With stories coming out of Europe from France to Romania of record snowfalls, frosts or both and warnings of crop losses of up to 100% (e.g. vines in some more northerly growing areas in France), and with a northerly blast accompanied by snow and frosts ocurring this week in the UK, it is worth asking how often such weather events occur in Britain and how gardeners should manage risk as a result.
Obviously it depends where in the country you are. I considered snow falling above 1500ft in the Scottish mountains to be situation normal in April when I lived up there in the 1980s and 1990s. The Met Office says that between 1981 and 2010, you could expect snow on 2-3 days in April averaged across the country, so in general this is an occupational hazard when gardening. In 1981, Sheffield had almost 30cm of snow in the last week of April! And as a boy, we had a freak overnight snowfall in NW London in the 1970s which meant I went tobogganing after Easter!
Going back through the records, it seems to me that serious snowfall is a once in a generation event in the lowlands of England in April (1981 the last major event) but frosts and accompanying light snow is more common. This suggests that statistically, if you can protect plants from light frost and snowfall through April, more often than not you will benefit from earlier harvests and the ability to plant two crops a year.
I have noticed the huge benefit of covering the following plants with 30gsm fleece through March and parts of April: cabbage, spinach, beetroot and lettuce. It is also beneficial for successful germination of radish, turnip, carrots and parsnip.
I purchased 25m*2m of fleece from www.garden-netting.co.uk for under £30 inc VAT and delivery this spring and cut it into 3 lots of 6m*2m and two lots of 3.5m*2m. The 2m width ensures that the whole 1.5 metre width of my beds is covered. 6m length ensures complete coverage of 5m long beds, whereas my 3m long beds or half a 5m long bed can be covered using a 3.5m length.
You will need either a set of bricks, stones or wooden battens to hold the fleece in place – foraging for freebies is worth it as stone/brick will last forever.
The fleece can also be used in the autumn to extend the season and to establish over-wintering leaves well before winter arrives.
But overall, my experiences the past two years with fleece has been entirely positive.