Having grown up in the UK and being of a certain age, I think it’s always raining. It isn’t. This month, there has been just 6.8mm of rain where I live. The average is nearly ten times that, the maximum around 30 times.
That means that it’s very dry. It’s taken a while to dawn on me, because I’ve expected it to be wet. But even I wake up to the reality of the weather in the end. When I help my friend with their horses, at this time of year, wearing Wellies is a pre-requisite as you’re ankle deep in mud in the poached places. On Friday, the mud was dry and crisp enough to walk on with yard boots.
On Saturday, I volunteered at an orchard, cutting back sycamore before it sprouted to give the apple, greengage and plum trees the priority for water and light. A few saplings had been healed in, but couldn’t be moved to their final growing position because the ground was too dry. In March.
I sniffed the dry air. This wasn’t good. It’s nice to walk across town and not get soaked, but for life to be sustained, winter rains are vital.
I’ve spent the winter mulching the beds at the allotment to add nutrients and improve the structure of what is, unarguably, heavy clay. It’s working. There are more worms. The soil’s structure is slowly improving. But my onion bed is cracked and dry. This simply shouldn’t be the case. You plant your onion sets in the late autumn, and, the theory goes, over the winter, they swell with the water in the soil around them and grow. Mine look a bit sorry for themselves. So today, I found myself watering an onion bed in winter for the first time, wondering how this was possible and what it would mean for the rest of the year.
Last year is a template of what it means, and we see the result of that now in our supermarkets. Less rainfall equals fewer crops equals less to eat.
Like all good allotmenteers, I store rainwater. As well as a higgledy piggledy array of water butts, I have a six foot long water trough that fills with rainwater from the larger greenhouse. At this time of year, it is always full to the brim. It isn’t.
The overall questions of climate change and erratic rainfall are so alarming that I can only look at them out of the tail of my eye. They make me feel powerless. Instead, I prefer to look at what I can do, and I only have to go into my back garden to see the answer to that.
Nearly 30 years ago, I took on this garden, on chalky soil so white that lumps of chalk were always coming to the surface. Every year I mulched the borders. Every autumn I let the falling leaves rot down rather than gather them up. The result is a black, friable loam in which a pencil would grow. Better, the soil is enriched that nothing needs watering, even in a dry winter. Hellebores, daffodils, crocuses, snowdrops all look happy, as do the sarcococca, winter-flowering clematis and honeysuckle.
It is lazy gardening, but has meant that there are few weeds and even fewer pests. It gives me hope for the long-term at the allotment, whilst I fervently pray for rain.