First thing this morning, as soon as I turned my phone on, came the proclamation of St George’s Day tomorrow. I like St George’s Day because it’s a fixed point in the year unlike Easter that wanders all over the place. I also like it because it’s peak dandelion time in the UK and I like it because it’s the closest memorable festival to the date of the last frost here. What amuses me greatly is the fact that the flag of St George has been adopted so enthusiastically by the extreme right who appear blissfully unaware that he was almost certainly a dark skinned Maltese. Shakespeare, sadly, introduced a lot of beautiful but daft clutter into our national consciousness.
Aside from the stereotype that the British are obsessed with the weather – (in my book it can’t be a stereotype because it’s true) – for an allotmenteer or a gardener weather matters big-time. Weeks of preparation and nurturing of young tender plants can be ruined in a night, but the difference between gardening and allotments is that gardens are adjacent to the house and so a last ditch trip outside in the dark can save the day. On an allotment there’s a risk that you’ll wake up half a mile from the ruins. Madame used to work at an apple research station where in one experiment , during blossom time, they would spray a fine water mist over the trees because paradoxically it didn’t damage but protected the crop even when, at dawn, the orchards were a fairyland of icicles – much loved by local TV crews when it was a slow news day. The ice would melt, the trees would shrug and life went on. Historically, less high-tech solutions would be strategically placed bonfires, and on our allotments we’ve fixed fabric barriers to slow the frost that rolls down the hill and parks itself over us. It’s easier when the trees at the top of the site come into leaf; but in gardening the best you can ever do is slow things down to avoid the worst of the risk. Nets, cloches and fleece are all lifesavers – but only if you remember to put them out.
On the internet – which, like Shakespeare, has a lot to answer for, you can gather an array of last frost dates and this morning when I looked I saw that one gardening site has moved our last date back by a week to the ‘end of April’. Good news if it’s true but I’ve got May 6th in my diary for the last time our runner beans got slaughtered and so that’s the date we’ll go with here at the Potwell Inn, thank you very much. The thing about frost is that it can be ridiculously local – down to the corner of a field. Here as in so many things, local knowledge beats Google hands down.
All the gardening books talk about ‘hardening off’, but I think I prefer the term ‘tempering’. Plants are funny creatures and a large part of so-called ‘green fingers’ is being able to read their moods. At this time of the year we’ve raised almost all of our tender plants in the propagators and then they go through a slow progression through the warmth and sunshine of the tables against south facing windows and into the hallway which has a softer light and is probably seven or eight degrees cooler, and thence to the unheated greenhouse followed by days outside and nights inside. It can take several weeks to go through this tempering process and all the while we’re watching the weather. Last week we moved some chillies into the hall and, after a couple of days, we could see that in some indefinable way they weren’t happy. Moved back inside they said ‘thank you very much’ and got on with their lives. ‘Hardening off’ suggests a rather harsh, one-off life lesson centred solely on temperature, ‘Tempering’, on the other hand feels more like education; a preparation for life outside in the beds.
Inevitably there’s a brief pause between the sowing of seeds indoors and the planting out, perhaps a month later. Meanwhile there are always last minute preparations to the beds, harvesting the early risers and feeding the fruit trees. For the third year running we’re enjoying a sunny few weeks in April, although this year it’s been a bit compromised by cool easterly and north-easterly winds. But you can’t have it all – the south-westerlies are the best bearers of rain and so we also spend quite a lot of time watering the recently planted out hardy seedlings. Even in the harshest of times – and these are harsh indeed, the modalities of sun, rain and earth remind us that there’s a bigger story that won’t go away. Every day, as gardeners, we learn that we must relinquish any dreams of control over these great forces and do as the Taoists do – learn to trust and move with them.