My Istrian garden awakens

Istria lies on the edge of the Mediterranean climate belt. We get lovely warm summers, but we also get proper winters with sub-zero temperatures. Being relatively far south, though, our winters are short – often only December to February, and the temperatures rarely drop far below zero. But it’s still a true winter with trees bare of leaves, occasional snow and icy cold winds. It’s a time when most plants in the garden go dormant, awaiting Spring and the return of warmer weather. For us it’s a time of log fires and indoor pursuits, but it’s still warm enough to get out into the garden regularly. 

Panorama of garden in November

While temperatures usually tumble overnight, during the day they can rise to 20 °C in sheltered, sunny spots. It might be winter, but it’s still warm enough to work comfortably in the garden and on a nice day, if I’m putting in some effort, I often shed my fleece and work in shirt-sleeves.

Like most gardeners, I try and catch up on pruning and tidying during the autumn: cutting back perennials and removing dead annuals; hoovering leaves from the lawn; and shredding mountains of clippings. Each year my goal is to get the clear-up done before December and each year, I’m still working my way round long after Christmas!


Topsy-turvy weather

Istrian garden covered in snow in FebruaryThis year, the winter started fairly normally, and looked set to be short and relatively mild. Then came February and we were plunged into the deep freeze. We were lucky though. An Arctic cold front, which escaped south from Siberia and brought dramatically low temperatures to much of Eastern Europe, didn’t quite reach us. We were saved by the Uckas, a low range of mountains, separating Istria from the rest of Croatia, which blocked its westward progress. While elsewhere suffered temperatures in the minus twenties, ours only dipped to a balmy minus ten, or so.

For three weeks we suffered and then, temperatures suddenly rose and rose and rose. March was glorious: Spring seemed here and Summer just round the corner. Jumpers were shed, outside furniture uncovered and barbeques contemplated. “We’ll have one for Easter,” said P.

Lawn, brown from lack of winter rain in IstriaThen April arrived and all ideas of barbeques vanished. Temperatures went into reverse: the weather we should have had in March, we had in the first few weeks of April – and with it came the rain.

We’ve barely had a drop of rain all winter long. By mid-March our lawn was looking scorched, more like mid-Summer than early Spring. ‘Where, oh where is the rain?’ we wondered, looking longingly at the blue, blue skies. Well, the rain came for Easter and it stayed the whole holiday week and then some. And with the rain came cold winds, a real shock after beautiful March.


Confused plants

Pruning the frost scorched olive tree in Istrian gardenMy poor plants were completely confused by all this back-to-front weather. With a mild winter seemingly coming to an early end, life started returning to the garden in early February. Plants started waking up, pumping sap back into their systems, only to get a nasty shock when the big freeze hit. Tender young shoots were coated in snow: their early start proved a big mistake. One of the biggest casualties was our olive tree. Severely frost scorched, it lost most of its leaves and needed heavily pruning: I’m just hoping it’ll bounce back over the summer. Elsewhere, ground-covering perennials like saxifrage and phlox, and mounds of oxalis that were beginning to think about flowering, were smothered in snow. When it melted, all the new growth was dead and I feared the plants might be as well.

Daffodils in my dry Istrian gardenMarch’s balmy weather got things going again and the plants began to recover, but the lack of rain prevented them really growing. Spring blossom and bulbs brought splashes of colour and promise. But with limited moisture I was surprised the daffodils and tulips fared as well as they did. Everything else seemed to wait, poised ready to burst into growth when the rain finally came.

CPink peony flower in early Aprilold April’s rains finally brought water the garden so desperately needed and despite unseasonably low temperatures, life flowed back into the land – you could almost watch the grass greening, shooting up in front of you. Then, in the middle of April, after a particularly big storm, the weather cleared and temperatures again soared, and growth in the garden went into overdrive. The peony bloomed its soft, crushed pink flowers; the keria turned a wall of yellow and spirea branches tumbled in white. Leaves opened everywhere, the wisteria started showing the promise of the cascades of flowers to come, and the birds began to sing and sing.

The garden looked glorious – Spring was here, big time.

Keria, spirea and garden in April in Istria 


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