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Global warming: a gardening nightmare

Friday 12 January 2007

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard, a keen gardener, ponders the effects of global warming in his veg plot - and reveals the strange case of the upside-down grass

ONE OF my favourite conservation bodies, the Woodland Trust, is appealing for nature-loving people to report any sightings of strange phenomena in the countryside which will allow their boffins to draw up an accurate picture of the ways in which global warming is changing traditional growth patterns.

frost in the dales
No sign of Jack Frost in the Dales

The trust, which manages hundreds of important broadleaf woods throughout the country - including Skipton Woods, one of the finest urban walks in Yorkshire - is deeply concerned that some of our ancient and wonderful trees, beech and even the mighty oak, might be wiped out by the type of scary weather we have been experiencing this week.

So I pondered if I should send them information about the upside-down grass on my allotment - then decided against it because this has come about as a result of my own stupidity. Don't you know times they are a'changing, optimistic fool?

To explain, many years ago, when I was a fit 30-year-old, I bought a strip of land from my farmer neighbour so that I could make myself a bigger veg plot. I then spent several back-breaking weeks stripping off the turf and lying it in piles grass down so that, over winter, it broke down to become wonderful compost, the finest tilth I have ever had.

That biggish house and even bigger garden went yonks ago, when the kids went off to university, and these days I content myself with a fairly large allotment (it gets me out of the house, apart from anything else).

The paths between my beds are grass and, in the wet, warm weather of recent months they had been growing like Topsy. By the back end, they towered above the levels of the soil so, I thought, I will lift the turf, lay it upside down on the cultivated earth and, hey Presto, come spring I would have two of three extra inches of fine, workable top soil brimming with nutrients.

I had forgotten that back in my thirties, we had a strange phenomenon in winter time: frost!

Idiot. I had forgotten that back in my thirties, we had a strange phenomenon in winter time: frost! It came, often, as early as September and stayed with us off and on until March or even April. And it was this frost, sometimes accompanied by heavy snow, which killed off my inverted grass and turned it into that wonderful tilth.

So far this "winter" we have not had a single frost - this week, we have been having record night time temperatures at levels seen normally only in mid-summer - and when I battled my way through the gales and driving rain to lift some leaks, I was presented with something out of science fiction.

My upside-down grass was growing through itself and threatening to turn my vegetable beds into lawn. And this in mid-January, for goodness sake, when Jack Frost is supposed to be at his most virulent.

Not only breaking up the rough clumps of spoil from the autumn digging, old Jack should also be massacring the millions of slugs which are breeding like mad and the white fly which have sucked all the goodness out of my pathetic Brussels sprouts (the adage seems to be true: Brussels do need the frost on them to be any good).

ancient oak tree
What impact is global warming having on our
ancient trees

Now should I report this to the Woodland Trust? Or is the state of my brussel sprouts too insignificant to people who are worrying about our stately oaks and mighty beeches? Will it all change in the next few weeks, when some pundits say we might be in for some severe weather?

The sad thing is that, in recent years, March has often been the worst month of our winters - the month when spring is due to start, the busiest month of the year in the veg patch, the month when the fly fishing season opens. In other words, a month of beginnings rather than bitter ends.

But be warned: it is 60 years since the worst winter in (old) living memory, 1947, when an estimated 50,000 sheep and lambs were lost in snow drifts in the Yorkshire Dales and dozens of hill farmers, trapped in their cottages for weeks on end, died in an epidemic of 'flu and pneumonia. The winter didn't start in earnest until late February in 1947. So be warned...

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