30 November 2016
Frost and fire
There are some activities in gardening that feel like they
relate right back deep within our shared history. I find these
moments when walking alone through woodland far away from the noise
of traffic and the other distractions of modernity. Tending a fire
is perhaps the most evocative of these experiences and I still
enjoy the heat, the light and the unpredictability of fire that
have fascinated people since the beginning of time.
Over the past few days the weather has become very wintery. Chilly, still, sunny days have preceded clear, cold, starry nights and heavy frosts have clothed the garden in icy white. Today began with a temperature of -7C and rose no higher than zero. At this time of year the sun remains very low on the horizon, barely rising above the tree line on the ridge to the north of the house. The result has been beautiful and savage. The months before Christmas tend to be a gentle, gradual cooling with the coldest of the weather arriving in January and February so a -7C in November feels particularly harsh.
Over the last few weeks we have been alternating our time between clearing and tidying the beds for winter and planting bulbs for the spring. I enjoy the duality of these activities; on the one hand you are acknowledging winter as you strip back the year's herbaceous growth, while on the other you are planting little packets of energy ready to emerge as soon as the worst of the cold has passed.
When the frost is as heavy as it has been for the passed few days it is generally advisable to stay off the grass as much as possible. This pushes us further into the landscape in order to find productive work and we have spent the cold days clearing bramble and weeds from along the boundaries beyond the drove. These areas have generally been outside of our reach as we concentrate our efforts closer to the house, but now as we open up the spaces and let in the light again a whole new surge of energy and ideas are promising to enhance and regenerate the space.
The bonfire smokes continually as the fire slowly devours the branches, sticks and stems left there a month or more ago. The heavy cold frost clings to each and every surface, fusing the branches together despite them being only a few centimetres from the flames. Through the garden the smoke is caught by beams of sunlight creating strange light effects and ghostly grey white forms, which seem to hang in the still crisp air.
On previous days the sun has reached down through the southern fields behind the house but today it never got as far as the garden. A mile down the lane in the sun it is 5C warmer and back in the garden the cold has been a bit of a shock to the system. If the winter continues to be cold and crisp we will certainly have more time to bring the more outlying areas under control, and just as importantly create plenty to burn. Today our fire might not have been quite enough to stay the cold but looking into the flames and the smell of woodsmoke is as powerful and compelling as it ever was.
Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela
Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer