Lost to the Frost

Last week was the first time I felt confident enough to put the tender vegetables out to harden off, so Sod’s Law dictated that we experienced an unexpected late frost: I can only apologise to everyone in the South East for bringing it upon us.

We lost 50 or so plants, which only hours before were in prime condition for the Saturday plant stall at the Hornbeam Centre. The only survivors were a few of the “Golden Bantam” swetcorn,  noteworthily enough. The tomatoes, squash, courgettes, french beans and nasturtiums all bit the ice.

I feel hurt, careless, stupid and guilty; but if I can persuade myself to adopt a more philosophical stance, I concede that this is the kind of error that many competent gardeners, growers, humans, commit. I live nestled in the warm bosom of the East End, five miles from the draughty edge of Essex that hosts Hawkwood Plant Nursery. Even if I’d realised just how chilly things were getting out in the sticks, by ten in the evening it’s as much as I can do to send warm wishes to my shivering sub-tropicals, up the Lea Valley, against the north wind.

There are some advantages to the distance, mind: I’m still enjoying commuting against the flow, out of London in the morning, and that sense of arrival when I reach the gates of little Eden. At this point of the year, perhaps above any other, it really is a lush green paradise.

So what do growers do when the much longed for lush green growth and fragrant blossom burst forth upon the scene? why! dig, plough, mow and deflower of course. We’ve been making posies of strawberry flowers from the early and maincrop cultivars as we plant them out in the Entrance Field: they’re one year old runners and the received wisdom is that you should encourage them to put energy into establishing good roots and leaves , giving them a stronger foundation from which to fruit and flower better over the next three years.

This is tough love indeed, and I can’t quite bear to do it to the apple blossom, though the same principle applies to newly planted fruit trees. Instead, I’ve kept suggesting to Sean that we really should be cutting short the apples’ floral display if we cared for their long-term fruitfulness, then wincing inside the glasshouse when he eventually took the hint.

There’s a time to be soft and a time to be firm, though, as I found out to my cost, even the Met Office can’t tell you exactly when those times are. Some gardeners interpret Jesus’ cursing of  the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) as a reference to the need to restrict fig trees’ roots  in order to stimulate fruitfulness. Jesus also said , “He who brings forth the tomato plant into the northerly winds is surely a fool amongst men”. Sometimes I’m glad the Book of Horticultural Revelations didn’t make the final New Testament Editor’s cut.

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