A Garden in Umbria

Frost - Cold Shoulder - April 2021

April is the cruellest month. So said T.S. Elliott and I am inclined to agree with him this year.

It was certainly a cruel trick played on us last week when temperatures in Italy dropped suddenly below zero after a spell of warm sunny weather. We had been beguiled into thinking that spring had arrived and that summer was just around the corner.

Just remind me: why did we come to live here? The lovely weather of course; to escape those never-ending winters and the cold …

Here in Castiglione the mercury plummeted to -6 C one night and to -2 C on another couple of occasions last week. The Wisteria in my garden was just coming into bloom and the buds are now mostly burned and limp … such a sad sight.

Wisteria floribunda ‘Rosea’ before frost

Wisteria floribunda ‘Rosea’ after frost

In the energy supply business this period between winter and spring is termed the ‘shoulder’ month. It is a tricky moment to manage because the temperature is so unpredictable: this year we certainly got a ‘cold shoulder’.

For agricultural producers the problem is not merely aesthetic: there are reports of up to 80% of vines having been ruined with frost burn to the new buds, although I suspect it is still too early to tell.

Some wine producers try to ward off the frost by setting up flares in the vineyards. The fruit growers around Arezzo have a novel approach: as the frost descends, they spray the trees with a very fine mist of water which forms a protective layer of ice crystals. Not only does it look magical but apparently it is effective in protecting the fruit buds.

For most of us, though, there was little to do other than bring pots of plants back indoors and cover favourite shrubs with fleece. Sadly, the wisteria is just too big for me to have done anything to protect it.

What to do then about the plants in your garden that have been damaged by the frost?

Fig tree ‘Brown Turkey’ before frost

Fig tree ‘Brown Turkey’ after frost

A rather dispiriting task I know, but go outdoors and take a close look at your plants and see what damage there has actually been (take a fortifying drink with you if required). You may find that there are more signs of life than you feared. Indeed, this is not the moment to take drastic action: watch and wait to see what recovers.

A plant that has extensive damage to its branches (e.g. Ornamental Salvia) may start to sprout with new growth from the base; only then should you trim away to dry branches. Plants in pots that are suffering should remain dry until the weather warms up – cold wet compost is fatal. But with some losses - like the flowers on my wisteria - we are just going to give this April the ‘cold shoulder’ and look forward to bountiful blossom next year.

The photo at the top of this page shows fires lit in Tenuto di Trinoro vineyard, Sarteano in April 2021 to ward off frost damage (Photo Winenews.it)

Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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