Ne’er cast a clout…

Gardening tips from horticulturalist Martin Howe at Wykeham Mature Plants

Common Hawthorn with haws

“Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May be out!” This is a familiar old English phrase, often still heard in Yorkshire, particularly used in relation to whether or not to plant out bedding plants in spring, but what does it actually mean? “Clout” or “clowt” in this instance generally refers to warm winter clothing and, contrary to common misconception, “May” actually refers to the “May Blossom” of Hawthorn rather than the month itself. So the old saying warns of the variability of our spring weather and not to pack away winter clothing until the Hawthorn is in full flower.

Few plants have had such an effect on our landscape as Hawthorn, as well as on our national traditions and practices, and yet it largely goes un-praised and, in modern times, is often almost unnoticed! But as well as being a tough and attractive small tree in its own right, Hawthorn is synonymous with hedges, in fact the name itself derives from the old English name for hedge. During the Parliamentary Enclosure period between 1750 and 1850, a period which dramatically changed British agricultural practices, rights of access, and our landscape in general, an incredible two hundred thousand miles of Hawthorn hedges were planted.

There are a number of characteristics which make Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, so ideal for hedging. It is easily propagated, grown from seed or, perhaps more importantly, easily struck from cuttings. This, and the fact that it establishes quickly in a wide range of soil conditions, makes it a versatile and comparatively cheap option. Its dense branching structure, made denser with regular clipping to form a mass of twig and thorn, makes it ideal for shelter, for security, and as a barrier for livestock. It responds extremely well to hard pruning when necessary, and older Hawthorn hedges can have their density restored and greatly improved by the art of hedge laying.

The berries, usually referred to as Haws, are a valuable food source for birds. Their bright red colour, sitting on a backdrop of dense thorns, has of course led to association with drops of blood on Christ’s crown of thorns. However, the place of Hawthorn within mythology and folklore is far older and, as is often the case, various traditions and superstitions contradict others. Often associated with new life, sex, and rebirth, and the crowning of the May Queen in pre-Christian times, it also has darker associations in tradition and it has been considered very unlucky for Hawthorn blossom to be brought into the house. Yet there are a number of Celtic traditions which suggest that Hawthorn could be brought in to protect a property from evil, so I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on that one.

Common Hawthorn May Blossom (image courtesy Eugene Zelenko, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Traditionally, when planting a Hawthorn hedge, one might simply push lots of small, fresh cuttings into the ground, hope that as many as possible will root and simply go back to gap-up later. Nowadays the usual method would be to buy bare-rooted transplants during the dormant period between November and March and, to eventually achieve a dense hedge, plant between four and six per metre, depending on the size of the transplant, in a double staggered row (i.e. in a zig-zag pattern). These bare-rooted plants should always have been as freshly dug up from their bed on the nursery as possible and should be soaked for a couple of hours prior to planting. If you need to plant a Hawthorn hedge outside of the dormant period some nurseries will have some plants grown in pots, but these will of course be more expensive than bare-root stock.

If not clipped as a hedge, Hawthorn will eventually grow into an attractive small tree. However, since it doesn’t tend to grow very straight on its own it doesn’t tend to be grown very often as a tree commercially, but there are other members of the Crataegus genus which are more tree-like in habit and will make excellent garden trees. “Paul’s Scarlet” is a popular choice, with semi-double or double deep-pink flowers; unfortunately it doesn’t tend to produce many berries as the fully double flowers are sterile.

Crataegus prunifolia autumn foliage colours

My personal favourite is Crataegus prunifolia “Splendens”, which has a leaf more similar in shape to that of a cherry tree than a Hawthorn, and glossier too, but this is a small tree which really earns its place in the garden. It carries hard thorns which are over an inch long, making it an ideal boundary tree for security planting (and Crataegus prunifolia can also be planted in a shrub form to be clipped into an impenetrable security hedge). The bark colour of the twigs and thorns starts as a deep plum-colour, maturing to a silvery-grey. The white flowers are very similar to our native May Blossom, but are produced two to three weeks later, but the greatest features of this stunner show themselves in autumn when the foliage turns first golden yellow, then fiery orange and, if exposed to enough direct sunlight in summer, bright scarlet. Whilst this colour change is happening, the berries mature into large, deep-red Haws, clearly displayed against the golden yellow leaf tints to entice hungry birds.

Things to do in the garden in May

By now most gardeners are itching to plant out some extra summer colour; tender perennials and annuals, and most commonly… bedding plants. It may be safe to do so in mid-May, but to avoid any late frosts it would be more prudent to wait until the end of the month and keep an eye on the weather forecast for late frosts.

Now is a good time to divide clumps of herbaceous perennials if you want to propagate them.

Keep on top of weeds before they set seed.

Check lilies and fritillaries for lily beetles. They’re bright red, so they’re easy to spot, but they have a habit of dropping off to the ground to hide when disturbed.

Prune spring-flowering shrubs after they’ve flowered.

Remember that newly planted trees and shrubs need regular watering.

Frosts allowing, most summer vegetable crops, if not already done so, can be sown outside towards the end of May, including runner beans and courgettes, but in Yorkshire french beans are safer sown inside in modules and then planted out in June. Continue to sow short crops such as salad crops and beetroot. As a precaution, wait until June before putting tomato plants outside, and make sure they’re well hardened off first.

If you don’t already have them, start a compost bin or heap and install water butts.

Martin Howe is a professional Horticulturalist, currently working at Wykeham Mature Plants near Scarborough (www.wykehammatureplants.co.uk, Twitter @MaturePlants), a 150 acre nursery specialising in “instant” hedging, large trees and shrubs in sizes larger than are normally available at Garden Centres.

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