As I bend down to take a closer look at the beautifully decorative icicles on the deep green leaves, the puppies take advantage, thinking I am bending nearer to them for cuddles and licks. They are such lovable and loving four-legged friends but in reality I am just looking at the beauty of a hoar frost.
It is the first properly cold winter weekend we have had this year and Highclere’s world is overlaid with tiny icicles which edge each blade of grass and leaf. It is especially intense where the land rolls down the southern slopes away from the castle. Hoar frosts transform the gardens and parkland into a work of art. As frost rolls downhill, the even colder pockets at the foot of the wildflower meadow stay a deeper wintery white for longer, preserving the otherworldly beauty of such days.
What is so pleasing to the eye, is not necessarily so good for gardeners. From medieval times there was a “frost gate” built into the walls of the Monks Garden through which the frost could roll out leaving behind the precious orchards, herb and vegetable beds. A more modern kitchen garden laid out by Capability Brown in the 18th century also had a frost gate for the same purpose, which Geordie and I have recently renovated to entice the frost away from the vineyard.
However beautiful and beguiling it is, frost is immensely destructive to more tender plants, although some plants have their own methods to protect themselves by creating a sort of anti-freeze from amino acids. Even evergreen trees, such as pine or cedar, will stop growing during a frost. It is sharp and hard, making everything brittle and promotes hibernation and a pause to life before spring arrives.
As gardeners, we can anticipate cold snaps by moving container plants to sunnier spots near warmer south facing walls whilst a good mulch will help the roots. Some plants such as penstemons are best not cut back: the old growth provides valuable frost protection during the winter as it is less vital if the old tips get frost bitten.
The word hoar comes from the Anglo Saxon word “ hār ” meaning “of great age, grey and white” which perfectly describes the trees and bushes that look like white hair with feathery patterns of frost painting each leaf and stem like miniature paintings. It is nature’s translucent artistry. However, there are many different types of frost all of which have their own artistry if you are not having to worry about their adverse effects and the whorls of frost on window panes is a well remembered picture from childhood.
Frost also lends itself to the stories and myths of fireside evening on the short dark days of winter. Jack Frost is an elfish creature, both full of mischief and a hero. He seems to be responsible for the window works of art as he is often depicted with a paint brush in hand as if he is about create the fern-like patterns of frost found on windows on cold mornings. In parts of the world where the types of snow and frost pay a greater importance than here, there are many different words to describe all the nuances but these are fading from our language today.
However, as we look forward to Christmas and the music and carols, mornings like this always remind me of one of my mothers favourites which she loved to sing:
“In the Bleak Midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone”
It is a wintery carol yet has a simple, haunting tune everyone can sing and it a story of relationships between the earth, animals and people and a moment of peace.