In France, as across much of North America, spring has finally sprung. And Mike Alexander is ready as the ‘Saint of Frost’ gives way to seasonal bloom.
Like many countries in the northern hemisphere, the gardening world in France has suddenly awakened from its long winter slumber and plant sales, seed swaps and public markets are now taking place every weekend at every available venue. One of the first plant markets to be held in my area of rural France takes place every year on the first of May, which is a public holiday here. I have been visiting this market for years and for me it is the day that heralds the start of the gardening season.
The market is held in a tiny village miles from anywhere and is their major draw card of the year. After the long, colorless winter, I get a little carried away at this market and despite all the promises I make to myself about not purchasing more than I actually need, I invariably spot some bargains that end up having to be squeezed into my car. On one memorable occasion I succumbed to a pair of beautiful blue plumbago and this meant I had used all available car space and was then forced to scrounge among friends and neighbors for someone who still had space enough to take my wife back to our village. Those plumbago put on a stunning display that lasted for the whole of summer, which, coincidentally, was about how long it took for my wife to start talking to me again.
In France, there is a saint for every day of the year and Saint Glaçe or “the saint of frost” is actually an amalgamation of three saint’s days, Saint Pancrace, Saint Mamert and Saint Servais and takes place on three days around the 14th of May. In 1960, the Catholic Church, fearing that these three saints may be too closely associated with pagan ritual, changed them to Saints Estelle, Achille and Roland. That does not stop every nurseryman from whom you make a purchase from reeling off the homily, “Avant Saint Servais point de ete; après Saint Sevais plus de gélee.” (Before Saint Servais, no summer and after Saint Servais, no frost.) In all my years in France there has never been a frost after the first of May. In fact, I have been planting many of my tender plants here since the middle of April. For me, the extra growing time simply outweighs the risk.
This early planting is not without problems of its own, however. Every passing Frenchman will stop and give me a stern warning about the risks of a late frost and then proceed to tell a convoluted story along the lines of some distant relative who planted all his tomatoes out too early and lost his entire fortune forcing him to spend the remainder of his life living in a cardboard box. Even my wife has a tragic tale of the loss of her own tomatoes which took place before we met. She too, shares this tale of woe year after year except, of course, for that memorable year of the plumbago when she still wasn’t speaking to me.
Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, lives in Southern France where he manages a large estate garden. A horticulturist for more than 20 years who has professionally gardened in the UK, France and Africa, he writes regularly on gardening, food and environmental issues for magazines and Web sites in the U.S., France, South Africa and New Zealand.