The best laid plans...
Paul Savident, our ‘Guernsey Gardener in London’, had prepared himself for a cold May – but that turned out to be the least of his problems this month...
‘N’ER cast a clout till May is out’ – rarely has this well-known proverb been so true as this year.
As we neared the end of April, and as I was writing last month’s ‘Spring surprises and April flowers’, the Met Office was warning of temperatures likely to drop to -5C in London and bring about the coldest start to May for a quarter of a century, and potentially the coldest May for decades too.
As I read this, and looked at the forecasts, I began to think how my plans might have to change over the coming weeks to accommodate such an unseasonably cold month, however, little did I know then that my plans would be scuppered in other ways.
But, before we go on, let’s go back to that well known proverb. It’s one I’ve known all of my life, and one which Mum, Dad, uncles and aunts would pronounce annually, though it’s only in the last few decades I’ve understood its heritage.
Like many proverbs, it was most probably in common parlance for many years, possibly even centuries, before a form of it was seen in printed text. In this case, the first known English version was written as a few lines in a rhyme of 1732 by Dr Thomas Fuller – ‘Leave not off a Clout, Till May be out’. Looking back to the language of the time, not only did a clout mean a blow to the head, it also meant a fragment of cloth, or item of clothing such as a wrap… so, we can see that the warning within the proverb is to not cast off an item of clothing too early in the year. Even though the sun may be blazing, and the weather has warmed, it may quickly turn and that outer garment cast off too soon could be much welcomed. And what about the mention of May? Is it the month, or is it something else? Again, looking back at the language of centuries ago it seems that instead of talking about the month of May, the reference is to hawthorn blossom which abounds hedgerows and the countryside at this time of year, bringing with it an abundance of pollen-rich flowers for bees and other pollinating insects – their May banquet.
So, with warning of a cold month ahead despite the profusion of May in full bloom, and with this proverb firmly in my head, I began adapting my plans for the weeks ahead at our west London allotment. Some things would have to stay in the poly tunnel for longer. I needed to clear outside benches of over-wintered cuttings to make way for the hardening off of plants. Sowing of less robust seeds would need to wait – though I did need to get our carrots and parsnips in as I’d already let their best sowing time pass me by. Also, the plot needed strimming as a warm winter and spring had allowed grass and weed seeds to germinate earlier than usual, and the plot was already getting unkempt. Overwintered brassicas needed to be removed before they set seed – with their tough long stems used in a dead hedge or bashed up with a mallet for the compost bin. A warm winter also brought an increased possibility of white rot with our garlic, so that harvest would have to come out earlier than planned. Then factor in that a very cold snap would likely set our seedlings and plantlets growing in the poly back by days if not weeks, and that a hard frost would bite on the new growth of our Colleen potatoes, even though they’re in a raised bed. There was much work to do…
However, in the end it was not the prospect of a cold May that set the plot back, it was my own back, which I twinged getting out of bed early in the month and which took away from me my plans of a whole week and more of active work at the allotment.
But of course, that is how life is. As I roll up to the grand age of 56, I’m beginning to feel my age. I’m still young at heart though having been a tad or more on the heavy side much of my life, my knees and bones are beginning to feel some strain, and pain. Gone are the days of carefree youth, though not of the memories and smiles which hit home to me last week when seeing someone carrying a bunch of long-stemmed carnations as they walked along our high street.
My first paid job in the horticultural industry – and so far, also my last – was at Le Friquet at the ripe old age of 11, if my memory serves me right. We lived at Le Pignon on Rue des Varendes and between us and the then Le Friquet Flower Centre was a dense hedge of miles-high bamboo - though not dense enough to disallow a walkway to my place of work.
For several years each Easter, May half-term and a few weeks in the summer holidays I’d dive through the bamboo at around 7.55am, with a flask and a sandwich in a pale blue Tupperware tucked under my arm, ready to start my shift of greenhouse work. The job would change depending on the time of year, though if it was not picking freesias, it was thinning the heads on carnations, and I seem to remember chrysanthemums too. Le Friquet has been a centre of growing on the island for over a century, strong with tomatoes for its first half-century with diversification coming in by the time I was picking up my Friday wage packet.
The job I loved most was pinching the heads from large flowered carnations. Unlike spray carnations, where you literally get multiple heads forming a spray of flowers on each stem, the long-stemmed carnation was valued for a long stem and large flower at its apex. However, as this type of carnation grows it usually forms two, three or four other smaller flower buds below the main flower – these need to be pinched out as the growth must all go into producing the much-prized single large bloom. I’d happily spend hours doing this job, Monday to Friday, with a 10-minute tea break mid-morning. At the end of the week, I’d get my pay in a little brown envelope and be allowed to take a bunch of flowers home to mum – an absolute bonus! The flowers in this bunch were seconds, not for the commercial market, though that never mattered. What did matter is I’d managed the growth of them through the week, pinching out the unwanted buds, and later picking each long stem at a low node – so the gift to mum really meant something to me, and I know to her too.
Le Friquet has changed a lot over the years, and today it’s a very different place to the one I used to know, though when I drive up the central path of the car park, and follow the line up I can just about make out the bamboo I used to climb through with my flask of tea and sandwich, off for a morning’s work in a hot greenhouse that smelt of joy, and the brown pay packet at the end of the week that paid me for my work far less than the bunch of sweet-smelling flowers tied up with string.
We’ve no carnations on our allotment plot, though have many other flowers to bring a cheer each time I visit – which at the moment is daily. And with my back now well on the mend, the things I put off earlier in the month are now getting done; the seedlings and plants that took a knock when late frosts bit earlier in the month have caught right up again, and that grass has been strimmed and raked. There’s still much to do, though there’s still time within this growing season to catch up and get stuff done – including more strimming, and maybe popping to our local garden centre to see if they have some carnations.