I am writing Grass Clippings this week on Groundhog Day which is a popular North American tradition observed in the United States and Canada on 2nd February. It derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerging from its burrow on this day and sees its own shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat to its den and winter will persist for six more weeks; but if it does not see its shadow because of cloudiness, spring will arrive early. In the Bill Murray film of the same title, weatherman Phil is reluctantly sent to cover a story about a weather forecasting ‘rat’ (as he calls it). This is his fourth year on the story, and he makes no effort to hide his frustration. On awaking the ‘following’ day he discovers that it’s Groundhog Day again, and again, and again. First, he uses this to his advantage, then comes the realisation that he is doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the same place, seeing the same people do the same thing EVERY day. Now in these extraordinary times that may sound very familiar to a lot of people. Certainly, to me, awaking in the early hours to another deluge of rain over the estate has become the norm for this winter.
This year has not broken the records yet, but we still have a few months to go so I’m not holding my breath. The title of wettest winter is still held by 2014 but the last three have been creating a spike which is concerning. Using our rain gauge data, we have calculated that over the estate we have amassed over 132,000,000 litres of water over the winter of 2020/21. That equates to enough water to fill 53 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Some of you may extend this rational and say to yourself, why don’t we capture this water and use it for irrigation purposes. I would love to do that but we would need an extraordinarily complex infrastructure programme and probably require extra land for a reservoir lake.
My first large golf build, the London Golf Club incorporated water self-sufficiency into their design when building the courses. Water was captured across the estate through ten holding ponds on the courses which were all interconnected by pipe work and sluice gates. The estate runs down a valley so water can be released and directed down from pond to pond until reaching the lowest collection lake. A submersible pump then carries winter storm water back up the valley to the highest part of the estate which has a massive reservoir lake off the courses. More pipe work carries the water under gravity half a kilometre down to the central pumping station that subsequently charges the pipe work and feeds it around the estate and to the irrigation sprinkler system. The build cost of the club would today equate to some £80 million, with inflation and a large slice of this cost going on the water capture and irrigation systems. The start-up costs eventually lead the original owner, Japanese businessman Masao Nagahara to sell the club due to financial difficulties.
We recycle a large amount of the water which falls on the Club estate without the need of such over engineering. As the water which does return to the ground permeates through to the chalk substrate beneath our feet this acts as a natural reservoir. The bore hole and pumping system that we installed four years ago will pump, on demand, the water that we use for irrigation of the course and grounds. In 2020, we were almost self-sufficient for water except for a 10-week period when temperatures exceeded a level when we couldn’t pump fast enough and needed to top up with mains water. So, while every day at the moment feels like a Groundhog Day of more rain, as was yesterday, at least it will have some benefit.
Sad new for those at the Club who enjoy visiting the Chelsea Flower show in the spring as last week it was announced that the 2021 show, which was planned for 18-23 May has now been moved to 21-26 September, which would make it the first autumn Chelsea Flower Show. Many nurseries and other exhibitors have already pulled out of May’s event, saying they doubted it would go ahead. Recent meetings have heard about sell-off day being possibly pulled and visitors may have to show negative coronavirus tests. Some exhibitors have discussed how in autumn they will not have plants to sell or promote. There are more than 40 garden shows planned for 2021, mainly with far smaller numbers than usual and no plant marquees. The RHS Virtual Chelsea Flower Show will be held online during the May show week. BBC coverage of Chelsea in May or September has not been confirmed, though the BBC and RHS have a contract to broadcast the event. The RHS’s insurance situation is unknown. Sue Biggs, RHS director general, said: ‘In these challenging times we have always followed Government advice and made difficult, responsible decisions with the health and safety of people our key concern’.
This month there are signs of the approaching spring, with bulbs appearing and wildlife waking up as light levels and temperatures increase. There’s plenty to do indoors this month to prepare for the season ahead. Outdoors, as the garden comes to life again, it’s time to prune shrubs and climbers, such as Wisteria as well as evergreen hedges.
Growing vegetables from seed can be satisfying. However, it is important to plan so that you don’t find that your hard work produces gluts and shortages. Knowing which vegetables to sow where, when and how means you can maintain constant supplies throughout the season. There are many guides for planting and library selves staked with books on the subject. Gardeners’ World magazine also publishes a useful monthly growing guide for what to plant that month. Now is the time to order seeds and start up vegetables for planting out this spring. Due to the glut of new gardeners that were a phenomenon in 2020, it is wise to order now while stocks are holding up. Once the weather turns and cabin fever means people venture to preparing the gardens for spring, it may well be a case that stocks run low again this year. Potato tubers now need chitting for early as well as main crop hybrids. Now is a good time to prune back winter flowering shrubs, which have already blossomed and to finish heavy pruning to evergreen hedges and shrubberies left to ride out the harsh winter weather. At the Club we have been renovating the herbaceous border and removing last year’s growth and stems that have died back. We are checking the weather at the moment as there is a chance of more snow fall this coming month but at the best opportunity we shall also cut back the ornamental grasses and prune the wisteria, when the likelihood is that the worst days of winter are behind us.