The sun is shining! After 12 weeks of continual rain, a non-existant spring where temperatures were akin to those in August, and a local A & P show being cancelled for the first time in 130 years, the heat is here. Our community celebrated yesterday with a barbecue during which, I am ashamed to admit, few heeded sun-safe warnings but rather, ditched the umbrellas and lounged in the warmth. One of the most astonishing things we all noticed was shadows! After three months of living under leaden skies, the patterns of leaves dancing across the grass, and birds flying overhead, had us mesmerised.
The break in the weather has come too late for gardeners, however. Those potatoes that did struggle through the ground before they rotted, have been burned black with frost. Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are running to seed. Brassica are in the same boat (although it's not too late to replant). Broadbeans have struggled through but are stunted. Tomatoes and cucumbers have withered and died in the glass house. In days gone by, this would have been a year of famine – the sort of season where crops failed and those who had no financial security would be forced to eat the seed they would normally have saved for emergencies. For this reason alone, I am still able to give thanks to the Earth because this year, I am reminded of all those who garden, not simply for pleasure or to supplement their store-bought groceries, but because they have no other source of food.
I am thinking of the gardens I have seen in Albania where vegetables, even in city homes, grow right up to the doors of the houses. I am thinking of Morocco where grain occupies any tiny spot of land within reach of painstakingly hand-made irrigation channels, the North of India where sacks of marble-sized potatoes are harvested and stored for the long, snowy winter ahead, to the slums of Istanbul where containers of courgette plants line the streets outside the homes of those who have no land in which to garden. The food we grow is a precious thing and sometimes it takes the sort of weather The Catlins has just endured to remind me that it must never be taken for granted.
I am one of the lucky ones. If the sun continues to shine, I will still be able to grow salad vegetables and herbs. With luck, there may be time to sow a few potatoes. I have all of January to raise broadbeans. In early February, I can plant out autumn greens and Asian radishes for harvesting in winter. But because of the weather all of us here in south-east Otago have endured these last three months, I will also be doing something else. Each Christmas, as we all do, I receive numerous envelopes from charities asking that I buy 'gifts' for those in far flung places. Among those gifts, there is the option to purchase seeds which will be distributed to those who have nothing so that they too can garden and grow food for their families.
Some months ago, I wrote in this column that 'gardeners are givers'. It was in relation to the way we so often swop cuttings and seeds with one another. This Christmas, like many of you, I will be giving the gift of seeds to gardeners I have never met. It is a sign that our love of the earth and our delight and gratitude for what it brings forth, extends far beyond our own gardens.