking for spring, starlings started to build their nests in our chimney and birdboxes. January has been ever so mild here in west Cumbria and not at all wintry, but February has been much less temperate with wild winds, huge rainstorms and an awful lot of drizzle. Yes it has been wet; very wet. And windy. Very windy. And it has definitely impacted on the progress we had planned, although not in a catastrophic way; plans for outside jobs in February come with a *weather permitting* caveat, don't they?
That said, progress of sorts has been made: more beds have been prepared, some of them have been filled with patiently waiting Hesperis and Sweet William (that was sown last year and overwintered in trays at the allotment) and we have ordered a large polytunnel - a single span 5.5m x 18m tunnel from First Tunnels - but have not made any move to get it up thanks to those 50 - 70 mph winds that we've had pretty consistently for the last three weeks.
A large polytunnel is, in our opinion, essential for the business as its protection extends the season, bringing it forward in the spring and pushing it later into the autumn and ensures we have flowers throughout a wet windy summer too, in a worse case scenario. The extreme february weather does makes us think 'worse case' at the moment. Cumbria does 'do' wet very well! That said polytunnels require irrigation whatever the weather and with no mains water supply we have thought a lot about how to keep the water for when we need it. We intend to collect the water from the surfaces of the tunnels, using guttering into IBCs, and then use that water inside but in the hot dry summer months we will need extra supplies. For the last two years we have collected water in this way and needed more water than we have collected in May, June and July, which we assume is indicative of the situation on the new land although on a bigger scale. At the moment we are looking at permaculture principles of managing the water that flows over the land to best effect - with swales and ditches - and establishing ponds to hold substantial anmounts too. There is plenty of water to 'manage' and that is very reassuring, although thankfully only the watermeadow is showing any signs of flooding as such. The land is boggy, yes, but flooding... no. But it does feel ridiculous to be planning for no rain when we can't get out of the house because of the stuff!
By late February the days are long enough to start seeds and thankfully this isn't affected by the weather. There are a small number of seeds that do benefit from an early start - antirrhinum, larkspur and stocks for example - and there are some others that don't object and mean you get a nice early supply of pretty flowers - like calendula, cornflower, nigella - but the bulk of the seed sowing is done in March and thereafter when the light levels are better still and the temperatures are (in theory at least) higher and less erratic. We start our seeds using the teeniest soil blocker - one that makes 20 1cm blocks - because they don't take much space, and we find them easy to pot on and transplant. We use Dalefoot compost because it is peat free, retains moisture brilliantly and is made in Cumbria. It is expensive but the soil block technique is economical with compost and we feel that the environmental benefits of using a sustainable product are worth the outlay. We also buy it in bulk quantities (which works out slightly cheaper) because we do sow a lot of seeds! We took delivery of a dumpy bag of seed compost last week and our littlest helper assisted in moving it up the drive to the compost area.
Some of the seed trays sit on heat mats to ensure they get the right level of warmth to germinate well. This year we have invested in some T5 grow lights because the space that we have for our seeds has very low levels of natural light and the seedlings tend to get very leggy before they're able to go out to the greenhouse. I'm interested to see what difference the lights make. We grow a lot of our flowers from seed - many annuals, but also a lot of perennials and biannuals too. This month we have taken delivery of some herb plug plants - mint and rosemary, which we will propagate from in the future but need in bulk at this stage - and over 100 dahlia tubers. I will write more about dahlias in a few weeks, when I start to wake them up from their winter in storage. Martyn was a little bit "are you sure????" when I said that I needed to buy some more dahlias, but it was actually true... I realised last year that I had amassed a pretty comprehensive orange, salmon and pink collection but had little pale and white varieties. So I've sorted that out and we will have around 50 different varieties and 300 dahlia plants this year. I have also ordered a selection of chrysanthemums, to arrive in April, that should give us a good selection of flowers for our October weddings and autumn bouquets.
Planning October flowers in February as well as planning for July's drought whilst enduring winter storms is definitely a quirk of the business. On the one hand we're attentive to the nuances of each season, we see the tiniest changes and acknowledge the incidental signals of spring (those forthysia buds) and yet we're also planning for bouquets in 8 months time. And with that I will check on my seeds and see what has germinated today.