The effects of an early spring on South West gardens

Simon Akeroyd, Head Gardener, English Riviera Simon Akeroyd Head Gardener, English Riviera

2015 to 2016 was an unusual autumn and winter in the horticultural world in terms of high temperatures and rainfall.

Exceptionally mild weather has meant a plethora of plants flowering earlier than I would expect, with some spring plants having finished flowering by the time we came to do the annual valentine flower count in February 2016.  

The English Riviera

I’m very privileged to manage two of the National Trust’s horticultural jewels in terms of plant collections. Both Greenway and Coleton Fishacre on the English Riviera in South Devon have exceptionally warm and sheltered mesoclimates, possibly the warmest in the country, meaning that when plants flower here it is usually a good bench mark to what other gardens further up the country will be doing a few weeks later. 

" The amount of plants in flower has increased dramatically this year."
- Simon Akeroyd

An increase in blooms

At Coleton Fishacre there were 133 flowering which is 20 more than in February 2015. There was an even bigger increase at Greenway from 100 in 2015 to 153 in 2016.

One of the gauges or sense-checks we use at Greenway to measure how early the season is going to be, is a huge Magnolia campbellii, planted by Agatha Christie’s husband Max in 1938. In 2015 it flowered on Valentine’s Day, yet in 2016 it started flowering in early January and was practically over by Valentine's Day. 

The other popular late winter shrub that we have flowering in abundance at Greenway is camellia. With over 300 varieties it is a welcome early splash of colour in the garden. As a general rule of thumb we are generally about 6 weeks earlier than usual.

Closer to the ground the snowdrops strangely have appeared bang on time, whereas crocus are slightly earlier than usual. We also have an abundance of primroses flowering early which love this warm damp winter. 


Unseasonal behaviour

At both Greenway and Coleton Fishacre we had daffodils flowering in November 2015. The daffodil variety 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation' started flowering at Coleton Fishacre the first week of November, when we usually expect them to flower in February.

Even some of our traditional late winter shrubs such as Daphne had practically finished flowering by mid-February 2016, whereas in the past it would just be looking at its best about then. Many of the slightly tender plants have also been flowering outside including Melianthus major and Banksia integrifolia
Banksia flowering at Coleton Fishacre
Banksia flowering at Coleton Fishacre
Banksia flowering at Coleton Fishacre
It’s not just the flowerers that provided a seasonal surprise in the garden in 2016.
Due to the lack of frosts at Coleton Fishacre, there were still leaves on many of the plants that would usually have lost them in winter, such as the Canna iridiflora and the Impatiens tinctoria.
The impressively huge Rhododendron russellianum by the Rill garden flowered in 2015 at Easter, but in 2016 was flowering for Valentine's Day. 

Unknown consequences

Although having more flowers may initially sound exciting, there could be detrimental knock on effects and only time will tell with an uncertain climatic future.

Plants that thrive in dry arid conditions, such as some of the ones from South African and Chilli in our collection may start to suffer with the excess moisture .
Bulbs could also start to rot in the ground. Wildlife such as bees and butterflies that are usually dependent on specific plants being in flower at certain times will have to adapt to these seasonal changes if they are to survive.  
Having lots of plants flowering early could leave a large foraging gap for them later on in the year. 

How this could affect gardeners

Gardeners too are having to adapt to these mild conditions.  You could almost re-write the traditional monthly jobs list with weeding taking place 12 months of the year as they continue to thrive. And I never imagined that we would be deadheading daffodils in December.

Daffodils flowering in November
Daffodils flowering in November
Daffodils flowering in November
Clearing the falling leaves this autumn didn’t happen in just one or two hits as it usually does, but instead has been gradual throughout the last few months.
Pruning is becoming trickier to judge timings. Having to wait for some plants to go dormant before making any cuts has been almost impossible this year, with many shrubs not going into dormancy at all and retaining their leaves throughout winter.  
However, for the first time ever, it has been possible to prune plums and cherries in winter. They should traditionally only be pruned when in leaf to avoid diseases such as silver leaf and bacterial canker, meaning winter pruning is to be avoided. But not this year.
In the kitchen garden, it is becoming easier to grow food all year round.
And of course, ironically despite this excess rain, some plants in containers will need watering and possibly feeding to avoid causing them stress. This is because in some cases they are still making growth this warm winter. This will particularly be the case for containers kept indoors, in conservatories or in porches to avoid causing them stress.