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The welcome return of Jack Frost

Friday 03 February 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard raises an eyebrow at the city folk complaining about the cold snap because, he says, heavy frosts bring with them a huge range of benefits

ANYONE who has listened to the radio or watched news programmes on television this week would have heard presenters moaning on and on about the fact that it was cold outside. Most of them, of course, were Londoners - where the national media is based - and few of them seemed to have any idea at all that a good old-fashioned frost is good for you - and for the countryside.

Perhaps it was a bit chilly in the Strangers' Bar in the Palace of Westminster (Parliament is a draughty old place) or even on the streets of Mayfair, but on my allotment in the Yorkshire Dales, I was sweating profusely virtually all week.

The welcome return of Jack Frost
The welcome return of Jack Frost

The reason: several nights of good hard frost had allowed me to get into my veg patch and complete the "autumn" digging which I had abandoned in November because the ground was water-logged. Just to walk on it, never mind digging in it, was to do more damage than good by compacting the soil to the consistency of putty.

This is the time of year which country folk used to call "the hungry gap." It is the time when most of the winter veg has been consumed and before the spring ones are ready for cutting. There is even a veg specially named after it, hungry gap kale, because it was one of the few brassicas that could survive into late March. Kale soup was a staple food in many a humble cottage come February.

Sadly, my kale is no more. It was ravaged, by pigeons at a guess, two or three weeks ago when the first of the heavy frosts hit. In the old days, gardeners with nouse would have netted it to prevent such damage. But in recent years, that has not been necessary because the winters have been so mild that the pigeons could find much more appetising provender elsewhere. Like humans, I feel they regard course kale as a last resort.

There have been other victims in the patch too. I have this long-standing tradition of going to the allotment come Christmas Day morning to pick the Brussels sprouts for dinner. This year, to my great disappointment, the sprouts were a weedy, loose-leaved bunch and as soon as I picked the first one, I knew the reason why.

A huge cloud of white fly flew up into my face, some getting stuck under my specs, another actually getting into my throat. And this, remember, was December 25th! White fly at New Year? That would have been unthinkable when I was a lad and you regularly woke up on a winter's morn to see that Jack Frost had painted his rainbow colours on the bedroom window - on the inside!

And that is why I have welcomed back my old mate Jack with open arms. For the white fly is far from the only pest that he keeps down in winter, doing sterling service for gardeners, farmers, horticulturists - and even, if the old wives' tale is to be believed, the doctors.

Only two weeks ago, my wife found greenfly on the first of the chives which she grows in the cold frame by the kitchen door. Investigating further, she found slugs had penetrated the frame and were feasting merrily on my spring cabbage seedlings the moment they popped their heads out of the compost. In January!

Nearby, the mallards and the bad-tempered swans were going into their courting routines, as they have several times in the past decade, only to have their first broods of the year killed off by back-stabbing March, which always seems to have a nasty cold snap up its sleeve for the unwary.

Not now. The waterfowl are too busy avoiding the patches of ice and concentrating on fighting for the scraps of food offered by the few winter tourists. Even the magpies in the big ash by the allotment are looking pretty thin, which delights me because I should have shot them three years ago.

And, so it is said, a good frost kills off many of the 'flu-type bugs which make life a misery in a mild winter. Most of my family, including my wife and I, started up with nasty, head-bunging colds and coughs back in November which were even worse come Christmas.

In my allotment this week, I realised that my head was totally clear and - for the first time in three months - I was breathing through my nose, despite the fact that I was panting hard and digging like fury just in case the rains return. My old granny always swore that a good hard frost killed of the germs and perhaps she was right.

So I find it a little difficult to raise much sympathy for those London types who complain of the cold as they step from their taxis into the doorway at Harrods. They should get out into the countryside and breath in some of God's good cold air. Far more refreshing than a glass of chardonnay any day! And it's free!

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