Guernsey Press

A touch of frost

All is cold and quiet on his plot this month, but our ‘Guernsey Gardener in London’, Paul Savident, livened things up with an orchard wassail

Frozen ivy. (Picture by Paul Savident) (31725001)

A NEW calendar year has begun and with it a January like I’ve never known before.

Temperatures have remained below average in west London, and our allotment has seen hoar frosts and frozen ground that I’ve not seen in my time at our allotment plot nor at the small growing space we used to have along the road at the William Hobbayne Community Gardens. For once, there’s no need to worry about the impact of compressing soil by standing on it, as even though I’m weighty the soil stands solid and holds my heft without any trouble at all. Not even a trowel or a spade makes a dent at the moment.

January at the plot is always one of the quietest months of the year, as it was at the large gardens at our family homes in St Peter’s and Castel. It’s a month for gentle work, thinking, pottering, watching, planning, putting structure in place, mending broken beds, frames and arches, and some quiet pruning of roses and pip fruit trees like apples and pears. Harvesting of winter hardy vegetables such as brassicas continues and checking on our broad beans and garlic is a must on each visit to the plot – simply as the rugged yet dainty-looking leaves of the broad beans and the sharp, bright-green shards of the garlic always bring that smile to my face in knowing growth is happening and warmer days are to come.

However, this year more than any before, that vibrancy of life in the broad beans, garlic and determined brassicas has seemed to shine brighter than before. Normally a good few days of hard frost will come and go through January, though this year the days of cold turned to longer spells of a week or more, closing the ground off to work and with Mother Nature telling me to take a break, and just chill. I took heed, and stepped back – my plans could wait, and were best to, as when any mother speaks it’s only right to take notice.

That, of course, doesn’t mean I’ve done nothing at the plot this month. In the few days of glorious sunshine we had, I set to and sorted out our soft fruit beds. One, which holds our blackcurrant and five gooseberries – both green and red blush – had become saturated with couch grass. On weeding it out the long root tendrils just languished and flowed around my hand-fork as I carefully teased each length from the ground, lifting soil gently to ease out any extra length I could. With couch grass, you really do have to get as much of it out as you can. In my humble opinion, it doesn’t matter whether your gardening process is dig, no dig or your own mixture of the two – get it out without a doubt. Leaving just an inch of its pale tendrilled root in allows that inch to grow underground, invisibly traipsing through a bed six inches below the surface, literally rooting its way to a takeover of the nutrients, moisture and growing space of any area. The more you can get out, the better it will be long-term, or at least that’s what I’ve found out in my years of growing.

‘Oh, just cover it for six months with tarp,’ some will say. ‘Get rid of it that way.’ Not for me – a good hand weed and THEN top the bed off with cardboard, as a bit of sunlight obliteration alone just isn’t up to the job with this weed. It’s the same with brambles, cinquefoil, and bindweed – get them out or they’ll resolutely remain in and grow.

I remember mum and me picking up a heavy blanket of waxy tarpaulin in our garden shortly after we moved into Le Pignon, Rue des Varendes. It was clear this growing area hadn’t been touched in years and was mainly overgrown with brambles. It saw little sun as it was nestled behind our neighbour’s lean-to greenhouse that formed the back of their garden. We didn’t know how long the tarp had been down, though it’d been little match for the brambles that wanted to see the light come hell and high water. As we cut back the brambles the tarp was revealed, and on lifting it we saw not only the audacious roots of the brambles that would need to come out but also a complex matrix of tendrils of white and the palest cream… bindweed! We hadn’t noticed when cutting back that dried brown twine-like filaments ran through the brambles that had grown last year, though on seeing what was below we then understood what was above… and it needed to come out if any growing was to happen in this area. Despite being in 90% shade, under a tarpaulin, without sunlight, and competing with robust brambles, this bindweed had found its home and proliferated. With much messy work with feet and forks, we eventually levered out most of the brambles and bindweed that were going to come out that day. A messy job well done.

There’ll be no feet and fork work this month at our allotment, though if the weather improves and the air temperature rises, I might get a little more weeding done by hand, as well as some pruning, and there’s much pruning that needs to be done, both on my plot and in our allotment site’s cider orchard, where we had a happy and hearty wassail last weekend.

I remember being at some wassails in Guernsey as a child, though I’m not sure whether these were at the orchard down Rue du Lorier, or elsewhere. Wherever it was, I’ve vague recollections of fun, singing, noise and colour, and in January 2020 I decided to recreate this at our site as an annual event, though following the launch wassail the pandemic and its aftermath got in the way… until this year.

Last Sunday started very foggy, in fact we had freezing fog. This type of weather often brings with it a hoar frost and when late morning I took down some song sheets and mulled cider in flasks there were layers of ice, upon frost, upon ice, upon frost, upon everything. It really was a mystic land of frost and quiet, with only the occasional tweet of a bird or distant engines of a Heathrow take-off breaking the smooth muted silence. Though the sun was trying to break through, the fog would fold itself back in, and the sun would try again. Thankfully, by the time of our wassail the sun had won out, the fog had cleared, and the sky was blue – just perfect for a wassailing social.

One great friend of our allotment site is the RHS fruit tree specialist Gerry Edwards – I feel I should say THE Gerry Edwards, chairman of the RHS Fruit Group and UK Orchard Network, among many other prestigious positions and awards. He last visited our site in July as part of a visit by specialists of the RHS and Plant Heritage, and we’re always happy to welcome him back. This time, he turned up to lead the wassail, bedecked in top hat and a rags coat, just like any good Pagan Mama does.

Now, an orchard wassail is a medieval ceremony designed to ward off evil spirits from the orchard and wake the cider apple trees from their winter slumber so that they get budding to ensure an abundant harvest of fruits come autumn. A major part of the tradition is to recite incantations, sing and make as much banging and hollering as possible to bring about its purpose of warding and wakening. At the end, with cups of warm cider in hand each wassailer douses some of their cup onto a nearby tree, feeding it, favouring it, and fostering a bountiful harvest later in the year.

We had a great turnout from our allotment association members, with this wassail rhyme of South Hams of Devon area of 1871 sung and incanted by all:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,

Whence thou mayst bud

And whence thou mayst blow!

And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!

Hats full! Caps full!

Bushel – bushel – sacks full,

And my pockets full too! Huzza!

The ceremonial proceedings ended with a loud din of maracas, a drum, wooden claves, whistles and hollers galore resounding through the orchard, over the River Brent and to Hanwell meadows beyond. The wassail completed and all trees woken and nourished, we all retired to the communal shed for further mulled cider and baked goods for our own nourishment.

I’ve hardly looked at my box of seeds this month, as I’m sure I’ve all I need for this growing year. Come next month I’ll take out the airtight plastic box in our fridge and have a rummage and make notes. Though in the meantime I might get some weeding done, and I’ll undoubtedly get some harvesting in, though I’ll also sit and reflect on the joy of wassailing, and the happy faces and hearty voices it brought. I may even put pen to paper to craft a wassail rhyme for next year, a bespoke one that fits our allotment and local community well. Maybe in years to come, with wassailing of our orchard continuing, the words I craft today will live on in the warding and wakening in our allotment orchard in January each year.

  • Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot.