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Well-weathered wisdom

I’ve never lived in a place where people were so concerned about the weather as they are in England. This is probably the result of never knowing quite what to expect. In America, especially on the East Coast, predictions seem pretty dependable by comparison; after all, the weather systems have a whole continent to cross (during which time they can be examined en route) before they fall upon you. Mistakes occur, of course, but usually not big ones, and not all that often.

In England, on the other hand, we have to take what we often unexpectedly get. The Meteorological Office–always known simply as the Met Office–has begun offering five-day forecasts in a gingerly way, but in my experience they are fairly useless. Longer-range forecasts–that it will be an “iron” winter, for example–are hardly worth bothering about.

In the past, of course, the English lacked even the Met Office to tell them about visibility off Rockall or the likelihood of rain in Suffolk by dawn Wednesday. What they had instead was a vast and baroque system of folk knowledge about the weather, incorporated in axioms and sayings of splendid inconsistency. Americans will recognize some of them–“red sky in the morning, sailor’s [or shepherd’s) warning,” or “If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb,” both of which are, incidentally, true more often than not. No doubt they were exported to the States centuries ago along with the sack of barley seed and the bundle of apple cuttings. But a lot of others are purely English, possibly because they definitely won’t work anywhere else. In lieu of guarantees from the Met Office, they’re still filling in the gaps.

My favorite source of weather wisdom is Uncle Offa. Each month he produces a column in the Monmouthshire Beacon and Forest of Dean Gazette, the local paper in our part of Wales, where we garden. In it, he sets forth what we’ve got to look forward to during the weeks ahead. Offa (in fact a retired army major named Frederick Hingston, who lives a few miles from Monmouth up on the Trellech Ridge) seems to know every old saw, saying, prognosticatory trick, and significant saint’s day in the book. He also displays a satisfying reluctance to swallow their advice wholesale.

Although most of these ancient insights were developed by farmers, for farmers, they are nevertheless useful to gardeners, especially vegetable gardeners. Last spring, for instance, Offa offered us half a dozen traditional views on May weather and its consequences. Some seemed to agree: “Rain in May brings bread throughout the year” jibes with “A leaky May and a dry june, puts the harvest right in tune.” But then, what to make of “A dry May foretells a wholesome year”? All, as he remarks, very confusing. For what it’s worth, I recall that it did rain quite a bit in May. And in September (after a drought-ridden summer) the rains began again. Offa admits that May is the most difficult month of the year for the soothsayer.

Probably the best-known long-range forecasting day in Britain is St. Swithin’s Day, the fifteenth of july. Offa figures that about half the population believes the rhyme tied to it:

St. Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain,

Full forty days it will remain.

St. Swithin’s Day if thou art fair,

Full forty days ’twill rain nae mair.

John Gay, the 18th-century poet, went along with it when he memorably rewrote the first two lines in Trivia:

If on St. Swithin’s feast the welkin

lours,

And every pent house streams with

showers,

Twice twenty days shall clouds

their fleeces drain

And wash the pavement with

incessant rain.

Judging from the weather that followed our rainless St. Swithin’s last summer, when we all thought it would “rain nae mair,” this one seems to have a little logic behind it.

Still, there is something rather helpless about long-range predictions like these. Pointed suggestions that you are in for a bad year are cold comfort to modem gardeners, and an old-time farmer doomed to a rainy haymaking a couple of months hence might well be inclined to give up the whole show and emigrate. Fortunately, for more practical purposes, there is traditional counsel on such things as when to expect a late frost, how and when to do your planting, and the kind of weather you might be handed tomorrow morning, rather than a season or two later.

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I confess to being slightly baffled by Offa’s May planting advice, which is specific in terms of dates, but based on zodiac signs, which I’ve never understood. He says you are supposed to plant “above ground crops” when the moon is in Taurus (May 1), Cancer (May 5-6), or Libra (May 12-13). Root crops should be sown when the moon is in Scorpio (May 14-15) or Capricorn (May 18-19). Another source, however, points out that “Beans should blow [that is, flower] before May doth go,” which doesn’t leave much time. It also observes, “Sow beans in mud, they’ll grow like wood.” This, I know from bitter experience, is true, but my garden is seldom dry enough (or warm enough) for planting beans before June. As a totally confusing clincher, we have “Who sows in May gets little that way,” which I suppose has to be interpreted to mean that May is too late.

Other planting instructions are more sound, including this one in favor of putting out saplings in the fall: “Apples, pears, hawthorn, quick oak; set them at All-Hallow-Tide [November 11 and command them to prosper; set them at Candlemas [February 21 and entreat them to grow.” No less sensible is “This rule in gardening never forget, to sow dry and set wet.”

On the frost front, we’ve got “A mist in March is a frost in May,” and “So many fogs in March, so many frosts in May,” both of which strike me as overly pessimistic. But Blackthorn Winter (April 11-14) is plausible: “Just as the blackthorn is coming into blossom, expect a cold snap.” (And, warns Offa, “If blackthorn puts out blossoms before the leaves appear, watch out even more carefully for a bitter spell.”) Indeed, our Magnolia xsoulangiana took a beating at exactly that time this spring, though I can’t tell you whether blossoms or leaves came first on the blackthorn.

The behavior of trees and other plants as a device for predicting weather or choosing planting times has a long and relatively respectable history. It even has a scientific-sounding name: phenology. Actually, that term covers all kinds of “naturally recurring phenomena, esp. in relation to climatic conditions” (to quote The Concise Oxford English Dictionary), so the thickness of the fur on a woolly bear caterpillar as advance notice of a hard winter is just as phenological as keeping an eye on an “indicator plant.” Nevertheless, it is easier to accept the word of a plant, so to speak. Lilac buds, for instance, tend not to open until after the last frost, and such timing ties in with other natural events. Eleanor Perenyi, author of Green Thoughts, tells bow farmers in Montana know that when the lilac blooms they have 10 days to make a cut of alfalfa and eliminate the first brood of alfalfa weevils. Oak trees are exceptionally weather sensitive organisms, if you believe the folk sayings. In New England, when the oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, you go out looking for morels. (I did this for years without luck and still don’t know whether to blame the oaks or the morels.) Over here, oak leaves of that size are supposed to indicate that the ground is warm enough for seeds to germinate.

Perenyi is firmly convinced that gardeners ought to pay more attention to this kind of thing, and it does make sense. I’m less convinced that plants have much to tell us–unambiguously–about short-term weather prospects. The oak versus ash observations are a case in point. One classic English saying goes: “Oak before ash, sign of a splash; ash before oak, sign of a soak.” Translated, this seems to mean that if the oak puts on leaves before the ash, there will be a quick shower and little more, but if the ash leafs out first, there will be extended heavy rains. OK. But then what do we do about this: “If the ash before the oak comes out, there has been, or will be, a drought”

Is the behavior of other plants any more trustworthy in forecasting weather? English tradition says that when goats-beard (Tragopogon pratensis, otherwise known as Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon) closes up before midday, “there is rain in the air; if the petals stay open, the weather is set fair.” If you see clover leaves closed and pointing to the sky, reach for your brolly.” Welsh poppies and rock roses drooping also mean rain. Frankly, much as I would like to be in tune with the cosmos, nosing around the undergrowth to find out whether it is a day for planting the beans or for staying inside tying flies for fishing is just too much trouble. In this case, I’ll go with the Met Office.

There remains the question of just how much of this stuff is folk wisdom and how much is a good rhyme. Oddly, the more apocalyptic sayings seem to reflect experience at least as well as, or better than, the trivial ones. Offa reports hearing this one in Devon: “If St. Paul’s Day [January 25) be fine, expect a good harvest. If it is wet or snowy, expect a famine. If it is windy, expect a war.” That has the weary ring of authenticity. On the other hand, “When eager bites the thirsty flea, clouds and rain you’ll surely see” hardly washes. I’m tempted to make up my own about then-or at least to stay tuned to Radio 4 for the 7:5 5 forecast. is

Charles Elliott is a contributing editor of this magazine. He lives and gardens in Wales.

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