1 December 2014
The first frost
Last week we had our first frost of the season. I always find the first proper frost of the year exciting, and I've been thinking about why that might be; as a gardener, there are many processes that either require frost or are changed in some way by the action of frost.
The best first frost I can remember happened a few years ago while I was gardening at Sudeley Castle. It was a couple of days before Halloween and we had lots of events for children planned for that weekend. The garden had been in full late season bloom the day before and was looking far too sunny to host macabre Halloween celebrations and yet overnight it was transformed. As the frost lifted it became apparent that the garden had undergone a spooky makeover; the stems and leaves of the half hardy and seasonal plants had turned black and limp and looked very much like the hand of death itself had passed through the garden. This sudden metamorphosis has always stayed with me, perhaps as a reminder of the power of nature, or just as a stark example of the change that comes with the turning of the seasons. Most change we see in the garden happens by degrees, but the first frost of the year can dramatically alter the look and feel of a garden overnight.
The first frost at Allt-y-bela brought no such dramatic change this year. Being a month later, most of the work of cutting back and clearing is already done, although we have left a proportion of the herbaceous plants standing to catch the frosts, simply because they look rather beautiful. The first frost this year came after a period of overcast, dull and drab weather and the cleanness of the cold air and the brilliant clarity of the light added to the almost overwhelming sense of wellbeing that the change brought. The skies were blue, the light perfect and the frost was uniform and heavy.
The frost lay thick on the ground and through the trees, covering the grass in a carpet of crisp white, adding a fringe of ice crystals to the edges of the leaves and freezing the late roses on their stems. Droplets of water were frozen solid as if the cold had suddenly blast-frozen the dew. The change in colour, almost as if the garden had been cast in monochrome, highlighted the shapes of the topiary and earthworks, lending them a crispness I had never seen before. By ten in the morning the frost had lifted and disappeared, leaving a lovely clean crisp day with a surprising amount of warmth from the late autumn sun.
Frosts are essential for breaking the dormancy of many seeds and help lighten the burden of early season pests. Frosts also help to break apart heavy soils and ease the compaction under grass. The first and last frosts mark the extent of the growing season for many tender plants and vegetables, but I think for me it is the symbolic significance of the first frost that makes its occurrence so memorable. Winter starts here, time to wrap up warm and embrace the change!
Words: Steve Lannin, gardener at Allt-y-bela
Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer