Friday, 21 October 2011

First frost

The rudbeckias, staunchly gritting their teeth and smiling through the cold. 

I had wandered out with Bill early in the morning, noticed the chill air, but not ventured more than a few steps from the back door in the dark. The penny dropped while I pulled on my boots as a prelude to loading up the Land Rover for Thursday’s gardening round calls. That familiar, rasping noise – absent from the early morning soundscape for months but instantly recognisable as the sound of the neighbours scraping their windscreens. We’d had our first frost of the autumn.

It hadn’t been a severe one. Not harsh enough to worry the Canary Island date palm or the pelargoniums basking in the relative warmth of the courtyard – but sufficient to transform the lawn to a silvery carpet, perfectly complementing the lavender hedge, and to rime the margins of the remaining flowers with a delicate, icy border. The dahlias, very late this year, won’t be putting on much more of a show.

Strangely, in the garden, it’s often not so much the initial frosting which does the damage, as the process of thawing out. Water expands as it melts, and often does so at a rate faster than the frozen plant tissue can regain its usual elasticity. Cell walls within leaves and stems rupture and tear, causing the damage with which we are so familiar: foliage hanging in ragged tatters, buds and leaf margins blackened, and the more sensitive plant material in a general sorry-looking state.

But it’s not all bad. In fact, there is something wonderful about the garden in winter, and nothing quite like a good, hard frost to clear the head, sharpen the senses and open the eyes to the splendour of the colder months. Those of us who have been less than efficient with our autumnal tidying regime should feel no shame at at our failure to consign every last seed head to the bonfire or compost heap – whether out of forward planning, concern for the birds, or just plain lethargy. Now we are rewarded by seeing them in all their sculptural beauty, transformed by the frost into exquisite structures decked with intricate, bejewelled spiderwebs. And who can resist walking across a frozen, crunchy lawn, leaving neat imprints of your boots behind you, in the full knowledge that it's bad for the grass and most definitely not a something you should do? Not me, I’ll be out there every time, more than happy to enjoy the moment and pay the price of a less than perfect sward later.

That said, it’s time to take note. Bring in your houseplants, move tender plants into the conservatory or greenhouse, and wrap up and generally mollycoddle anything with a delicate disposition. There’s rumour of a cold winter coming.