Sunflower BluesOne Swallow does not a Summer Make:
This is what a sunflower is supposed to look like. All things being equal, you plant the seed in March or April (not outdoors in Scotland; on a windowsill or in the greenhouse, because it’s 57degrees N 2ºW where I am: that’s the latitude of Juneau, Alaska); water, love, watch and wait. About the last week of May it’s usually all right to plant it out into the garden. And in any given summer, Nature takes over and you get a sunflower: you know that big yellow thing with petals circling round a yellowish – sometimes blackish – centre, which bees love and when the seed sets, birds come and perch all day, pecking.
An attribute to any garden: that’s what they say in the horticultural centres and supermarkets across Britain: there, of course, they’re trying to sell you a potted plant because they think you haven’t been on the ball enough to plant your own from seed.
I do it every year. I plant seeds from last year’s sunflower success or a couple of big stripey ones from the birdseed bag. It doesn’t matter: in the Northeast of Scotland, you need all the encouragement you can get: any seed that sprouts is a success; if it flowers, it’s a glorious success. If it sets seed, then it has to be the summer of 1976, 1996, 2006: you know, a ‘bumper’ year.
So this March I found a really fat stripey seed – the last in a packet of ‘Giant Sunflower’, a big smiley yellow and black face to show you what to expect on the well-worn packet. In it went. Watered it, spoke to it, watched the curved thick neck pop out of the compost in its pot with joy and anticipation.
‘Plant out when all danger of frost is past’: they always say that on Thompson & Morgan seed packets. They must know they have customers in Ultima Thule, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. They have to cover themselves in case someone complains their product didn’t grow.
This year I waited until June. Frosts had to be past. Swallows were back, firmly in residence, busily building nests and laying eggs in mud scoops on rafters in my sheds. I had in the intervening months been carefully transferring the giant baby from pot to bigger pot in the greenhouse. At waist height, she was ready for the move.
I’d made a new ‘border’ the year before. What an inadequate Victorian description. I nearly killed myself digging out a section of unmown grass on a sunny slope; adding chicken manure from my faithful avian friends, and backfilling with rich mulch left from prolific leaf-fall on the driveway the previous autumn. A gardener’s delight: deep rich flower bed, simultaneously cleared avenue, so cars can actually get up the hill to my house, overgrown with and surrounded by Nature’s bounty. The sunflower and I were just dying to get into the new earth and get ‘established’ (another gardening term they’re fond of in catalogues).
June went well. I planted out other beauties cossetted and nurtured in the glasshouse through an uncertain spring: sweet peas, poppies, nasturtium, nicotiana (‘tobacco plant’) and penny black. People who read about and plant their annuals direct in the earth have no idea.
But things were looking up.Days lengthened to become endless wonderful light-filled experiences one following another. At 57ºN by the middle of June there are roughly three hours of ‘dark’. It’s not quite the land of the midnight sun, but it’s close. You can read a book outside at midnight. And this June was a balmy month.
At solstice and lasting for around two weeks there was a remarkable heatwave. That’s what we call it in Scotland. In other places in Britain they call it ‘summer’. It’s when the sun shines consistently over a period of a week or so; you know, blue sky, no wind, temperatures rising into the 70s. That’s Fahrenheit. I never could get my mind around Centigrade, except for the boiling point of water. Up here near the Arctic circle there’s really no point converting your way of thinking about temperature, because any minute it’s going to change.
This unprecedented spell of warm allows plants and humans to believe all is well with the world. That Scotland is just another place on the planet where life goes on like other ‘real’ places and the garden is a room added to the house. The rural idyll envisioned by Charlotte Brontë and Thomas Hardy.
By the first week of July I had the best crop of strawberries I can remember – ever – coinciding with the second week of Wimbledon. At this latitude, that is a miracle.Sunflower Sally was stretching up there; the stem was big like a fist at the base, needed stakes to keep her in position – in case a stray gust of wind should arrive and surprise…
The rest of the border was coming along nicely, everything starting to flower and send out scent into the warm air. It was like paradise. Green sward, pink, peach, blue, violet, red and orange blossoms mingling with ferny foliage, bees’ buzz, birdsong; hardly a cloud in the cerulean sky. It lasted another week.
Then Scots summer returned to normal. Wind blew from the west, clouds scudded, rain fell on fields and felines, hens stopped laying, day followed night. You know, the usual. Great for growth, they say in other parts of the world. Very green, they say in places where they have forest fires, ground cracking and drying up from lack of water. Yes, very.
I needn’t go on. You get the picture.
August followed July. It rained. Hurricanes Ana and Bill hit the Bahamas and the tail end wound up battering the East coast of Scotland. Crop circles appeared in English fields with regularity until harvested; then the phenomenon was relegated to blogs and picture files. No crop circles in Scotland – Cosmic Consciousness knows better than implant a design in a place where there’s nothing to harvest until mid-September. If you’re lucky. No people either, to come and analyse and gawk.
It’s now the middle of September and farmers round here have finally had their prayers answered: three days of ‘open weather’ (that’s shorthand for no rain) to cut, bale and bring in their barley. They’re all doing it. The air is still warm, buzzing with the distant sound of combine harvesters and tractor loads of grain to-ing and fro-ing from yellow field to dry barn. Nobody has come to marvel at my 12-foot special: tall, stately, erect (staked like a buttress) and still green. They’re all busy. The days are shorter, nights cool. Crisp.
They say if there’s a polar shift, the East coast of Scotland will be the most desirable place to live on the face of the planet. No people means endless vistas of green, space to ruminate and meditate and gaze at mountains and plain. No sticky problems getting to work on overcrowded motorways and packed trains.In a polar shift, days would be shorter but warmer; sunflowers would blossom; and pigs might fly. I’ll stick with positive affirmations. You know, visualization of the mighty solar orb sending light beams for one more month…
Time to go outside now and see if she’s showing the merest hint of yellow.
One swallow does not a summer make. Or one sunflower, for that matter.