Story by Peter Wrapson
It turns out this is our wintriest winter since 1981. I had cold feet then too, though smaller wellingtons. A few weeks ago, the snow was lying thickly at Jamie’s house. Ducks skated across the pond but the chickens were sulking inside their house. On the other side of the fence prints showed that at least one fox was nosing about at night. The vegetable beds all but disappeared, any remaining crops were bent by the weight of the snow. The kales could still be picked but the parsnips and leeks were stuck fast in the frozen ground. Even the hardy salad leaves in the polytunnel were unable to shrug off the frost until the afternoon.
It’s lucky then that we put some vegetables into store back in the autumn. It’s not that the wilds of Essex are without shops; rather that it’s interesting to see what people did in the days before freezers or air-freight and gratifying to eat your own produce at a time when you can’t grow it. So, we carefully laid carrots, beetroot and turnips in crates of sand, placed maincrop potatoes in thick paper sacks and simply piled all the winter squash on a cool, dry shelf alongside the onions and garlic. Everything has kept really well, but then our ancestors weren’t fools. Courgettes, tomatoes and many fruits got caught up in the pickling frenzy at the end of summer, which left the shelves groaning with pickles, chutneys, jams and jellies. In times past it wasn’t winter that was the lean time but spring, as people waited for hedgerow greens to pop up and spring-sown crops to mature.
Winter is, however, a really hard time for garden birds. Wild food isn’t as plentiful as it used to be, which makes it especially important to feed them in our gardens. It’s a good deed and they’re endlessly entertaining to watch as well. By all means feed pigeons and grey squirrels too if you wish but they are not in short supply and are pushier and greedier than the small birds. It seems that pigeons are much less interested if you buy a mix of seed without wheat in it. Similarly, it’s worth getting robust metal squirrel-proof feeders because anything made of plastic or thin wire gets shredded in no time. Site your feeders away from bushes where cats can lurk and once you start feeding, do keep it up, at least for the winter, as the birds soon come to rely on you. They need water too and it needs to be kept free of ice. If you can, try to feed all year round because an easy supply of food is a godsend to birds raising young. It’s best not to put out bread or loose peanuts in spring and summer, however (in a mesh feeder is ok), as they can be a choking hazard for nestlings. For a wide range of good-quality bird food, have a look at the RSPB website.
About the Author: Pete Wrapson is a very experienced gardener who lovingly takes care of Jamie’s garden in Essex.