As it catches fire, I shall of course pass a few minutes reflection on the fate of poor Yorkshireman Guy Fawkes, who was probably framed for his part in the Gun Powder Plot - as they claim at his old school, St. Peter’s in York – but I will also be celebrating something literally down to earth: New Year’s Eve.
No, my calendar has not gone haywire. I know it is still eight weeks until official New Year. But in my allotment – and for hundreds of thousands of vegetable gardeners throughout the land – this is the end of one great natural cycle and the beginning of another.
New Year bonfire?
It is time to start the winter digging over in preparation for next spring but it is also time to look back on the dying 2010 horticultural season – and what a year of swings and roundabouts it was.
After the coldest winter for 30 years, we had a heatwave and drought in May and June, just when young plants were beginning to thrive, and then the monsoon arrived in what was officially summer – just has millions of Brits had elected for “staycations” spent at home because of the financial collapse.
It was also a year when hundreds of thousands of people dug up their lawns to make way for a veg patch – spurred on by TV gardening programmes and soaring prices in the supermarkets – and tens of thousands more took on allotments. If they were lucky, that is: in some areas, there is a 40 year waiting list for such plots.
And to these poor probationary pioneers, my heart goes out because I doubt if there has been a worse year in which to take up vegetable husbandry since I first sank a spade into clay almost 40 years ago.
The weather, of course, was diabolical, virtually back-to-front in a normal growing season. On top of that, prices of virtually everything connected to the hobby, from seeds to tools and fertilisers, soared as garden centres and DIY stores cashed in on the boom.
This weekend, as thousands of those newcomers face the prospect of the heavy work of the autumn dig, grimace at the memory of their miserly crops this summer, and add up the costs involved, I’ll bet that there are many hundreds who will think “This is a mug’s game” and throw in the trowel.
But I beg them to think again before they turn their backs on what can become one of life’s most engaging, enriching and healthy pastimes, one that can last well into old age – and can, in fact, add years to that active old age.
My final advice is that vegetable growing is always a swings and roundabouts project...
For a start, gardening is superb exercise, varying in intensity from heavy digging to light-weight pruning and weeding, which involve constant stretching and bending to keep the joints supple.
That heavy digging – so long as it is not over-done – has been proved to add to bone density and one of England’s greatest ever cricketers, the fast bowler Alec Bedser, said that it was digging in his ample garden which strengthened his spine and back muscles to bowl on when others had collapsed.
Add to all this constant fresh air, fresh vegetables (so long as you don’t smother your plot in poisons) and (if you are lucky) vitamin-E raising sunshine soaked up whilst active rather than lying supine and cancer-prone on a lounger. Both my children, now approaching middle age, are still healthily slim because, as youngsters, they feasted on fresh veg and fruit from the garden, a habit they continue today.
My final advice is that vegetable growing is always a swings and roundabouts project. In every year, their will be climatic changes which help one type of crop and hinder another.
In this year’s crazy climate, my summer salads for virtually useless, ruined by heavy rain, but my marrows and courgettes swelled like balloons. The spring drought gave me broad beans the size of peas and the summer damp rotted my shallots.
But my kidney beans thrived in the wet so the freezer if full of them, my leeks are coming to their prime, and I still have to harvest Brussels sprouts, Savoy cabbage, red cabbage for pickling, pak choi, winter lettuce, turnips, plus fresh parsley and sage which will stand the winter if covered with agricultural fleece.
Not a bad autumn harvest for a bad year. I hope that new gardeners will take heart and persevere. And as I light my bonfire on the plot where the beans were, I shall shake a sad head for poor old Guy Fawkes – but rejoice that from the ashes of my New Year fire will come important (and free) nutrients for next year’s crops. Time to dig in, folks.