The short answer is yes. We’re having a very mild start to the year, as described this week in The Guardian.
But what’s the ‘normal’ starting time for Spring? The Met Office describe two different dates marking the beginning of Spring. ‘Meteorological Spring’ and ‘Astronomical Spring’ are based on different calendars and start on March 1st and March 20th, respectively. My grandfather was a meteorologist and, as a family, I think we probably incline towards the meteorological description, but the truth is there’s another way to define it, based on what’s actually happening outside. Is it still frosty? Is it too warm to work with a coat on? Are there plants popping up all over the place? This definition is based on ‘nature’s calendar’, which changes from year to year.
Of course it follows that Spring, in this case, must also be dependent on geography. Growing up in the North of Scotland, I can personally bear witness to how large regional differences can be – the difference between shoots at one end of the country and flowers at the other end. In fact ‘Spring’ travels at a rate of around 2 miles per hour, and takes almost 3 weeks to get from the Southwest to Northeast of the UK. This was measured by the British Science Association when they asked members of the public to help report the speed of Spring in 2014. They also found that the first movement of ladybirds and hawthorn travelled 6 times faster than oak trees and frogspawn. Not only this, but analysis by Coventry University after the experiment found that the speed of Spring seems to be increasing and this swathe of new leaves travels across the UK more than 0.5 mph faster than it did in the first half of the 20th century.
And it doesn’t end there. The science of ‘Phenology’, where the seasonal and annual change in plant and animal life cycles are studied, is telling us that big changes are afoot, from suburban spaces to wild landscapes, all across the northern hemisphere. The Independent describe a 2017 study in Biology Letters, which found that the first growth of a Greenland sedge species was happening 26 days sooner than in the previous decade, because of climate change.
So what does that mean for your average suburban gardener? Well conventional wisdom suggests a longer growing season, perhaps not all bad, after all. But research carried out with satellite data by TU Wien last year suggests that the real picture is rather different. Science daily explain that the Austrian scientists found early warmer weather does result in a longer, greener Spring, but the following Autumn tends to be drier and the green season doesn’t last as long. Some plants may just not be able to go for longer, or there may simply not be enough water in the ground to last later into the year. For gardeners, that means watching carefully to see how our plants respond to these changes and slowly trying to adapt our planting to suit the altered seasons.
It also means more unusual combinations appearing in the garden in the short term and some rather confused species, hanging on longer or popping up early. Whilst technically a perennial, I never expected to see my California Poppies overwinter so incredibly well this year. They thrived in the incredibly dry soil last Summer and are now sitting looking healthy and ready to go, right next to my crocuses. In the words of one particular famous singer, ‘the times, they are a-changing’.