Longer days and more light
Its a long, dark winter in England with our northerly latitude delivering just 8 hours a day of daylight in the midst of winter. As soon as we get into mid-February we notice the days start to lengthen and lighten - we're getting an extra 4 minutes of daylight per day in February! This is the time that you know that the countryside and garden will soon return to life.
Bird song and the dawn chorus
There is very little bird song in the winter, as the birds keep quiet and concentrate on finding food and surviving the cold. By this time of year things are starting to change and there are a few morning heralds singing as the sun comes up. Your are most likely to hear a robin, wren or song thrush. The peak of the bird song season is late April to early June. Since dawn chorus starts before the sun is up, you need to be an early riser to catch this spectacular in June - but its well worth it!
The flowering of the English woodlands
The woodlands start to awaken early because there are number of plants that come into flower before the leaf canopy is in place. Dorset is a wonderful county for snowdrops - woods, hedges and roadsides are dressed with drifts of the bright, white nodding flowers. Any time from the middle of February, primroses start to flower, followed by the wood anemones or common name windflower. Both of these grow in abundance in the wilds of Dorset.
The crowning glory of the Spring woodland is of course the English bluebell which flowers in late April and early May. These native bulbs typically prefer beech woods and carpet the ground with their beautiful, scented hazy-blue flowers.
The return of winter migrants
In England we associate the call of the cuckoo with the arrival of Spring - this bird over-winters in Africa and returns to England in April. It lays its eggs in other birds nests, which then raise the cuckoo chick thinking it is their own, always to the detriment of their own offspring.
My favourite summer visitor is a little warbler call the blackcap, which arrives in April. It enjoys the habitat on our Trailway where it sings, perched in the trees and shrubs that border the path. This bird is known as the 'northern nightingale' because its song is so sweet!
Blossom, blossom everywhere
The very first wild species to flower is a wild plum which is common in Dorset hedgerows - its not a showy affair but its a sure sign that the weather is warming. Next comes blackthorn, which like wild plum, flowers before the leaves emerge. The main blossom event is in May when hawthorn flowers - this combination of starry white flowers and fresh green leaves is a winner and most English hedgerows feature this showy plant.
In the garden, we enjoy many ornamental species of Magnolia, cherry and Malus. For gardeners though, we look forward to the flowering of the fruit trees (hoping that there won't be a late frost!) with thoughts of the harvest to come.
Butterflies and bees
Its always exciting to spot the first bee or butterly. Paul spotted this honey bee on some crocuses a few days ago. The first wild bees will be around soon and we grow Symphytum which flowers really early providing a source of nectar for hungry bees. There are no butterflies to be seen yet, but the first to appear is usually the yellow brimstone.
Planting in the garden
Once we are into February its time to start planting seeds for the vegetable garden - not in the ground though! We start salad crops about now, planting seed in modules in the greenhouse and planting out later under fleece. We use a lettuce called Tom Thumb which will grow well in the early part of the year, switching to other varieties as the year progresses. i am also trying broad beans this year to see if we can get an early bean crop! Time spent looking through the seed catalogues also persuaded me to grow sweet peas - they are a delight and I know they'll be worth the work.