Plants need a good soaking

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EVERYONE likes a warm, sunny day, but after an exceptionally dry March and April what we really need now is a good soaking.

Young plants need moist soil to put down roots. Established plants need it so they can grow; at the moment they’re standing still.

Gardeners and farmers are watching the hard, dusty ground and willing it to rain. Could May put an end to the drought?

Usually this is a fickle month for weather. Easterlies are common, bringing us cold and dampness. Frost and thunderstorms are not unknown.

The old lore says a cold wet May ushers in a good summer. And it’s true that, “Be it dry or be it wet, nature always pays its debt.”

In other words, if it doesn’t rain now, then it will come in the summer, probably in torrents.

Old weather prophets in search of rain kept a close eye on the oak and ash, always the last trees into leaf.

It was important to see which would come first: “Oak before ash, sign of a splash; ash before oak, sign of a soak.” In most places the oak was first this year.

Whether wet or not, May 9 to 14 is likely to be chilly. This is one of the “cold periods” identified by Alexander Buchan in the 19th century.

We can always cheer ourselves up by looking for “the old moon in the new moon’s arms.”

The new moon was on the 3rd and as it grows, the thin crescent appears to cradle the ghostly glow of the full moon, a phenomenon known as earthshine. It’s supposed to be a sign of good weather.

Busy birds

Garden birds are working hard to find food for their growing chicks. With the soil so dry there are fewer slugs, snails and insects than usual, so blackbirds, thrushes and starlings are out early to probe the ground while it’s still damp with dew.

Now that our summer migrants are back, swallows and cuckoos are spreading northwards.

Folklore says you’ll have good luck all year, if the first cuckoo you hear is on your right. If there happen to be coins in your pocket turn them over and say: “Lucky coins, now I count thee, cuckoo-spirit bring me bounty.”

Cuckoo numbers have dropped drastically in the last few years, probably because of drought in the parts of Africa where the birds spend the winter.

So if you hear that distinctive call count yourself lucky, whichever direction it’s coming from.

Blue heaven

Bluebells are flowering now, making an unforgettable sight in the woods. Our native bluebell has an elegant, curving stem with slim flowers of a deep, violet-blue, quite different from the paler, chunkier Spanish bluebell seen in gardens.

Because it was so widespread in the past, the wild bluebell has many local names: auld man’s bell, culverkeys, ring o’ bells, fairy bells and in Elizabethan times, jacinth.

Although we have lost almost half of our ancient bluebell woods in the last 70 years, some notable ones remain.

If you wish to enjoy the sight and heavenly scent of a lake of bluebells, these are the places to go: Raincliffe Woods, Scarborough; Stray Head Banks, Whitby; Bridestones Moor, Pickering; or Nut Wood and Wauldby Scrogs, Cottingham.

Sacred waters

Between Driffield and Bridlington lies the village of Harpham, where there’s a holy well.

It is dedicated to a local man, St John of Beverley, who died in 721.

John studied at Canterbury, became a monk at Hilda’s famous Whitby monastery and as Bishop of York, founded a monastery at Beverley.

He was revered for his healing work with the poor and disabled.

St John of Beverley’s feast day is on May 7.

On the nearest Tuesday, the well at Harpham is hung with garlands and the local rector gives a blessing.

The beehive-shaped well house is signposted from the crossroads in the centre of the village.